First Look: Longhorn Beta Build 5048

While many features announced for Longhorn aren't in this first beta version based on Windows Server 2003 code, it previews some major changes in UI and graphics systems.

May 17, 2005

14 Min Read
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[Editor's Note: The following report was prepared by CMP's Pipeline Editor Scot Finnie, as part of his independent "Scot's Newsletter."]

I spent a good part of a recent weekend, in between my son's soggy baseball games, working through the 5048 Windows Longhorn build that was distributed to all Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) attendees in late April. Part of that time, I was enabling the "Glass" features (transparency, blurring, reflections, and 3D effects) and the rest of the time I was attempting to work through the available new features in the late alpha code. The last issue of the newsletter gave you a solid overview of some of the features and technologies slated to appear in the final version of Longhorn that were talked about at WinHEC. I eagerly looked forward to playing around with at least some of these things after installing the bits.

I have to admit that the code I returned home with is disappointing. Many of the more interesting features either aren't there or only have basic placeholders where they will eventually have something hopefully much better that actually works. But Microsoft isn't a bad company or in trouble because its late alpha release of Longhorn doesn't do what we'd all hoped it might by now. Microsoft decided about a year ago to base Windows Longhorn on the more reliable Windows Server 2003 code base than on the Windows XP code, upon which they had been building Longhorn. That meant the development team had to start over on many of the Longhorn modules it built for the PDC2003 version of Longhorn. Make no mistake, some of Microsoft's developers were pulled off Longhorn to work on Windows Server 2003 SP1 and Windows Server R2. And it was already behind because Windows XP SP2 siphoned off development resources. But I'm glad Microsoft is making the right decisions now about how to build its next desktop OS.

What's more, I'm going to save any serious criticism for the final product. How long it takes to ship matters not one whit to me. And it shouldn't to you either. What matters is that Microsoft delivers a solid, reliable, refined version of desktop Windows at the end of 2006 that's worth upgrading to. The only people who really need a new version of Windows are Microsoft stockholders. It's an operating system, not a cure for cancer.

Let me help set the proper expectations: Microsoft has warned reviewers and developers that Longhorn won't even approach being feature complete until Beta 2. Many of the best features will come later because, of course, they're more difficult to implement. There will probably even be some features added, or visually and functionally revamped, in the first release candidate. And none of it is a surprise for anyone who watches Windows development cycles. Nothing about this is unusual. Microsoft isn't even terribly late with Longhorn. A roughly fire-year spread between major releases is just fine by me.Setting Expectations
So while I was a little disappointed, I wasn't surprised that many of the features I wrote about in the last issue are only barely evident in Longhorn build 5048, which is dated April 1, 2005, almost a month before WinHEC. In particular, the desktop-search features are not really there. Some basic UI is exposed, but only about half of the functionality is functional, and none of it is fully functional. It indexes. It looks like it should work, but it doesn't really work fully or properly, and some of it doesn't work at all.

Longhorn's Titlebar 'Glass' Effect

Similarly, the vaunted Glass features, to be delivered by the Avalon presentation system, are present only rudimentarily in build 5048. (They're not evident at all until you do a little messing around in the Windows Registry.) You might think of it as a partial Avalon emulation. The Start menu is just barely transparent, if you look very closely. The one readily apparent demonstration of both transparency and blurring is the titlebars of all open windows. The window control buttons — the minimize, maximize, and close buttons — also get a richer visual treatment with Glass turned on. Minimize and maximize turn blue when you roll over them with the mouse pointer, and the close button glows red. (The color roll-over behavior has a lesser counterpart with Glass turned off.)

That's a good segue to a discussion of the "graphics tiering" of the Aero user-interface, which was laid out in one of the more interesting sessions at WinHEC. Microsoft engineers and product marketing people currently envision two main divisions of graphics support, each with two variations. What that means is that, depending on the graphics card and monitor you have installed and your graphics settings, there will be four different presentation levels that you could see in Longhorn. The two lower levels are called "Basic Graphics" and the two higher levels are called "Aero." The Basic Graphics levels shake out to "Classic" (XP/2000 look-alike) and "To Go." The Aero levels are "Express" and "Glass." Longhorn will require DirectX 9 video support. The other factors that affect the graphics tier level you'll see include your bits-per-pixel color depth (number of simultaneous colors supported), the capabilities of your 3D graphics hardware, and the amount of video memory available to your graphics hardware. As you climb up into the upper video levels, each exposes more and more of the Aero and Glass look and feel. Microsoft's idea is to provide wide backward support for older machines while at the same time rewarding more advanced hardware with a richer user experience. If it can pull this off, I think it'll provide both a wide base for Longhorn adoption and create a built-in reason to upgrade your hardware.

