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Last Updated December 10, 2003

Windows XP FAQ

According to Microsoft, Windows XP is the most important software release for the company since they launched Windows 95.  If you are currently running Windows 95/98/Me, Windows XP will bring a lot more stability and security to your workstations. However if you are already running Windows 2000, Windows XP isn't that much of jump. Our Windows XP FAQ is designer for Administrators and power users who may be considering migrating to Windows XP. If you have additional questions about Windows XP that you believe should be include in this document, please send your comments to feedback@labmice.net 
 

What is Windows XP?
Windows XP is Microsoft's newest desktop operating system for both consumers and businesses. Over the past few years, Microsoft has been building and supporting two completely separate versions of Windows. Windows 95/98/Me was designed for consumers with an emphasis on ease of use, compatibility, and multimedia capabilities. At the same time, Microsoft created Windows NT for businesses who need security, and reliability. (NT version 5.0 is now called Windows 2000). The Win9x and WinNT versions of Windows may look the same, but they have a very different code base, and don't use the same drivers. Windows XP builds on the stability and strength of the Windows NT/2000 Operating System, while incorporating the usability of Windows 95/98. Although Microsoft has referred to Windows XP as a merging of the code base between Windows 95/98 and Windows NT/2000, it has a lot more in common with Windows 2000 (NT 5.0) and is sometimes referred to as NT 5.1 

Why are there multiple different versions of XP?
XP will initially be released in two different versions: Windows XP Professional (for businesses) and Windows XP Home Edition (for consumers.) Although the kernel for both operating systems are the same, the Home Edition is a stripped down version of the Professional version. Its main focus is the consumer home PC market, and it is designed to be easier to use. Much of its interface assumes that you have a full time internet connection and that your primary online activities are browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, listening to MP3 and online music, and sharing photos and other digital media on the web. XP Professional is designed for business and advanced home users who need security and enhanced networking capabilities. It looks and feels just like Windows 2000 once you drop the XP color scheme and choose "Windows classic." Windows XP Media Center Edition and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition are special versions of the operating system designed for specific hardware. You can only get these versions when you purchase a the specialized hardware directly from the manufacturer.

What are the feature differences between XP Professional and Home Edition?
XP Professional and XP Home Edition share the same kernel (the "guts" of the operating system), and this kernel is based on the Windows 2000 operating system. The differences between them are in the level of security they provide, networking capabilities, and advanced features. For business users, Windows XP Professional is very similar to Windows 2000 in its feature set. XP Professional supports multiple processors, multiple monitors (up to 9), Group Policy. Encrypting File System, Dynamic Disks, IIS, a built in backup program, and advanced networking capabilities (such as IPSec.) All of these features are missing from XP Home Edition. Another important distinction between the two versions is that XP Home Edition cannot join a Windows NT/2000/2003 domain. If you wish to network with other PC's in your home or office, you must be part of a workgroup. If you're a "power user" purchasing Windows XP for your personal workstation, Windows XP Professional is a better choice than Home Edition, if you can afford the price difference. Windows XP Professional is also more secure than Home Edition, which is an important consideration for users with a full time high speed internet connection.

What are the differences between Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP Professional?
Not much. Microsoft has added a host of new features to both versions of Windows XP, but nothing that appears to be absolutely compelling for business users. One of the new features called "Fast User Switching" allows to to run two separate logged in sessions at once. This allows a user to do everyday work such as e-mail using a non-privileged user account, and then run an Administrative session at the same time without rebooting or resorting to the "Run As" command. This also allows you to quickly log onto any users workstation and make administrative changes without logging them off. The remote assistance feature of XP can also help reduce support costs by allowing your Help Desk staff to interact with a user's PC over the network. XP's built in ZIP compression support can also save your company a lot of money in licensing fees if you are currently using a third party utility such as WinZIP.

