Shopping Product Reviews

Windows XP Revisited – Teaching the old faithful dog some new tricks

Lately it seems to be the fashion among Internet writers to compare and criticize operating systems. While one user raves about the merits of Ubuntu Linux versus Windows Vista on his 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-dancing multimedia darling, XP is now the big brother to the much younger and more modern Windows Vista. While Vista may be the life and soul of the party, it remains a problem child for many users who are frustrated by incompatibilities, poor driver support, and degraded performance in multimedia applications and games. If, like me, your Vista experience wasn’t all you expected, read on as we take another look at Windows XP and find that it can really teach an old dog some new tricks.


One of the biggest surprises longtime 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 malware running rampant on Windows machines was a barrage of security checks that can quickly become daunting. While emulating this feature might seem like a bad idea, UAC is a partial solution to a very tricky problem, and the alternative, allowing malware to continue to spread unhindered, isn’t really an option. Although you can’t have a Vista-style user account control in XP, there are several alternatives. An aggressive firewall product, like Outpost’s 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 of a limited account to an administrator account to run programs such as installers. Sudown is less intrusive than UAC but arguably less secure and less comprehensive (you may need to log in to the administrator account under some conditions). Sudown is a free utility and is available at sourceforge.

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer featured several significant updates in Vista. The handling of photos and multimedia files has been improved and the search has been fully integrated. Introduced “breadcrumbs”, this is a somewhat strange name that Microsoft gave to its new Windows Explorer extension that allows convenient navigation between directories and subdirectories.

While you can’t fully reproduce Windows Vista Explorer, you can actually do better. Directory Opus is the most powerful file manager/explorer on the planet and it works great with Windows XP. While a bit intimidating at first, most users will quickly learn to appreciate the power and flexibility that this utility offers. Outperforming Vista’s new Windows Explorer in almost every department and with powerful photo/multimedia features, Directory Opus is truly worth learning and there are plenty of comprehensive tutorials available on the Internet to help new users. Directory Opus costs around $70 per license. If you want to learn more about this excellent utility, start here.

Look for

Windows Vista’s built-in desktop search is one of my favorite new features in the operating system. Here, XP lags a bit behind its little brother, 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 the seamless integration with Windows Explorer, it’s still a powerful tool. You can download Desktop Search for XP


Are you looking to really organize? Desktop search is nice, but many of us have stacks of CD-R or DVD-R discs lying around our workplaces. Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that could also neatly catalog all those files? Well there is. The aptly named “Where is it?” it is capable of neatly organizing and cataloging not only files on your hard drive, but also files stored on removable drives. Where is? It’s shareware, with the full version costing $39.95 per license. Enter “Where You Are” into Google for more information.

look and feel

For those systems that can run it, the new Aero interface in Windows Vista is fast and beautiful. By comparison, the blues and creams of Windows XP look distinctly state-of-the-art. Of course, beauty is only skin deep and what really matters is functionality. That being said, a little more flash obviously appeals to a lot of people, as numerous Windows XP websites and utilities have sprung up with the sole aim of making the operating system look better. The pinnacle of these utilities is Stardock’s Object Desktop suite. With just a few clicks, you can instantly transform the look of your XP desktops into any of the hundreds of visual styles available for download from the Stardock website. Want Aero-like special effects on Windows XP? Object Desktop Window FX can make them, and you can even customize exactly which visual effects to use. Do you want two start menus? No problem, with Objectbar you can do that too. Do you want Windows Dreamscene live wallpapers? Well, sorry, you’re out of luck this time. The price of all this desktop pimping? $49.95. For more information or to download a trial version, enter object desktop on Google. All this talk of desktop improvements leads nicely to:

Sidebars and widgets

Windows Vista comes with its own sidebar with detachable widgets, but sidebars and widgets are old news in Windows (and indeed most other modern operating systems as well). My favorite XP sidebar is the unoriginally named “Desktop Sidebar”. This sidebar is highly configurable, uncluttered, and includes the best RSS feed reader/bookmark of all the sidebars and widgets I’ve tried. In fact, I even run the Desktop Sidebar in preference to the Vistas sidebar on my Windows Vista installation. Please google “desktop sidebar” for more information.

If widgets are your thing, there are currently several competing standards. The Open Widget Engine is slowly gaining momentum, with the goal of one day uniting the efforts of widget makers 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 suite that I mentioned in the Look and Feel section. The respective offerings from Yahoo and Google are free and therefore much more popular. Yahoo Widgets probably includes the best selection of widgets of all the available widget engines. Again, do a quick Google search for the program that interests you the most to find out more.

media center

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, a highly configurable, open source media center application. Yahoo Go For TV is also free and worth checking out (at least if you’re American). 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, a wide range of plugins and accessories that were previously developed for Meedio are already available. Strangely, Yahoo currently insists on blocking all users outside of the United States, so if you live in another part of the world, don’t. Set up Google by searching for “media portal” or “Yahoo Go for TV” for more information.

Games and DirectX 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 just for Vista. A number of impressive DirectX 10 games are regularly featured on the preview pages of major PC gaming websites and magazines. However, to date, in addition to a few update patches for older games, DirectX 10 games have Microsoft’s cutting edge for DirectX10/Vista basically consist of Shadowrun (an above average multiplayer FPS) and Halo 2 (a conversion of an old Xbox game). Replaying a previous-gen console title to demonstrate its cutting-edge graphics technology must have made sense to someone at Microsoft, but it makes little sense for gamers to assess whether an upgrade to Vista is worth their money, especially in light from performance handicap or paralyzed. sound exhibited by some games under Vista. However, like every new gaming platform, XP and Christmas gamers can look forward to watching with envy as new Vista games start to appear. If you expect me to tell you now about a way to get DirectX 10 to work on XP, 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 that early versions had trouble running the most basic DirectX 10 demo code. Unfortunately, it looks like DirectX 10 is a trick XP isn’t going to pull off any time soon, if at all.

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 a little new software mentioned in this article (much of which also works with Vista), you can easily transform your XP into a top-tier operating system and still enjoy your old games and media software.

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