The new Start Menu (click to see full size).

The new Start Menu (click to see full size).

By the way, to fully enable Glass in current Longhorn builds, Microsoft has said you need either an ATI Radeon 9800 or an Nvidia GeForce FX 5900, or better, video card. (I'm testing with the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB.) By the time the product ships, my guess is that the video hardware of 80% of PCs sold by major manufacturers will fully support Glass. If you're buying a PC right now that you hope to upgrade to Longhorn, I would get one with one of these two cards, and I would give strong consideration to 256MB of graphics memory. I often point out when I think it's a good time to buy a new Windows PC. Right now is not one of those times. If you do buy now, you might want to consider a lower-cost PC that you expect to last only two to three years with the understanding that you'll replace it with a higher end Longhorn PC after the new version of Windows ships.Windows Longhorn Alpha Build 5048
But let's return to Longhorn build 5048. There isn't a lot to dwell on in this release, but the two structures that seem to have been received the most attention are the Start menu and Windows Explorer.

Type to Launch Programs (click to see full size).

Type to Launch Programs (click to see full size).

The Start menu in this release looks more like a proof of concept than anything else. It's difficult to see what's different about it from screenshots, but Microsoft has done away with the old Start menu whose All Programs menu expanded to fill the size of your screen and then scrolled after that. Instead, the Programs menu opens on the left side of the Start menu, replacing the contents on the first level temporarily. And it scrolls within that space automatically. There's also a new text-based program launcher that lets you type in the name of any program on your hard drive. As you type, the Start menu shows you all the programs that share the letters you've typed so far, and you can either click one of them or type the full name and press Enter. The text-based search area is a bit frustrating in this release. While it let's you create multiple-level searches with a visual query tool, you can't save searches and the entire experience is clunky.

The New Explorer Window (click to see full size).

The New Explorer Window (click to see full size).

There's also a way to create List, a new structure that is supposed to be a collections of files connected by a common intellectual thread of important to you. Although I was able to create a list file that collected contents based upon keywords, the method I used is not the user interface that I think Microsoft intends, and it appears to me that Lists don't work properly in this build, if at all. Longhorn 5048 also contains pre-built Autolist files too, but they didn't appear to work either. Eventually you'll be able to create lists with a structure not evident in 5048 called the List Pane, which will let you use drag-and-drop to visually create lists of files that bear an association meaningful to you. The information we have about Lists is very vague and sketchy so far, so more detail will have to wait for later builds.Far More Useful Search Results (click to see full size).

Far More Useful Search Results (click to see full size).

Windows Explorer seems to have gotten the most actual attention in this build. One of the interesting changes is that Explorer is a two-paned affair that always shows My Documents in the root on the left pane, while the right pane is a standard folder window showing whatever folder you opened. So the two are not innately connected, unless you click something on the left pane. This seems like more of a bug than a feature, because you can't drag and drop from one side to the other either. The Up level button is also not a default part of the folder toolbar, but is easily added. The Search functionality finds the top of the new Explorer window, and it offers two types of search. One is a full-text file content search, and the other is the filename search. The functions aren't wildly different from the old XP and previous Windows search facility, but visually they're very different, and the results are more useful.

New Expanded Properties Bar (click to see full size).

New Expanded Properties Bar (click to see full size).

Also changed in Explorer is the file information area, which in XP is on the left side of the folder window. In Longhorn 5048 that bar has a colored background and it defaults to appearing along the bottom of the window (you can also move it optionally to the right side). Personally, I still feel this giant bar is a colossal waste of space. I'd like to see Microsoft spend more time working on offering easy user controls for making it appear or disappear, such as a toggle of some sort. This info bar has some important uses, though, especially for searching. It exposes user-customizable file metatags, and other extended properties for different file types.

