In-Depth

Windows XP Playbook

If XP’s in your future—and the minute you buy new desktop systems, it probably will be—use these strategies to get the most out of Microsoft’s newest OS.


So, you want to take Windows XP out for a test ride to check the new features? Make sure your computer hardware can support this new operating system. The following are the minimum hardware requirements you’ll see in fine print on the Windows XP retail box:

  • 233 megahertz (MHz) Pentium or higher microprocessor
  • 128MB of RAM recommended (64MB minimum)
  • 1.5GB of free space on your hard disk

As you can imagine, the minimum requirements generally don’t equate to realistic usable performance. For example, XP will automatically turn off several operating system features when installing on a computer with just 64MB of RAM. In this situation, several display enhancements will be turned off, as will Fast User Switching. I’ve installed XP on a wide range of computer hardware, and I’ve found that in order to get productive performance with a computer running XP you should adhere to the following hardware requirements:

  • 400 megahertz (MHz) Pentium II or higher (or 450 MHz AMD CPU or higher)
  • 256MB of RAM
  • A large single partition for the entire hard disk

A base installation of XP will use anywhere from 65MB to 70MB of RAM, which makes Microsoft’s recommended minimum of 128MB low. Also, XP should be installed on a single partition formatted with NTFS, which consumes the entire hard disk. XP works more efficiently with larger disks than previous Windows operating systems. I’m confident you’ll find these guidelines a productive measure for using XP for general-purpose business requirements.

XP in an NT Domain
Can Windows XP play in an NT domain? In a word, yes. However, you’ll also have some things to watch for. First let’s look at what works.

A Windows XP Professional computer can join and log onto an NT domain if the domain controllers are running Service Pack 4 or higher. I’ve run into problems with domains running pre-SP4, where a computer account could be created for an XP Professional computer; however, I wasn’t able to log onto the domain until I applied SP4 or higher. Windows XP Home Edition can’t join either an NT 4.0 or a Windows 2000 domain, so you can assume I’m talking about XP Professional from now on.

Once XP has joined an NT 4.0 domain, you can use most NT 4.0 tools and utilities to administer an XP computer. For example, you can use Server Manager to create computer accounts; view users, shares and files in use; and assign alerts. Also, you can remotely connect to an XP computer with Performance Monitor to view objects and their related counters. Remote registry editing is possible by running regedt32 from an NT computer to connect an XP computer to view and edit the registry as you would with another NT computer. If you need to change settings remotely for a user who’s not logged onto his or her XP computer, you can remotely load the hive for HKEY_CURRENT_USER and HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE as you can with NT.

Other typical Windows NT utilities that work well with XP are Event Viewer and NT Diagnostics. Both utilities let you connect remotely to an XP computer to view its logs, configuration, system, display, resources, environment and network settings.

XP as a WINS Client
Most organizations with Windows NT domains use WINS for name resolution, leaving many people to wonder if Windows XP Professional can only act as a DNS client. Microsoft knows that most companies will operate with a hybrid of Windows operating systems for several years to come; as a result, XP can be a WINS client simply by entering the IP address of the NT WINS server as you normally would. XP will register itself dynamically with the NT WINS service and can query the service to find domain controllers and other servers and workstations that have WINS. Likewise, XP can obtain an IP address from an NT DHCP server and query an NT DNS server to resolve a fully qualified domain name. Last, XP can act as a dial-up and VPN client to an NT 4.0 RRAS server.

XP Networking Gotchas
Windows XP Professional works well in a Windows-to-Windows network environment. However, I’ve found a couple of gotchas.

XP does, in some circumstances, exhibit slow file transfer performance running on an Ethernet network with the Microsoft Client over TCP/IP. If Nico Mak Computing Inc.’s WinZip is installed with the shell extensions on an XP computer, it can cause terrific slowdowns and lockups in Explorer when performing a copy via drag-and-drop within Windows Explorer. Uninstalling the WinZip shell extensions returns file transfer speeds to their normal rate.

Also, XP can be slow when trying to access a computer using Windows 98 Second Edition. Accessing an XP machine from a Windows 98SE machine is almost instantaneous. In contrast XP takes as long as 30 seconds just to find and show a drive’s contents in Explorer over the network. This can be attributed to the fact that when browsing network resources, XP (and Win2K) will always try to find shared printers and shared scheduled tasks on the computer/server you connect to. To improve performance, disable this setting in the registry:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\
Explorer\RemoteComputer\NameSpace

Delete the printers and scheduled tasks keys under this key.

Roaming Profiles between Operating Systems
Users can log onto a Windows XP Professional computer with a roaming user profile that was created on an NT 4.0 workstation or server. However, the resulting desktop environment has a “modified” look. In this situation the desktop appearance applied is the Windows “Classic” style. Also, the “Simple” Start Menu style is used, but it’s displayed with a low color resolution.

Once logged on, the user can change the appearance from the Classic theme to the XP theme to display the buttons, windows and Start Menu with the new “Luna” user interface.