What does the "XP" stand for?
The official Microsoft answer is that XP stands for "experience", in the sense that they are combining their years of experience creating two very successful desktop operating systems into one really great product. Pundits have come up with their own definitions of XP, including "eXPensive" and "eXtra Profits"

What are the system requirements?
It seems that Microsoft has always configured its Operating Systems for the future generation of hardware, and XP is no exception. Unless you bought a PC recently, you'll probably want to upgrade your desktop PC before you upgrade your OS. 

Below is a table of bare minimum and recommended hardware requirements, as well as our "real word" recommendations.
  
 Windows XP system requirements 
Component Bare Minimum  Recommended "Real World"
CPU 233 Mhz 300 Mhz +600 Mhz
Memory 64Mb 128Mb +256Mb
Free Disk Space 1.5GB 2.0GB +8GB

When considering these system requirements for your workstations, keep in mind that RAM is a larger bottleneck than CPU speed. (i.e. Adding 256Mb of RAM will give you a better performance boost than upgrading your processor speed by 200 - 300 Mhz). Windows XP is also designed to take advantage of Intel's Pentium 4 instruction set (SSE/SSE2), so you'll see slightly better performance on the newer processors. XP Professional also supports multiple processors.

In addition, Microsoft recommends that your BIOS should be newer than January 1, 2000 if you wish to use the hibernation and advanced power management features of Windows XP. You can run a free test on your PC to see if you meet the upgrade requirements, by clicking here


How much will it cost to upgrade?
Windows XP has a number of pricing schemes, depending on if you intend to upgrade from a previous operating system or if you're installing it on brand new hardware. Windows XP Home Edition will cost $99 for the upgrade version and $199 for the full version. Windows XP Professional will cost $199 for the upgrade version and $299 for the full version.

What are the upgrade paths for Windows XP?
For Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 Systems:  
You can upgrade to Windows XP Professional only. 

For Windows 98, 98SE, and Windows Me Systems:  
You can upgrade to either Windows XP Home Edition or Windows XP Professional.

For Windows 95 Systems:  
There is no upgrade path. You'll need to buy the full version of Windows XP and perform a clean install.


What about Product Activation?
The product activation feature of Windows XP (and Office XP) is designed to discourage casual copying of the software. Once you load Windows XP and type in the Registration Code, it creates a unique ID for your workstation based on your system configuration and prompts you to register that ID with Microsoft within 120 days, or your Operating System will no longer function. Although the process only takes a few moments to complete over the web (and slightly longer over the phone), this requirement has caused a storm of controversy. ( For more information, see Microsoft's Product Activation FAQ) Product Activation is only required on the retail and some OEM versions of Windows XP and not on the volume licensing program that most businesses use. Windows XP upgrade licenses acquired through one of Microsoft©s volume licensing agreements, such as Microsoft Open License, Enterprise Agreement, or Select License, will not require activation. Installations of Windows XP made using volume licensing media and volume license product keys (VLKs) will have no activation, hardware checking, or limitations on installation or imaging. 

What information is transmitted to Microsoft when I activate Windows XP? 
The Installation ID created by Product activation is specifically designed to guarantee anonymity and is only used by Microsoft to deter piracy. The Installation ID is comprised of two different pieces of information © the product ID and a hardware hash. The product ID is unique to the installation of Windows and is created from the unique product key used during installation. (The product ID can be found by viewing the Properties of My Computer. The hardware hash is an eight byte value that is created by running 10 different pieces of information from the PC©s hardware components through a one-way mathematical transformation. When you activate your product over the web, the installation ID is submitted to Microsoft, and then a digitally signed certificate is sent back to your PC. Activation is not product registration. The only information required to activate is an Installation ID created by the software and, for Office XP and Visio 2002, the country in which the software is being installed. No personally identifiable information is required to activate. For more information see "Technical Details on Microsoft Product Activation for Windows XP"

Can Product Activation be bypassed? 
Within a few days of its launch on October 25, 2001, hackers released a "crack" that disables XP's product activation feature. This "crack" is being passed around the Internet contains a set of instructions for setting a registry key that disables activation. Microsoft made the existence of this registry key public to its technical beta testers telling them where it was and how to set it to disable activation, and included it as a testing tool. Some users who are suspicious of the product activation feature have decided to use this tool, but it is likely that Microsoft could release an update that counteracts it so I wouldn't recommended. Business can be eligible for volume licensing (which doesn't require activation) for as little as 10 licenses. Which means if you have 5 PC's running Windows XP and Office XP, you qualify for the program. Check with your Microsoft rep for details..

