XP Home—A First Look

Lured by the thought of a new multiprocessor system with lots of memory and a fast hard disk, I capitulated and ordered a Windows XP Home Edition system. However, after just 4 days, I'm completely underwhelmed. My attempts to upgrade the XP Home machine to XP Pro left me especially unimpressed.

When I attempted the upgrade, setup copied files to the temporary directory on the nearly empty NTFS-formatted hard disk and then choked. Setup then informed me that it couldn't access the CD-ROM and that the CD-ROM software wasn't compatible with XP. I cancelled the upgrade and rebooted. The failed upgrade attempt left the temporary upgrade directory on the hard disk, left an upgrade line in the boot.ini file, and reset the monitor to a refresh rate of 65Hz. After deleting the upgrade directory, I renamed boot.ini to boot.failed and renamed boot.bak to boot.ini to eliminate the references to the upgrade directory. I rebooted the system, and it restarted successfully, but the monitor still flickered badly. When I tried to change the video settings, I noticed that the display applet was missing all the adapter controls—it displayed only the current theme, not the advanced settings that let you change the resolution and refresh rate. Worse, when I located Device Manager (right-click My Computer on the Start Menu), I learned that two drivers, one for the ATI Rage video adapter and one for the 3Com network adapter, were no longer working. How can a cancelled upgrade trash existing drivers? Both devices were working on XP Home before I started the upgrade to XP Pro. I’m confused.

I started the registry editor with the hope that I could set the refresh rate manually. As I browsed through the keys, I found an empty entry for LastKnownGood, which told me that I couldn't revert to the previous state with working video and network adapters. However, I did locate three video adapter entries: a built-in system adapter and two others. I promptly changed the refresh rate on all three adapters to 85 and rebooted to find a still-flickering monitor.

I worked for a couple more hours before I gave up. I restored the driver from the vendor’s CD-ROM, but the driver wouldn’t start; I have no idea how the vendor got the video board to work. I downloaded the latest driver version and started the setup program. When ATI setup detects an existing driver, the installer tells you that it will remove the current driver, restart, and then install the correct driver. However, in my case, the setup program became stuck in an infinite loop of restarting, finding a previous driver, restarting, and finding a previous driver—even when device manager reported that the ATI video adapter wasn't present. I recommend that ATI modify its setup utility so that it verifies that the installed adapter is working before it attempts to update the driver.

By comparison, recovering the network adapter was easy. I opened Device Manager, removed the network adapter, and rebooted. XP noticed the new adapter, informed me that the 3Com card (3C905B) wasn't XP-compliant, and asked whether I wanted to load the driver anyway. I said yes, and the network adapter started working immediately.

Here’s a suggestion for those of you preparing to test-drive XP. As soon as the system is running, enable the System Restore Wizard and create a restore point before you fiddle with hardware or software. In theory, the snapshot provides a last-known-good configuration that you can use if XP or a failed upgrade disables a video adapter, CD-ROM, network adapter, USB, or other device.

After just a few days, I have some strong opinions about the Windows 9x replacement platform. The personal-privacy advocate in me is offended that XP accesses the Internet whenever you ask a question or start a software installation. XP Home visits the Microsoft Web site when you run setup, visits vendor sites when you configure a device, and queries the Microsoft Knowledge Base for relevant articles when you ask for help. Home users, weaned on the XP's unreliable predecessors, will appreciate the automatic "fix-me" features and the ability to browse the Internet at will. Because of the various problems I experienced, I didn't get far enough to test-drive XP’s personal firewall, but I’m glad it’s there. With such wide-open access, XP systems need the protection that a firewall provides.

The technology advocate in me is offended by the dumbed-down interface. I can’t imagine using this platform in an enterprise environment. During a failed upgrade, I lost critical video and network functionality but could still access pictures and sound files, play CDs, and ask detailed questions of the tail-wagging dog. Somehow, this isn't my vision of a corporate workstation.

XP Home looks like a toy box: Windows Media Player (WMP) is everywhere and its UI is big, ugly, and unintuitive; the hints on the main Help screen are superfluous for technically savvy users. I agree completely with the idea that a user-friendly system should hide all its underpinnings, but what looks good on paper doesn't yet play out in the real world. Vendors can safely dumb-down the interface only when the hardware and software function consistently, every day, all day long. In my humble opinion, we’re not there yet. At the end of the day, I pronounced the ATI board toast and sent the machine back to its maker. I’m unwilling to accept a system with dysfunctional hardware, and I haven’t forgotten enough, yet, to be happy with XP.

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