Windows XP Departs: Good Riddance or Sad Farewell?

The forced retirement of Microsoft's Windows XP is set--with some exceptions--for Monday, June 30. To quell XP separation anxiety and the rancor of seething Vista haters, Microsoft has agreed to offer Windows XP updates and security patches until April 2014.

However, PC retailers such as Dell have pretty much stopped selling computers preloaded with the venerable OS.

XP's disappearance has stirred much conversation. In fact, more than 200,000 people signed a petition to keep XP--a campaign championed by our sibling publication InfoWorld. In the long run, though, Microsoft refused to yield to the entreaties of XP-philes.

We have discussed this issue so vigorously here at PC World--in meetings, in our offices, and in the hallways--that we decided to enlist advocates for the two principle points of view to make their case, and then ask for your input in our Comments section. How do you feel about XP's departure?

Speaking first, in favor of Vista, is Senior Editor Robert Strohmeyer.

XP: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Windows Vista is flawed, to be sure, but I won't shed a tear for the demise of Windows XP.

First let me define my position on the question of XP versus Vista. I don't intend to mount a whole-hearted defense of Vista, because anyone can see that the OS has some problems, but I when I consider the tidal wave of nostalgia that has been swelling over Windows XP lately, I can barely stop my eyeballs from rolling out of their sockets. So let's try to put things in perspective.

When PC World's editors took their first hard look at Windows XP back in 2001, we weren't blown away by any means. In our tests, we "found its performance generally on a par with that of other recent Windows versions."

Among the operating system's annoyances were its activation scheme (which we characterized as a needless burden on law-abiding users), its cute-but-inept canine helper in the search utility (which we saw as an uninvited dog), and the System Tray balloon text (which we termed an intermittent irritation). Meanwhile, we spotted compatibility issues between XP and a slew of devices and apps designed with earlier incarnations of Windows in mind. Ultimately, we gave XP our thumbs up as a marginal improvement on its forebears.

XP Bah Humbug: Senior Editor Robert Strohmeyer
Photograph: Robert Cardin
Personally, I never liked XP. I did run it on my daily workhorse PC out of sheer computer-magazine-editing necessity, but my preferences leaned toward Mac OS X and Linux, both of which offered superior stability, performance, and security even then.

Only when I booted up a beta of Windows Vista--with its streamlined interface, protected kernel, and improved networking tools--did I begin thinking of Windows as a modern OS again.

Vista's Improvements: A Real Difference?

Like Windows XP, Windows Vista improves marginally on its predecessors. My esteemed but mildly delusional colleague Ed Albro asserts below that marginal improvements aren't enough to warrant an OS upgrade. And he may have a point.

I certainly wouldn't recommend that everyone run out and buy a copy of Vista to install on their aging PCs. On the other hand, it's not as though Vista is the first Windows upgrade to make much ado about relatively little. If history has taught us anything, it's that marginal improvements are the norm for new OS launches.

In fact, I can think of only two operating system releases in the past 20 years that have bucked this trend: Windows 95 and Mac OS X, both of which massively revamped their respective platforms.

Revolutionary OS upgrades are occasionally necessary to keep the industry moving forward, but they inevitably cause problems for end users working with legacy hardware and software--and sure enough, the historic launches of Win 95 and OS X left users around the world griping over their suddenly obsolete gear.

Of course, if Ed had his way, 92 percent of us would still be glumly clicking around in a heavily patched and repatched version of Windows 95. But at least we wouldn't have had to upgrade any of our hardware to support pesky new-fangled multimedia features.

I concede the points that Vista runs slowly on older hardware and that it has compatibility problems with aging devices and apps. I feel for anyone who has had to buy a new printer because their old one didn't work with Vista. (I have several printers at home, each from a different vendor, and none of them has ever balked at Vista, but I hear tell that this is a problem for some people.) Still, the fact that Vista runs poorly on my oldest laptop neither bothers nor surprises me. If that thing were a horse, I'd have shot it by now anyway.

Windows Vista security warning.
And marginal as they are, the improvements in Windows Vista make a real difference to end users (even though many users may fail to notice it).

