Low End PC

A 'Must Not' Upgrade: Windows XP

- 2001.10.10

Yesterday I was at the 7-11 looking for some reading material to pass the time before a concert. Emblazoned on the latest issue of Computer Shopper, in huge letters, was the message: Windows XP: Why you should upgrade.

I'm sure the drumbeat will get louder and louder right through the official release of XP. "A must-get upgrade!" "You'll have a better eXPerience!" "Get your XP-ready computer at Gateway!" But since we are here at Low End PC, one must consider the issue from the low end. And for low-end users, XP does not make sense.

What does make sense, particularly if you have a Pentium 233MMX or better with 64 MB RAM or better is Windows 2000 Pro, the "elder brother" of XP. 2000 Pro has definite advantages over DOS-based Windows for even modest machines - if you can give it enough RAM.

Windows 95 through to the disaster that was Windows Me is basically a kludge (Windows Explorer) encapsulated in another kludge (DOS). While it was an improvement on Windows 3.x, a kludge (Windows) floating on top of another kludge (DOS), it was still a kludge.

Windows NT, which came out around the same time as Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, completely cut the Gordian Knot and did away with DOS and all its inherent instability. Remember, DOS was designed as a single-user operating system that ran one program at a time in a 640K memory space. Windows NT, on the other hand, was designed from the ground-up to deal with multiple users and multiple programs running concurrently.

For those who have a machine that can handle it, Windows 2000 Pro is a great choice. The Windows 2000 experience will only be enhanced by the arrival of XP, because all the neato-spiffy-cool devices that will run on XP will also run on 2K, because the driver model is the same. If a device needs something else from XP, other than a common driver model, you might have problems.

There is a reason why the MCSE, which I am just now finishing up (one test to go!), will not expire in the wake of XP and its server big-brother .NET Server - there really aren't much more than cosmetic differences between the two. Unfortunately, those cosmetic differences add up to a lot more overhead.

To add insult to the injury of more overhead, there are some really nasty things included in XP for no good purpose other than content and copy control. The new version of Windows Media Player is crippled in its ability to rip audio from CDs to MP3. If you want to use it for playback of DVDs, you will have to feed it a third-party codec.

The "It's not a bug, it's a feature" award this time definitely goes to Product Activation. Install XP, and it phones home to Redmond with a checksum it generates from identifiers on several items in your machine. If you prevent it from doing this during the install, it will bug you daily for 30 days. On the 31st day, your computer will not boot. The only way to rescue your system from limbo is to call Microsoft customer support.

Even then, if you upgrade more than three items on your system, your computer might similarly refuse to boot. One should expect Microsoft customer support to be extremely busy after XP is released.

Another thing that has been crippled in the most common version of XP, XP Home Edition, is networking. XP Home Edition will do any kind of networking protocol you want, so long as it's either CIFS (a.k.a. SMB) over TCP/IP or straight TCP/IP.

If you are a telecommuter and your company is a Novell shop, you are Supremely Out of Luck - no IPX/SPX. If you are a telecommuter and your company is an NT or 2K shop with domains, you are similarly SOL. You will have to pay $100 more (or even more of a premium, depending on where you buy it) for XP Professional.

I suppose they are trying to force corporate users to buy XP Pro rather than XP Home, but I suspect they will only keep people who are stuck with 9x still stuck with 9x, because even lowly 9x can join an NT-style domain and even a 2K/.NET-style domain with limited functionality. 2K Pro is not crippled in this functionality, either, and you can get it for the same price as XP Home, give or take a few bucks.

If you have a low-end PC that is capable of handling the requirements of Windows 2000 Professional and is currently running 9x, get 2K Pro. Make sure you take a look at the compatibility database on Microsoft.com before diving in. 2K Pro should still be available at computer fairs if it becomes scarce elsewhere.

The rush to make things XP-ready will only mean more options for running more new and kewl stuff under 2K Pro. If your computer won't run 2K Pro or will run it too slowly to be usable, go the Linux route and ditch Redmond for good. In either case, there is now officially no excuse to stay with moldy old 9x.

XP, however, is not the way to get the DOS-with-GUI monkey off your back. Avoid it at all costs.

Next time: the joys of a $100 fixer-upper Celeron 466! LEPC

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