However, things get interesting when the user then logs onto an NT computer with this updated roaming profile. Buttons and windows change to a platinum color with a blue desktop. But there’s another change that’s quite troublesome. Each time a user logs onto an NT computer with this updated profile, an attempt is made to load the Windows Messenger client. This client is installed and runs as a default on XP. The result: An error message pops up stating that Windows can’t find c:\Program files\Messenger\msmsgs.exe as displayed in Figure 1.

Error logging onto NT
Figure 1. The error that shows up when a user logs onto an NT computer with an XP roaming profile.

Unfortunately, this error appears every time the user logs onto an NT computer with a roaming profile that was updated by logging onto an XP computer. The only way to prevent the error is to delete the string value:

MSMSGS"="\"C:\\Program Files\\
Messenger\\msmsgs.exe\" /background

from

HKEY_USERS\SID of User\Software\Microsoft\Windows\
CurrentVersion\Run

When a user logs onto an XP computer with roaming profiles created on a Win2K computer, the machine behaves in a similar manner as roaming profiles created on an NT computer. The initial desktop is displayed with a modified theme using the Windows Classic style for buttons and windows. Figure 2 shows the modified appearance applied by the roaming profile. However, the Windows Messenger error noted above doesn’t appear when logging onto a Win2K computer.

Start Menu
Figure 2. The Start Menu appearance when using roaming profile between Windows 2000 and XP.

Help Me Fix This Thing!
Windows XP Professional has an impressive array of diagnostic and troubleshooting tools to help an administrator figure out why a computer is misbehaving. The Help and Support option on the Start Menu provides a central location from which to access most of these tools. To display the tools available, go to Start | Help and Support Center | Use Tools to view your computer information and diagnose problems. Figure 3 shows the result of selecting this option.

Help and Support Center
Figure 3. Tools listed in the Help and Support Center will help you troubleshoot a slew of pesky problems. (Click image to view larger version.)

Let’s look at what some of these new tools have to offer.

You’ve just installed a new application and updated two device drivers. You restart the computer, but the system becomes unstable. Great. Now what? Several changes were made at one time, which makes it difficult to diagnose which change was the offender. Not to worry. A new feature called System Restore can help you solve the problem.

System Restore comes from Windows Me and has been incorporated in XP to help restore a computer to its previous working state without affecting personal files, such as documents or e-mail. System Restore lurks in the background, monitoring for changes made to certain system and application files. If it detects changes, System Restore creates a restore point, a snapshot of the system before changes were made. A restore point is used to restore the computer to its previous state in the event the changes made to XP cause instability.

As a default, System Restore is enabled for all volumes in XP, and can use up to 12 percent of a volume’s drive capacity to hold restore points. Restore points are created when installing an unsigned device driver, installing applications that are System Restore-compliant (those that use the Windows Installer or another setup engine that calls the System Restore API) and installing Automatic Updates. System Restore also creates a restore point every 24 hours if the computer is turned on or if it has been 24 hours since the last restore was created. Also, you can create Restore Points manually. You can find a list of all the file types that System Restore monitors in systemroot\ system32\restore\filelist.xml.

In order to use System Restore, you must log on as a local administrator in either normal or safe mode to create points manually and restore system settings. System Restore requires a minimum of 200MB of disk space and can consume up to 12 percent of available disk space for systems with hard drives over 4GB and up to 400MB for hard drives under 4GB. If you require more disk space, it can be increased by opening the System Properties control panel and selecting the System Restore tab. This utility is a vast improvement over the Last Known Good Configuration, which is overwritten when a user logs onto the computer and the desktop launches. In contrast, System Restore can be used at any point in time to roll the system back to a known working state.

System Restore is an excellent utility to reverse changes that might have been made to a system to cause it to be unstable. However, if a system becomes unstable right after updating a driver, it’s easier to use a new feature called Roll Back Driver to undo changes made by the driver update, which in turn should restore system stability. Unlike Win2K or NT, XP backs up current drivers before installing updated versions, which allows this feature to roll back to the previously installed driver. This feature can be seen in Figure 4.

Roll Back Driver
Figure 4. A Roll Back Driver option reverts the system to the state it had before you installed an updated driver.

In the event of a catastrophic failure, System Restore and Roll Back Driver just don’t have the gusto to restore a computer to a working state. For example, if a computer’s hard disk is damaged to such an extent that you’re prevented from starting XP by using normal mode, safe mode, Recovery Console, or Last Known Good Configuration, you’d better have a backup—but not just any backup. A new feature of XP called Automated System Recovery (ASR) can be used to restore the entire operating system to a previous state. ASR is an option of the Backup Utility (NTBackup.exe), and it replaces the Emergency Repair Disk found in Win2K and NT 4.0.

ASR consists of two parts that automate the process of saving and restoring system state information: ASR backup and ASR restore.

