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Windows XP One Year On

PC Musician
By Martin Walker

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.

Like Windows NT and 2000, XP runs each application in its own section of 'protected' memory, so that even if one crashes the remainder of your PC will carry on regardless. You wouldn't be able to run this many applications successfully in Windows 98SE either, due to finite System Resource limits.Like Windows NT and 2000, XP runs each application in its own section of 'protected' memory, so that even if one crashes the remainder of your PC will carry on regardless. You wouldn't be able to run this many applications successfully in Windows 98SE either, due to finite System Resource limits.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.

Fundamental Benefits

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.

Once you open two or three music applications in Windows 98 or ME you may see this message. One of the benefits of moving to the Windows 2000/XP platform is that such issues are gone for ever.Once you open two or three music applications in Windows 98 or ME you may see this message. One of the benefits of moving to the Windows 2000/XP platform is that such issues are gone for ever.

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.

 XP Tweaks: An Update 
 Windows XP still benefits from some tweaks to suit our way of working (see my XP Tweaks feature in SOS March 2002, , for more details). However, while Windows 98's audio performance can sometimes be brought to its knees by a few wrong settings, Windows XP seems comparatively resilient, giving acceptable audio performance even with a totally standard installation.

From my own experience, and after gathering the latest evidence from quite a few sources, here's a brief revised discussion of what is definitely worth tweaking, and what may only provide a marginal improvement:

  • One 'must-do' XP tweak is to change Processor Scheduling to 'Background Services' rather than 'Programs' in the Advanced page of the System applet of Control Panel — ASIO drivers for instance run as background tasks, and benefit from the alteration. Intermittent background tasks such as System Restore, screen-savers, and Power Management are also worth disabling, and I still disable the majority of graphic extras because I don't like the sluggish feeling of fading and scrolling menus. The only box I have ticked in the Effects section of Display Appearance is 'Show window contents while dragging', since this makes repositioning the various sequencer windows to fit everything on screen so much easier.
  • Windows XP's ClearType font smoothing will always provide greater legibility with mainstream packages such as word processors, spreadsheets, and so on, although I've noticed that text scrolling with a few applications is much slower with it activated, and highlighting blocks of text using click and drag sometimes causes a lot of flickering. However, it may or may not improve the legibility of your music software, depending on how its text is created. Menu options, along with load and save dialogues, will always appear crisper. However, many sequencers use predefined bitmap images, in which case ClearType won't make any difference.
  • The ACPI versus Standard Mode installation debate is still raging in various forums, but I'm sticking to my advice that you should let XP install itself in the default ACPI Mode unless you know that your soundcard has specific problems with it (the Soundblaster Live! and some M Audio cards, for instance, seem to benefit from Standard Mode). If you're not sure, stick with ACPI, since you can always remove it from an existing installation if you run into problems by rerunning the XP setup routine as I described. Moreover, some modern motherboards now offer an Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller (APIC) that offers 24 interrupts under Windows XP in ACPI mode rather than the 16 available to Standard Mode, so if yours provides this feature you should always stick to ACPI. Apparently it's also faster at task-switching, leaving a tiny amount more CPU power for running applications.
  • When it come to Services, the general consensus is that while wading through them all and changing some from Automatic to Manual will release some of your system RAM, the system overhead improvements can prove vanishingly small. Many Services don't do anything most of the time, and disabling a Service that is needed can cause huge problems, and even prevent your PC from rebooting after the change. So, leave the majority of them alone unless you're struggling to load more audio samples into RAM.
 

Problem Areas

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.

Music Software & Soundcard Performance

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).

Some music applications like Cakewalk's Sonar provide significantly better performance under Windows XP, with ultra-low latencies such as the 1.5ms shown here.Some music applications like Cakewalk's Sonar provide significantly better performance under Windows XP, with ultra-low latencies such as the 1.5ms shown here.

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.

Some soundcards offer additional benefits when running under Windows XP, such as lower latency options, as illustrated with these Echo Mia drivers.Some soundcards offer additional benefits when running under Windows XP, such as lower latency options, as illustrated with these Echo Mia drivers.

