Operating systems should be invisible according to some, yet Windows XP is anything but. Visually, it's Microsoft's most innovative OS since Windows 95, making more use of graphics than ever. The graphical emphasis starts with the opening screen and the full-screen log-on. More screen space is taken up with visual artefacts, while the Start button, once a plain grey oblong, is rendered as more of a brightly coloured 3D blob -- a theme that's carried throughout the new OS. Icons are bolder and more colourful, while application windows look softer thanks to their rounded-off top corners and sculpted appearance. The Start menu is chunkier and extends the concept of presenting the most frequently used options at the top of lists. However, one difference is that you can pin an application shortcut to the top of the Start menu's list of programs, making this feature considerably more useful.
The Taskbar itself is less cluttered because of two major changes, both of which will be appreciated by users of multiple applications. First, the OS now hides system tray icons deemed to be inactive -- that is, applications you haven't interacted for a while rather than those that aren't doing anything. The other cause of Taskbar clutter is multiple documents opened by a single application, which leave you with tiny indecipherable tabs -- Word and IE are the culprits for most users. Now, rather than showing each Word document separately, you see a single Word button that offers a drop-down list of selectable windows, one for each document. You can select the one you want in the normal way or, as previously, right clicking allows you to close the application. Power users will appreciate the Clean Desktop wizard that runs every 60 days, removing shortcuts that have remained unused in the last two months -- you can turn this feature off or alter the timescale. For newer users, Microsoft has added layers of task-oriented menus and options with the aim of allowing you to find features more easily. The Control Panel is a prime example, undergoing a major revamp so that the default view now shows categories rather than individual applets. It means you don't have to know which icon relates to the change you want to make. Instead, you pick from a list of topics -- such as Appearance and Themes, Performance and Maintenance or User Accounts -- to drill down to the option you want.
If you're new to the system and run into trouble, the Remote Assistance feature allows a friend or system administrator to take control of your desktop and fix things. We found that this feature worked quite well. To allay privacy fears, Remote Assistance is switched off by default. Other features designed to make the system easier to use include a sticky mouse -- dubbed 'click-lock' -- that avoids you having to hold down the mouse button while dragging an object, resizing a window or performing similar mouse-related tasks. And finally, one big improvement is that multiple users can physically access the computer easily. You can now switch from one user playing games to another user who might want to log in, send some email and quit, without the first user having to close any programs. It's effectively a bookmark for your PC, and although it doesn't constitute a true multi-user system, under most circumstances it will be close enough. Most of XP's new user interface settings can be changed and even switched off so that the system looks and feels pretty much like its predecessors. However, the chances are that if you've installed it, you'll want to use the extra functionality on offer. The big question, however, is whether that functionality is worth paying money for.