ENT Review: Windows XP

ENT reviewer Stephen Swoyer evaluates Windows XP on a wide range of client hardware to give you solid intelligence about how Microsoft's new OS will perform on the existing hardware in your enterprise network. Swoyer also offers configuration tips to improve performance on older hardware. Swoyer concludes that XP is a solid upgrade over Windows 9x or NT 4.0 with some good networking enhancement for mobile Windows 2000 users.

By now, a lot of you have probably gotten a look at Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP operating system. If so, you’ve no doubt liked what you’ve seen. With a spate of stability, security, usability and manageability enhancements, Windows XP promises to be the most reliable Windows-based operating system yet. IT organizations that are still running on Windows 9x or Windows NT 4.0, and whose budgets and infrastructures permit upgrading, will probably give it a long, hard look.

For IT organizations that have already standardized on Windows 2000, however, the rationale for upgrading to Windows XP is altogether less clear cut. After all, Microsoft has positioned Windows XP as a recommended upgrade for Windows 9x and Windows NT 4.0 systems, but has advised customers who were already rolling out Windows 2000 Professional not to wait for Windows XP. And because of new changes to Microsoft’s Licensing 6.0 licensing model, customers who’ve standardized on Windows 2000 Professional can enroll in the software giant’s Software Assurance program and upgrade to Windows XP for free. Obviously, there’s a lot to think about here.

Speed and Performance Considerations

We deployed Windows XP on a 1.4-GHz Athlon system (512 MB of RAM); a 1-GHz Toshiba Tecra 8200 laptop (256 MB of RAM); a 500-MHz IBM Thinkpad 570E laptop (128 MB of RAM); a 450-MHz Pentium III custom-built system (192 MB of RAM); and a 333-MHz Pentium II custom-built system (192 MB of RAM).

Not surprisingly, out-of-the-box Windows XP runs noticeably slower than out-of-the-box Windows 2000 when hosted on the same hardware. Although a number of factors could contribute to this disparity – the presence of XP’s additional code foremost among them – after a lot of tweaking and rooting around, we managed to isolate and identify two of the biggest detriments to XP’s overall performance: Its flashy new "Luna" user interface (UI) and its new system restore facility. When both features are disabled, XP doesn’t run much slower than Windows 2000 and –- in some cases such as accessing or mapping network shares -– actually seems to perform better.

Hosted on a 500-MHz or higher processor, Windows XP’s new look-and-feel doesn’t drag too terribly much, and –- when given a 1-GHz or higher processor with which to play –- it practically flies. Deployed on a slower processor, however, Luna definitely hits the skids. On our 333-MHz box, for example, XP was much snappier when configured to use its Classic Windows UI. Viewing visual effects, screen redraws and page scrolling was a painful experience in the Luna UI.

With this in mind, we’d suggest that IT organizations consider simply disabling Luna: It offers no performance advantages whatsoever and – here’s the gotcha – presents a not-insubstantial learning curve for users who are accustomed to the now-ubiquitous Windows 95 UI.

Whereas the performance of XP’s new UI seems largely dependent upon the speed of the particular processor that powers a system, the performance of its new "system restore" facility seems to hinge almost exclusively on the performance of a system’s hard drive. This is largely because system restore tracks changes to Windows XP’s configuration and maintains a snapshot history of these deltas as they occur. This enables it to "back out" of a bad configuration change and restore a damaged system to a previous (healthy) condition.

When enabled on our 450-MHz system (outfitted with a 12 GB Quantum "Bigfoot" UDMA hard drive -– not exactly one of the fastest hard drives ever built), system restore tracking definitely seemed to slow things down. Productivity applications such as Word and Excel took up to 10 seconds to launch, and file moving/copying/deleting tasks seemed to drag on interminably, as well. With system restore disabled, however, our 450-MHz desktop became more usable. Office application response was slightly better and disk I/O activity wasn’t as onerous.

For a suggestive tale-of-two-systems comparison, consider the case of our 333-MHz system, which fared so poorly with XP’s new Luna interface. This system actually did fairly well with system restore tracking enabled because of its fast hard disk – a Quantum Atlas 10K II – and its beefy Ultra160 SCSI Adaptec SCSI card. With Luna disabled and system restore enabled, our 333-MHz system was quite fast and very responsive under Windows XP. Go figure.

There’s a trade-off associated with system restore, to be sure –- it can help to repair damaged systems, after all – but chances are that if you maintain up-to-date images and have your users save their work to a network file server, you can get away with disabling it. If you’ve got fast enough UDMA 66, UDMA 100 or (unlikely) Ultra SCSI disk drives in your client boxes, system restore will probably work out OK.

Properly tweaked (with Luna and system restore turned off), Windows XP's performance rated good (Pentium II 333; Pentium III 450) to very good (IBM Thinkpad 570E) to excellent (Toshiba Tecra 8200; Athlon 1.4 GHz) on our test boxes. It also detected all of the peripherals that we threw at it (the breadth and depth of its hardware support almost definitely outstrips that of Windows 2000) and installed with minimal attention. Very nice job, Microsoft.