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.

 Windows 2000 Or Windows XP? 
 

Some brave musicians moved over to the Windows NT platform early, despite its patchy music software support, and more embraced its successor, Windows 2000, which had greatly enhanced compatibility with both music software and hardware. Compared with Windows 98SE or ME, Windows 2000 may not show significant improvements with mainstream office applications, but it can be noticeably speedier with graphics applications and games, particularly on more recent PCs, and is generally far more stable (just like XP).

Windows XP is regarded by some as being basically Windows 2000 with bug-fixes and some new features, and its stability seems to be even better. However, quite a few musicians remain committed to Windows 2000 in preference to XP, and I suspect this is for two main reasons. First, so many businesses use it that those who work in an office environment find it fairly easy to get hold of a copy. Second, it's probably fair to say that overall performance won't differ that much between the two with most applications.

There have been rumours and a few benchmarks that claim that Windows 2000 runs applications slightly faster than Windows XP, but this is likely to be coloured by what hardware you're using, how recent its drivers are, and whether or not you've disabled all the new XP graphic fripperies. However, Windows XP scores by bundling native support for far more expansion cards and recent motherboard chipsets.

If you have a dual-processor PC then Windows 2000 will support it, but not Windows XP Home Edition: only the more expensive Windows XP Professional has support for multiple processors. However, while some music software will be more responsive when running multiple processors, particularly when running close to the edge, it's generally accepted that you'll get more power for your money if you run the fastest single processor you can afford, and in this case the cheaper XP Home Edition will be entirely suitable.

In general, although XP might take up rather more space on your hard drive, and prefer plenty of RAM, its performance is generally neck and neck with 2000, except in the multimedia area. However, this after all is where our primary interests lie, and here XP is more capable, since it was specifically designed for digital audio work, unlike Windows 2000. Some musicians have reported being able to run their soundcards at significantly lower latencies without glitching in XP than 2000, while 2000 suffers from a 10-device limit for WDM audio and MIDI devices. Some applications including Sonar have escaped this by bypassing the WDM KMixer, while ASIO-based ones like Cubase VST avoid this issue altogether — but Windows XP increases this limit to 32 devices, so it ceases to be an issue for any musician.

Another area in which XP is apparently superior to 2000 is ACPI, which I discussed in some detail in my Windows XP Tweaks feature in SOS March 2002. Under Windows 2000, many users found that all devices seemed to be allocated to IRQ9, and while this seems to cause few problems to laptop users, audio timing could go awry with some PCI soundcards. The problems could be cured by installing Standard Mode instead of ACPI support. However, Microsoft has improved ACPI performance in Windows XP, so fewer such problems seem to be happening (more on this in the XP Tweaks: An Update box).

Moreover, XP scores over 2000 with its much greater ability to run older software using compatibility modes, significantly faster startup times, and enhanced support for digital media files such as video, pictures, and streamed music. If you're thinking of moving from the 98/ME platform I think Windows XP is the better bet.

 

Taking The Plunge

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.

 'Over The Top' Upgrades 
 

In my original review of Windows XP, I recommended that Windows 98 and ME users go for a clean install, rather than upgrading 'over the top'. In an ideal world this is still the best approach, since you won't be left with applications installed that don't run properly under XP, or any non-XP driver or system files floating about to trip you up later on. However, for those who are faced with reauthorising a glut of copy-protected music applications that use the challenge/response approach, a clean install can be a somewhat daunting proposition.

I know musicians who have successfully modified their existing installation with no problems, so although I can't guarantee that this will always give optimum performance, it certainly works in many cases. If you decide to do this, just make sure you install the latest XP-compatible updates for all your applications before the update. Also, uninstall any low-level utilities such as defraggers, virus checkers, personal firewalls, and CD-burning applications if they don't have such updates, and since your soundcard will undoubtedly require new drivers, uninstall these before the upgrade as well.

Although you have the option to roll back to your previous OS (and once again, my feedback is that this normally works perfectly), I would still prefer the double safeguard of creating a disk image file before you do anything, just as I would before any other OS update.

 
Published February 2003