Most important, Vista is quantitatively more secure than XP. Yes, the User Account Control feature is annoying, but it does protect hapless users from inadvertently loading their PCs with system-wrecking malware. If anything, the UAC isn't annoying enough, since you can still all too easily to click 'Continue' without considering whether you really want to allow some random process to access your hard drive's boot sector.

But we can't have it both ways: Either we accept an OS that nags us when something we're doing is likely to cause trouble, or we keep living in the malware-ridden universe that is XP. Rather than assault Microsoft for trying to strengthen Windows' system security, I'd prefer to encourage the company to continue hardening the OS.

Vista looks better than XP, though that isn't saying much. While the silver trim of XP Pro is tolerable, I find the forced cheeriness of XP Home's blue, green, and red color scheme fundamentally offensive. And though most users have grown accustomed to XP's clunky menu system, I find Vista's more compartmentalized (and customizable) Start menu far simpler to navigate.

In addition, Vista beats XP hands-down on everyday features like photo management, multimedia entertainment, networking, working with mobile devices, searching for files on the hard drive, and calendaring.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Windows Vista is amazingly great. But Vista is certainly competent enough that when XP finally fades out of my life, I don't think I'll miss it one bit.

Ed?

I'll Miss You, XP

And now speaking in favor of Windows XP is Editor Edward N. Albro.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Okay, so I know how these point-counterpoint duets are supposed to go. I'm supposed to rip into the arguments presented by my opponent, Robert Strohmeyer, and perhaps rip into him, too. But nothing Robert writes inspires me to call him an ignorant slut. (Working with him every day does, but that's another story.)

Robert's argument, in a nutshell, is that XP isn't as great and Vista isn't as horrible as all the gripers out there make them out to be. I'll grant both points--XP has some significant flaws, and Vista makes some marginal improvements.

Here's the problem: Marginal improvements just aren't enough.

Changing your OS is always a major hassle. Your old hardware may be incompatible with it or too slow to accommodate it (and Vista has had more than its fair share of driver problems). Some software makers will force you to buy new versions of their programs for the new OS. And commands, menus, and shortcuts inevitably get moved around (Microsoft engineers seem to take an almost sadistic pleasure in changing the OS's organization for no apparent reason).

XP, I'll Miss You: Editor Edward N. Albro
Photograph: Robert Cardin
If I'm going to go through that much hassle, it had better be for a good reason. And that's what Vista lacks: a compelling reason for you to upgrade.

Robert cites User Account Control, Vista's more stringent security system. But UAC is an unholy combination of whiny nag and officious bully. Those who can, disable it; those who can't, ignore it.

The interface? If translucent window borders aren't the very definition of a useless change, I don't know what is.

Flip 3D feature of Windows Vista
When Microsoft came around to demo Windows Vista before releasing it, the feature they seemed most proud of was Flip 3D, which shows your open windows three-dimensionally, angled off into space. Since acquiring a Vista-based PC, I've used Flip 3D about three times. Though it looks cool, it actually gets in the way of doing your work quickly. In that respect, it's a bit like Vista itself. (Also, if you really like Flip 3D, you can get it in XP.)

Microsoft's Best Effort

Robert cites some other features that he says make Vista superior to XP: photo management, multimedia entertainment, networking, working with mobile devices, searching for files on your hard drive, and calendaring.

I have to disagree on networking, which I find even more opaque and confusing in Vista than in XP--and that's saying something. As for the other features, I'll cite these personal statistics:

  • Months I've been running Vista on my desktop and XP on my notebook: 18
  • Times I've been working in XP and wished that I had a feature that was available only in Vista: 0

The somewhat discouraging fact is that XP remains the highest expression so far of what Microsoft does. Redmond doesn't do beautiful, and it doesn't do elegantly efficient. That's for the design freaks at Apple. What Windows has always achieved is bureaucratic competence.

It makes lots of devices from lots of different manufacturers work together reasonably well. You'll encounter problems occasionally, and you won't always love the way it works, but generally it gets the job done.

And even 18 months later, XP still gets the job done better than Vista. It's just a better bureaucracy. That's faint praise, I know, but it's reason enough to stick with XP if you can.

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