Microsoft press briefings are what the phrase 'yadda yadda yadda' was invented for. Today PC Advisor staff were given a presentation on the merits of Windows XP, Microsoft's next operating system.

One of the most significant additions to XP is a built-in firewall, to protect against unwanted intrusion from the internet. Firewall makers such as ZoneAlarm might be a little troubled by this as it's taking business away from them.

But this is nothing compared to the panic which must be being felt by makers of digital photo and image programs — in XP, picture file icons appear as thumbnails of the pictures stored in them, it can play them as a slide show and it compresses them in physical as well as logical size for emailing. Straight from the system.

Microsoft has worked at making the GUI (graphical user interface) of XP look different, which it has done. It now looks like a Mac operating system circa 1998, and it has the feel of Mac's OS X. It's fluffy, friendly, rounded and cuddly, and that's no bad thing, as any Mac user would tell you.

There's integrated support for voice recognition, handwriting recognition and the ultra-high-resolution text display technology ClearType. There's the built-in firewall. There's the ability to go back to earlier versions of device drivers that have hosed your system. XP will, when you are about to install a new driver, snapshot your OS automatically. There's the 'Fast User Switching' on the Home Edition which allows several people to share a computer without closing all of their applications. You can switch between users as if you are switching between different PCs.

Gone are the boring greys for menus and task bars, replaced instead with blues, greens and reds. Icons are larger and softer, making it friendlier for the first time user. To the experienced, though, it does look a bit Mickey Mouse. This can, of course, all be turned off. But despite its basic looks it is quite endearing.

The My Photos and My Music folders make it easier to manage digital media, and you can even order hard copies of digital photos directly from Windows Explorer. But small photo firms, for example, will find their abilities to provide a local printing service hampered by the need to be operating a .Net server system to link through to a person's XP PC.

Windows Media player can now handle DVDs, although you do have to download a plug-in for your specific drive/player combination from Microsoft's website. Transferring pictures from your digital camera is also simplified as, once XP recognises it, a helpful wizard guides you through the process.

While not as drastically different as Windows 95 was to Windows 3.11, XP represents lots of small refinements that, on the whole, make using a PC easier — especially for the uninitiated.

Finally, a few words of caution. One of the new features is Remote Assistance, which allows people on the internet or on a network to take control of your PC and carry out desktop maintenance. This is ideal for tech support personnel sick of reading lists of instructions to newbies, and is something most business users will have experienced. It can and probably will be most beneficial.

But in XP Home Edition there's no facility to encrypt areas of your hard drives. So once you've handed over control of your PC to someone else they see all, unless you press escape to kick them off. It seems odd to build an OS that is so capable of removing problems in assistance that fails to address security fears.

Find out more about Windows XP at its home page.

As for pricing, recently leaked what could be the prices for upgrading to XP. Find that story here.