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Making Sure Your Computer Is Ready for Windows XP

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Making Sure Your Computer Is Ready for Windows XP

Windows XP, the new version of Windows previously known as "Whistler", will be appearing on store shelves in late October, and may be popping up on new system hard drives before the end of September. Eventually it's likely to find its way onto your hard drive as well. How can you make sure your system is ready for Windows XP?

Checking the Obvious - Your Processor, Memory Size, and Free Disk Space

While many users have made a habit of using old, slow PCs for experimenting with new versions of Windows, every release of Windows has raised the bar a little higher. Be prepared for a big jump in system requirements if you're considering Windows XP.

In the following table, I've listed both the official requirements for Windows XP Home Edition, as listed on the Microsoft Windows XP Website:
(http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/home/guide/sysreq.asp), and what I consider to be more realistic expectations if you want adequate system performance.

Minimum

Recommended (by Microsoft)

Recommended (by Me)

Processor (CPU)

233MHz

300MHz

500MHz or faster

Notes AMD K6 family and Pentium MMX are too slow for heavy use; recommend using a fast Pentium III/Celeron, Athlon/Duron, or Pentium 4

RAM

64MB

128MB

256MB

Notes Many lower cost systems share up to 16MB of RAM or more with on-board video, reducing effective memory below the installed amount

Free Hard Disk Space

1.5GB

1.5GB

10GB

Notes If you want to use Windows XP and keep your old version of Windows, create a new partition on your current hard drive for XP, or install a new drive for Windows XP's exclusive use.

How does your system stack up? Chances are you're in pretty good shape as far as your processor is concerned if your computer is no more than three years old, but memory and disk space may be bigger problems. I've seen Windows XP limp along on systems with a 266MHz Pentium II and 96MB of RAM, and seen it run very nicely on an AMD Athlon 800 with 256MB of RAM. Faster is better! And more RAM is better.

What about free disk space? When Microsoft says "1.5GB" - that's just enough to install Windows XP itself. By the time you install some real programs (an office suite, a graphics suite, and so forth), you lose another gigabyte or two. And, Microsoft's System Restore feature (which automatically makes periodic backup copies of your system state in case an upgrade goes awry or your system just decides to malfunction one day) uses even more disk space with every passing day.

If you're running a 30GB or larger hard disk and have 10GB or so to spare, then use that empty space for Windows XP. Install it into its own folder, or better still, use a program like Partition Magic 7.0 www.powerquest.com to reduce the size of your existing drive partition and make a new partition just for Windows XP. Windows XP sets up a dual-boot configuration and gives you your choice of operating systems when you boot.

Prefer a hardware solution? Get a Trios IDE hard drive selector box from Romtec www.romtecusa.com and install two or three different IDE drives, each with its own operating system. Set the system BIOS to Autodetect for the master drive and turn off the computer. Push the button for the drive you want, and restart the computer and boot from that drive. Either way, you can use Windows XP without losing the features of your current operating system.

Video, Optical Drives, and Input Devices

Hard disk space, onboard RAM and processor speed are the obvious areas where your system could fall short when running Windows XP. But, before you decide your system is up to the standards, browse the following table. You might find another upgrade or two before installing, while not absolutely necessary, is worthwhile.

Minimum

Recommended (by Microsoft)

Recommended (by Me)

Video Resolution

SVGA 800 by 600

Same or better

XGA 1024 by 768 or higher with 24-bit or 32-bit color

Notes Use a 17-inch or larger CRT or a 15-inch or larger LCD panel for easy-to-read text and icons; have at least 4MB of RAM on your video card to display 24-bit color

Optical Drive

CD-ROM or DVD-ROM

Same

12x4x32 or faster CD-RW drive

Notes A CD-RW drive will enable the new optical drive recording wizard and give you an easy place to store data.

Input Devices

Keyboard and Microsoft Mouse or compatible

Same

High quality mechanical switch keyboard and an optical mouse or trackpointer

Notes This is no place to compromise, unless you don't use your computer very often!

Windows XP is the first version of Windows that makes high resolutions and high color depths a necessity for booting the system as well as using applications. By default, Windows XP uses 16-bit color (65,535 colors) at 800 by 600 resolution; try to get by with 640 by 480, and you won't be able to use your toolbars or Start menu very well.

Ratchet up the resolution to XGA-level (1024 by 768), and you also increase the amount of RAM you need on your video card. If you're running an older system with a low-powered PCI video card or on-board video, you might not be able to display 24-bit color at 1024 by 768 resolution (it needs 4MB of video RAM, and a lot of older systems only have 2MB available for video). So, a better video card might be a hidden cost if you decide to go for Windows XP. But, given its tremendous support for digital imaging, you might decide it's worthwhile.

While you need only a CD-ROM drive to install Windows XP, I recommend using a CD-RW drive, especially if you're looking for a bigger alternative to floppy disks for storage. Windows XP integrates simple-to-use CD-writing support, making it almost as easy to copy data to a CD-RW drive as to a floppy drive. You can still use a full-blown mastering program if you want to, but for routine file-copy operations, you won't need to.

USB Rules

If you're considering Windows XP for its imaging prowess, think twice if you're using older scanner interfaces such as SCSI or parallel port. Pre-release versions of Windows XP had no problem with hot-swapped USB imaging devices of all kinds, automatically starting the correct wizard to acquire existing pictures or scan new ones, even if the USB imaging device wasn't specifically listed as compatible on the Microsoft Hardware Compatibility List at www.microsoft.com/hcl. However, SCSI and parallel port imaging devices had a rougher time. While SCSI devices worked acceptably when the File - Acquire command was used (just as with older Windows 9x versions), the automatic imaging features of Windows XP ignored two different SCSI scanners we tried (Epson and Canon), even when we installed new Windows 2000 drivers (Windows XP is based on Windows 2000). In the end, we just couldn't get the nifty Scanner and Camera wizard to run at all and our Acer parallel port scanner wouldn't do anything under Windows XP, even via the File - Acquire menu.

Your Pre-Release Path to Success

Until Windows XP is no longer a pre-release product, about the best way to find out what hardware works best with it is to install Release Candidate 1 (RC1) or 2 (RC2) of Windows XP and use the Windows Update feature (for as long as they remain available). A link on the Windows XP Windows Update site provides a searchable listing of devices ranked by compatibility. Many of the devices listed as "compatible" on the text listing for Windows XP at the Hardware Compatibility site are listed as requiring driver updates before they're really compatible with Windows XP.

Conclusion

Because Windows XP is based on Windows 2000 technologies and drivers, rather than the comfortable Windows 9x/Me technologies of past Windows versions, it requires more system performance to run well, and new drivers for your favorite devices. Don't assume that your existing devices will be supported right away, although Windows XP is likely to take off much faster than Windows 2000 ever did. The real vote of support though comes from hardware manufacturers, virtually all of whom are working on providing XP drivers for their products.

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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