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First experiences with XP

For Dick Gordon, upgrading to the Windows XP operating system is a no-brainer.

"I want to be on the latest software, good, bad or indifferent," said Gordon, 63, a retiree from Inverness.

Mike Eak finds XP interesting and user-friendly. But he doesn't find it reason enough to rush out and buy his first PC. "The only thing holding me back is finances," said Eak, 45, of Dunedin.

Gordon and Eak were among seven St. Petersburg Times readers who tested Windows XP to determine if it lived up to Microsoft's claims, particularly for ease of use.

The group ranged from people upgrading their machines, such as Gordon, to those considering getting a first or new PC, such as Eak. And they reflected the challenge the tech industry faces during the holiday shopping season. While some will upgrade just because they like the new system, those thinking about getting a new PC will base their decisions on personal considerations, not technology alone.

For the test, Microsoft provided the software, Gateway set up three new PCs at its Clearwater showroom, Fuji Photo lent two of its new digital cameras and the Times came up with a list of tasks based on features of the new operating system. The list included handling digital photos, burning a music CD and setting up the PC for multiple users.

Not everything went smoothly, particularly for those upgrading rather than using brand new PCs. Debie Medeiros apparently had a defective XP disk that wouldn't let her install it. Another disk worked. Once she got the system home, XP balked at setting up her printer, although she eventually got it working.

"I just kind of noodled around," said Medeiros, 47, of St. Petersburg. "That's the way you learn."

Gordon got a warning message that his antivirus software would not work with XP, even though it was supposedly XP ready. He had to uninstall and then reinstall it. At home, Gordon's DVD player wouldn't work, so he spent $20 for a software upgrade. He also reported Internet connection problems with his Road Runner cable modem, but he wasn't sure whether XP or Road Runner was to blame.

Trudi Champion also got a warning about a conflict with her PCAnywhere software, which allows remote access between two PCs. But none of that discouraged the upgraders.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 12," said Champion, 54, of Trinity in Pasco County.

For new users, XP turned out to be friendly and easy to learn. They used Gateway PCs priced at $839, $1,499 and $2,064, all configurations capable of handling XP and including monitors. The PCs were set up but had not been turned on, so the testers had the same experience they would have had booting up a new computer for the first time at home.

"It's moderately easy," said Barry Levin, 83, of Palm Harbor. He used one of the Gateway computers with his wife, Ruth, 80. They are considering buying their first PC, he said, "but we recognize that we'll need help."

While testers were asked to do as much as possible without assistance, guidance was available from experienced hands such as Jim Thoman, Business Solutions group manager at Microsoft's Tampa office; Dave Dockery, president of the Tampa Bay Computer Society; and John Torro, Tech Times' Solutions columnist.

PC newbie Eak studied the screen as he maneuvered through the operating system and the various tasks without much help. "It's simpler than I had expected or what friends had said it'd be," he said.

Mike McCormick calls himself a "vanilla" PC user. At home, he sticks to basic functions such as word processing and e-mail on his Windows 95 machine that "belongs in the Smithsonian."

"This is Neapolitan," McCormick, 63, of Palm Harbor, said of XP. "It's like switching from a stick shift to automatic transmission" on a car.

But he, too, cited personal finances as a reason to wait before he buys.

The digital photo test drew the most comment. Testers used new Fuji digital cameras targeted at the family market and being touted as easy to handle (they were priced at $179 and $249).

After taking pictures, the testers plugged the camera into the PC. XP immediately recognized the camera and opened a window on the screen. No additional software was needed.

It gave users choices, from sending the photo as an e-mail attachment to publishing it on the Web or saving it to the hard drive. That was particularly attractive for Champion, who does family projects and a newsletter with images from her digital camera. She used her photo as her personal icon on the Welcome page.

But the testers also had points of disagreement about XP's performance. "It's faster, quite a bit faster actually," Medeiros said. But Gordon thinks it's about the same. He says the time it takes to go from the Welcome page to the new personal desktop that XP provides for each regular user wipes out any benefit of a speedier bootup process.

Dockery of the computer society spends a lot of time training people, and he sees benefits of XP for new users in particular. For example, he said his mother used a computer for months without realizing she could click tabs on dialog boxes to access other areas on her PC. But on XP, the tabs brighten when the cursor hovers over them, inviting a user to click on them.

"Microsoft has paid a tremendous amount of attention to the user interface to make it much easier for the newbie to learn the system," said Dockery, who later had his own installation problems with a faulty disk. "I can teach this operating system much better because of subtle changes" that were made.

Days after the test, Champion still called XP "wonderful," even though the system refused to recognize her modem.

"If there is a better word, I would use it," Champion said with a laugh. "I have recommended it to everyone I've spoken with."

_ Dave Gussow can be reached at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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