Windows XP

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Windows XP
(Part of the Microsoft Windows family)

Screenshot of Windows XP SP2
Web site:
Release information
Release date: October 25, 2001 info
Current version: Service Pack 2 (SP2) ( August 6, 2004) info
Source model: Shared source
License: Microsoft EULA
Kernel type: Hybrid kernel
Support status
Currently active.
Further reading
  • Features new to Windows XP
  • Development of Windows XP

Windows XP is a line of operating systems developed by Microsoft Corporation for use on general-purpose computer systems, including home and business desktops, notebook computers, and media centers. The letters "XP" stand for experience. Codenamed Whistler after Whistler, British Columbia as many Microsoft employees ski at the resort, during its development, Windows XP is the successor to both Windows 2000 and Windows Me, and is the first consumer-oriented operating system produced by Microsoft to be built on the Windows NT kernel and architecture. With the release of Windows XP, the development of operating systems based on the Windows 9x architecture was discontinued. Windows XP was first released on October 25, 2001, and as of 2006 is the most recent consumer version of Microsoft Windows available, with over 400 million copies in use, according to an estimate by an IDC analyst.

The most common editions of the operating system are Windows XP Home Edition, which is targeted at home users, and Windows XP Professional, which has additional features such as support for Windows Server domains and dual processors, and is targeted at power users and business clients. Windows XP Media Centre Edition consists of Windows XP Professional with new features enhancing the ability to record and watch TV shows, watch DVDs, listen to music and more. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is designed to run the ink-aware Tablet PC platform. Two separate 64-bit versions of Windows XP were also released, Windows XP 64-bit Edition for IA-64 ( Itanium) processors and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition for x86-64 processors.

Windows XP is known for its improved stability and efficiency over previous versions of Windows. It presents a significantly redesigned graphical user interface, a change Microsoft promoted as more user-friendly than previous versions of Windows. New software management capabilities were introduced to avoid the " DLL hell" that plagued older consumer versions of Windows. It is also the first version of Windows to use product activation to combat software piracy, a restriction that did not sit well with some users and privacy advocates. Windows XP has also been criticized by some users for security vulnerabilities, tight integration of applications such as Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, and for aspects of its user interface.

Windows Vista is scheduled to be the next major revision of Microsoft Windows, with a planned release date of November 30, 2006 for volume license customers, with a worldwide general release following on January 30, 2007.


Diagram representing the main editions of Windows  XP. It is based on the category of the edition (grey) and codebase (black arrow).
Diagram representing the main editions of Windows XP. It is based on the category of the edition (grey) and codebase (black arrow).

The two major editions are Windows XP Home Edition, designed for home users, and Windows XP Professional, designed for business and power-users. Other builds of Windows XP include those built for specialized hardware and crippled versions sold in Europe and select developing economies.

Windows XP Professional offers a number of features unavailable in the Home Edition, including:

  • Able to become part of a Windows Server domain — a group of computers that are remotely managed by one or more central servers (many businesses that use Windows have a Windows Server and a domain)
  • Sophisticated access control scheme that allows specific permissions on files to be granted to specific users under normal circumstances. However, users can use tools other than Windows Explorer (like cacls or File Manager), or restart to Safe Mode to modify access control lists.
  • Remote Desktop server, which allows a PC be operated by another Windows XP user over a local area network or the Internet
  • Offline Files and Folders, which allow the PC to automatically store a copy of files from another networked computer and work with them while disconnected from the network
  • Encrypting File System, which encrypts files stored on the computer's hard drive so they cannot be read by another user, even with physical access to the storage medium
  • Centralized administration features, including Group Policies, Automatic Software Installation and Maintenance, Roaming User Profiles, and Remote Installation Service (RIS)
  • Support for two physical central processing units (CPU). The number of CPU cores and Hyper-threading capabilities on modern CPUs are considered to be part of a single physical processor.

Windows XP for specialized hardware

Microsoft has also customized Windows XP to suit different markets and there are now several different versions available. Five different versions of XP for specific hardware were designed, two of them specifically for 64-bit processors.

