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WinXP Diaries – the final conflict?

Keeping The Beast in the box

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As formerly regular readers may have noted, the WinXP Diaries series just kind of stopped several months ago. "Attention span of a goldfish," you no doubt thought. "He lost interest and wandered off. He ran out of things to say, he left the product activation too late, or maybe Microsoft just blew his computer up."

Actually, all of these things are to some extent true. As RC1 drew closer it was becoming abundantly clear that this was to all intents and purposes what you were going to get, that the "revolutionary new UI" hype Microsoft was spreading at the beginning of the year was just hype, and that XP really was just Win2k and a bit. So not a lot more to write, really. I took the precaution of calling up the PR people and requesting a copy of Win2k while I could still get it off them, and the two of us been reasonably happy together since then.

Aside from the lack of anything truly wonderful I wanted in XP, there were things I didn't like that did come with it. Product Activation is a pain if you're always switching computers around (which I am), I'd rather not use WMP, IE and Outlook Express, thank you very much, and I didn't think I could be bothered catching and killing all of the popups. I was in this unenthusiastic state, my unenthusiasm having been increased by the later beta builds refusal to do anything but BSOD with an Alcatel SpeedTouch USB, when Microsoft decided to bring things to a head by blowing my computer up.

I got the automatic update alert saying they had an important kernel update just for me, and instead of thinking, yeah, sure you have and cancelling I thought, that's nice, and installed it. Drunk? Must have been. The machine - which, dammit, I had actually activated - immediately went into BSOD on boot mode, and stayed there. Trying a repair got me an installation which decided it hadn't been activated, and which furthermore wouldn't work at all unless I activated it now. So I did, and it turned out to barely work at all anyway - it kept trying to reinstall apps from screwy paths, and was just about usable if you didn't mind clicking cancel about six times every time an install process popped up.

So goodbye to the office test system. But I did keep an eye on developments with the intention of sweeping up once XP RTMed. Oh alright then once it had shipped. Or even a little while after it had shipped, so here we are.

'Keeping an eye on it' took the form of of an especially quietened down XP PC I set up as the living room unit for easy broadband access, MP3 jukebox duty and a little light game playing. It also allows me to glare balefully at the site and the news ticking by all the time, which can't be healthy. I'd thought that this one would probably get busted back to Win2k at some point, and that it would remain in that state for a while pending my becoming brilliant at Linux, but I've subsequently decided it can stay with XP at least until that happy moment. It's by no means a wonderful, revolutionary piece of work, but it turns out that it's not too difficult to get it to behave like a slightly more polished version of Win2k after all, which makes it good for two more years (maybe - see below).

The first stop was a little light fiddling with the start menu, escorting the various Microsoft apps I didn't want to deal with off the premises (or into the background at least, because they're still there really) and substituting my preferred ones. Setting Opera as my default browser, I noted with some surprise, just swapped the icon out with IE, at which point it really did become quite hard to find IE and use it. Microsoft apps clearly aren't as aggressive as they used to be, and will wander off without a murmur if you tell them to.

Next, a bit of fiddling with the settings to shut down services you don't need, or ones you're deeply suspicious of. These will vary depending on what it is you use your machine for, but an hour or so twiddling with this and the registry settings, with the aid of TweakXP.com, which has lots of useful tips, should allow you to nail most of them and speed your machine up into the bargain. TweakXP also has information on uninstalling Messenger and a few other things (you go to a config file and delete the word "hide" - that's how integrated in is), and last week had something interesting that suggested you could twiddle XP Home to use some of the features of XP Pro. But now that page is 404ing - put it back guys, please? I hadn't finished reading it.

The death of Messenger, and the installation of Opera and Musicmatch made the machine much more to my taste. I seem to have got shot of the popups somewhere along the line as well, although in the case of automatic updates this must be through switching them off, rather than directly nailing the popup itself. I haven't as yet set up an alternative email client, but as I don't propose to use that machine for email until I've got my own email server sorted out, that's not a problem. I might then check to see if Opera mail has got any less horrid since I last looked.

