Windows XP Revisited – Teaching the Faithful Old Dog Some New Tricks
Just lately it seems to be the fashion amongst writers on the internet to compare and criticise operating systems. While one user talks up the merits of Ubuntu Linux versus Windows Vista on her blog, another is quick to criticise Ubuntu’s lack of user friendly features and available software. In this article I am here to sing the praises of the old dog Windows XP. Once the all singing all dancing multimedia darling, XP is now the older brother of the much younger and trendier Windows Vista. While Vista can be the life and soul of the party, it is still very much a problem child for many users who are frustrated with incompatibilities, poor driver support and degraded performance in multimedia applications and games. If, like me, your Vista experience wasn’t all you hoped it would be, read on as we take another look at Windows XP and find that you really can teach an old dog some new tricks.
One of the biggest shocks long time Windows users had to face when upgrading to Vista was the new security measures, specifically User Account Controls. Microsoft’s answer to the problem of rampant malware on Windows machines was a barrage of security checks which can quickly become daunting. While emulating this feature might seem like a bad idea, UAC is a partial solution to a very sticky problem and the alternative, allowing malware to continue to spread unhindered, is not really an option. Although you can’t have Vista style user account control under XP, there are a number of alternatives. An aggressive firewall product such as Outpost firewall not only monitors internet traffic but also alerts you when programs misbehave or perform potentially dangerous operations. Outpost costs $39.95 per year and includes a regularly updated spyware scanner.
Sudown is similar to UAC and allows you to temporarily elevate the privileges on a limited account to that of an administrator account in order to run programs such as installers. Sudown is less intrusive than UAC but arguably less secure and less complete (you may find that you still have to log into the administrators account under some conditions). Sudown is a free utility and is available from sourceforge.
Windows explorer featured several significant upgrades in Vista. Handling of photographs and multimedia files was improved and search was fully integrated. “Breadcrumbs” were introduced, this is a somewhat bizarre name Microsoft gave to their new windows explorer extension that allows for convenient browsing between directories and subdirectories.
While you cannot reproduce the Windows Vista explorer completely, you can actually go one better. Directory Opus is the most powerful file manager/explorer on the planet and works extremely well with Windows XP. If a little intimidating at first, most users will quickly learn to appreciate the power and flexibility this utility offers. Surpassing Vista’s new Windows Explorer in almost every department and with powerful photo/multimedia features, Directory Opus really is worth the learning curve and there are many comprehensive tutorials available on the internet to help ease new users in. Directory Opus costs around $70 per licence. If you want to learn more about this superb utility then start here.
Windows Vista’s integrated desktop search is one of my favourite new features in the operating system. Here, XP lags a little behind its younger sibling but it isn’t an entirely lost cause. Many users do not realise, but Microsoft Desktop Search is also available for free for Windows XP. While it lacks the slick integration with Windows Explorer, it is still a powerful tool. You can download Desktop Search for XP
Looking to really get organised? Desktop search is good, but many of us have piles of CD-R or DVD-R disks kicking around our workplaces. Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that could neatly catalogue all those files too? Well, there is. The aptly named “WhereIsIt?” is able to neatly organise and catalogue not only files on your hard disk but files stashed away on removable disks too. WhereIsIt? Is shareware, with the full version costing $39.95 per licence. Enter “WhereIsIt” into Google to find out more.
Look and Feel
For those systems able to run it, the new Aero interface in Windows Vista is both fast and beautiful. By comparison, the blues and creams of Windows XP look distinctly last generation. Of course, beauty is only skin deep and what really matters is functionality. That said, a little more eye candy obviously appeals to a lot of people, since numerous web-sites and utilities have sprung up for Windows XP with the sole aim of making the operating system look better. The pinnacle of these utilities is the Object Desktop suite from Stardock. With a few clicks you can instantly transform your XP desktops look and feel into any of hundreds of visual styles available for download from Stardock’s website. Want Aero-like special effects on Windows XP? Object Desktop Window FX can do them and you can even customise exactly which visual effects to use. Want two start menus? No problem, with Objectbar you can do that too. Want Windows Dreamscene animated wallpapers? Well sorry, you are out of luck this time. The price for all this desktop pimping? $49.95. To find out more, or download a trial version, enter object desktop into Google. All this talk of desktop enhancements brings us nicely on to:-
Sidebar and Widgets
Windows Vista comes with it’s own sidebar with detachable widgets, but sidebars and widgets are old news in Windows (and indeed in most other modern operating systems too). My favourite XP sidebar is the somewhat unoriginally named “Desktop Sidebar”. This sidebar is highly configurable, uncluttered and includes the best RSS news reader/ticker out of all the sidebars and widgets I have ever tried. In fact I even run Desktop Sidebar in preference to Vistas own sidebar on my Windows Vista installation. Google search for “desktop sidebar” to find out more.
If widgets are you thing then there are currently several competing standards. The Open Widget Engine is gaining momentum slowly, with the aim of one day uniting the efforts of widget makers across the world. Until that day comes, you can choose between Google Desktop, Desktop X and Yahoo Widgets. Desktop X is a powerful widget engine that is included as part of the Object Desktop suite that I mentioned in the Look and Feel section. Yahoo and Google’s respective offerings are free and hence much more popular. Yahoo widgets probably includes the best selection of widgets out of all the widget engines available. Again, do a quick Google search on the program that interests you the most to find out more.
Windows XP media centre edition has been around for a while now, but an upgrade to Vista Ultimate or Home Premium will give you full media centre capabilities included in the price. If you are using vanilla XP home or Professional and you want media centre capabilities, they are available for free in the shape of Media Portal, an open source and highly configurable media centre application. Also free and worth a look (at least if you are American) is Yahoo Go For TV. Based on Meedio, which was one of the best commercial media centre products for Windows, Go For TV seems to have been left to stagnate since Yahoo took control. Nevertheless there are already a wide range of plug-ins and accessories available for it that were previously developed for Meedio. Bizarrely, Yahoo currently insists on locking out all users outside of the United States, so if you live elsewhere in the world, give this one a miss. Set Google hunting for “media portal” or “Yahoo Go for TV” to find out more.
Games and Direct X 10
As any PC gamer will tell you, XP is (at the time of writing) the best operating system for games. With Vista, Microsoft introduced DirectX10 and made it Vista only. A number of breathtaking DirectX 10 games are regularly plastered over the preview pages on major PC gaming websites and magazines. To date however, aside from a few update patches for older games, Microsoft’s cutting edge games for DirectX10/Vista basically consist of Shadowrun (an above average multiplayer FPS) and Halo 2 (A conversion of an old Xbox game). Re-hashing a previous generation console title to demonstrate your bleeding edge graphics technology must have made sense to someone in Microsoft but it makes little sense to gamers assessing if an upgrade to Vista is worth their money, especially in light of the performance handicap or crippled sound that some games exhibit under Vista. However, like every new gaming platform, fast forward to Christmas and XP gamers can expect to be enviously eyeing up the new Vista only games starting to appear. If you are hoping that I’m going to tell you now some way of getting DirectX 10 to work on XP, you are going to be disappointed. A company called Falling Leaf systems claims to be working on some sort of project that would accomplish this feat, but they still have a lot to prove especially considering early versions struggled to run the most basic of DirectX 10 demo code. Unfortunately, it looks like DirectX 10 is one trick that XP isn’t going to be performing any time soon, if ever.
So there you have it, far from being on its last legs, Windows XP is still a very capable operating system with a fair few tricks up its sleeve. If you’re willing to invest in a little new software mentioned in this article (much of which also works under Vista) you can easily transform your XP into a top notch operating system and still enjoy your old games and multimedia software.