Windows XP 64-bit Edition 
This edition was designed specifically for Itanium-based workstations. This edition was discontinued in early 2005, after HP, the last distributor of Itanium-based workstations, stopped selling Itanium systems marketed as 'workstations'. However, Itanium support continues in the server editions of Windows.
Windows XP Professional x64 Edition 
Not to be confused with the previous 64-bit Itanium edition of Windows XP, this edition is based on Windows Server 2003 and supports AMD's AMD64 64-bit extension of the Intel IA-32 architecture. This is found in AMD's Opteron and Athlon 64 chips, as well as Intel's chips implementing their broadly compatible EM64T extension.
Microsoft had previously supported other microprocessors with earlier versions of the Windows NT operating system line (including two 64-bit lines, the DEC Alpha and the MIPS R4000, although Windows NT used them as 32-bit processors). The files necessary for all of the architectures were included on the same installation CD and did not require the purchase of separate versions.
Windows XP Media Centre Edition 
This edition is designed for Media centre PCs. Originally, it was only available bundled with one of these computers, and could not be purchased separately. In 2003 the Media Center Edition was updated as "Windows XP Media Centre Edition 2003", which added additional features such as FM radio tuning. Another update was released in 2004, and again in 2005, which was the first edition available for System Builders.
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 
Intended for specially-designed notebook/laptop computers called tablet PCs, the Tablet PC Edition is compatible with a pen-sensitive screen, supporting handwritten notes and portrait-oriented screens. It cannot be purchased separately from a Tablet PC.
Windows XP Embedded 
An edition for specific consumer electronics, set-top boxes, kiosks/ ATMs, medical devices, arcade video games, point-of-sale terminals, and Voice Over Internet Protocol ( VoIP) components.
Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs 
In July 2006, Microsoft introduced a "thin-client" version of Windows XP called Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs, which targets older machines (as early as the original Pentium). It will only be available to Software Assurance customers, who would like to upgrade to Windows XP to take advantage of its security and management capabilities, but can't afford to purchase new hardware. Applications will typically be run on a remote server using Remote Desktop.

Windows XP Starter Edition

Windows XP Starter Edition is a lower-cost version of Windows XP available in Thailand, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, India, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela. It is similar to Windows XP Home, but is limited to low-end hardware, can only run 3 programs at a time, and has some other features either removed or disabled by default.

According to a Microsoft press release, Windows XP Starter Edition is "a low-cost introduction to the Microsoft Windows XP operating system designed for first-time desktop PC users in developing countries." It is seen as an effort to fight unauthorized copying of Windows XP and possibly the spread of GNU/Linux-based systems in Asia and South America.


The Starter Edition includes some special features for non-US markets where consumers may not be computer literate. Not found in the Home Edition, these include localized help features for those who may not speak English, a country-specific computer wallpaper and screensavers, and other default settings designed for easier use than typical Windows XP installations.

In addition, the Starter Edition also has some unique limitations to prevent it from displacing more expensive versions of Windows XP. Only three applications can be run at once on the Starter Edition, and each application may only open three windows. The maximum screen resolution is limited to 1024×768, and there is no support for workgroup networking or domains. In addition, the Starter Edition is licensed only for low-end processors like Intel's Celeron or AMD's Duron. There is also a 256MB limit on main memory, and an 80GB disk size limit (Microsoft has not made it clear, however, if this is for total disk space, per partition, or per disk). There are also fewer options for customizing the themes, desktop, and taskbar.

Market adoption

On October 9, 2006, Microsoft announced that they reached a milestone of 1,000,000 units of Windows XP Starter Edition sold. In the mass market, however, the Starter Edition has not had much success. Many markets where it is available have seen the uptake of illegally cracked or pirated versions of the software instead.

Windows XP Edition N

In March 2004, the European Commission fined Microsoft €497 million ($603 million USD) and ordered the company to provide a version of Windows without Windows Media Player. The Commission concluded that Microsoft "broke European Union competition law by leveraging its near monopoly in the market for PC operating systems onto the markets for work group server operating systems and for media players". Microsoft is currently appealing the ruling. In the meantime, a court-compliant version has been released. This version does not include the company's Windows Media Player but instead encourages users to pick and download their own media player. Microsoft wanted to call this version Reduced Media Edition, but EU regulators objected and suggested the Edition N name, with the N signifying "not with Media Player" for both Home and Professional editions of Windows XP. Due to the fact that it is sold at the same price as the version with Windows Media Player included, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Fujitsu Siemens have chosen not to stock the product. However, Dell did offer the operating system for a short time. Consumer interest has been low, with roughly 1,500 units shipped to OEMs, and no reported sales to consumers.

