Get up to Speed on Windows XP

Windows XP

Story Contents


Facts & Figures

Home & Pro Differences

Behind the New Wheel

Folders & Special Folders

Looking at 'My Pictures'

Windows Media Player 8

Internet Explorer 6.0

Functional Improvements

Personal Firewall

Remote Assistance

Backup & Restore

Product Activation

Hardware and Setup

Will Your Programs Run?


Beta Conclusions

Behind the New Wheel

What's new in Windows XP starts with a significant update to the look and feel of the desktop, Start Menu, Taskbar, Control Panel, and folder windows. Commonly known as the user interface, these features of Windows show many changes. For starters, the entire interface has an improved look that uses more simultaneous colors and also more memory. Most people appreciate the difference. The default background is called Red Moon Desert, and it's part of the many new built-in themes in Windows XP (including "Windows Classic," which you already know). Other themes that caught our attention include Vortec Space, Moon Flower, Follow Me, Bliss, and Azul. Expect a flurry of such high-resolution backgrounds to begin appearing on the Microsoft site as well as others.

One disadvantage of the new themes in Windows XP -- at least, so far, in beta 2 -- is that it doesn't permit as much customizability as earlier Windows versions did. You can't, for instance, change the font size and color of each text component of the interface as you can with Win9x/2K. What you get, instead, is a button called Effects, which when pressed reveals a dialog that lets you change a limited set of features, including showing shadows under menus, hiding underlined letters for keyboard navigation, and using the fading or the scrolling effect for menus and tooltips transitions.

The most important decision, however, is the choice between the standard method of smoothing screen fonts, or the ClearType method. On a good monitor, ClearType enhances text significantly, not only smoothing but making the fonts look much closer to what you'd expect on a printed page. By all means try ClearType, especially if you do extensive work with text.

One of the primary principles of the new Windows XP desktop is "less clutter." In fact, by default, the only desktop icon you'll find is Recycle Bin, which is moved to the lower right corner. It's possible to turn the desktop icons you're used to back on, if you want, but a cleaner desktop is something many of us aspire to. Going along with that notion is the new Desktop Cleanup Wizard. Because programs automatically add icons to the desktop, and we do so ourselves in a variety of ways, Windows XP offers an automatic means of reducing the clutter. Periodically, the Desktop Cleanup wizard displays a window listing the desktop icons and the dates they were last used, and if you agree, it moves the icons to a folder called Unused Desktop Shortcuts that appears on your desktop, so that you can get at them or restore them at any time.

Start in on Start
The Start Menu and the Taskbar could be the most changed parts of XP's new interface. The idea behind the Start Menu's redesign is to focus attention on the four or five most typical things most people do with Windows. But for experienced hands, the changes may take time to get used to. In fact, you don't have to get used to them if you don't want to. There's a setting that reverts back to the old style Start Menu. The beauty of the redesigned Start is that it's fast and fluid, easy to navigate. It also very logically puts My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, My Computer, and My Network Places on the Start Menu, so new users are pulled away from the desktop to the sole location where everything does, indeed, start.

Windows XP comes with a whole new set of built-in themes, like Vortec Space, Moon Flower, and Follow Me.
Click to see larger image

Windows XP comes with a whole new set of built-in themes, like Vortec Space, Moon Flower, and Follow Me.

But there's a negative side too. The Programs window pops up awkwardly, and seems like an afterthought. Something better should have been considered for this important area. Why is this treated differently? Should it just be My Programs? And please try to remember this: You customize the Start Menu by right-clicking Taskbar, choosing Properties, clicking the Start Menu tab, clicking the Customize button, then clicking the Advanced tab (out of breath!). Do you think they could have buried this any deeper? We hesitated before asking that out loud for fear Microsoft's UI crew might get ideas. Where is it written that good interface design means protecting us from ourselves? Once you finally get there, the customization options are excellent. We think some of these settings should be the default, however. In particular, you should try setting Control Panel, My Computer, and others so that they cascade from the Start Menu.

The Start Menu displays two columns, and so far we've been describing the right column. The left column does only one thing. It shows program icons. But there are two different ways it shows them. You can place icons there, the way you would at the top of any other Windows Start Menu. But it also automatically shows programs you've recently run, so it makes it easy to re-run commonly run apps. The number of icons displayed is a customization option.

Microsoft smartened up Taskbar in good ways. In the System Tray area (next to the clock), the Taskbar now has the ability to hide icons that haven't changed their notification. It informs you periodically that icons are inactive, and you can modify this behavior with customization settings. You can even disable this smart hiding of Tray icons if you like, or make decisions about specific Tray icons. Taskbar has another trick too. If you open seven Internet Explorer windows, and there are enough other open program windows too, the seven tabs for the IE windows will automatically combine into one program tab on Taskbar, and when you click that tab a menu will pop-up letting you select an individual IE window or opt to close them all. That's a great idea.

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