Windows XP Help Online

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2321, 2005-05-27, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website.

When Microsoft released Windows XP in October of 2001, users and industry pundits alike began comparing it to its predecessor, Windows 2000. Under the surface, the biggest change was a jettisoning of the legacy 16-bit code. Cosmetically, the biggest change was a new and cheesy user interface, which was quickly dubbed by many as the "Fisher-Price interface".

But those users hoping for improved assistance in using the new operating system, were likely disappointed. Not unlike IRS publications, the information provided by the native help facility is frequently too vague to be of much use. Or, it is specific enough to step the user through a given process, and yet too narrow to answer questions outside the scope of step-by-step procedures that assume that nothing is going wrong.

In fact, the typical user can spend a large amount of time hunting through the help system's Index, and often find no entries that pertain to the task that they would like to accomplish using their shiny new operating system. The system's Search functionality, for most troubleshooting purposes, will prove equally fruitless.

Consequently, while the built-in help information in Windows XP is better than in previous versions (which isn't saying much), most XP users may frequently end up looking for help elsewhere, just as much as with those previous versions. In this article, we will examine some of the best resources on the Internet for getting help in using XP.

The Horse's Mouth

If you find the Windows XP built-in help to be rather unhelpful, and yet you still would prefer getting answers from the maker of the operating system, then you can explore the online information on Microsoft's website. Be warned, however, that Microsoft's online support (which is free) can be difficult to fathom, and might even tempt you to resort to their phone support (which isn't free, at $35 per post-installation incident).

Your first stop would be the Microsoft Help and Support site, which is historically and still most frequently referred to as the Microsoft Knowledge Base. It has a section devoted to Windows XP, as well as the other desktop Windows versions still supported, namely, 98 and 2000.

But when it comes to the Knowledge Base, you will likely either love it or hate it. Hard-core techies fluent in searching through the vast collection of articles, usually rave about the resources available. Yet just as many if not more people will complain that it's almost impossible finding the information that they seek, because the search results invariably return far too many links — none of which seem to answer the questions they have, regardless of how detailed the search queries.

The site's Solution Center has sections devoted to Windows XP administration, backup/restore/recovery, communications, customizing, error messages, faxes, files/folders/disks, hardware/software, Internet, Media Player, multimedia, networking, power management, Windows Registry, setup, service packs (SPs) and updates, and system startup and shutdown. Within each section, you will find how-to articles, troubleshooting articles, and "Download details", which sounds like downloadable utilities, but appears to be just another collection of articles. It is unclear how they differ from the other two categories.

Perhaps the most promising portion of the Knowledge Base for answering XP-related questions, is the Community Newsgroup. Just like traditional Usenet newsgroups, anyone can post a question and hope for an answer, or read the answers provided to those who have already posted their questions. Within the Community Newsgroup, there are countless sections devoted to all of the current Microsoft technologies, including XP. Is English not your primary language? That's alright, as there are 32 others from which to choose.

Get a Second Opinion

If you don't have success on the Microsoft website, then don't despair, because there is a wide range of helpful sites, at least one of which will probably have the answers to your XP-related questions. First we will examine a couple of sites that have information on just about every aspect of XP — including installation, device driver troubleshooting, and other areas that sometimes appear littered with stumbling blocks, especially for inexperienced Windows users.

Troubleshooting Windows XP offers all sorts of tweaks, fixes, troubleshooting tips, and utilities for Windows XP. The site is run by Kelly Theriot, an MS-MVP (Microsoft Most Valued Professional), a title which designates knowledgeable techies who tend to be experts with Microsoft operating systems and applications. You will often see "MVP" next to the names of kindhearted folks who answer questions on newsgroups.

WinGuides not only publishes software for managing one's Windows Registry and defeating spyware, but their website provides free technical resources for managing and fine tuning Windows. At the bottom of their homepage, you will find links to their well-regarded Registry Guide (formerly Regedit.com), Software Guide, and Driver Guide. But possibly the best section is their Support Forums, one of which is devoted to XP.

There are also helpful sites that focus on one particular aspect of Windows. The first one to consider is WindowsReinstall.com, which offers a wealth of information on reinstalling and repairing Windows XP (and every other version, going back to 3.1 and MS-DOS), as well as how to do fresh installs of the operating system. Their XP information is divided among XP Pro X64, regular Pro, and Home (the version that most Windows XP users have on their home computers).

If you are facing a networking problem with Windows XP, be sure to check out the information at World of Windows Networking. They cover Internet and file sharing problems, security issues, administrative tools, and even new features in XP.

Third Opinions Never Hurt

While many of the sites mentioned above do have support forums, they don't have nearly as high traffic (and thus the odds that your question will be answered) as the Usenet newsgroups. Within microsoft.public.windowsxp.*, there are 26 categories of newsgroups, ranging from "accessibility" to "work_remotely". The one most applicable for getting general XP help is undoubtedly microsoft.public.windowsxp.help_and_support.

Another fine resource is the Windows XP Annoyances Discussion Forum, run by Creative Element, and inspired by the Windows Annoyances books published by O'Reilly Media. The forum currently contains well over 10,000 messages, most of them pleas for help with Windows XP foibles — so you know you aren't alone.

Microsoft named this release of Windows "XP" for "eXPerience". But if your experience with the built-in XP help leaves you feeling that your patience is considered eXPloitable and your time eXPendable, then don't eXPlode with eXPletives. Instead, check out some of the handy online resources discussed above.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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