Should I upgrade to the Windows XP operating system?

Question: Should I upgrade to Windows XP? – Darrell

Answer: You know, a lot of people have been asking me this question lately. I suppose it’s because Windows XP is now more than a year old and it is getting long-term good press, so the reluctant folks among you have been saying, “OK, maybe I should think about an upgrade,” while many still have their doubts.

I think if your computer works fine on Windows 95 or Windows 98 or Windows ME, then a move to Windows XP might sound like a dicey proposition. It can be, but let me go over some tips on how to decide, and then maybe that will help you make up your mind.

First off, let’s discuss the reasons why you might want to upgrade, and then I’ll talk about whether or not your system can manage it.

For many years, Microsoft Windows has been developed in two parallel tracks. Windows 95, 98 and Me were designed for the home computer user. Meanwhile, Microsoft was developing Windows NT – which became Windows 2000 – for the business world.

Windows 9x (9x means 95 or 98 and also includes ME) was very friendly to home users. It had lots of tools for the home user, it was relatively easy to install and maintain, and it had lots of products and software designed to run on them. One big problem, though: they crashed a lot. You’ve all seen it happen, sometimes many times a day. A program gets overwhelmed and BANG! a blue screen pops up and your work is lost and you have to reboot. The Windows 9x family didn’t manage RAM (memory where programs do their business when they are running) very well. In fact, one program would grab a bunch of memory and then another program might grab the same bit of space for its business and you got a GPF or general protection fault. CRASH. Bummer.

Windows NT and Windows 2000 managed all this a lot better. It protected the memory space where programs worked, so if one tried to make a grab for part of the RAM already being used, then Windows would stop it. All this came at a cost, though. Systems needed more physical memory to run Windows NT and Windows 2000 and, when programmers created software, they had to write it in a different way, none of which encouraged home users to use these business operating systems.

The way they stopped crashes was remarkable: Microsoft created a new operating system called . It uses Windows NT and 2000 memory protection techniques (and really, under all that make-up, it is Windows 2000), but they designed it so that home users could use it easily.

They created two versions of XP – XP Home for people who just wanted it for home and small business use, and XP Professional for medium-sized and larger businesses, and for people who want behind-the-scenes geek control of various parts of the operating system (like video gamers). They also priced it so XP Pro, as it was called, is more expensive. (For more info on why you would choose either XP Home or XP Pro Comparison Guide.)

So the #1 reason you would want to upgrade to Windows XP Home is because it doesn’t require rebooting every 10 minutes. In fact, crashes are rare. In the 18 months or so I have been running XP, it tends to need a reboot once every few days, not nine times a day. When programs crash, they croak and disappear, but they don’t crash the whole system along with all the other programs that are running. This is good.

Windows XP also has a new interface. The Start button is still there, but out of the box, the menus look somewhat different. (If you prefer the look of Windows 95, 98, ME, or NT/2000, (e-mail me if you’d like to learn how to change it. If I get enough e-mails, I will write a how-to column on this.) The other weird thing about XP is that it apologizes to you if it crashes a program, not that that helps. It also offers to report the problem to Microsoft using an Internet connection. This is so Microsoft can fix common problems as they happen by issuing service packs. (This reporting does not identify you or your computer.)

Windows XP also has a piracy control built into it. You cannot “lend” your XP install CD to someone else. It registers your computer as an authorized user of the XP disc, and it can be installed on a total of two computers before it stops you.

Another advantage to Windows XP is that it protects itself from harm. If you go into its guts and delete a bunch of mission-critical files, it will look like you have succeeded, but then it will secretly put them back the way they were. This stops viruses from harming Windows files and stops your cat from damaging the operating system when it walks on the keyboard and deletes files by accident.

For laptop users, XP also has better power management. It dims the LCD screen when you’re running on battery power, and turns stuff off to conserve energy when you’re not using the computer.

Let’s say you and your spouse and child use the same computer. Windows XP lets each of you create your own desktop (you know, where all the data and icons are) and keep your own files and you can switch quickly from desktop to desktop quite easily. The log-in process is also easier. You can even add a person’s picture to the log-in screen.

Windows XP also manages the taskbar better (that bar at the bottom of the screen with all the programs running on it). Let’s say you are surfing Yahoo and Google and, each in a different browser window. Well, when they are all minimized (i.e., shrunk down to the bottom), they all get stored under one button instead of three, so your taskbar is tidier. And if you don’t like it that way, you can un-set that feature.

I could go on, but there’s limited space, so have a look at some of the fun features yourself: Windows XP Home Edition Product Information.

So, maybe I have sold you …now, should you upgrade and, if so, how?

You’ve got to have a computer that can handle Windows XP. Microsoft suggests that Windows XP should only be installed if your computer is a Pentium II or AMD equivalent (K6, Athlon, or Duron chip) with a 300 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM. Now here’s my TechnologyTips tip: Don’t go near XP unless you have at least a 400 MHz computer with 128 MB of RAM. In fact, if you are going to upgrade, go get more RAM, at least a total of 256 MB (To move to Windows XP, you’ll need to upgrade your RAM). You can ignore this suggestion, but the performance of the machine will not make you happy.

Also, Windows XP makes some changes to the way DOS works. If you have a DOS program that is ancient and needs to work in a special DOS window, do not upgrade to Windows XP. Your old dinosaur of a program will not work any more. Microsoft programmers had to take the DOS bits out of the guts of Windows XP to make it more stable. There is a DOS emulator mode so you can see good old DOS and work in it, but it’s more for old-time sake or for moving through the directories and files in the old way, than for daily operations.

And finally, how to upgrade: Well, all you have to do is buy a copy of Windows XP. If you already own Windows 98 or Windows ME, you can buy the Windows XP Upgrade CD, which is cheaper than the full version. It will check that you already have Windows 98 or ME, and will then install itself on top of the system without harming your personal data. If you own Windows 95, though, you’ll have to bite the bullet (or your wallet!) and buy the full version – you are not eligible to use the Upgrade version. That’s Microsoft’s rule. I think it sucks, but not much we can do about it. (Windows XP Home Edition System Requirements.)

If you’re looking for a place to order Windows XP, here are a few suggestions. Good luck with it!

Windows XP Home Upgrade CD (for Windows 98, Windows ME owners)
Windows XP Home Full version CD (for Windows 3.1, Windows 95 owners)
Windows XP Pro Upgrade CD (for Windows NT, Windows 2000 & XP Home owners)
Windows XP Pro Full version CD (for everyone else)