It's been 12 months since we first evaluated Windows XP as a music platform, and it now seems to be the OS of choice for most manufacturers. So should musicians who have been holding back now take the plunge and upgrade?
Since I first reviewed Windows XP in SOS February 2002, many people have moved over to it from other Microsoft operating systems. However, judging by a recent SOS Forum poll, there still seems to be a fairly even split between musicians running Windows 98SE and Windows XP, along with a smaller number of (albeit enthusiastic) users of Windows 2000, plus a few stragglers using the ill-fated Windows Millennium Edition.
Windows 2000 is similar enough in concept to XP to be worth considering as an alternative (see box), but ME is essentially Windows 98SE with some features from Windows 2000 bolted on, including its updated graphic look, and gave musicians particular problems with WDM drivers. In fact, it was so badly received that some PC magazines subsequently explained how best to uninstall it and return to Windows 98SE.
The writing's now on the wall for 98SE users as well. Although existing applications and soundcard drivers for this platform should hopefully be mature and relatively bug-free by now, Microsoft will be starting to phase out support for it in July 2003, along with NT 4.0. Moreover, since virtually every new PC is now supplied with Windows XP pre-installed, 98 users will become more and more in the minority. Major developers such as Steinberg have already introduced new products like Cubase SX and even the Plex VST Instrument that specify Windows 2000 or XP as system requirements. Although it's still possible to install these on systems running Windows 98SE, no guarantees are given, and I expect this trend to continue as programmers discover the best ways to optimise their code for the newest XP platform, and don't want to compromise it in any way.
While I firmly agree with the maxim "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", then, the case for mass migration to XP is becoming stronger. I can understand some people's reluctance to embrace Product Activation, but in practice I've not come across anyone who hasn't been able to authorise multiple boots of Windows XP on the same PC, and it's not as if you have to pass on personal details to Microsoft either — for most people it's a simple automated service on a 24/7 freephone number requiring you to type in a set of numbers to receive the code that unlocks your system permanently. This issue apart, the changeover to Windows XP largely revolves around performance and compatibility issues, so, exactly a year since my XP review, let's look at the current situation for the PC Musician.
For me, the single most important benefit from running Windows XP is that like its platform predecessors (Windows NT 4.0 and 2000), every application runs in its own section of 'protected' memory. This means that even if one of your applications crashes badly, it won't take the whole machine with it. Compare that with the situation in Windows 98SE, where in my experience an application crash nearly always offers just one solution, which is to press the hardware reset button, instigating a complete reboot of Windows, followed by relaunching each of your music applications, and resending any data to your soft synths and samplers.
Another fundamental area that particularly benefits musicians is the removal of Resource limits. As I reported in SOS December 2001, running a MIDI + Audio sequencer alongside another major application like Gigastudio, and then trying to open a fully fledged wave editor at the same time can bring your Windows 98/SE/ME machine to its virtual knees, with screen redraws slowing to a crawl, audio dropouts, a newly opened window taking several minutes to be initialised, and eventually a full-on crash that requires a cold boot. This simply never happens with the Windows NT, 2000 and XP family, since the archaic 64k Resource limits have been removed. Athough you may experience slightly slower operation once your various applications can't all fit in RAM simultaneously, they shouldn't crash on you routinely due to too many windows being open, or too many buttons, sliders, fonts and icons being loaded.
XP is sometimes accused of being a Resource hog, but this is generally a reference to its liking for RAM (an absolute minimum of 256MB is recommended for musicians, and preferably 512MB or more), and hard disk space. The latter is partially due to its hibernation feature, which if enabled will create a file on disk as large as your system RAM, and because XP seems to install more setup data so it doesn't need to keep subsequently asking for the CD-ROM. However, with hibernation disabled my XP partition only hovers around 2GB in size.
Many people have used the SOS forum and others to report their experiences when changing from Windows 98SE to XP, and the vast majority have been overwhelmingly positive. Some do install and abandon XP within a few days after experiencing some initial hiccoughs, but where these have been later followed up they mostly seem to be narrowed down to conflicts with older hardware components like scanners, printers and SCSI cards (the name Advansys has cropped up on various occasions), not installing the latest hardware drivers, or not having suitable XP drivers at all.
XP is actually shipped with a far wider range of drivers for expansion cards and recent motherboard chipsets than Windows 98SE or 2000, but it's still important to download and install the latest XP drivers from each manufacturer's web site for best performance. For instance, occasional MIDI and audio glitches on my XP partition disappeared after I updated my Matrox G450 graphic card drivers.
There have also been various problems with CD burning that people never used to get with the same PC under Windows 98SE. Most problems in this category are due to conflicts between XP's new integral CD-burning functions and dedicated applications like InCD and Ahead's Nero, as I reported in last month's SOS, but as long as you uninstall these before installing XP, and then make sure you reinstall the latest updates, the majority of CD problems seem to go away as well. A few users have also had to change the odd BIOS setting to achieve stable operation, or even update the BIOS of their graphics card.
