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Windows XP Revisited – Teaching the Faithful Old Dog Some New Tricks
Only recently it seems to be fashionable among writers on the Internet to compare and criticize operating systems. While one user talks about the merits of Ubuntu Linux versus Windows Vista on her blog, another is quick to criticize 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 newer, trendier Windows Vista. While Vista may be the life and soul of the party, it’s 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 experience with Vista wasn’t all you hoped for, read on as we take another look at Windows XP and discover that you really can teach an old dog some new tricks.
One of the biggest knocks for a long time that Windows users had to deal with when upgrading to Vista was the new security measures, specifically User Account Controls. Microsoft’s response to the problem of rampant malware on Windows machines was a barrage of security controls that can quickly become daunting. While mimicking this feature may seem like a bad idea, UAC is a partial solution to a very contagious problem, and the alternative, allowing malware to continue to spread unhindered, isn’t 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 privileges on an account limited to that of an administrator account in order to run programs such as installers. Sudown is less intrusive than UAC, but perhaps less secure and less complete (you may find that you still need to log in with an administrator account under some conditions). Sudown is a free tool and is provided by sourceforge.
Windows Explorer featured some significant improvements in Vista. The handling of photos and multimedia files was improved and search was fully integrated. “Breadcrumbs” was introduced, this is a somewhat strange name that Microsoft gave to the new Windows Explorer extension that allows convenient browsing between directories and subdirectories.
While you can’t completely replicate Windows Vista’s explorer, 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 tool offers. Surpassing Vista’s new Windows Explorer in almost every department and with powerful photo/multimedia features, Directory Opus is well worth the learning curve and has many comprehensive tutorials available online to help ease users Young. Directory Opus costs about $70 per license. If you want to learn more about this great tool, then start here.
Windows Vista’s built-in desktop search is one of my favorite new features in the operating system. Here, the XP lags a bit behind its smaller sibling, but it’s not a completely lost cause. Many users don’t realize it, but Microsoft Desktop Search is also available for free for Windows XP. While it lacks great integration with Windows Explorer, it’s still a powerful tool. You can download Desktop Search for XP
Looking to get really organized? Desktop browsing is fine, but many of us have stacks of CD-Rs or DVD-Rs floating around our workplaces. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something that could neatly catalog all those files too? Well, there is. Aptly named “Where is it?” is able to carefully organize and catalog not only files on your hard drive, but also files hidden on removable drives. Where is? It is shareware, with the full version costing $39.95 per license. Google “WhereIsIt” to learn more.
See AND feel
For those systems that can run it, the new Aero interface in Windows Vista is fast and beautiful. By comparison, Windows XP’s blue and cream colors look distinctly last-gen. Of course, beauty is only skin deep and what really matters is functionality. That said, a little more eye candy definitely appeals to a lot of people, as numerous websites and services have popped up for Windows XP with the sole purpose of making the operating system look better. The pinnacle of these services is the Object Desktop suite from Stardock. With a few clicks you can instantly transform the look and feel of your XP desktop to any of the hundreds of visual styles available for download from the Stardock website. Want special effects similar to Aero in Windows XP? Object Desktop Window FX can do them, and you can even customize exactly which visual effects to use. Want two start menus? No problem, with Objectbar you can do that too. Want animated Windows Dreamscene wallpapers? Sorry, no luck this time. The price for all this desktop pimping? $49.95. To learn more or download a trial version, enter the object’s desktop on Google. All this talk about desktop improvements brings us nicely to:-
Sidebar and widgets
Windows Vista comes with its own sidebar with detachable widgets, but sidebars and widgets are old news in Windows (and indeed in most other modern operating systems). My favorite XP sidebar is something called “Desktop Sidebar”. This sidebar is highly configurable, uncluttered, and includes the best RSS news reader/ticker of all the sidebars and widgets I’ve ever tried. In fact, I even run the Desktop Sidebar in preference to Vista’s own sidebar on my Windows Vista installation. Google “desktop sidebar” to learn more.
If widgets are your thing, then there are currently several competing benchmarks. The Open Widget Engine is slowly gaining momentum, with the goal of one day uniting the efforts of widget creators around 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 package that I mentioned in the Look and Feel section. Yahoo and Google’s respective offerings are free and therefore much more popular. Yahoo Widgets probably includes the best selection of widgets of all the widget engines available. Again, do a quick Google search for the program you’re most interested in to learn more.
Windows XP Media Center Edition has been around for a while, but an upgrade to Vista Ultimate or Home Premium will give you full media center capabilities included in the price. If you’re using vanilla XP home or Professional and want media center capabilities, they’re available for free in the form of Media Portal, an open source, highly configurable media center application. Also free and worth checking out (at least if you’re American) is Yahoo Go For TV. Based on Meedio, which was one of the best commercial media center products for Windows, Go For TV seems to have stagnated since Yahoo took over. However, there are already a wide range of plugins and accessories available for it that were previously developed for Meedio. Surprisingly, Yahoo currently insists on blocking all users outside of the United States, so if you live elsewhere in the world, keep that in mind. Do a Google search for “media portal” or “Yahoo Go for TV” to learn 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 gaming. With Vista, Microsoft introduced DirectX10 and made it Vista only. A number of surprising DirectX 10 games regularly top the preview pages of major gaming websites and magazines. However, to date, aside from some updated patches for older games, Microsoft’s latest games for DirectX10/Vista basically consist of Shadowrun (an above-average multiplayer FPS) and Halo 2 (a conversion of a old Xbox). Reintroducing a previous-gen console title to demonstrate your fluid graphics technology must have made sense to someone at Microsoft, but it doesn’t make sense to gamers evaluating whether a Vista upgrade is worth their money, especially in light of performance impediment or crippling. the sound that some games display under Vista. However, like any new gaming platform, Christmas and XP gamers can only expect to look enviously at the new Vista games that are starting to appear. If you’re hoping I’m going to show you a way to get DirectX 10 working on XP right now, you’re going to be disappointed. A company called Falling Leaf Systems claims to be working on some kind 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 demo code. of DirectX 10. Unfortunately, it looks like DirectX 10 is a trick that XP won’t be performing anytime 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 few tricks up its sleeve. If you’re willing to invest in some of the new software mentioned in this article (most of which also works under Vista), you can easily transform your XP into a high-end operating system and enjoy your old games and multimedia software.
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