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A Look at Windows XP Service Pack 3, Part 2: Missing Vista

In Part 1 of my examination of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), I rhetorically asked whether XP was still "good enough" given the many advantages of its successor, Windows Vista. In many ways, this argument will soon be rendered moot: Beginning on July 1, it won't be possible to even purchase XP through normal means or acquire the aging OS with a new PC. (For the most part, that is: You will still be able to acquire Windows XP Home Edition with so-called Ultra-Low-Cost PCs, or ULCPCs.)

But to answer my own rhetorical question, yes, XP is good enough, although I'd attach some caveats to that statement. For example, Windows XP is good enough ... if you're using an older PC and can't upgrade it to support what I feel are Vista's minimum real world requirements: A dual-core CPU or better, 2 GB of RAM, and an Aero-capable 3D video chipset. XP is good enough ... if you have very basic needs. XP is good enough ... if you're going to be buying a new PC in the next year and will simply upgrade to Vista at that time. XP is good enough if you know what you're doing when it comes to security--and I mean really know what you're doing--and aren't prone to click on spurious links online or visit the wrong kinds of Web sites. And XP is good enough ... if you don't mind spending a lot of time tweaking your system. And then redoing it all over again because, with XP, you simply have to periodically reinstall the OS to gain lost performance.

So yeah, it's good enough. But that doesn't mean it's great. Or optimal.

For this second part of my last look at Windows XP, I've done something I thought I'd never do again: I've installed Windows XP (with Service Pack 3, of course) on a few different computers and used it every day. I can't claim to have used XP exclusively during this time, however: I'm firmly committed to Windows Vista and still feel that it offers many obvious advantages over XP. But it's been interesting and instructive to install and use XP again. And while I appreciate the "old sweatshirt" aspect of XP as described in Part 1, I feel it's only fair to admit that I haven't personally found anything particularly compelling about using Microsoft's previous OS today. The world has moved on, and I've moved on with it. I just expect more from my PC now. I suspect you do too.

Windows XP in 2008: Party like it's 1999, er ah, 2001

Aside from obvious look and feel issues, the most striking thing about downgrading from Windows Vista to XP is the sheer number of things that need to be installed and configured in order to bring the older OS up to speed with its more recent stablemate. Just some of these issues include:

Hardware drivers. On three different systems, one a desktop and two portable devices, XP required me to install a huge number of hardware drivers, most of which had to be manually downloaded on other PCs because the XP-based PC initially lacked networking facilities.

Out of date software applications. Even with the very latest version of XP, there are an alarming number of out of date applications that must be removed and/or updated. I removed MSN Explorer, Outlook Express, and Windows Messenger using Add or Remove Programs. Then I manually updated Internet Explorer 6 to 7 and Windows Media Player 9 to 11 by downloading the latest versions from Windows Update and the Microsoft Download Center.

Missing applications. Windows XP does not include certain applications, like the aforementioned IE 7 and WMP 11. But it's more than that. You have to manually find, download, and install Windows Defender (or the anti-spyware application of your choice), an application that (like IE 7 and WMP 11) is included in Vista by default. And like Vista, XP doesn't ship with any form of anti-virus. So you'll have to find some kind of AV solution on your own as well.

Microsoft Update. Windows XP ships with a lousy Web-based version of Windows Update, which will not automatically provide updates for non-Windows products. To gain this functionality, you have to manually install Microsoft Update, a multi-step and time-consuming process. Once Microsoft Update is installed, you can't get it to appear in the Start Menu's Most Recently Used (MRU) list, no matter how frequently you use it. But the old Windows Update appears in the Start Menu MRU, even when it's been replaced.

Start Menu. XP's Start Menu, which relies on pop-out menus that never remember how to stay sorted alphabetically, is demonstrably less useable than Vista's. As you install more and more applications, the Start Menu grows and grows, necessitating manual pruning and organization, a process that isn't required on Vista. And don't get me started on the lack of Start Menu Search.

Hidden applications. Tied to the lack of Start Menu Search, you simply have to know that certain utilities exist in order to access them. Device Manager is a typical example. To find it in XP, open the Start Menu, right-click My Computer, choose Properties, and then go to Hardware tab. Obviously.

Desktop. Unlike with Vista, XP's desktop icons are too small ... or way too big, assuming you can find the place in the UI where you can change their size. Vista's more configurable desktop is easier on the eyes, especially with the high-resolution screens of today.

ClearType. Microsoft's ClearType sub-pixel rendering system is not enabled by default on Windows XP and must be manually enabled.

Windows Search. Windows XP's unbelievably annoying Search Companion, which for some bizarre reason utilizes a cartoon dog, isn't just condecscending to users, it's also lousy at what it does. To fix this and provide XP with something approaching the power of Vista's Instant Search functionality, you need to know about, find, and then manually download Windows Desktop Search.