New and updated features

Windows XP introduced several new features to the Windows line, including:

  • Faster start-up and hibernation sequences;
  • The ability to discard a newer device driver in favour of the previous one (known as driver rollback), should a driver upgrade not produce desirable results;
  • A new, arguably more user-friendly interface, including the framework for developing themes for the desktop environment;
  • Fast user switching, which allows a user to save the current state and open applications of their desktop and allow another user to log on without losing that information;
  • The ClearType font rendering mechanism, which is designed to improve text readability on Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and similar monitors;
  • The Remote Desktop functionality, which allows users to connect to a computer running Windows XP from across a network or the Internet and access their applications, files, printers, and devices; and
  • Support for most DSL modems and wireless network connections, as well as networking over FireWire.

User interface

Default theme vs. Classic theme

Windows XP features a new task-based graphical user interface. The Start menu and search capability were redesigned and many visual effects were added, including:

  • A translucent blue selection rectangle in Explorer
  • A watermark-like graphic on folder icons, indicating the type of information stored in the folder.
  • Drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop
  • Task-based sidebars in Explorer windows ("common tasks")
  • The ability to group the taskbar buttons of the windows of one application into one button
  • The ability to lock the taskbar and other toolbars to prevent accidental changes
  • The highlighting of recently added programs on the Start menu
  • Shadows under menus (Windows 2000 had shadows under mouse pointers, but not menus)

Windows XP analyzes the performance impact of visual effects and uses this to determine whether to enable them, so as to prevent the new functionality from consuming excessive additional processing overhead. Users can further customize these settings. Some effects, such as alpha blending (transparency and fading), are handled entirely by many newer video cards. However, if the video card is not capable of hardware alpha blending, performance can be substantially hurt and Microsoft recommends the feature should be turned off manually. Windows XP adds the ability for Windows to use "Visual Styles" to change the user interface. However, visual styles must be cryptographically signed by Microsoft to run. Luna is the name of the new visual style that ships with Windows XP, and is enabled by default for machines with more than 64 MB of RAM. Luna refers only to one particular visual style, not to all of the new user interface features of Windows XP as a whole. In order to use unsigned visual styles, many users turn to software such as TGTSoft's StyleXP or Stardock's WindowBlinds. Some users "patch" the uxtheme.dll file that restrict the ability to use visual styles, created by the general public or the user, on Windows XP.

The default wallpaper, Bliss, is a BMP photograph of a landscape in the Napa Valley outside Napa, California, with rolling green hills and a blue sky with stratocumulus and cirrus clouds.

The Windows 2000 "classic" interface can be used instead if preferred. Several third party utilities exist that provide hundreds of different visual styles. In addition, another Microsoft-created theme, called " Royale", was included with Windows XP Media Centre Edition, and was also released for other versions of Windows XP, but has since been removed from the original Microsoft New Zealand package. The Luna theme uses 4 more megabytes of RAM than the "Classic" Windows theme, so Classic can possibly improve performance on lower-end systems.

Over 100 of the new icons were created by The Iconfactory, best known for their freeware Mac icons.

Windows XP also has a command line interface (CLI), cmd.exe, for executing single commands or for running scripts called Batch files. The syntax for the language of the Windows XP CLI is not as well-documented by Microsoft in the built-in Help as many GUI features. A simple list of the basic commands is available at the command prompt by typing "help"; and somewhat more complete command syntax may be found by typing "command_name /?" for any command.

Service packs

Microsoft occasionally releases service packs for its Windows operating systems to fix problems and add features.

Service Pack 1

Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows XP was released on September 9, 2002. Its most notable new features were USB 2.0 support and a Set Program Access and Defaults utility. For the first time, users could control the default application for activities such as web browsing and instant messaging, as well as hide access to some of Microsoft's bundled programs. This utility was later brought into the older Windows 2000 operating system with its Service Pack 3. Service Pack 1a was later released to remove Microsoft's Java virtual machine as a result of a lawsuit with Sun Microsystems.

