Now that Microsoft has released Windows XP to manufacturing, it's time to anoint the OS as the Windows OS of choice for the connected-home user. The only area in which any of the other Windows OSs have an advantage is game playing, where the Windows 9x-based OSs still have a performance lead—at least until the video-driver writers can optimize their products for XP. For serious gamers who want that last frame of speed from their systems, Win9x is the best solution, but for the casual gamer, XP is a more stable (read less crashes) choice than any Win9x derivative.
XP is also the first Microsoft OS designed to support home networking. Home networking has always been possible with the various Windows versions, but setting up a network required a considerable amount of general networking knowledge, and specific knowledge about configuring each of the Windows versions.
XP's Network Setup Wizard simplifies the process of configuring your home network and connecting the network to the Internet. The wizard not only walks the you through the tasks necessary to create the home network, it provides detailed instructions about hardware, software, and configuration tasks that you can access at each stage of the process. After you set up your XP system, you can create a Network Setup 3.5 disk that you can run on your legacy Win9x systems (or other XP systems) to connect these systems to your new home network. Given the amount of email I've received over the years from users who couldn't get Windows 2000/NT and Win9x systems to cohabitate gracefully on their home networks, this simplified procedure is overdue.
Advanced users take note: XP doesn't force you to set up your network using the Network Setup Wizard, but the wizard does make the process easier. Rest assured that you can still hack the registry and work at the command line to your heart's content. XP is even better for those tasks than previous Windows versions because the OS already contains the necessary tools (previously, you had to purchase the Microsoft Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit to get these tools). However, when you upgrade an existing Win2K installation to XP, the process disables all your existing shares (those directories that you share from your machine). You must either run the Network Setup Wizard to enable the shares or re-enable each share individually.
Microsoft's improved support for home networkers also includes XP purchasing options. You'll be able to walk into your favorite chain store that sells software (e.g., Circuit City, Best Buy) and buy a multiple-license pack for extra XP licenses at an 8 to 12 percent discount. You'll also be able to buy license packs for five or more systems in the Microsoft Open Select business-licensing program at these same chain stores. Although few home users have five or more computers, this program means that small businesses can take advantage of volume discounts on software that otherwise would have required negotiations with Microsoft or a reseller.
At the very least, find out what XP offers the home networker. Stop by http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp for all the details.