What happens if I don't activate Windows XP? 
If you don't complete the product activation process after 30 days, Windows XP will still boot, but you'll be unable to launch Windows until you call the Microsoft Clearinghouse and enter the code.

I rebuild and/or upgrade my PC all the time. How many changes can I make before I have to reactivate Windows XP?
The Windows XP Product Activation Code is based on a combination of 10 system hardware settings, including CPU, NIC card, RAM, Video card, sound card, etc., If your machine has a PCMCIA slot (most laptops), you can change 9 of the 10 items before you need to reactivate XP. For most desktop systems, you can change up to six items, however changing the same component repeatedly counts only as one change. Also, adding additional components doesn't count as a change. If you purchased a new PC with Windows XP preloaded from the manufacturer, the product ID is linked to the BIOS, so you can technically change as many hardware components as you wish, as long as you don't change the system BIOS.

Should I deploy Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional in my company? 
If you are planning to deploy Windows 2000 before January 2002, or are already deploying Windows 2000, you should probably stick with Windows 2000. If you are planning a deployment after June 2002, you should consider Windows XP Professional. The stability and compatibly issues are about the same, but you'll get a longer life cycle out of Windows XP in terms of support from Microsoft and third party vendors.

Is there an XP Server?
No, there isn't. "XP" is only the designation for the Microsoft's desktop Operating System. The newest server version is Windows Server 2003 and was released in April 2003. Microsoft has decided to split the development and release cycles of desktop and server operating systems to better serve their customers. Consumers (and the PC industry) like frequent OS updates to keep up with newest trends and hardware. Corporations don't like to update their infrastructure and retrain their IT staff that frequently. So, you can expect Microsoft to release a new desktop operating system every 2-3 years, and a server operating system every 4-5 years.

Will my software run on Windows XP?
Windows XP is built on the Windows 2000 kernel, so for business users who are already running applications on Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000, the upgrade should be pretty smooth. Microsoft says that over 90 percent of Windows 2000/NT and Windows 9x applications distributed in North America in the past three years already work on XP. Notably, one of the applications that doesn't work is Novell Client 32 V4.80. This incompatibility will have an impact for business users who are still running in a Novell environment, but I'm confident that Novell will probably release a new client within the next few months.  For home users who are more interested in gaming, there are several issues with older games that rely on DOS. A large percentage of the games we've tested in our labs work just fine with XP, but serious gamers may want to consider dual booting XP with Windows 98 to support legacy games, and older controllers. Also, since XP is a new operating system, your system and disk utilities, as well as AntiVirus software will not work with Windows XP and will need to be upgraded.

What about Hardware Compatibility?
According to Microsoft, Windows XP supports 12,000 devices straight out of the box, including the top 1,000 best-selling devices sold during the year 2000. At this writing, over 300 hardware devices have earned the new XP logo--meaning they've been subjected to higher testing standards. However there are still a large number of hardware devices that aren't compatible and are waiting for updated drivers. These include multi-function printers/scanner/fax machines, web cams, CD writers, etc. You can use Microsoft Compatibility Advisor to check your system before you upgrade, and/or check with your hardware manufacturer to see if they've posted new drivers for Windows XP. Please keep in mind that it is the hardware manufacturer's responsibility to write XP compatible drivers for their products - not Microsoft's. In fact, not supporting a new operating system is a tactic used by some manufacturers in order to get you to upgrade your current product. Microsoft released an avalanche of technical details, driver guidelines, and beta software to manufacturers a full year before Windows XP shipped in order to give them as much as lead time as possible. In a random survey of legacy (pre-2001) printer and scanner drivers available for XP, we noticed a definite support trend that favored the higher end (and higher profit) devices and left entry level models (or those commonly given away with Win95/98 PC's) unsupported. It's really not that hard to write a driver (or update software to work with Windows XP) but some manufacturers just refuse to do it. You should always check the status of your existing hardware before upgrading to XP.