LBA-48, which allowed the OS to view and use HDD space above 137 GB, was enabled by default. Native support for Serial ATA was added.

Support for Windows XP Service Pack 1 ended on October 10, 2006.

Service Pack 2

Service Pack 2 (SP2) (codenamed Springboard) was released on August 6, 2004 after several delays, with a special emphasis on security. Unlike previous service packs, SP2 adds new functionality to Windows XP, including an enhanced firewall, improved Wi-Fi support with a wizard utility, a pop-up ad blocker for Internet Explorer, and Bluetooth support. Security enhancements include a major revision to the included firewall which was renamed to Windows Firewall and is enabled by default, advanced memory protection that takes advantage of the NX bit that is incorporated into newer processors to stop buffer overflow attacks, and removal of raw socket support (which supposedly limits the damage done by "zombie" machines: infected computers that can be used remotely to launch denial of service attacks). Additionally, security-related improvements were made to e-mail and web browsing. Windows XP Service Pack 2 includes the Windows Security Centre, which provides a general overview of security on the system, including the state of anti-virus software, Windows Update, and the new Windows Firewall. Third-party anti-virus and firewall applications can interface with the new Security Centre.

Windows Movie Maker 2 has a new interface and more transitions, video effects and options. A full list of service fixes and modifications in SP2 is available on Microsoft's website. When the service pack was released some programs did stop working, and Microsoft officially listed several of them on its website. The company AssetMetrix reports that one out of ten computers that upgraded to SP2 had severe compatibility problems with their applications.

SP2 also includes major updates to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and Windows XP Media Centre Edition, and supports 24 new languages.

There were also some visual changes made with Service Pack 2. On the opening screen (where it says Microsoft Windows XP with the three scrolling squares), the "(C)1985-2001" designation at the bottom was removed, and the edition name was removed (e.g. "Home Edition" or "Professional"). In the Home Edition version the scrolling squares were originally green but have now been replaced with blue ones. In addition, the Wireless Network Connection Icon, which used to show two computer symbols (like the LAN Connection Icon) now shows just one, with a radio wave symbol on the right side.

While well received in general, Service Pack 2 was not without its critics. Thomas Greene from The Register claimed that SP2 was merely a placebo of sorts in terms of features, fixes, and security updates:

"While we found that there are indeed a few minor improvements worthy of acknowledgment, in particular, some rather low-level improvements that don't show to the admin or user, overall, SP2 did little to improve our system's practical security, leaving too many services and networking components enabled, bungling permissions, leaving IE and OE vulnerable to malicious scripts, and installing a packet filter that lacks a capacity for egress filtering."

Service Pack 3

Windows XP Service Pack 3 is currently in development. It will be released after Windows Vista has been finished. As of October 2006, Microsoft's web site indicates a "preliminary" release date of "1H 2008".

Service Pack 3 is speculated to include Windows Media Player 11, Internet Explorer 7 and back-ported technologies initially created for Windows Vista, but Microsoft has not made any official statement on feature sets. A document on Microsoft's web site suggests that Service Pack 3 will include additional support for doing true "per-user" application installing. Another page suggests improvements to managing the list of "hidden" wireless networks.

A site titled The Hotfix has been reported as keeping an up-to-date list of downloadable hotfixes that will be included in Service Pack 3. Many of the hotfixes on the site have not yet been officially released by Microsoft and users have been warned to not install them all, but many of the fixes have been known to solve specific problems that SP3 will eventually address.

Common criticisms

Security issues

Windows XP has been criticized for its susceptibility to malware, viruses, trojan horses and worms. Security issues are compounded by the fact that users of the Home edition, by default, receive an administrator account that provides unrestricted access to the underpinnings of the system. If the administrator's account is broken into, there is no limit to the control that can be asserted over the compromised PC.

Windows, with its large market share, has historically been a tempting target for virus creators. Security holes are often invisible until they are exploited, making preemptive action difficult. Microsoft has stated that the release of patches to fix security holes is often what causes the spread of exploits against those very same holes, as crackers figured out what problems the patches fixed, and then launch attacks against unpatched systems.