Networking. XP's networking functionality is laughably bad compared to Vista's, which features simple, plain English auto-configuration capabilities that utilize location concepts like Home, Work, and Public Location. In XP, you have to enter the WPA network key TWICE to initially configure wireless networking. There are repeated "Now connected" pop-up balloons: Yeah, we get it, you're connected. And then there are those annoying disconnected network adapter icons in the tray. You can't make them go away unless you disable the connection(s) or connect them to something.

Power management. You have to enable the power management tray icon in Power Options on portable machines. You also have to manually enable Hibernation, regardless of the PC type. And then you have to hope that it works, since power management is so much more dicey in XP than it is in Vista. Good luck!

Backup. XP's backup utility dates back to the earliest days of NT and it shows. Not surprisingly, Vista features a completely rewritten backup utility that really works, and provides both image-based full PC backup and file backup functionality. Oh, and Previous Versions, which lets you get at older versions of documents and other data files. XP has none of that.

Taskbar. Seriously, make the Language toolbar go away. Why does it appear? Why does it appear after I close it?

User interface. I'm not going to harp on XP's out of date user interface too much. But I will point out that there is a decent XP UI available called Royale that debuted in XP Media Center Edition 2005. It doesn't come with XP Home or Pro by default, but you can download it from the Web. Why it's not just included in XP is beyond me, but anyone stuck using XP should search for it, download it, and install it.

What makes this list even more daunting is that Windows XP, unlike Vista, does not include any automatic degunking technology. Over time, Windows XP simply gets slower and slower, and eventually you have to reinstall from scratch to recover lost performance. That's not the case with Windows Vista.

Other features I missed from Windows Vista

Windows Vista's detractors like to spread the myth that Microsoft's latest desktop OS doesn't offer enough unique new functionality when compared to its predecessor, Windows XP. That's not true at all. In addition to not suffering from most of the many issues listed above, I've found my time using XP to be quite painful at times because I missed, among other things, the following Vista features:

Windows Aero. Dismissed as eye candy, Vista's Aero user interface is nicer looking than anything found on XP. It's also more functional: Aero's glass effects and taskbar icon previews make it easier to find other windows when you're multi-tasking. Subtle animations tell you where to look for minimized windows. And live icons give you previews of document contents. (One Aero feature I don't care for or use, however, is Flip 3D). Possible solution: Download Royale at the very least or put up with a potentially buggy UI replacement like WindowBlinds.

Start Menu Search. It doesn't get a lot of press, but this just may be one of Vista's best and most important features. In my case, it affects my daily workflow in ways that weren't appreciated until I downgraded to XP and immediately missed its presense. Possible solution: Download a third party launcher like Launchy or Enso Launcher

Windows Sidebar. I actually use Windows Sidebar regularly though I wish there were more quality gadgets available. After initially promising to port Sidebar to XP, Microsoft eventually gave up on the project. Possible solution: Download a third party sidebar replacement like Google Desktop or Yahoo! Widgets.

Breadcrumb bar. The new breadcrumb bar in Windows Vista's Explorer windows is a huge improvement over the ancient address bars in XP and older Windows versions. The big advance, however, isn't the simplification of the location display, it's the ability to quickly jump around in the folder hierarchy using the breadcrumb bar's node-based navigation scheme. As with Start Menu Search, this is a feature you don't realize you use so often until it's gone.

Disk Defrag. Windows XP does include a disk defragmentation utility, but it doesn't run automatically in the background so you have to remember to run it regularly.

ReadyBoost. A lot is made about how much better Windows XP runs on older hardware than does Vista, but then why wouldn't it? A more important potential market for Vista is those PCs that are less than two years old and on the edge of meeting realistic Vista hardware requirements. For these systems--with 1 to 2 GB of RAM and a pre-Core 2 Duo processor--Microsoft has provided a truly useful performance feature called ReadyBoost that makes all the difference in the world. Plug in a 512 MB to 2 GB USB memory fob and suddenly that dog of a PC will run Vista just fine, thank you very much.

I know, I know. You're looking at this list and you're thinking big deal. Remember, however, that this isn't a list of unique Vista features--a list that would include such technologies as BitLocker, Media Center, and Windows Calendar, among many others. This is a list of things that impact me, as an individual, on a regular basis. A list that should be combined with the list of issues from the previous section to provide a wider overall picture of the real world day to day differences between using each system. In this light, the advantages of Windows Vista are very real. Very real indeed.

Final thoughts

It really shouldn't be surprising that a six and a half year old operating system doesn't offer the same level of functionality and usability as a new OS. But then that's the point here, isn't it? No one in their right mind would claim that XP was somehow "better" than Vista. Only that it is good enough. I believe this sentiment to be correct. XP is good enough, for the short term, good enough to last you until you replace or upgrade whatever PC you're currently using and upgrade to Windows Vista. Good news: You're going to love it.

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