XP is a whole new kind of Windows for consumers. Under the hood, it contains the 32-bit kernel and driver set from Windows NT and Windows 2000. Naturally it has tons of new features that no previous version of Windows has, but it also doesn't ignore the past--old DOS and Windows programs will still run, and may even run better.
XP comes in two flavors: Home and Professional. XP Home is a $99 upgrade ($199 for the full version) and Professional is a $199 upgrade ($299 for the full version). Recognizing that many homes now have more than one PC, Microsoft also plans to offer discounts of $8 to $12 off the price of additional upgrades for home users (the Open Licensing Program is still available for business or home users who need 5 or more copies). That's fortunate because you'll need the additional licenses since the Product Activation feature makes it all but impossible to install a single copy on more than one PC--more on that later.
The changes in XP are so numerous that it is difficult to summarize them in one or two sentences. It looks completely different from previous versions; it offers far more features to address emerging applications such as digital photography, and digital audio and video; and it is designed to easily accommodate multiple users and networks. Perhaps the best news is that XP behaves more like Windows NT/2000 than previous consumer versions of Windows. In other words, it is noticeably faster and more reliable than Windows 98, 98 SE, or Me.
Both versions of XP share the same architecture, but Professional's features make it a better choice for managed corporate desktops. These include on-disk encryption, portable user accounts (managed through Active Directory), logon validation through domain controllers, and the ability to configure user permissions through administrative profiles.
Despite all the work that's gone into XP, there are a few features that didn't make the final cut. Bluetooth wireless networking and USB 2.0 support are two of the biggest. Microsoft has plans to make both available as downloads after XP hits store shelves. Windows Media Player 8, the destination for most audio and video features in XP, still doesn't let you encode MP3 files, but you can purchase a third-party plug-in that adds this capability. Similarly, the included Internet Explorer 6 browser doesn't include a Java Virtual Machine but lets you add one through a free download.
In the past, we've been amused by those zealous users willing to stand in line at midnight to get their hands on one of the first copies of a new version of Windows. We're still not sure we'd be willing to camp out all night for this version, but XP is an OS that's actually worth getting excited about. Businesses will move more slowly (as always) to adopt it--NT/2000 already gives them many of the immediate benefits such as stability and better memory management--but anyone currently using Windows 98, 98 SE, or Me will benefit greatly from upgrading to Windows XP.
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