What about performance?
There has been a lot of Microsoft bashing going around in the press and on discussion forums regarding XP's performance and most of it has been crap. Many of the published evaluations you'll see are between the Win9x platform, which isn't really fair because XP is built on the NT/Win2000 code base. Of course it's faster and more stable than the 5 year old code for Windows 9x (including Windows Me). However, when you compare Windows XP with Windows 2000 they're pretty evenly matched. On systems with +600Mhz processors and 512Kb of RAM, our XP installations run just a hair faster than the same systems running Windows 2000. XP also has a definite advantage over Windows 2000 on Pentium 4 processors.

How stable is Windows XP?
We were very skeptical when we first loaded Windows XP Professional on our lab PC's, but for the most part, we've been happy with the new Operating System. Our "clean" installations of XP Pro on a variety of desktops and laptops went smoothly and have been very stable. We did run across a few upgrade issues as well as unexplained lockups on a single test system (a Dell Latitude C600), which turned out to be a faulty memory module. That said, we get a lot of hostile e-mail from users who are having nothing but problems with XP Home Edition and Professional.  After a bit of investigating, most of their issues seem to be preventable (user inflicted) causes and not inherent instabilities with XP. I'm not saying XP is perfect - it does have it's share of bugs. But you can improve XP's (or any Microsoft operating systems reliability by following these guidelines: 
  • Only use hardware that is on the Hardware Compatibility List -. This ensures that the products and drivers went through rigorous testing and are supported by Microsoft. If you're trying to use a Win9x or Windows 2000 driver to make your legacy hardware work, you'll probably start having stability issues.
  • Place all of your systems are on a UPS (not just a surge protector). Power fluctuations can lead to unexplained system problems and data loss. 
  • If you can, always try to install Windows XP on a clean system, instead of upgrading a current installation. 
  • Be selective with your software. Third party software isn't always written to Microsoft's standards, and can cause instabilities. Games and freeware/shareware utilities are the usual culprits, but poorly written system utilities can cause problems as well. Constantly installing and uninstalling various programs may leave behind residual registry entries and system files that can slow a system over time, and cause instabilities
  • Don't run third party themes or freeware screensavers - Many of these are written by amateurs, and you just never know what you're getting.  Screensavers look nice, but are usually unnecessary with modern displays. Try choosing the "blank screen" option as a screensaver, or have the monitor power down when not in use.
  • Don't run third party system utilities - Many of the "system utility" packages on the market don't work as well as advertised, and can cause more problems than they solve. Think carefully before installing these. In our opinion, they're just not worth it.
  • Don't over tweak your system - We set up our systems the way we like to work when XP is first installed and then leave it alone. I work on several desktops and laptops every day, and don't really have a need to change systems setting, fonts, colors, themes, screensavers, performance settings, network settings, power setting, etc., In a survey of corporate help desk calls, 80% of problems were traced back to something that the user did themselves. This usually involves constant tweaking and experimenting that leads to stability issues. We have a standard build that installs the applications we use, gets rid of the default Blue XP theme we find so annoying, and locks down security settings. That's about it.
  • Perform routine system maintenance. This means performing a full virus scan, defrag, and cleaning out the temp files routinely. You should also check event logs for potential problems, and keep up on the latest system updates from Microsoft.