From the feedback I've received, the majority of musicians seem to be very pleased with the performance of XP with music software. When XP was first released there were still things to watch out for when running packages such as Cubase VST 5.1 and Wavelab 3.0, but subsequent Steinberg releases such as SX and Wavelab 4.0 have no such problems. SX did initially have some MIDI timing problems but these were cured for most users with the version 1.03 release.
Anyone still running Logic Audio on a PC has much wider issues to consider before moving across to XP, as Emagic are planning to discontinue the Windows version altogether, but Sonar has always provided lower latency with most soundcards on Windows 2000 and now XP than it did on the 98/ME platform, largely because it benefits from WDM soundcard drivers. I've personally come across very little software that won't run under XP. The Hubi's Loopback utility doesn't, but you can replace it with MIDI Yoke from the same developers who wrote MIDI-Ox (www.midiox.com).
Soundcard performance is the single most important aspect for the PC musician, as the ultimate performance of your whole audio system hinges on it. Despite the very slow and often painfully frustrating uptake by soundcard manufacturers of the WDM format, it's now almost universally recognised as capable of providing excellent glitch-free performance with Windows XP down to very low latencies. Nearly all soundcards now have XP-compatible drivers, and I've noticed many musicians claiming lower latencies with XP than 98SE, often dropping by a factor of three or more. However, as always, do make sure that you have installed the latest soundcard driver version, since both performance and stability has improved with some soundcards as the driver developers got more XP-specific experience.
Whatever make and model you're using, a wise move before making the final decision to move to XP would be to visit a few forums to see if there are still outstanding issues with it. M Audio seem to be working hard to resolve a few outstanding XP issues with their Delta series, mostly when attempting to run more than one card. Other soundcard manufacturers like ESI Pro (Ego Sys) still recommend installing XP in Standard rather than ACPI mode to avoid occasional blue-screen problems, although this doesn't seem to be a general issue.
It's a measure of the confidence of some manufacturers that they are providing lower-latency XP options than in their Windows 98 drivers. My Echo Mia for instance provides a variable GSIF buffer size in XP, rather than the low but fixed 128 samples provided under Windows 98. I've been using the lowest 64-sample setting for a 3 to 4.5 ms latency ever since I first started with Windows XP, and haven't heard a single glitch to date. Echo also admit that their latest VxD-format drivers for Windows 98, 98SE and ME are very similar to the ones originally written in March 2001, while their 2000/XP drivers continue to incorporate new features along with bug-fixes. Expect this trend to continue.
Overall, most musicians have experienced better and more stable performance from XP than 98SE, with greater stability and lower latency values. Some have even found songs that play back perfectly with XP glitch and cause dropouts under Windows 98SE when running exactly the same application, and even show lower CPU overhead values. This may be because XP pays more attention to real-time performance, but if you can manage to run a few more plug-ins, it has to be good news.
Like many musicians, I was impressed with Windows XP, but carried on using Windows 98SE for a long time after XP appeared because it worked well for me, I knew it inside out, and I didn't want to take the plunge part-way through a music project. However, once I started using some of the new features of Cubase SX in anger (in my case the real-time MIDI plug-ins), I just had to move across, and having subsequently measured various aspects of audio performance in my two SOS latency features, I'm even more impressed.
Although many musicians install all their applications in one huge partition, I still think that maintaining a separate music-only partition makes more sense, since you can keep it clean and simple, clear of unnecessary Internet clutter and mainstream applications, as well as implementing further tweaks that may not benefit other software. Then, using a boot manager utility, you can choose between the various options each time you switch on your PC (see SOS May 2001 for more on this).
I would still recommend creating a fresh install rather than upgrading over the top of an existing installation, whatever version of Windows it is (see the 'Over The Top' Upgrades box for upgrade issues). If you take this approach, you can run the new XP partition side by side with your existing music partition until you're sure everything is hunky-dory, and then delete the old one to regain some hard drive space, or leave it in case of emergency as a backup system.
The final hurdle for those who have amassed loads of copy-protected music software is to get it reauthorised for their new XP installation. This won't be a problem with dongles, key-disk installs or serial numbers — one of the reasons why I've never had an issue with these copy protection systems. However, it's trickier for the growing number of challenge/response protection systems, like those used by developers including AAS (Tassman and Lounge Lizard), Sonic Foundry, Tascam (Gigastudio) and Waves. Thankfully, these companies are all aware of XP migration, so getting a repeat authorisation for your new partition shouldn't be a problem. However, if you get any problems in this area, let me know.
The bottom line is this. If you're currently running Windows 98SE, are happy with its performance, and don't intend to install any more new software, you'll probably be safe to carry on as you are for the foreseeable future. However, if you've ever got frustrated with its limitations, want to try out new features and achieve better performance with the latest MIDI + Audio software, then Windows XP looks to be the best bet for the PC musician. Just make sure that all your devices and drivers are fully XP-compliant.