May 27, 2005

Windows rapidly approaching desktop usability

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Every year or so I like to see how Microsoft is doing in its attempt to make a desktop operating system as usable as Linux. Microsoft Windows XP, Home Edition, with Service Pack 2, is a tremendous improvement over previous Windows versions when it comes to stability and appearance, but it still has many glitches that keep it from being competitive with GNU/Linux for everyday users, including a tedious installation procedure, lack of productivity software included with the operating system, hardware compatibility problems, and a price so much higher than any of the Linux distributions I've tested lately that I don't feel this product is a good value for most home or small office usersMy test machine was a two-year-old HP Compaq d220 microtower that originally shipped with Mandrake Linux version 9.2. I have tested and used this desktop with at least half a dozen different Linux distributions. All have loaded and run without any problems. In fact, for at least 12 out of the last 24 months, this little black box has been my primary desktop workhorse, and it has always functioned without a hiccup -- until I tried to install the "Windows XP Home Edition" operating system on it.

Since I have heard that discount copies of Windows XP available from online vendors may be "pirated" or tainted in some way, I purchased my copy over the counter from well-known retailer Office Depot to make sure I was getting the genuine article instead of a cheap knock-off. Despite this precaution, no matter how hard I looked in the package I found no manual, just a 14 page "Let's Get Started" guide and a single CD (plus some assorted marketing material) enclosed in a folder with a sticker containing some sort of strange code on it, plus these words:

Don't Lose This Product Key!
You must use it every time you install this software.
So be sure to store this folder in a safe place.

My collection of Mandriva, Debian, SUSE, Knoppix, and MEPIS installation CDs don't require "product keys" I'm not allowed to lose. But this is only a small irritation. On to the installation itself.

Video blanking hassles

My primary desktop monitor is a 15" LiquidVideo LCD monitor purchased from mainstream electronics retailer Circuit City. It has always had the slightly annoying habit of going through a short "AutoAdjust" routine on every startup, but it happily accepted the generic framebuffer video input used by most versions of GNU/Linux during their bootup and installation processes. During my attempts at Windows XP installation, the combination of the LiquidVideo monitor and the HP Compaq d220 microtower's onboard video produced constant, totally annoying screen blinking that made it almost impossible to do things like type in the long, so-precious "Product Key." Note that this "Key" is not a simple, English-language password, but a 20-character string of apparently random letters and numbers. It took me several tries to type the "Product Key" correctly without being able to see it on screen because of the constant blinking. I doubt that most users would put up with this problem. I suspect that most would simply return their copy of Windows XP to the store where they bought it and go back to familiar, user-friendly Linux.

The video blanking problem also made it nearly impossible to read the screen where you're supposed to create an "Admin" password ("Admin" is Windows-ese for "root"), then create regular users.

In the end, I had so much trouble with the Windows XP installation and setup with this common discount monitor that I used an old 17" CRT monitor I had in my garage for the installation and setup, then plugged in the LCD monitor for everyday use.

Windows XP can't be considered consumer-ready until it has driver support for common LCD monitors during its installation and bootup procedure, especially if those monitors are easily and routinely recognized by popular Linux distributions. It's possible that the monitor manufacturers aren't willing to give Microsoft and other proprietary operating system companies the information they need to create appropriate drivers and that the manufacturers, not Microsoft, deserve the blame for this problem. But from a user's standpoint it doesn't matter who is at fault in this game. It simply means that hardware must be carefully chosen when contemplating a switch from Linux to Windows XP -- and that you can't expect "it just works" hardware compatibility from this operating system.

Windows XP networking: Not for amateurs

I could not get Windows XP to detect the HP Compaq d220 microtower's onboard Broadcom NIC. I used another computer to download XP drivers from HP's site, and burned them to CD for installation on the d220, but still no luck.

This same NIC was detected and automatically set up by MEPIS, Knoppix, and Mandriva Linux during their installations. I was surprised that Windows XP was not able to do the same.

In the end, I bought a $15 "generic" PCI NIC from a local retailer and installed it. This solved the Windows XP network interface problem. But I doubt that most home or small business users would want to add hardware to a working computer just to convert from Linux to Windows, especially after paying $199 for their new operating system.

Shocked by additional software costs

The SimplyMEPIS version of GNU/Linux I run on my "workhorse" laptop computer includes a full-featured office suite, ftp, chat, and graphics software, and dozens of other useful programs on its installation CD. Windows XP included none of these, and most of the equivalent packages available for Windows are costly. Some, like Microsoft's Office software (which is similar to but doesn't read as many file formats and won't directly save your work as PDFs), cost more than the operating system itself.

I found that the tools needed to give the Microsoft Explorer Web browser included with Windows XP some of the same modern features that are standard in the Firefox Web browser that comes with SimplyMEPIS are pay-for add-ons, which seemed somewhat silly. Even the "better" version -- Outlook -- of Microsoft's email software costs extra, as do most of the ftp clients available for Windows XP.

Yes, Firefox, the Thunderbird email suite, GAIM, GIMP, and many other well-regarded open source programs are now available for Windows XP, but each must be downloaded and installed individually. They are not included in the base Windows XP install. This makes no sense. If you pay more for Windows XP than for a typical Linux distribution, shouldn't it come with the same -- or better -- software on its installation CD?

Where Windows XP shines

There are thousands of third-party applications available for Windows XP that have no direct Linux equivalents. For people with specialized software needs -- and deep pockets -- this wealth of Windows third-party software makes it an excellent operating system choice.

For those with simpler software needs, the problems and costs associated with Windows XP argue against a switch from GNU/Linux unless Microsoft radically changes its pricing and licensing structure, and manages to make its premier operating system install easily on common, everyday hardware.

Hope for the future

The improvement in Windows XP Home Edition over previous "ordinary user" versions of Windows -- notably Windows ME and Windows 98 SE -- is nothing short of magnificent. Once you get past the installation problems, you see a desktop that's close enough to KDE (or Gnome) in general appearance and functionality that an experienced GNU/Linux user should only need a few hours worth of practice to make the switch.

I have not yet gotten any viruses or worms on my Windows XP computer, nor have I experienced nearly as many system crashes as I did with pre-XP Windows versions.

Given Microsoft's current development rate, it's entirely possible that within a few years Windows may be almost as good a choice for most users as Linux, although it's likely that during these same few years Linux will also advance rapidly, and that a growing number of third-party developers will write software for it to replace the programs that now "lock in" many Windows users.

For the moment, though, I advise sticking with Linux unless you have software requirements that can only be met by using the Windows XP operating system, and if you must use Windows XP you should try to get a computer that has it preinstalled rather installing it yourself -- unless you are a hard-core techie/nerd instead of an ordinary user.

But all this could change when the "Longhorn" version of Windows is released in 2006 (or possibly 2007, 2008 or 2009). At that point, I'll re-evaluate the Windows operating system and see if it's finally ready for the mass market instead of requiring specialized skills -- and carefully-selected hardware -- to install and set up on the average home or small business desktop.

OSTG Editor-in-chief Robin 'Roblimo' Miller is the author of Point & Click Linux! and loves to read analysts' and Windows users' reasons Linux isn't ready for the desktop so much that once in a while he likes to turn the tables and write about Windows from a Linux user's perspective.


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