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XP as a design platform

Tom Arah looks into Windows XP as a design platform

A number of readers have written in asking about the implications of Windows XP for those involved in design. Mike Hardman from Aldershot put his finger on the most relevant issues: "Have you had a chance to investigate Windows XP as a publishing platform? My questions focus on DTP and design-specific issues: ATM and font management, support for main design products from Adobe et al., driver support, ICC/ICM, significance of ClearType and of My Pictures image management, etc". Hopefully my experience of XP will help answer some of the questions raised.

In many ways I've been waiting for XP for over five years. As a broadly non-technical user I want the plug-and-play simplicity of Windows 98 while as a professional user I want the robust reliability of the NT kernel. After investigating NT back in I decided I wasn't ready to leave the security of 98 while with Windows 2000 I did make the leap and - after some teething problems - have certainly appreciated the difference. With XP though Microsoft finally merges the two platforms to offer ease of use and rock solid stability. With the best of both worlds and a single platform for the future, hopes were understandably high for the new release.

After NT and 2000, however, I have become wary about changing operating system. I therefore decided to buy in a sacrificial test machine. As my notebook was looking rather long in the tooth I took advantage of one of the amazing deals that the launch of XP has prompted and, as XP's focus is clearly on the design-conscious consumer, I found a bargain Sony Vaio to match. With an 800mhz Duron processor, DVD, USB, Firewire, Ethernet, a good screen, some understated styling and a prominent XP-Ready sticker I was ready to go.

Before upgrading I took the chance to take a look at Windows ME - and was seriously unimpressed. Microsoft promoted ME, as it is now doing with XP, as bringing the benefits of easy rich media to the average user - but features such as Explorer's image handling and MovieMaker are pathetically underpowered. At least installing dedicated applications was simple and, as you'd expect, I had no problem with all the major design applications - Photoshop, Acrobat, Corel Draw, Dreamweaver, Flash, Painter, Quark and so on. Likewise with some less well-known applications needed to make up for ME's failings such as CompuPic Pro for visual image management.

The Windows 95/98/ME interface is looking tired and dated.

For design intended for commercial print I still prefer to use Adobe Type 1 typefaces rather than TrueType fonts and here there was a problem. According to the help file, ME handles these natively but the Fonts Control Panel simply didn't recognise them. Eventually the problem was solved when I installed PageMaker which automatically installed Adobe Type Manager for handling Type 1 fonts. Something still wasn't quite right however and each time I exited PageMaker I got a "kernel32.dll" error. Another time I got a blue screen of death and found that my only way out was a reboot - something that seems like a dim and distant memory under 2000.

So far my Vaio/ME experience had been less than thrilling with ME looking underpowered, flakey, old-fashioned and out of its depth. The Vaio tries to make up the deficit by bundling a range of its own design-conscious media-based applications such as MG JukeBox for CD playing and ripping, MovieShaker for simple video control, PictureGear for managing photos and PictureToy for basic painting.

The intention is good and Sony deserve credit for recognising how users actually want to use their computers, but the result is a complete dog's dinner. Every application looks completely different from the next with each trying desperately to stand out for its interface rather than its functionality. The nadir is VisualFlow which is an image viewer of sorts in which you can drill down through your file tree to view thumbnails. For no explicable reason the default view has the thumbnails waving in space away from their filenames while another arranges the images in a snake pattern so that most of each image is obscured! This is design for its own sake and profoundly irritating. In fact it's worse - it's flashy design deliberately used to hide the lack of content.

The Vaio's own software values style over content.

At this stage I was getting quite jumpy about the whole project - maybe I'm just not cut out for the design-conscious leading-edge and should stick to professional apps and beige boxes. Having shelled out for an upgrade copy of XP though I was determined to see if it could redeem the situation. After the compatibility check which warned of a couple of potential problem areas (and conveniently saved its report to the desktop), the upgrade was very smooth and less than an hour later the Vaio had booted into the brave new world of XP.

As you'll probably appreciate by now I'm not a fan of design for design's sake so I was slightly worried - but I was soon won over. The hill and sky wallpaper might have a Teletubbies feel to it, but generally the look and feel does come as a breath of fresh air. It might not seem worth making a fuss of but it's amazing what a difference simple things like large 24-bit icons and shaded menu bars and buttons make to the working environment. Windows XP suddenly is a visually rich space.