On the subject of email though, I should mention that Outlook 2002, which I initially quite liked, is no longer on my guest list, the reason for this being quite instructive. The Register email update list collects hundreds of out of office autoreplies and bouncers a day, so if you leave it a few days there's a pretty major pile to download. I noted - at several different times - that Outlook 2002 reported 1296 messages to download, solemnly proceeded to download them, then fell over with an out of memory error at 1296, having failed to delete any of them from the server. Boring old Eudora, on the other hand, would detect that there were in fact 5,000 messages on the server, and download them at about triple the speed of Outlook while deleting batches as it went (handy in cases where your connection might break). So there you go, all of the stuff that Outlook does really slows it down (even with rules switched off), and it can't handle big tasks. These features come in addition to added virus and security threats - goodbye.

Back, however, to Win XP. Microsoft apps are still on the system, but no longer evident. Shane Brooks at 98lite.net is currently working on app removal procedures for XP and Win2k post SP2 (Microsoft did some sneaky stuff in SP2), so no doubt they can be removed within the next couple of months. And what else do I need? Zone Alarm is currently running on it pending the installation of a firewall, giving me the opportunity to keep an eye on XP's various attempts to troll around the Internet without my express permission. Figuring out what these routines actually do, and whether or not they're useful, is of course a little harder. Microsoft will for example tell you what avchost.exe is, antivirus companies will tell you trojans can impersonate it - but what, specifically, does it do that I'd want it to do?

I got lucky as regards antivirus software. Having learned that there was a patch for NAV 7.5 Corporate that allowed it to work on XP, and having further learned the price of NAV 7.5 Corporate (ten pack minimum, as I recall) I begged them to give me one, and they did. Now, this is where it gets interesting. Scour the Symantec site for mention of this patch, and you'll come up empty. Try to install NAV 7.5 on XP, and you'll get a warning that it isn't compatible. Proceed anyway though, and after installation you'll get kicked through to the URL where you can get the patch. The notes to this talk about Win2k, but don't mention WinXP at all. Meanwhile the rest of the Symantec site is busily selling the latest versions of NAV and boasting about them being XP compatible; but I'm sure these things aren't in any way connected.

As the machine I'm running XPM on doesn't have a CD writer, I haven't spent much time on the built-in burning. But last time I looked there was enough missing from it to be irritating, but not irritating enough for me to give Roxio a bundle of money. I'll use Nero on the Win2k machine for the moment, and consider my options later.

On top of what you might call my base disconfiguration of XP, I've been experimenting with some other embellishments. An XP Plus Pack fell into my clutches, but regrettably most of the exciting extra features turn out to be blatant attempts to encourage you to use the built-in XP programs I've just succeeded in ignoring. The screen savers are a mixed bunch, with some shocking jaggies on the robot acrobats, and the fish tank, the one I like most, can be bought from Serenescreen for $19.95.

It was actually the fish tank that alerted me to how bad the Nvidia drivers that ship with WinXP are. Nothing actually doing anything on the machine, but the fish seem to be limping? The machine had also taken to reseting every 12 hours or so, but as this coincided with our getting the central heating fixed, I'd suspected a cooling problem until I saw the fish. The new Nvidia drivers (available from Nvidia, not Microsoft, no I don't know why either) seem not entirely to work for everybody, but they work for me. The fish glide, the machine no longer crashes. Curiously though it does seem to claim it's recovered from a serious error every time it reboots, and can it send incomprehensible details to Microsoft?

Of course it can't. The problems with this cunning idea, which is intended to give Microsoft a big database of problems so it can nail them more easily and judge which ones to fix first, are as follows. First, it frequently finds serious problems you didn't even notice. And when you do notice a serious problem, it frequently doesn't. Plus, you don't trust Microsoft, and you're a bit concerned about this big list of your hardware and installed software going off to them, even anonymously. And then they make it even more difficult to trust them by making the report and details disappear just as soon as you click no. If you want to see what's in the report, leave the dialogue open until you've had a chance to cut and paste it somewhere else. Personally I reckon most people will be far too suspicious to ever send the report, so Microsoft needs to do some work on this.

But the machine does now seem to work, and doesn't crash. Nor does it nag me, nor sneakily redirect me to Microsoft sites (if MSN Explorer was ever in there I ripped it out - can't remember), nor does it appear to be a massive security issue. In the sense that Microsoft operating systems are ever not massive security issues, that is. The fish are pretty, it's no hassle, I wouldn't bother upgrading from Win2k, but if it's Windows you want, you might as well buy XP and debark it. It can stay, for now. ®

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