In an effort to slow down the rate at which malicious programs can spread to uninfected computers, Service Pack 2 lowered the limit on outgoing TCP/IP connection attempts from 65,535 to 10. There can be no more than this many incomplete outgoing connections being attempted at any one time; additional connection attempts will be queued. This limit can adversely affect legitimate software such as peer-to-peer applications. The "tcpip.sys" system file can be patched to raise the limit to its former value.

User interface and performance

Critics have claimed that the default Windows XP user interface (Luna) adds visual clutter and wastes screen space while offering no new functionality and running more slowly - with some even calling it 'the Fisher-Price interface'. Users who do not like the new interface can easily switch back to the Windows Classic theme. However, this theme does not entirly copy the windows 9.x GUI.

Integration of operating system features

In light of the United States v. Microsoft case which resulted in Microsoft being convicted for abusing its operating system monopoly to overwhelm competition in other markets, Windows XP has drawn fire for integrating user applications such as Windows Media Player and Windows Messenger into the operating system, as well as for its close ties to the Windows Live ID service.

Backward Compatiblity

Some users switching from Windows 9x to XP dislike it's lack of DOS support. Although XP comes with the ability to run programs in a backward compatibility mode, as well as a command program which is more like a 9x "Dos Box" than CMD, XP still has trouble running many old DOS programs. This is largly due to the fact that it is NT based and does not use DOS as a base OS. There are work arounds such as the open source DOSBox and FreeDOS.

Product activation

While product activation and licensing servers are common for business and industrial software (especially software sold on a per-user basis for large sums of money), Windows XP gave many casual computer users their first introduction to it. The system was introduced by Microsoft to curb unauthorized distribution of Windows XP. Activation requires the computer or the user to activate with Microsoft within a certain amount of time in order to continue using the operating system. If the user's computer system ever changes — for example, if two or more relevant components of the computer itself are upgraded — Windows may refuse to run until the user reactivates with Microsoft.

Copying restrictions

Microsoft Windows XP service packs are designed so that they will not install on computers running installations of Windows XP that use product keys known to be widely used in unauthorized installations. These product keys are unique to each boxed (or bundled) copy of Windows XP and are included with the product documentation, but a small number of product keys have been posted on the Internet and are used for a large number of unauthorized installations. The service packs contain a list of these keys and will not update copies of Windows XP that use them.

Microsoft developed a new key verification engine for Windows XP Service Pack 2 that could detect illicit keys, even those that had never been used before. After an outcry from security consultants who feared that denying security updates to illegal installations of Windows XP would have wide-ranging consequences even for legal owners, Microsoft elected to disable the new key verification engine. Service Pack 2 only checks for the same small list of commonly used keys as Service Pack 1. This means that while Service Pack 2 will not install on copies of Windows XP which use the older set of copied keys, those who use keys which have been posted more recently may be able to update their systems.

Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications

Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications is a utility that checks the legitimacy of a Windows XP license. If the license key is judged not genuine, it displays a nag screen at regular intervals asking the user to buy a license from Microsoft. In addition, the user's access to Microsoft Update is restricted to critical security updates, and as such, new versions of DirectX, Windows Defender, Internet Explorer and other Microsoft products will refuse to install.

The download is itself marked as a "Critical Security Update", causing Automatic Updates to download it without user intervention. However, unlike most critical updates, the Notifications component does not install automatically; you must accept the supplemental EULA provided before it can install.

Once installed, WGA Notifications "phones home" to Microsoft every time the computer is connected to the Internet. This behaviour has been criticized by users claiming the program to be spyware for these reasons, and by others claiming that they have a licensed copy of Windows that WGA Notifications mistakenly identified as a pirate copy and damaged.

While in the testing phase, Microsoft did not include an uninstallation utility, but rather gave the user manual removal instructions that do not work with the final build.

Strictly speaking, neither the download nor the install of the Notifications is mandatory; the user can change their Automatic Update settings to allow them to choose what updates may be downloaded for installation. If the update is already downloaded, the user can choose not to accept the supplemental EULA provided for the Notifications. In both cases, the user can also request that the update is not presented again.

As of 2006, Microsoft is currently involved in a class action lawsuit brought forth in California, on grounds that it violated the spyware laws in the state with its Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications program .

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