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Win XP: To upgrade or not to upgrade?

That is the question for CNET's Joe Wilcox, who examines the latest test version of the upcoming Microsoft operating system.

If I had a couple of bucks for every e-mail I get asking about Windows XP, you wouldn't be reading this. I'd have enough money to quit writing and live on a beach somewhere.

So to question numero uno, "Should I upgrade to Windows XP?" the answer is "absolutely!"

The most recent test versions of Windows XP show dramatic improvements over beta 2, or build 2462, which Microsoft in March distributed to about 500,000 testers. Last week, I got my greedy, little hands on XP build 2486, one of the most recent versions to include Windows Messenger.

Microsoft wouldn't supply a copy, so I had to call on some "friends" to help me secure the software. It's a great story, involving temporary file transfer protocol (FTP) servers and a massive download via broadband, but unfortunately this yarn is not for public consumption.

What I found in build 2486 shattered my earlier misgivings about Windows XP, when I compared Microsoft's operating system to Mac OS X. In fact, I now would easily give the nod to Windows XP over Mac OS X, which in shipping form hasn't matured as much as Microsoft's beta operating system.

Where Windows 95, 98 and Windows Me failed to deliver in stability, running multiple programs at once, or managing memory, Windows XP brings home the gold medal. If anything, I have to fault Microsoft for not delivering these features six years ago with Windows 95.

The software giant also finally delivered a robust and stable operating system that is backward compatible with most existing software. Windows 2000, for example, pleased many businesses with its stability but tanked running many consumer software programs and games.

I loaded up Windows XP with some of the wackiest stuff I could find and ran into few compatibility issues. Even my daughter's "Sonic the Hedgehog" games, which choked under beta 2, ran perfectly on build 2486. For programs that are cranky, people can switch to "compatibility mode," which tricks the software into perceiving its running on an older version of Windows.

ClearType and Smart Tags
Microsoft's finest achievement with Windows XP may have nothing to do with flashy features. The new operating system uses Microsoft's ClearType font-rendering technology, which makes text viewed on liquid-crystal displays (LCD) unbelievably sharp. I can only describe the difference between normal font rendering and ClearType as "shocking." For tube monitors, the technology does nothing. But for people with notebooks or using flat-panel displays, Windows XP could greatly improve how they work with their computers, particularly with documents and Web pages that display black text on a white background.

Overall, Windows XP handles like an operating system primed for the Internet and entertainment. People can cruise the Web using either MSN Explorer 6 or Internet Explorer 6. Internet Explorer 6 delivers some pleasing enhancements, including Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), more flexible and stronger security and a "Media" pane that optionally runs down the left-hand side of the browser.

The pane connects to Microsoft's Web site and optionally plays songs or streaming video within the browser instead of using the stand-alone player. But I found the display too small for video.

Internet Explorer's most controversial feature, Smart Tags, will delight some people, but drive others nuts. First introduced in Office XP, Smart Tags offer pull-down menus that can connect to related content in other Microsoft programs or on the Web. In Internet Explorer 6, a squiggly red line appears under text for which there is a Smart Tag. The Smart Tag for Howard University, for example, pulls up a box with links to academics, admissions, alumni, athletics, news events and the college's home page. While I found Smart Tags handy, other testers I spoke with complained the squiggly lines are annoying.

You've got the music
For music and video aficionados, Windows Media Player for Windows XP delivers a lot of entertainment value, although people may pay an unusual price for it. Let's start with video. Microsoft's video codecs deliver crisp, clear playback over the Web, particularly via cable or DSL broadband connections. Windows Media Player is smart, too. In earlier versions of the product, I would have to reset the streaming speed for each music video from The Windows XP version handles this automatically. It's a small touch, but one that may stick with people.

Windows Media Player also delivers remarkably crisp full-screen video and marvelous DVD playback. But with DVD, there is a catch. Because Microsoft didn't want to pay a licensing fee for the decoder required to play DVDs, consumers must get their own--usually with another program, such as InterVideo's WinDVD.

As far as digital music goes, the new media player delivers mixed results because of music format support. Microsoft this week shipped to testers Windows XP build 2494, the last version expected before the preview release is finalized as early as late next week. Even this close to the preview, Microsoft hasn't decided how far it will go supporting MP3, the most popular digital music format. While the new Windows Media Player will play files in the format, the program may not be able to "rip" MP3s at high quality or without a third-party decoder. Microsoft clearly favors its own Windows Media Audio format for "ripping" or "burning" MP3s.