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Friendly, Useful and a Little Too Pushy, Windows XP Is a Winner

After Mick Jagger's fling with Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report), you stopped paying attention.

You've tired of the seemingly endless epic unveilings of Windows operating systems. You didn't exactly pitch a pup tent outside the computer store when Windows 95 changed everything to the tune of "Start Me Up." After that, the releases have become a blur -- mediocre Windows 98 morphed into slightly better Millennium Edition. A Windows 2000 release featuring Carlos Santana was in there somewhere, too. Like a summer in the 1970s, it's hard to remember what you tried and if you liked it.

Snap back to attention because Windows XP is some good stuff. The XP interface gets your PC communicating in a language you understand. The graphics are friendly and the applications and documents you use all the time are right in front of you. It'll set you back $99 to upgrade and $199 to start anew, good for use on one computer per license -- no cheating, Redmond can tell. Microsoft OKs Windows XP for users with a minimum 128 MB at their disposal and 300 MHz under the hood, so if you're stretching the livelihood of an older machine, forget it. It's still a PC, but Windows XP delivers the Web-like feel Microsoft has been promising for years and holds your hand -- even when you don't need it. XP almost makes using a PC a pleasant experience, making it worth the trip to the computer store.

Windows XP: A Hit or a Miss?
Pros Cons
System performance Didn't crash in weeks of testing; System Restore can recreate an earlier, smooth-running version of your computer. Only newer computers can get the benefits of Win XP; only runs on one computer per household
Graphics and user interface Simple to use, but not at the level of the annoying animated paper clip. New, condensed taskbar. If you're not interested in music, pictures or movies, a lot will be wasted on you.
Privacy and security Personal firewall keeps out other local-network users; switches expertly between family member logins. Constant pitches to use Microsoft .NET products, and the Passport identity and password manager can get creepy.

Nice Touches

XP teaches the Windows interface some manners. To begin, installing the operating system isn't a biggie. Immediately you are greeted by a blue sky and the grass hill reminiscent of Teletubbies , sticking with the overall theme that Windows XP is calming. The happy, oversized buttons and graphics soothe the savage computer user who frequently weighs the option of hurling the monitor across the room. The background can be customized as usual, and you can easily set the whole screen for large or extra-large type. Microsoft obviously spent some time asking itself how people use computers, smoothing out past wrinkles that made seemingly common activities a hassle.

At that point, your options are laid out before you simply. The Start menu no longer bugs you with functions only your company's network administrator uses and gives you the options you want. Email is right up top, as is Internet Explorer and your connection to the Web. Frequently used applications head to the front of the line, so you won't be rooting around and clicking several times to find what you want. As Janet Reno might remind you, however, Windows XP is totally different from the Office suite and its spreadsheet and word processors. Microsoft's online catalog will tell you if programs you've already got are compatible with Windows XP.

Works in progress are well-organized under XP. The task bar that runs across the bottom of your screen -- which previously quickly filled up with dozens of open windows -- is neatly organized by application so that five separate instant message sessions or Word files are condensed for easier viewing. Additionally, XP expertly manages desktops for different members of your household, allowing the programs you have open and your files to be paused while someone else logs in and checks an address book. You don't have to interrupt what you're doing; XP keeps your items running but not available to the new user. When you log yourself back on, everything's waiting the way you left it.

Microsoft Mania

One of XP's main aims is to get users to branch out beyond the basics of email and Web surfing. Prime real estate on the Start menu beckons you to programs that help you play with and package your digital photos, music and movie clips with Microsoft programs such as Movie Maker and Media Player.

Now the paranoia-inducing network of Microsoft tie-ins unfurls before us as Windows XP steers you toward MSN and its Web partners. Get that song from a preferred vendor. If you like the Internet, MSN Explorer can guide you around lots of friendly, Microsoft-owned sites. Get your email from Hotmail, manage your passwords using Microsoft Passport and use Windows Messenger. Microsoft has a venture in every direction you turn, which probably is helpful for newbies who have no idea such services exist. But if you have your own non-Microsoft preferences, such as AOL's (AOL) instant messenger, you may feel a little put-upon.

If you get a little more use out of your home PC, Microsoft has features that will satisfy your geeky needs. The System Restore function can take your computer back to better times, returning it to the way it was before you installed a plug-in of death or trashed an application you need. Another program will transfer all the settings from your previous computer to your new machine. Microsoft provides a personal firewall to keep other users on a local network -- for example, your neighbors if you use a cable modem service -- from accessing files on your PC, unless you've designated them for sharing. Remote Assistance allows you to let an approved friend or tech helper running Windows XP see and control your desktop.

Win XP has its gadgets, as well as its hand-holding features. You'll have to deal with lots of hooks to Microsoft services, but you'll be rewarded with a more enjoyable PC. Given your options, you might as well give it a try.

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