Longhorn Preview

The most recent build of Longhorn–Microsoft’s next Windows–has some impressive visual touches, including the kinds of translucent objects found now in Apple’s OS X, and more powerful ways of finding files. But it doesn’t yet exhibit any breakthroughs in productivity, or promised features such as security improvements and smarter connections to handheld devices.

We tested the 64-bit version of the latest code released to developers (Longhorn build 5048) and have also viewed demonstrations of a subsequent build. The first beta version of the operating system is due for release this summer.

Over the last several years, Microsoft has touted Longhorn’s trio of significant innovations: a graphics engine dubbed Avalon; a technology called Indigo that enables programs on different computers or devices to communicate; and an indexed, searchable data storage layer called WinFS. But when faced with a self-imposed release deadline of late 2006, Microsoft decided last year to pull WinFS out of Longhorn, promising to release that component as an add-on at a later date.

So what of the two remaining Longhorn design pillars? A new desktop theme called Aero is about the only sign of Avalon graphics in our pre-beta.

Turning mundane buttons, window frames, title bars, and icons into animated, 3D-rendered, and sometimes transparent objects, Aero brings the Windows interface to life. Indigo, which supports enhanced Web services, won’t be visible to end users.

But even though WinFS is now out of the mix, Microsoft has taken advantage of file attributes in the NTFS file system already available in Windows XP to make Explorer better at ferreting out documents according to author, camera model (for photographs), or genre or album title (for music files).

The operating system lets you create virtual lists based on these attributes so that, for example, you can see every photo on your system or all Microsoft Word files, regardless of where they are stored and without having to explicitly search for them.

Longhorn will also do a better job of connecting to smart phones (Microsoft wouldn’t indicate whether the phones would have to run the company’s Windows Mobile operating system), cameras, and audio players, improving their integration into Explorer and making file transfers and synchronization more consistent across device types.

Still notably absent from the Longhorn builds we’ve looked at are new versions of the Internet Explorer browser (even though Microsoft has said it is close to releasing a beta of IE 7) or any other bundled utilities. Gone, for the time being anyway, is the desktop sidebar that lurked in previous preliminary versions of Longhorn.

And in spite of announced planned enhancements such as monitoring of outbound data (Windows XP’s firewall watches inbound traffic only), protection against malware, a new type of restricted user account, and a secure startup scheme to ensure that a PC hasn’t been tampered with, Longhorn so far has the same minimal security toolbox as Windows XP with Service Pack 2.

Though security remains an unresolved issue, build 5048 brings Longhorn’s graphical user interface into sharper focus.

Catch-Up Eye Candy

The new Avalon graphics engine includes a programming interface that permits Microsoft and third-party software makers alike to write applications that put the latest and greatest graphics cards to work rotating, texturing, and fading windows, as well as making menus, title bars, and other elements translucent–finally enabling Windows to catch up to Apple’s OS X, several years after the fact.

We managed to activate a subset of these features in our copy of Longhorn build 5048, and they’re certainly welcome refinements (see top screen). Nevertheless, the integration of accelerated graphics effects into Windows is a luxury upgrade, not a must-have productivity enhancer. And although the effects in Avalon won’t necessarily require bleeding-edge hardware, they will call for a graphics board compatible with the new Longhorn Display Driver Model, likely ruling out many legacy systems.

Microsoft has yet to announce minimum Longhorn system requirements, but for PC buyers seeking insurance that a new system will run Longhorn, the company advises getting 512MB of RAM and a “modern” CPU–more than Windows XP needs.

As with most of the recent Windows updates, the easiest way to get Longhorn will be on a new PC, and by late 2006 most PCs will be 64-bit. Reflecting that trend, all editions of Longhorn will include both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. (Microsoft officials say that they are still mulling over whether features included in the Tablet PC and Media Center editions of XP will continue to require special editions of Windows.)

Less clear in build 5048 is Microsoft’s vision for searching, indexing, and grouping files. WinFS was intended to create a systemwide data-indexing system accessible to Windows and to various applications, both on the local computer system and on linked devices.

With the removal of WinFS from Longhorn, indexing is scaled back, although not forgotten. Familiar folders like My Documents and My Pictures still allow you to sort contents according to attribute type, such as file date, size, author, title, subject, attached keywords, bit rate (in the case of audio files), or camera model (in the case of digital pictures).

Regrettably, Microsoft won’t immediately extend virtual lists and other Longhorn search and indexing capabilities to third-party apps. Those programs will have to wait for the appearance of WinFS sometime after Longhorn’s release.

Perhaps conscious that its failure to satisfactorily secure Internet Explorer has driven millions of the browser’s users to switch to the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox–and possibly hoping to avoid a similar exodus to Mac OS X or Linux–Microsoft has announced several security initiatives such as a new low-rights user account that will let the owner make routine system changes (such as installing a driver) while limiting malware exposure.

Buyers of new 64-bit computers will undoubtedly opt for Longhorn’s enchanting interface and new device support–especially if security improves. It remains to be seen, though, whether additional innovations will give Windows XP users more reason to upgrade.

— Scott Spanbauer is a PC World contributing editor.

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