The new look XP interface comes as a breath of fresh air.

XP's new design isn't just visual, it's also ergonomic. Again this set alarm bells ringing as I've not been a fan of Microsoft's recent interface innovations such as the incredible-shrinking menus. I was worried about XP changes such as the two-column Start menu but in practice I did find that having the most regularly used applications to hand often saved time. In other places XP adds steps such as with its redesigned Control Panel and with the grouping of documents from the same application on the Task Bar. Again though I found the XP approach much more workable - particularly when working with multiple Dreamweaver files which would have quickly filled the pre-XP Task Bar and become unreadable as a result.

OK enough on the interface changes - how did XP perform? In terms of peripherals of course everyone will have their own mix, but generally my experience was positive. XP included drivers for my Epson and HP printers out of the box though for some advanced features, such as reporting back on ink levels, you would have to download the latest drivers from the relevant web site.

Other USB-based peripherals such as my Canon scanner and external LaCie hard-drive were quickly recognised and their drivers installed from CD. Installing the HP8200e CD writer involved a quick trip to the HP web site to download an updated driver and soon I was copying files to it from within Explorer itself - a very welcome XP innovation. Installing my PCMCIA-based CompactFlash card-reader was easiest of all. Within seconds of sticking it in the slot, XP was helpfully asking if I wanted to copy the pictures on it over to my hard-disk, view them as a slideshow or print them.

In terms of the Vaio's own hardware, results were more mixed. My simple network is hardly testing the boundaries so XP's insistence on TCP/IP instead of the NetBEUI protocol wasn't an issue though this could be significant if you use legacy 95-based systems. In terms of the Firewire or i-Link port I'm still waiting on my DV camcorder so fingers crossed. The Vaio's onboard Connexant Ambit 56k modem however simply disappeared. In these circumstances XP recommends trying the latest 2000-compatible driver which I did. After warning that this hadn't been certificated, XP attempted to install it and promptly crashed. The similarity to Windows past ended there however as, on rebooting, XP automatically returned itself to its restore point so that no harm was done

Sitting between the hardware and software and negotiating between the two is the new look, user-friendly Control Panel. The control this offers over the display is comprehensive with plenty of themes including the Classic View which will probably appeal to business users and traditionalists. ICC profile-based colour management is available from the Display Properties Advanced option though I generally stick with Adobe's Gamma utility. Having said that, accurate colour management is little more than a dream on a notebook's LCD display.

On the other hand, a potential benefit of LCD displays is that they can take advantage of XP's new ClearType technology. This uses sub-pixel anti-aliasing based on the individual red, green and blue components of the LCD to increase horizontal resolution and so enable smoother screen fonts. The system certainly works but it also affects menu text making it slightly too bold and out of focus for my taste. While ClearType is definitely an advance for display-restricted handhelds, I don't think it's that beneficial for large notebook screens.

In terms of typefaces I was pleased to see that all my Type 1 fonts were up and running and listed in the Fonts control panel along with a range of the superior joint Microsoft/Adobe endorsed OpenType fonts. This support for PostScript fonts is clearly native to XP rather than reliant on Adobe Type Manager however, as this is disabled and unable to run. It's also impossible to uninstall so I'd recommend removing it before upgrading.

XP handles Type 1 and OpenType fonts as easily as TrueType.

Generally I'd say the friendlier face and more hand-holding approach of XP's Control Panel is one of its strengths - there's lots of technical control but it never seem intimidating. But how does XP handle the all-important software that actually does the work?

All the big names I mentioned earlier passed the compatibility test without problem and seemed to run as expected in the time I had to explore. A slight exception was Acrobat as the most common way this is used to create PDFs is through its Distiller virtual printer driver which went awol in the upgrade. Checking the Adobe site I came across http://www.adobe.com/products/XPinstallnotes.html which recommends that "you should first uninstall any Adobe drivers, fonts, and applications prior to performing the upgrade" and then reinstall - which is irritating but probably good general advice.