ASR will only back up the files necessary to restore the system state. ASR doesn’t back up personal data files such as word processing documents or application files. Also, if any files are kept on the system partition, they’ll be lost; ASR formats the systemdrive partition as part of the restore process. Generally, always attempt to use other recovery options and Recovery Console before using ASR.

Network Diagnostics is an excellent tool to help troubleshoot network-related issues. This tool can save an administrator a lot of time performing typical connectivity tests such as using the ping command to check the default gateway, DNS and the like to determine where the weak link in the chain is. This typically requires a lot of typing, and the administrator must know the host name or IP addresses of computers to perform the test. In contrast, Network Diagnostics performs many connectivity tests all in one fell swoop. With the click of a mouse button you can use this tool to scan a system for mail service, news service, Internet Proxy server, modems, network clients, network adapters, DNS, DHCP, default gateways, IP address, WINS, and computer and operating system information. To start these tests, select Start | Help and Support Center | Use Tools to view your computer information and diagnose problems | Network Diagnostics | Scan your system. Or select Set scanning options, choose verbose logging and pick from a list of categories with options you want tested.

Group policy is a powerful manager for Active Directory and XP, but if used incorrectly, it can cause a lot of headaches. The Advanced System Information tool lists all group policy settings applied to the user and computer. To see all group policy settings applied to the user and the computer, select Start | Help and Support Center | Use Tools to view your computer information, then to Advanced System Information | View Group Policy settings applied. Once the results display, scroll to the bottom of the page to select Run the Resultant Set of Policy tool. This helps you determine the effective settings applied to the user and computer.

Reach Out and Touch the Desktop
What if a user 30 miles away requires assistance? How are you going to run diagnostic tests or provide help remotely? The answer comes in two new features in Windows XP Professional: Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance. Both features use Terminal Services at their core to allow for remote connectivity.

Remote Desktop can be thought of as Terminal Services “lite” for the desktop. It allows an administrator to make a Remote Desktop Connection to an XP computer from a remote computer. Remote Desktop Connection is a Terminal Services client installed as a default on XP. This feature allows you to use a local keyboard, mouse and video display to diagnose and troubleshoot problems remotely on a computer within a domain in your network. When connected to a remote computer using Remote Desktop, the target computer will be locked to prevent local access to applications and files.

As an administrator, you can make a Remote Desktop Connection to XP computers as a default; but, before you can connect, you must enable Remote Desktop on the target system. Do this by selecting Start | Control Panel | Performance and Maintenance | System control panel | Remote | Allow users to connect remotely to this computer. If other users such as help-desk personnel require a Remote Desktop connection to the target computer, click the Select Remote Users button. This feature allows for a maximum of two simultaneous connections.

Help Desk personnel and users alike will probably gravitate to the second option, Remote Assistance. This feature allows you to invite a trusted person to assist you remotely and interactively without locking the local computer during the connection. Using Remote Assistance terminology, the user sending the invitation is called the novice, and the person providing assistance is known as the expert. What distinguishes Remote Assistance from Remote Desktop? To use Remote Assistance, both the novice and expert need to be present at their computers. A novice can send an invitation via Windows Messenger, e-mail, or save an invitation as a file. Once connected using one of these three methods, the novice and the expert can hold a chat or voice session and send files. The initial connection allows for a view-only mode to the novice’s desktop. For the expert to control the novice’s computer remotely, the expert must take control of the session, at which point the novice will receive a prompt stating that the expert has requested a remote control session. Once the novice accepts this request, the expert can navigate the user’s desktop and make changes and updates to the computer. For example, the expert could open Device Manager and update a driver through the Remote Assistance connection. To end the session, the novice simply presses the Release Control button or presses Esc.

XP vs. Windows 9x and Me
Windows XP Professional is a step in the right direction. It provides excellent hardware and software support and is much faster than Windows 9x and Me. XP is a dynamic, self-tuning operating system. It runs better on large hard disks and observes file usage patterns to move files that are used frequently to the outer edge of the disk, which helps to reduce seek times. Also, Windows XP boots faster than previous Windows OSs. It does this through an operation called Boot Prefetching, which notices what data is needed during system boot and pre-fetches any necessary files in the earlier stages of the boot process. However, you won’t see boot time speed gains until the third boot of the system. XP monitors the first couple of system boots to determine which files should be pre-fetched. XP also uses pre-fetching to help decrease application launch times.

XP wins hands-down over Windows 9x and Me for system stability and performance and should be considered an essential upgrade. However, the lines blur a bit when comparing the performance and stability of Win2K Professional and XP. In this case, the systems are almost on par. Sure, XP boots faster than Win2K; but, beyond that, the performance of the two OSs is almost identical. XP does have better support for legacy applications than Win2K. So, what will it be? If you’re currently using Win2K and it does everything you need it to do, then stick with it. If you’re in the testing phase and trying to decide between Win2K and XP, choose XP. The new administration tools and remote administration capabilities offered by XP make this product a winner.

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