How secure is Windows XP?
Again, this depends on what you are comparing it to. XP is vastly more secure than Windows 95/98/Me (which didn't have any security), and is on par with Windows 2000. There has been a lot of hype about the Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance features which can allow another person running Windows XP to interact with your desktop, however there are several adequate safeguards in place to keep someone from doing this without you knowing it, and so far hackers haven't figured out a way to exploit it. Another controversial topic is Microsoft's use of full raw sockets API  in Windows XP that could theoretically allow hackers to use XP workstations as "zombies" in a broad based denial of service attack. (Click here for more info). Of course these issues are in addition to any programming errors, code glitches, and oversights that may come up in the course of any operating system release. In our opinion, a properly configured Windows XP Professional system is no more a risk than a Windows 2000 system. 

What did you like or dislike about Windows XP?
I suppose the two most frequent complaints about Windows XP is the new interface and Windows Product Activation. I personally hate the new "Playskool" interface. I half expect a purple dinosaur to pop up and give me instructions. (Shudder) Thankfully, a few mouse clicks will change it back to the "classic" interface. The next thing we hated was Windows Product Activation. Although the web activation was painless and took only a few seconds, it still feels a bit like "Big Brother" and makes us a little uncomfortable. We also had mixed reviews about the "clean" desktop. On the default XP setup, there is only one icon on the desktop - the recycle bin. This is a welcome departure from the multitude of AOL icons and other junk cluttering the Win9x desktop, but over the years we've become accustomed to using the "My Computer", "Network Neighborhood" and "My Documents" desktop icons. (Fortunately, you can get these back with a few mouse clicks) Fast user switching was a disappointment since it doesn't work if you're logged into a Windows 2000 domain. (We haven't tested it using an NT 4.0 domain). On the plus side, we like the built in support for compressed files, the Help system is vastly improved (it even provides hyperlinks to related TechNet articles), the support for digital cameras and scanners is excellent, and there other several smaller "features" that are useful to administrators. For example, we like having the ability to automatically synchronize the time on our laptops using an internet web server when we aren't logged into the domain, and we like the that XP preloads popular printer drivers into the default installation so you won't need to provide your XP installation CD every time you need to print to a new printer. Overall, we like Windows XP as a desktop operating system. To borrow a phrase, it's a small step up from Windows 2000 Professional, and a giant leap from Windows 95/98/Me

Is it worth the upgrade?
If you are currently using Windows 95/98/Me or Windows NT 4.0, Windows XP will most likely be a worthwhile upgrade. You'll like the speed, security, and stability of XP, but may have some issues with hardware and software compatibility. The new user interface is well suited for non technical computer users, but seems to drive the hardcore computer geeks crazy. (Thankfully you can easily switch it back to the classic Win9x look) Home users may be better off buying a new PC with Windows XP preloaded rather than try to upgrade the hardware and OS on an older system. Businesses and power users that are already running Windows 2000 will probably not see a significant reason to upgrade. 

The general user response based on feedback and newsgroup postings is mixed. On a CNET forum, over 7,000 users where evenly split on their reviews of XP Home Edition. 54% liked it, 46% hated it. XP Professional faired a little better with 68% positive and 32% negative user reviews We spent a few days reading hundreds of these complaints, and noticed that a majority aren't really legitimate issues with XP. People expect the operating system to stay stable no matter how poorly third party software is written. They expect XP to be 100% compatible with cheap or out of date hardware, and blame Microsoft for the lack of drivers. They expect all programs written for Windows 95/98/Me to work on XP. And if they buy a new system with Windows XP preloaded on it, and it crashes, they blame Microsoft and not the OEM's crappy hardware configuration. These are the same issues that have been raised for every Windows release since Win95. While being completely crash proof regardless of the abuse the operating system is subjected to is a lofty goal for any operating system, it's a bit unrealistic. Windows XP is certainly not perfect, it's not crash proof, and it's not compatible with every piece of hardware and software. But it is a vast improvement over Win95/98/Me and Windows NT 4.0 in terms of ease of use, security, stability, and performance. XP Professional is also on par with Windows 2000 Professional in these areas, but easier to use. If you're concerned about compatibility with your old software or hardware, you may wish to consider dual booting Windows XP with your older operating system, using VMWare, using a swappable hard drive bay, or simply keeping your old PC up and running for a while and running Windows XP on a new PC.   



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