Of course how the applications look and feel under XP is very similar to the way they do under ME or 2000 as this is up to the developers. The only difference that hits you are the new-look scroll bars and the rich-blue title bars and surrounds to all windows which can be distracting under Photoshop. Much more disturbing is the performance. My Photoshop benchmark took 12 minutes 23 seconds compared to 10 minutes 44 seconds under ME - a serious 17% slowdown!

My guess is that XP's bigger footprint left less memory available for images and this led to the hit - and I'm assuming that extra RAM will cure the problem otherwise this could be a serious downside for the designer. Generally though XP certainly doesn't feel a slouch compared to ME and features like the faster start-up make a big difference. In particular, as XP's greater robustness means that you no longer need to shut down just to clear the system, you can hibernate rather than switch off and the resume-from-suspend is far faster. It might be mainly psychological but generally XP feels more responsive.

While all the main design applications seem happy under XP, the same can't be said of the Sony bundled software. During installation XP flagged two programs - Memory Stick Formatter and OpenMG Jukebox - that "do not support Windows XP" and one - PictureGear - that has "software compatibility issues". Having seen them I can live without them, but much more irritating was the fact that the Vaio's bundled DVD player, WinDVD, would not work (a friend had exactly the same problem upgrading to XP but with PowerDVD).

Potential problems are highlighted during the simple upgrade process.

During installation XP created a link to upgrade the DVD decoder, but from the WinDVD site it became clear that I would have to upgrade to a new version. Mysteriously XP's own Windows Media Player had no problem playing DVDs although it doesn't come with its own decoder. Things got even more complicated when I tried installing a dedicated XP version of MGI's DVDSoft Max. This refuses to run but bizarrely WinDVD now works!

I'm afraid this is looking very much like the Browser Wars where compatibility issues and general confusion helped push users away from third parties and into the safe hands of the in-built and apparently-free Microsoft solution. The inclusion of simple CD-ripping to WMA format and the omission of ripping to MP3 is another case in point. Looking on the more positive side, the main reason that Microsoft ultimately wins these wars is that it does eventually produce the best product and, wearing my end-user hat, I do have to say that I like the new Media Player and its one-stop media approach.

Thankfully Microsoft has also finally taken image control just as seriously as other media management (though I would suggest rolling a slideshow feature into Media Player). The new My Pictures directory is now available directly from the Start Menu and alongside the Thumbnail display mode offers a new option, Filmstrip, with a large preview of the currently selected image and reorderable thumbnails below. Explorer's Task Pane also prompts with dedicated picture commands for showing the images as a slide show and for online printing.

Best of all is the new Photo Printing Wizard which enables you to print multiple prints on the same page - an essential task that very few bitmap editors tackle themselves. While there are still areas, such as viewing images from multiple directories or keyword cataloguing, which only dedicated image management applications provide, XP's in-built support is all that most users will need. And with XP, Windows' picture support finally feels more than skin-deep. Again it's the little things, such as the folder icons themselves containing tiny image previews so that you get a taster of what pictures are in subdirectories, that show just how serious XP is about visual image management.

Image handling shows XP's new focus on visual file management.

So what's the overall verdict on XP? Upgrading from ME to XP is definitely far simpler than the switch from 95 to NT or 98 to 2000, but it's still not plain-sailing and I won't be upgrading my main 2000-based desktop system. Regarding my Vaio's lost applications and modem, after multiple trips to Sony's appalling style-over-content website, I finally discovered that "XP-Ready" doesn't actually mean ready for the retail version of XP. In fact, as I write, I'm back working under ME - after a very smooth uninstall - as I wait for a special Sony XP upgrade that will also patch the applications and BIOS.

In a way though this speaks volumes as I can't wait to get back to XP. Partly that's to do with the reliability of the NT kernel, but if I'm honest it's much more to do with the whole look and feel of XP. Basically the combination of the Vaio and XP is much more appealing than it is with ME or even 2000. And ultimately of course that comes down to design. Over time I'm sure I'll change my mind - and good design is always a moving target - but overall first impressions are very positive. Microsoft has done an excellent job of providing a rich and visual user-friendly environment that - unlike the flashy Sony applications and website - uses attractive but understated design to transparently reveal the true depth of content as-and-when you need it.

Good design can be defined as style and content working together. And XP is the best design platform for sound technical reasons but also because it's the first PC-based OS to take its own design seriously.

Tom Arah

February 2002


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