By Matt Lake
Internet and networking
Windows XP puts the Internet on center stage, beginning with its setup routine. Before the installer even begins, XP asks to check online for any updates. After the check, XP offers networking wizards galore, plus remote control tools and a built-in firewall. And, of course, there's the new Internet Explorer 6. (Click here for the full scoop on the somewhat disappointing IE 6.) Given XP's Net-dependence, you'll get the most out of this OS if you're blessed with high-speed Net access such as DSL or cable.
Network setup wizardry
Windows XP uses streamlined new wizards to configure Internet and local networking settings, and they're certainly a big improvement for home users and pros alike. The Network Setup wizard rolls the older Home Networking and Internet Connection wizards into one. It starts with a basic checklist of things you need to do before continuing (such as configuring a LAN, installing network cards and cabling, and turning everything on) and steps you through the rest. Using easy default settings, we hooked up PCs running XP Home and Professional editions to an existing network, then launched the wizard from the XP installation disc and added Windows Me PCs. The whole process went without a hitch,and we were finished in less than half an hour.
If you're ambitious, you can network much more with XP. The networking wizard detects whether you're on a gateway computer, one that connects the rest of the network to the Internet, and can set up connection sharing automatically (if you approve the idea). XP also supports network bridging, a complicated business that connects different networking standards such as Ethernet and 802.11b wireless networking on a single PC. In fact, XP's wireless support is greatly improved over previous versions; it automatically detects and configures many 802.11b interface cards without any fuss. This is good news, since configuring network settings ranks right up there with removing pine splinters from your hands after wood shop.
Wider Windows Messenger
Once you're online, Windows XP jumps on you to sign up for Passport, a free online proof-of-identity scheme that Microsoft uses to verify your identity for Hotmail, online chat accounts, and electronic commerce.
The bait to lure you to the Passport den is the new Windows Messenger--a beefy revamping of the wimpy MSN Messenger instant messenger. The new Messenger tool (not yet available as a separate download) lards serious conferencing tools on top of the regular, typed chat windows. Messenger adds two-way audio and video, application sharing (in which your chat buddy views and controls programs on your PC), and whiteboarding (the ability to share freehand drawings and other graphics). Messenger even integrates with Remote Assistance, a feature that lets you yield control of your system to a friend (with enough password protection and time limitations to allay any fear of hacking). Windows Messenger shares contact lists and a back-end network with MSN Messenger, but it doesn't work with Microsoft's existing conferencing software, NetMeeting.
Passport to .Net
If you choose to sign up for Messenger, Microsoft automatically equips you with a Passport account and its authentication, which you already have if you use Hotmail. Passport purports to let you move seamlessly into more of Microsoft's Web-based services and partners. It automatically logs you on to partner sites, such as Hotmail, MSN.com, and many more. Gosh, the whole Internet is like one big Microsoft site! The ultimate goal of Passport is to have you create a wallet that stores your credit card information, and billing and shipping addresses, much like Amazon.com's one-click purchasing.
If this all sounds too Big Brother-ish, then Windows XP is probably not the operating system for you. You don't actually have to give up much information to have a Passport, though, and you don't have to put your credit card info in a Passport account either. But Passport itself plays a crucial role in Microsoft's much-discussed .Net strategy, and links to online services are all over XP. Every Windows Explorer window, for instance, includes a link for publishing its contents to the Web. Click it, and you can send files to MSN Communities or Xdrive, using Passport authentication. Plug in a digital camera, and a wizard offers to publish pictures to a Web site or send them to partner photo developers such as Kodak and Fuji.
This type of online integration is handy if you adore all destinations Microsoft, but it's stifling. We prefer the ability to choose our own FTP or Web sites to upload files to instead of being forced to use Microsoft's limited choices, for example. Open source advocates and the competition are screaming bloody murder about such Net domination.
A sense of security
Worried about hackers? You're smart, not paranoid. Automated scripts constantly probe computers on the Internet for back doors, and Windows XP is doing something about it. As a nod to security, Windows XP features a software firewall to block stealthy hack attacks on your network connections, dial-up and broadband alike. XP's Internet Connection Firewall makes your PC invisible while you're on the Net, though it won't stop hackers from sending you viruses over e-mail or through a hacked Web site. Enable the firewall at the Networking control panel for each of your possible connections. (If you have an AOL and a separate broadband connection, for example, you must turn on the firewall for both; otherwise, you'll leave one connection open--and it's not on by default.)
We tested the firewall by visiting Gibson Research's site, which tests computer ports for vulnerabilities by using ShieldsUp and a variety of other security-probing Web programs. The results were encouraging. The site detected the IP address of our test system (not unusual even with hardware firewall products), but XP also stealthed, or completely hid, all of our networking ports. By concealing these virtual back doors, XP's firewall prevented most forms of script-based hack attacks--and more power to Microsoft for providing the tool. Its blocking ability matched that
of a hardware firewall on our test machine (Sohoware BroadGuard) and
software firewalls from Norton and Zone Labs, although it did not keep a
log of hack attempts as ZoneAlarm does. So does it replace these third-party options? No, not really, but if you don't have them installed,
it's nice to have this option already in your operating system.