Vector-Based Scalable Icons (click to see full size).

NVector-Based Scalable Icons (click to see full size).

One of the more startling features of Longhorn for long-time Windows users is scalable icons. The 5048 build of Longhorn shows some of that. After turning on the folder window toolbar, the View menu is wide to the right. Clicking the View button toggles between Views. Clicking the down arrow beside it opens a vertical slider bar it, you'll see a vertical slider bar that can make file and folder icons truly giant or minuscule. The slider see screenshot, slider only, 6K) also has an interesting behavior in that both ends are small icons, but in different views. So slide up and you get small icons in Details view. Slide all the way down and you get small icons in Icon view. In the middle is Tile view, where the icons may be huge, depending upon where the slider is set. The View menu also shows Details, Tile, and Icon settings. In 5048, My Pictures doesn't have a Filmstrip or Thumbnail view. But many, many aspects aren't hooked up in this build, so that may just be temporary.New Expanded Properties Bar.

New Expanded Properties Bar.

Why is it that Microsoft ignores obvious features for so long? I've been trying to get the company to add a New Folder button to the Windows Explorer toolbar since around 1998. Apparently, we're not supposed to create our own folders, because the only ways to initiate that function are from the File menu or folder context menu. Neither of these are intuitive, and both take too many steps. Click a darn toolbar button and, bang, new folder appears. That's how it should work. Make the button optional on the folder toolbar if you want. But add this feature, please. And think about turning on the folder toolbar by default. Microsoft has one new folder toolbar button, Redo, which complements Undo. I bet I use that button once for every 100 times I create a new folder.

Control Panel has several new items, including a new expanded version of Add or Remove Programs that provides Change/Remove Programs, Add New Programs, and OS and Application Updates as separate Control Panel icons that access different areas of this tool. There's also the Portable Media Devices connection tool, Sync Manager, Indexing Options, iSCSI Initiator, and Network Device Installation Control Panels. Functionality doesn't appear to be all there in these items, though. And some of the specialized items from earlier Longhorn builds are missing in this build.

Longhorn's Revised Control Panel (click to see full size).

Longhorn's Revised Control Panel (click to see full size).

I mentioned in the last issue that Microsoft's penchant for naming everything with the word "my" has finally run its course. Longhorn build 5048 still sports "My Documents," but you can expect the final code to call that folder Documents or proceed that word with the possessive of the current user name, as in Administrator's Documents. (I vote for the that second approach.) Where the change is already evident in this build is that My Computer is called Computer and My Network Places is called Network. The Network icon also displays the workgroup or domain name in its name, a minor convenience.

Turning on Display of Drive Letters (click to see full size).

Turning on Display of Drive Letters (click to see full size).

Finally, Longhorn's setup facility deserves a few words. The setup routine appears to be revised but not all there. So I'll reserve comment, because I know Microsoft intends to add some interesting bits to the process. What is worth comment now is a change to the way Longhorn works with drives, the user interface for drive icons, and how that affects Windows' built-in dual-boot functionality. I installed Longhorn to drive D of a freshly wiped machine with Windows XP installed on drive C, a FAT32 partition. Longhorn build 5048 required NTFS. That's fine, I intended to test 5048 with NTFS anyway, and most of my machines run NTFS. (It's not clear to me yet whether the final version of Longhorn will require NTFS too, but it's on my list to find out, and my supposition is that it might.) Longhorn installed properly in drive D and created the dual-boot menu familiar to all who use this feature under Windows 2000 and Windows XP. What gave me pause at first was that, while booted in Longhorn on this machine, the drive D partition it was installed to displays as Drive C. And while booted to Windows XP on the same machine, its volume also shows as drive C. It appears Microsoft is making the system-booted volume the primary volume, regardless of its drive letter designation. In fact, by default in build 5048, drives of all types do not display drive letters at all. And the icon for the system-booted drive displays the superimposed colored Windows flag — indicating that it is the booted system drive. I like this change a lot, other OSes and file systems work this way and it will take us in a good direction. But I expect it could be confusing at first to long-time DOS and Windows users.

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