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The New XP GUI Phooey, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Windows XP arrives on October 25, and will bring interesting changes to desktops everywhere. Ed Tittel takes a long hard look at what’s new, different, and changed and gives a surprisingly positive (to him, anyway) review of what’s to like and not to like about this new operating system’s look, feel, and functions.
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The subtitle to this story is also the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick's immortal classic "Dr. Strangelove," and it sums up my incredibly mixed feelings about making the mental trek from familiarity with one Windows operating system to another. I pitched this story with the idea that I was going to rant and rave about all the unnecessary and mysterious changes that Microsoft made to the Windows XP GUI as compared to Windows to 2000. Having now been through the migration from Windows 3.x to 9.x to Windows NT to Windows 2000 and finally, on to Windows XP, I've certainly seen my share of changes on the desktop, the menus, navigation techniques and so forth.

But then, reality intervened in the form of five additional weeks of experience. I'm nearly finished updating a book from an older Windows 2000 Professional version to a Windows XP Professional version right now — all that's left is author review and updates occasioned by Microsoft's publication of the 70-270 objectives in mid-July. At this point, I've spent a lot more time with this new operating system and know my way around well enough to get most things done. I haven't messed with remote installation nor have I delved deeply into security policies or the Internet Connection Firewall, but I've seen most of the other stuff that Windows XP Professional has to offer in some detail.

I don't want to come off as an apologist for Microsoft in any way, so let me state that I'm as surprised to write — as you will no doubt be surprised to read — upon reflection, I actually like Windows XP Professional better than Windows 2000 Professional, despite nearly two years' experience with the older operating system. And although I will mention some GUI changes here that I believe could be categorized as purely gratuitous, I'd also like to talk about some of the reasons why I've come to prefer XP (as I write this, I'm running Build 2526, also known as Release Candidate 2; build 2542 is now available, but I haven't gotten around to downloading and installing it just yet).

The XP GUI Lowdown

To begin with, I now find the XP Professional GUI more usable than the Windows 2000 Professional GUI. My primary reason for this surprising finding is that for most of the things I do (and the many system tools and utilities my writing work forces me to use), the menu paths are shorter for the newer OS than they are for the older OS. Let me provide some simple-minded examples, where the string "Start, Control Panel" means go from the Start button to the Control Panel menu selection:

Windows 2000 Professional

Windows XP Professional

Start, Settings, Control Panel

Start, Control Panel

Start, Settings, Printers

Start, Printers and Faxes

Start, Settings, Control Panel, Administrative Tools

Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools

Each task gets a taskbar button

Tasks are grouped by category on taskbar

This handful of examples (of which there are many more that I could conceivably cite) shows that Microsoft's claims of a simpler, cleaner interface for Windows XP are not merely hype.

In addition, I've found some other GUI features to be both valuable and interesting:

  • Help and Support: Although Web-based support is available through the Windows 2000 Help facility, it's completely integrated into its Windows XP counterpart, and works very well. It provides quick cogent access to help files, but also to TechNet and Knowledge Base articles. As far as context-sensitive help goes, it's outstanding; the search facility it supports is also pretty nice. But wait, there's more! Lots of how-to's, including step-by-step instructions for common tasks (with nicely-integrated built-in launch for tools covered), plus page after page of troubleshooting tips and advice. It almost lives up to the name "Help!"

  • Task-oriented Menus: As Figure 1 indicates, default access to Windows XP uses a task metaphor so that left-hand side menus for the Network Connections cover common tasks like creating a new connection and providing immediate access to the Network Troubleshooter. This metaphor takes a little getting used to, but works well to quickly perform common tasks and activities within the XP system tools and utilities.

    Figure 1 - Network Connections includes access to common tasks (Create a new connection) as well as access to information about active connections (Local Area Connection).

  • Improved organization, cleaner look: The desktop layout is greatly simplified, no longer cluttered with lots of icons by default (the Recycle basket is now the only icon that shows up on the desktop after a default install). Likewise, the Start menu automatically includes recently accessed programs in the area exposed on the left-hand side of that menu; items you use regularly are never more than one mouse click. For example, in Figure 2, Microsoft Word and Paint Shop Pro 7 appear on the left-hand side of the Start menu.

    Figure 2 - The Start menu is more usable because recently accessed program icons appear automatically in the left-hand column.

  • Cooler colors, look, and feel: Windows 2000 introduced 3-D buttons, shaded color schemes, and some nice look and feel enhancements. And although the default color scheme can sometimes be described honestly as "garish," it is cool, clean, and colorful. In an era where 16-bit color is a step down from most SVGA cards and where there's more desktop real estate to mess with, Windows XP Professional does a pretty good job of making the OS look relatively modern and hip. Those who like wasting time tweaking and tuning their desktops, color schemes, backgrounds, and so forth to get everything just right will find a lot to like about XP.

Overall, the GUI is nicer and faster than it ever has been before. I'm amazed to say this, but I've learned to like it pretty well indeed. That said, there are some things that Microsoft changed from Windows 2000 to Windows XP Professional that I just don't understand.

System Information is no longer a separate widget available in Accessories, System Tools; now, even the Help files recommend using Run, msinfo32.exe instead. In a similar vein, the tool no longer shows up in the Computer Management MMC console, either. Likewise, the Logical Drives widget is now gone, missing from the Storage tree in Computer Management as well. Some people with strange requirements may bemoan the absence of the Posix and OS2 subsystems from Windows XP Professional, but I can't say it affected my opinion of the software at all.

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