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Windows XP well received, but University students might not need it

W hen Microsoft released Windows 95, people waited in line to be the first to buy the operating system when stores opened on launch day. Windows XP, Microsoft's latest operating system, was launched last week to much less fanfare, despite a glitzy launch extravaganza in New York City and an expensive media blitz.

Microsoft claims this new OS will be as important as Windows 95 in terms of improving productivity and the consumer's experience. The new OS is the long-awaited - and long-overdue - combination of Microsoft's consumer and professional operating systems, a fact that has been beaten into consumers' heads through numerous media stories. But what does the OS mean for students?

Stability. WindowsXP offers a huge improvement in stability over Windows 95, 98, or Me. While an individual program may crash on occasion, you will rarely encounter the dreaded blue screens associated with the operating system crashes that cause reboots and the loss of data.

And unlike Windows NT and 2000, there are few issues with hardware and software compatibility. Although both those operating systems were stable, they supported fewer devices and games than the consumer operating systems.

Media. Microsoft has focused on integrating the various media types into the operating system as an integral part of its overall strategy. For the user, that means that it is easier to listen to MP3s, view pictures and watch videos. The OS recognizes, previews, and plays all these file types easily. XP also has built-in CD-burning technology that makes it easy to create CDs with a CD-burner.

System improvements. The most noticeable part of XP is the user interface. Taking a page from the Apple playbook, Microsoft has tweaked and streamlined everything from the taskbar to the control panels to the browser with the same smooth look and feel.

But the changes run deeper than that. The menus and control panels are more intuitive and easier to use and it is also easier to have multiple users on the same computer. There's even a remote assistance feature that allows you to request help from more advanced users who can then view and access your system from their own computers over the Internet.

Drawbacks. While XP may be pretty and powerful, those features come at a price. Not only is the upgrade pricey but it comes at the expense of power. The OS uses lots of CPU time and memory to create the flashy graphics that make the OS good-looking. Older computers will struggle to be responsive. Microsoft recommends a 300 megahertz or higher processor with 128 megabytes of RAM. I wouldn't recommend XP for anyone with less than a Pentium-III 500 and a minimum of 128 megabytes of RAM.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend upgrading to students unless they have a relatively new system and some extra cash. Anyone purchasing a new computer, however, should look for deals offering WindowsXP pre-installed or a free upgrade coupon.

The FBI's new spy

The new war on terrorism significantly has increased the demand for electronic surveillance. The fact that terrorists were able to slip under the eye of the FBI and CIA has caused the government to request new leeway in terms of its ability to conduct surveillance operations.

In particular, the FBI wants to increase its monitoring of online traffic and communications. In light of the events of Sept. 11, Congress' desire to avoid similar travesties in the future seems reasonable. The legislation coming through Congress, however, is being pushed through at an extreme pace, with little scrutiny of its ramifications.

The "USA Patriot" anti-terrorism bill passed in Congress last month includes the "authority to intercept wire, oral and electronic communications relating to terrorism."

This relates to the FBI's expanded Carnivore electronic surveillance program which, despite recently being renamed the more benign DCS-1000, has the power to capture a wide variety of electronic data.

And although its use is subject to judicial oversight, the program still worries many privacy advocates. For instance, the program can be used to capture data the FBI agrees not to use without a court order. Essentially, the FBI receives the information before it receives permission to use it.

Though improving counter-terrorist efforts is a worthy goal, it must be balanced against maintaining the personal liberties that separate our country from the others. Legislation concerning fundamental rights, such as freedom from unreasonable searches, needs to undergo further scrutiny before becoming law.

Real taxes in a virtual world

Internet taxation could begin in the not-so-distant future.

Until now, the law required companies only to collect taxes on Internet sales if they had a significant business presence in the state where the product was being shipped. That meant the vast majority of Internet sales were not subject to taxes. But on Oct. 21, the three-year federal moratorium on internet taxes, created by the 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act, expired. Its reinstatement is not guaranteed.