For those of you who might not follow Microsoft's products that closely, Microsoft says Windows XP is the most significant upgrade of the consumer Windows operating system since Windows 95 but this time it's actually true. Microsoft has finally eliminated the Windows 9x/DOS based operating systems that consumers have been stuck with for the last 6 years. They have been trying to release a hybrid version of Windows combining the compatibility, hardware & software support of Windows 9x and the stable, secure, portable Windows NT into one code base since early in the NT 5 development cycle.
However, it became clear that compatibility issues, high system requirements and a development cycle that was already delayed several years put this goal off. Until now.
The "New" UI
The first thing you notice with Windows XP is the new visual style that ships by default on Pro and Personal versions. The new UI is mostly made up of minor enhancements to the Windows 2000 UI plus a collection of new high color icons and a dark blue theme Microsoft calls Luna.
The biggest fear people seem to have is that Luna is slow. I have not noticed this at all on my system. (P3-800 / 256MB) Thankfully Microsoft has added a button under system properties called "Best Performance" that turns off all the new eye candy with one click for those of you with older systems or people who would rather not use the eye candy. A big note of credit to Microsoft, virtually every new feature has a one button off switch that's very easy to get to without installing Tweak UI or such.
I am a bit disappointed that Microsoft isn't doing more to help artists with new visual styles (They've said they will not release a theme SDK) but they appear to be helping Stardock create a special version of Windows Blinds for Windows XP (That uses the new theme API directly) Hopefully by the time Windows XP ships Microsoft will have released a less fruity flavored theme, Luna reminds me too much of Mac OSX. I've love to see a more professional looking theme.
Another new UI feature that stands out is the new start menu. I can't say it actually does much more than the classic start menu (which you can turn back on if you wish) but the list of recently used applications it shows is very useful. It's mostly a visual upgrade. One downside is that it often takes 3-5 seconds to open. Microsoft has to get this fixed before the final release. There are also a number of smaller UI features, task bar grouping, desktop clean up wizard, locking toolbars, better wizards, etc. Nothing revolutionary but useful.
Windows XP is very stable. I've used various builds over the past 6 months and I've yet to have a hard OS crash. (aka, BSOD) The most annoying problems are visual glitches but I'm sure they'll be taken care of by the final release. It's hard to judge just how stable Beta 2 is in a short time of using it but so far so good. The real test will be once Windows XP gets out in the wild and millions of consumers upgrade their Windows 9x installs. Microsoft is pitching XP as they did Windows 95, don't bother upgrading unless you know what you're doing. In a case like this (where you're switching OS's, not upgrading) I think it's a fair warning.
Compatibility in Win XP, similar to Mac OS X, is very important. One of the best new features is the ability to run conflicting DLL versions at the same time. Microsoft calls this "Side-By-Side libraries". For example: The new visual elements are built into ComCtl32.dll version 6. Many programs will not work correctly with this library. Instead of trying to patch together a quick fix within ComCtrl32.dll version 6, Microsoft ships an older version of ComCtrl32.dll (5.8) that is far safer for older programs. If an older program supplies yet an older version, it can also run side-by-side.
Microsoft has also added the ability to trick programs into thinking they're running on your choice of NT4, Windows 95, Windows 98 or Windows 2000. You can also create custom compatibility patches using the freely available Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit, which lets you pick many more compatibility options. I've found in most cases these options will fix misbehaving programs but there isn't yet a good description of exactly what all the fixes do, so it's hit and miss. Can you guess what ForceDDRAWemulation.dll does? Me either.
Another much awaited feature for NT users is SB16 emulation in NTVDM (The NT dos emulator) I was able to run Wolf3d and Duke Nukem for the first time under NT with sound and not PC speaker beeps. Almost every game released in the last year will work fine under Win XP (also under Win2k) but Microsoft has done a very nice job trying to bridge the gap between Windows 9x and NT. It's better than nothing, there's always dual booting for old games that just won't work.
Other New Features:
Personal Firewall - It might not reach the level of other personal firewalls available freely under Windows but it takes care of the most common internet attack against Windows, open SMB shares accessible via the Internet.
Fast User Switching - In the past, Microsoft didn't take advantage of the multi-user nature of Windows NT, even Win2k made switching users painful. It did however introduce the ability to run programs as a different user. (aka, su) The idea with fast user switching is that you can switch to a different user while keeping all your programs running. There's even a keyboard shortcut for it to make it easier. The name, in this case, is accurate. Switching from 2 users, each with 10 programs running took about 2 seconds.
Terminal Server - Win XP Pro includes Microsoft's entry into the thin client market for remote administration purposes. While the performance of MSTS is questionable as a thin client server, over a fast link it's very possible to use your applications remotely. You can also use this feature for remote assistance. I'm not exactly sure people are going to like that idea but I know when I'm trying to fix my aunt's computer 600 miles away I'm going to use it.
Driver Rollback - Another nice feature in Win XP is driver roll back. How often do you download the latest Nvidia drivers just to find out they're slower than the ones you have? Click rollback and you're all set. Very nice feature. I've already used it a number of times.
Clear Type - Clear type is a new system of rendering fonts. Microsoft says it improves font resolution by 300% but in reality all it does is apply a nice touch of anti-aliasing. I've yet to test it out on a LCD display but on my 19 inch CRT it looks wonderful. It's a tad murky but overall much easier to read.
System Migration - Another nice feature is a program that backs up all your custom settings, mail, favorites, wallpaper, documents, and any custom files you select to move to another computer or another install of Windows XP. It makes buying a new computer or repairing your old one with a fresh install of Windows XP very easy.
Built in CD burning - Microsoft isn't going to be putting any CDR software makers out of business with this feature but it's nice to have very basic burning support within the OS. For simple data/audio it's very competent. Also, you can now read UDF formatted CDR's without the need to install third party software. (Such as Adaptec's DirectCD)
I think Microsoft has done a great job on Windows XP. At this stage in development it's already more stable than Windows 9x, looks better, is easier to use and offers more time saving features. I don't want to sound like a Microsoft PR representative but I am very pleasantly surprised with this OS that still has 4-6 months of development left.
I think Microsoft has finally got ahead of the game. They don't have to spend years working on Windows 9x service pack releases that only seem to make things worse and they don't have to have two separate code bases, many times with overlapping features. They can finally spend the majority of development time working on improving the OS, not patching up the leaky holes with duct tape.
The only bad things I can say: The system requirements are a bit high, it takes up a hefty chunk of disk space, compatibility is good but obviously not perfect, hardware support (especially for off brand stuff) is hit or miss, but nothing you wouldn't expect from a major OS update. The most serious issue is for Windows 2000 users. If you've just recently deployed Windows 2000 there isn't much of a reason to upgrade to Win XP as it stands now. I honestly haven't rebooted back into Win2k since I installed Windows XP and I don't have much of a reason to do so but I suspect a company that recently rolled out Win2k will want to stick with it for a while.