What You Get with Windows XP

If Windows XP is your foray into Windows, you’re lucky to have escaped the early days of changing jumpers, editing the config.sys file, running out of “system resources,” and suffering with the Windows 3.x Program Manager. However, dealing with the problems of the early days of Windows is a good way to build coping skills and is the only way to appreciate some of the things we now take for granted, such as Plug and Play and fast Internet connections.

Getting under the hood of Windows is not only a great way to take charge of the operating system and make it conform to the way you work and think, but it’s also a very effective method for learning more about your computer and the technology that makes it work.

The basic “shell” interface (Explorer, the Desktop, and the Start Menu) in Windows XP is not that different from that of its immediate predecessors, Windows Me and Windows 2000. The new “Windows XP Style” (discussed at more length in Chapter 2) adds an optional new look to all dialogs, controls, windows, and even the Start Menu, but everything still works pretty much the same as it did in every version of Windows since 95.

What follows are a few highlights and lowlights of Windows XP, most notably for those who have upgraded or who are thinking of upgrading from a previous version. Some may seem insignificant; others may mean the difference between upgrading to Windows XP and waiting for something better to come along. All of these, naturally, add up to the total Windows XP experience.

Note that whether any particular thing is actually new to you depends on which version of Windows you were using previously.

Drag-and-drop of EXE files finally makes sense

After years of customer complaints, Microsoft has finally fixed the absurd way Windows handled the drag-and-drop of .exe files. As one visitor to http://Annoyances.org wrote several years ago, “whoever came up with the `dragging an application creates a shortcut’ behavior must be shot immediately.” Now, dragging an .exe file works the same as dragging any other type of file. See Chapter 2 for details on drag-drop, plus a few nasty exceptions and plenty of helpful tips.

Enhanced file dialog boxes

As described in “Thinking Inside the Box” in the preface, nearly all of the file dialog boxes in Windows XP are resizable, fixing a long-standing annoyance with this common interface component. Unfortunately, however, file dialogs still don’t remember their size, position, sort order, or display format (Details, Large Icons, etc.).

Also relatively new to file dialog boxes is the “Places Bar,” a gray stripe down the left side of most dialog boxes containing icons for prominent file locations. Introduced first in Microsoft Office 2000, it contained links to the Desktop, the My Documents folder, and, among other things, Web Folders. The default Places Bar in Windows XP is far more useful, doing away with the useless Web Folders shortcut, instead including direct links to networked resources, My Computer, the Desktop, and History. See “Customize the Places Bar” in Chapter 10 for details on making these dialog boxes more useful.

A new look for Find, uh . . . I mean Search

The new Search tool doesn’t really add any functionality over the Find tool found in Windows 98 and NT 4.0, but the interface has changed. Instead of a separate window, Search appears as a pane in Explorer, which tends to be confusing, frustrating, and just plain annoying.

For those users of Windows Me and 2000 who may have become accustomed to the Search pane in Explorer, XP’s Search tool adds several layers of complexity with separate pages of options and a “helpful” puppy-dog assistant.

The good news is that the arbitrary 10,000-file limit on search results has been lifted, but there are plenty of flaws (such as the fact that the “search for text” feature often doesn’t work at all). See “Fix the Search Tool” in Chapter 2 for fixes and workarounds.

Folder Shortcuts

It’s finally possible to create a shortcut to a folder that behaves like a folder, instead of like a file. For example, an ordinary shortcut to your c:\windows\temp folder cannot be used as part of a path, but a Folder Shortcut can. Say you have a Folder Shortcut called Cletus, located in c:\, that points to c:\windows\temp. You could then reference a file called c:\Cletus\filename.txt. The problem is that Folder Shortcuts are difficult to make and have their drawbacks as well. See “Mirror a Folder with Folder Shortcuts” in Chapter 4 for details, as well as some other cool things you can do with folders and drives.

Say goodbye to DOS

If you’re coming from Windows 95, 98, or Me, DOS was always a sort of safety net: an easy way to replace system files, reinstall the operating system, or effect other repairs in case Windows wouldn’t start. Although DOS is not part of Windows XP, there are a number of tools at your disposal, most of which are better than their counterparts in earlier versions of Windows. See Chapter 2 for details on replacing in-use files, Chapter 6 for troubleshooting a system that won’t boot, including details on the System Recovery Console.

Although some of you may not appreciate it yet, the true death of DOS[3] is a blessing in disguise and is responsible for the stability and security that Windows XP offers. For example, see Chapter 5 for more information on the robust NTFS filesystem, previously unavailable on any DOS-based Windows computer.

Better hardware support

Each new version of Windows comes with more drivers than any of its predecessors, supporting a larger range of hardware, and Windows XP is no exception. In reality, though, we use new computers with old sound cards and new sound cards with old computers, meaning that upgrading is not always as seamless as Microsoft claims on the outside of the box. See Chapter 6 for troubleshooting and maintenance tips.

Dynamic system resources

Every time you open an application, it loads all of its visual components, such as windows, menus, text boxes, buttons, checkboxes, and lists, into memory. Windows keeps track of the visual components of all open applications so that, for example, when you drag a window across the screen, it knows what’s behind the window and is able to redraw it when it becomes visible. These visual components are stored in an area of memory called System Resources.

The problem is that the System Resources consumed by an application aren’t necessarily released when the application is closed.

In Windows 9x/Me, the amount of memory set aside for System Resources was a fixed amount, regardless of the amount of physical RAM installed in the machine. This meant that you could open and close an application several times and actually run out of System Resources. That’s why Windows would complain that it was out of memory, even when you had only two or three applications open. Other symptoms included slow performance, application windows not displaying and updating properly, applications hanging, and the entire system crashing. The only fix was to clear out the System Resources by restarting Windows. This design was one of the biggest drawbacks of the platform.

In Windows XP (and Windows 2000), memory is allocated to System Resources dynamically; that is, System Resources grows as needed. This means that instead of having to restart the computer every few hours, as needed with Windows 9x/Me, you can theoretically leave a Windows XP machine running for days, weeks, or even months.

Performance, for better or worse

Anyone familiar with software upgrades has come to expect that any new version of an application or operating system will require more disk space and will run slower than its predecessor on the same hardware. This, of course, means lots of dollars spent on lots of gigabytes and lots of gigahertz. Microsoft is no stranger to what has become known as “bloat-ware,” and Windows XP is, of course, no exception.

The reason that successive versions of software products do not get leaner and faster is that they don’t have to. This is because for every additional megabyte of hard disk space an operating system requires, the available storage on the average new computer increases by ten megabytes.

At the same time, Windows XP actually does have some functionality that may result in improved performance over previous versions of Windows. For instance, it should outperform a Windows 2000-based system on the same hardware and will definitely boot faster in most cases. But, there is much more going on “under the hood” in Windows XP, so while it probably won’t outperform its meager DOS-based ancestors on slower hardware, it will take better advantage of faster, newer hardware (and will literally scream on a dual-processor system).

An operating system being simultaneously slower and faster than its predecessor may seem like bit of a paradox, but that’s the reality behind the evolution of personal computers. The key is to make the most of what you’ve got, and that’s what this book is all about.

Suffice it to say, there are actually quite a few goodies that have been added to Windows XP, including lots of little touches here and there that actually work to improve the product.

So, assuming you haven’t done so already, let’s get right to installing the product on your computer!

[3] Don’t confuse the DOS operating system with the Command Prompt, which is still alive and well, and discussed in Chapter 10.

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