Before installing any operating system, you need to check that your hardware will support it. Microsoft's recommended hardware requirements for Windows XP are a PC with a 233MHz Pentium-class processor and at least 64MB of RAM (128MB recommended). Microsoft is keen for users to check whether their systems will run the new OS and provides a wizard, Upgrade Advisor, to do just that. When we ran it on our notebook testbed, it reported no incompatibilities. Although this was strictly true, it would have been more helpful had the Advisor suggested adding 64MB of RAM to our minimum-spec system. We could not persuade the Upgrade Advisor to update our system via the Web, probably because this review was conducted before the official launch date. However, it appears that XP will download and update system files as necessary once the product is shipping.
We installed Windows XP on three systems: a 300MHz Pentium notebook from Compaq with 64MB of RAM, and two desktops, each equipped with 256MB of RAM. One of the desktop PCs was based on a 667MHz Celeron processor using VIA's Apollo Pro 133A chipset; the other was a 950MHz Athlon-based system with a VIA KX133 chipset. The Compaq notebook was an upgrade from Windows 2000, while the two desktops received clean installs. The installation process went more smoothly than any other upgrade we've done on these systems: we plugged in the software and it just worked, with no devices reporting errors. Using Setup, you can automate the transfer of files and settings -- including those used by Outlook Express and IE as well as desktop, file association and display settings -- from an existing system to the current one. This feature is long overdue in our view, and smoothes the upgrade process to a new PC, especially since the source system doesn't need to be running XP. We only encountered one minor problem, when our third-party firewall application reported that the wizard setting up the process wanted to access the Internet, even though there was no apparent reason for it to do so at this stage. Denying access seemed to make no difference. The transfer itself can be via a floppy, direct cable connection or LAN. The setup program also allows you to establish a Remote Desktop connection for accessing your XP desktop from a remote location. Using Remote Desktop (available in Professional Edition only), you can log onto your home system while at the office, for example, or even from an Internet café on the other side of the world. Once loaded, XP immediately begins insisting that you activate the product. This is Microsoft's much-vilified anti-piracy feature aimed at dissuading so-called 'casual' copying. Activation works by tying the software to a hardware configuration so you can't, for instance, transfer the OS to a second PC without deactivating the first copy. There is latitude in that you can change certain components a given number of times. But if, for instance, you swapped motherboards, Windows would perceive it as a new PC. Other 'substantial' configuration changes will also require reactivation, which involves a phone call to Microsoft's support lines before your 30 days grace are up. In practice we found activation over the Web easy enough, taking less than a minute. Microsoft insists that the activation system is completely confidential, that no personal information is exchanged, and that the product key generated in the process is uncrackable. It also argues that more money resulting from lower piracy rates will mean better support and higher product quality. However, the idea of having to call a Microsoft support line after a major hardware upgrade just to get the OS to work is at best inconvenient and at worst deeply irritating. Web integration is the clear direction in which Microsoft has been driving its product range, and Windows XP extends that further. Updates and help in particular are tightly tied to the Web, which may prove problematical for users without always-on broadband connections -- lots of short dial-up sessions tend to prove expensive under most telcos' tariffs. In practical terms, it was hard for us to test this fully since, at the time of writing, much of Microsoft's XP Web infrastructure was not operational. Windows XP is intended to be Microsoft's unified operating system, finally eliminating MS-DOS from the kernel of its single mainstream business and consumer offering. With that in mind, it's developed a feature called 'compatibility mode'. This involves convincing older applications -- primarily games -- that they are running on a platform where they can access the hardware directly. The programs on which we tried this worked fine, but clearly we were unable to test the vast numbers of OS-specific educational and games software currently installed. XP goes one up on Windows 2000 in one small but vital respect: XP's floppy disk format dialog box allows you to make it DOS-bootable -- critical if you want to use a third-party utility to manage your disk partitions. As far as performance is concerned, subjectively, our laptop struggled but wasn't unusable with its 64MB of RAM. Visual performance was barely affected when we turned on XP's super-anti-aliasing -- Microsoft calls it ClearType, which is switched off by default. However, it does improve the pixellated text typical of LCDs. Windows XP proved itself to be easy to install and run, with few glitches to report at this stage. The only real drawback is the Product Activation feature -- specifically, the feeling that it could cause inconvenience and hassle.