Windows XP is here. Is it right for you?

Question: I have a 300 MHz Pentium II computer, with 64 MB of memory, running Windows 98. I am thinking of buying Windows XP when it comes out this fall. Should I upgrade? –A.C.

Answer: I have mixed feelings about Windows XP (which launches Thursday, Oct. 25), the latest Microsoft operating system from Microsoft.

One opinion is driven by philosophy, and the other is driven by pure utility.
Before I get to that, though, first a definition for computer newcomers and some background for veterans of the Windows battleground.

An operating system is the software program that controls your computer. It’s like a taxi driver if your computer itself is the taxi. You tell the cab driver where you want to go, and he or she drives the taxi to get you there. The operating system drives the computer hardware for you.

There are several layers of the computer code that makes it all happen. Deep inside the computer is something called a kernel. It’s the heart and soul of the operating system that runs everything. On top of that is a graphical user interface or a GUI (pronounced “gooey”). The GUI is all the buttons and windows and menus you see on your screen that you use to send commands to the computer.

Windows XP introduces a new kernel to home users. It replaces the quivering programming guts that are responsible for the frequent crashes in Windows 95, 98 and ME. XP uses the same kernel as Windows 2000, which is a much more stable computing platform designed for businesses.

Windows XP unifies the product line. There’s a Home Edition, which replaces the Windows 9x line. There’s also a Professional Edition for businesses, which adds more administration control and includes features aimed at the business user. XP Pro will likely also appeal to gamers and power users who want more control over the operating system.

Both editions of Windows XP – Home and Pro – simplify the use of digital audio players and cameras and other computer-friendly gadgets. In fact, besides stability, this is one of the best reasons to upgrade.

Unfortunately, Microsoft, in its quest to run the world, has added some rather nasty features, which may turn you off the new operating system.

First of all, a new mechanism has been put in place to stop any pirate-like behavior. Designed to combat what Microsoft is calling “soft piracy”, the new wizard activates Windows on your computer via the Internet or telephone. Microsofties figure you, your children, folks, and friends and your evil pirate grandma are all out to rip them off by buying one $99 US / $159 Canadian copy and using it on (horrors!) multiple machines.

What this ends up doing is annoying its loyal customers and lets the real pirates – who hack the mechanism – get away. In fact, a friend tells me there is already an illegal copy of Windows XP out there on the Internet that has had the activation wizard disabled or removed. There’s also a corporate version of Windows XP Pro out there which does not have the wizard by default. (More info from

Microsoft is also forcing its “Passport” down our throats. It’s a system that joins all of the Microsoft web services together so one log-on gives you access to all.

That’s fine, right? Perhaps it’s even useful for Hotmail and Windows Messenger, but the other day I installed Outlook 2002 and was forced to log in to the registration wizard with my Microsoft Passport ID. XP repeatedly requests a user’s Passport user ID and password every time you contact Microsoft for anything including software updates. Oh, and here’s the kicker, the Passport agreement gives Microsoft and its partners permission to send you unlimited e-mail offers. Yes the largest computer software maker in the world hijacks you into receiving its self-servicing spam.

One more stomach-turner: If you own Windows 95 and want to upgrade to XP, it’s going to cost you. The Windows 98/ME/NT 4/2000 upgrade for XP Home Edition costs $99 US / $159 Canadian. To upgrade to XP Professional, it costs $199 US / $299 Canadian. If you own Windows 95, however, you have to buy a full version, which costs $199 US / $300 Canadian for XP Home and $299 US / $450 Canadian for XP Pro. Ouch, I say.

Microsoft marketing blatherers are always saying that we do this or that because “we listened to our customers.” Yeah, right.

If I haven’t frightened you off completely, and you’re still keen to buy the XP operating system – or if it’s just your reluctant destiny — then here’s a guide to the upgrade process.

First of all, there are four versions you can potentially buy. Why? Because both Windows XP Home and Windows XP Pro come in a full version and an upgrade version.

You are eligible for the upgrade versions if you’re already running Windows 98, 98 Second Edition, ME, NT Workstation 4.0, or Windows 2000. If you run Windows 95 or Windows Workstation 3.51, you have to buy a full-priced version of whichever XP you want. Here’s a tip, though: Get yourself a cheap or unused copy of Windows 98 (or any of the qualifying products), and then upgrade to that first, so that your system then can accept the less expensive XP Upgrade.

Microsoft recommends the following system requirements to get decent performance out of Windows XP.

  • A PC with a 300 MHz or higher processor is recommended, but a 233 MHz processor will work, but the performance will be painful. These should be processors in the Intel Pentium/Celeron family, or AMD K6/Athlon/Duron family.
    Minimum memory recommended is 128 MB of RAM. If you have 64 MB of memory, as the author of today’s question does, your system will work with XP, but it won’t be pretty. It’s recommend that you buy more RAM.
  • You’ll also need 1.5 GB of available hard disk space and your computer screen and video card should be able to run at 800 × 600 dpi or better.
  • You’ll also need either a CD drive or DVD drive, and a keyboard and a mouse.
  • As usual, an Internet connection is recommended.

I’ve installed past Windows upgrades on systems that were close to the line on the minimum specifications and discovered it was a mistake. The upgraded system was unusable.

If you are low on processor power, compensate by jamming your PC with as much memory as you can fit in it. Memory is cheap these days. If you need info on how to upgrade, look at the TechnologyTips RAM FAQ for a how-to guide about memory upgrades.

A diagnostic tool to tell you if your computer will work with XP is available by clicking here. It’s called Windows Upgrade Advisor, and it’s a massive 50 MB file. A caution, therefore, to those with slow dialup modems — it will take a long time to download.

If you’re relatively happy with your set up at home or the office, skip Windows XP for now. See how the operating system works out for those who do buy it. It may be worth waiting until the spring because by then Microsoft will have fixed all the inevitable bugs in the system, responded to the backlash of angry over-spammed, over-charged customers, and might have backtracked on their anti-grandma activation wizard.