Stability and Feature Enhancements

Out-of-the-box, Windows XP seems about as stable as Windows 2000 Professional. Deployed on hardware that’s hosted a variety of Windows 2000 configurations in the past, Windows XP delivers about the same overall stability experience. For example, it was rock-solid on an IBM Thinkpad 570E laptop that hasn’t succumbed to a blue-screen in its two year service history; stable (no blue screens) on an AMD Athlon-based system (Via KT133 chipset) that blue screens infrequently while running Windows 2000; and slightly quirky (random freezes when entering standby mode) on a Toshiba Tecra 8200 laptop that’s uniformly stable under Windows 2000.

We should mention that because most vendors haven’t yet released Windows XP-specific update patches for their computer systems, it’s not possible to draw completely accurate conclusions about XP’s stability and reliability on these systems. Toshiba, for example, plans to release a spate of utilities and other downloadables for Windows XP.

In any event, Microsoft’s next-generation operating system boasts a few features that promise to deliver significant stability enhancements over its very worthy predecessor. The first of these, system restore (introduced above) purports to be able to restore a damaged system to prior health. In order to do this, of course, it tracks system changes as they occur, which – as we discussed above – tends to negatively impact overall performance.

The good news, of course, is that a performance hit of this kind can to some extent be justified by the overall robustness of the system restore implementation. This isn’t just a souped-up version of NT/2000’s notorious – and, more often than not, utterly useless – "Last Known Good" restoration option. Simply put: Windows XP’s system restore facility has some teeth.

How sharp – or, rather, how useful – these teeth will be is another matter, however. Consider this: System restore can track anywhere from one to three weeks worth of so-called "restore points." Restore points are created automatically by Windows XP itself and can be defined, as well, by a user. Most of the time, Windows XP automatically creates a restore point when you introduce a substantial change in its operating system or application software configurations. We must anticipate that there will no doubt be occasions where it won’t do so, however, which could leave Jane C. User high-and-dry. And what good is system restore if you can’t even boot into Windows XP in the first place?

These concerns notwithstanding, system restore appears to work as advertised. Users can invoke a system restore wizard to create new restore points or restore a damaged system to a previous (healthy) restore point. In this respect, it really did seem to work flawlessly: We were able to "restore" a Windows XP system to a restore point that demonstrably predated the system image that we were attempting to replace. When we destroyed our XP configuration by installing a Windows 2000-specific video driver on our Toshiba Tecra laptop, for example, system restore was able to once again restore us to full 1400x1050 32bpp. This is one of those cases where NT/2000’s "Last Known Good" restoration option would have failed us, by the way.

Windows XP also provides a setting whereby users can install only device drivers that have been digitally signed and approved by Microsoft. The software giant touts a facility of this kind as a major step forward in vouchsafing the stability of an operating system, and – truth be told – we believe it. At the same time, however, our experience with digitally signed drivers in the Windows 2000 world leads us to believe that a restriction of this kind won’t be a viable option for many IT organizations. After all, in the more than two years that we’ve been using Windows 2000, we’ve installed one third-party driver that’s been digitally signed by Microsoft (an Adaptec DuraLAN network card driver). Like TV’s Fox Mulder, we want to believe that other such device drivers are out there.

On the manageability side, Windows XP touts a new remote assistance feature that lets a user request help from another user or -– more realistically -– from a corporate help desk. We used this feature only sparingly (between two machines) and it appeared to work fairly well, although we don’t anticipate it supplanting most of the helpdesk support systems that you’re currently using.

Finally, Windows XP ships with a bevy of new networking enhancements. We’ve already talked about its integrated firewall in a separate review, but we haven’t yet touched upon its support for multiple network configurations, which should prove to be a godsend for users who telecommute from home, jack into the office intranet or dial-up to the corporate RAS while on the road. Of course, it’s always been possible (if not practical) to use Windows 2000’s netsh.exe command to create alternate network configurations and switch between them as required, but knowledge of this kind hasn’t typically been part-and-parcel of Jane C. User’s skill set.

With this in mind, Windows XP lets you define alternate network settings (IP address, gateway, subnet mask, DNS servers) that are for the most part seamlessly initiated to suit a system’s connection state. In the course of a single day, for example, we were able to move with little difficulty from a cable modem connection (directly attached to the Internet) to an intranet connection (behind a firewall) and back again. Windows XP didn’t miss a beat, didn’t require a lengthy discovery or polling period in which to find its bearings, and –- it’s a miracle! –- even managed to restore our Outlook client’s connection to its Exchange server.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to write about – and even more to like –- in Windows XP. To reiterate, properly tweaked and configured, it seems only slightly less fast than Windows 2000 on the same or similar hardware. At the same time, it’s at least as stable as its predecessor, offers a cleaner UI –- even in "Classic" Windows 2000 mode – and ships with a formidable array of networking enhancements.


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