The Windows of tomorrow looks solid
With "Whistler," the next version of Windows, Microsoft has finally jettisoned the old DOS-based Windows 9x line in favor of the NT-based Windows 2000 product family. As such, Whistler will ship in the same Professional, Server, and Advanced Server versions that we saw with Windows 2000, but it will also include a Personal edition for consumers as well as 64-bit versions of Professional, Server, and Advanced Server for users with Intel Itanium (IA-64) machines. Microsoft had been promising a consolidation of its Windows product families for some time, but Whistler will be the first product that finally achieves this goal.

As we'll see below, the path to this technological feat brings with it a number of issues. Consumers expect Windows to be compatible with all of their hardware and software, no questions asked. They want to be able to upgrade their existing version of Windows to the new version without having any problems. And they want Windows to be more reliable and stable than the 9x family. To varying degrees, Microsoft has addressed these issues in Whistler, which will offer a superset of the functionality of Windows Me on the client versions (Personal and Professional) while giving business users an evolutionary bump in performance and capability with the Server editions. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

Note: For this review, I evaluated the 32-bit versions of Whistler Personal, Professional, and Advanced Server on a Dell Dimension 4100 system with an 866 MHz Pentium III processor and 256 MB of RAM, and a Compaq Presario 1700T notebook with a 750 MHz processor and 256 MB of RAM. However, this review will focus on the client versions of Windows Whistler at the request of Microsoft. Also, specific performance issues will not be addressed at this time because we're still at an early stage of development.

Where we've been: From alpha to beta
The path to Whistler Beta 1 has been fairly interesting, but I've already written extensively about the Whistler alpha releases on the SuperSite, so please refer to the following articles before continuing:

  • Windows "Whistler" 2001 Previewed -- This preview focuses on two very early alpha versions of Whistler, builds 2211 and 2223.1, which were leaked out of Microsoft in early 2000. At this point, Microsoft was simply melding the Windows Me feature-set onto Windows 2000, while working on a few simplicity concepts that originated in Project Neptune.

  • Introducing the Whistler Preview, Build 2250 -- This is a look at the first build of Whistler that was released to beta testers, a technology preview for software developers. This build included the first "Start Panel," later renamed as the Simple Start Menu, and a few other Whistler-specific features.

  • Whistler Build 2257 Preview -- Between July and October, Microsoft released several interim builds to testers. This review takes a look at build 2257. (Other interim builds, such as 2267 and 2287, are briefly mentioned below.) Build 2257 was the first build to include the new user interface Theme feature, though it was originally called Visual Styles.
Over the course of the interim builds released between the July preview and Beta 1 in late October, Microsoft has added a number of features to Whistler. In build 2267, which was released in xxx, support for Dynamic Setup (see below) was added by not fully implemented, the Simple Start Menu achieved its current look and feel, and the Help & Support application was modified with a new look and feel. And on xxxx, Microsoft released build 2287, which implemented Dynamic Setup for the first time. 2287 also included a new-look Setup, Windows Movie Maker, Windows Media Player 7, and a new Interactive Support feature.

Personal vs. Professional: Sizing up the client versions
Whistler Personal and Professional are quite similar at first glance--both offer the new Simple Start menu and Professional Theme by default, for example--but the products are actually tuned and configured quite differently. Personal Edition, as the successor to Windows 98/Me, supports only a single processor, though Pro supports two. And Personal cannot participate fully in an Active Directory-based network, like Professional edition, in the same way that Windows 9x cannot. And though both Personal and Professional include a Terminal Services connection--now called Remote Desktop in Whistler--the version in Personal is somewhat limited, though it will still enable technical support to remotely administer the system if required.

In short, the differences between Personal and Professional are largely for marketing reasons, and though most Windows 9x users will want Personal edition, it's likely that most readers of the SuperSite will lean toward Professional. Expect these editions to cost roughly the same, respectively, as the products they're replacing: About $90 for Personal and $130 for Professional (upgrade).

Simple Start Menu and improved Taskbar
In Whistler Personal and Pro, the Start menu has been replaced by a new Simple Start menu, an MMC-based Taskpad that makes it easier to find frequently-accessed applications (Figure). Gone is the document-centric interface of the past, replaced with options that users are really using. If you'd like to switch back to the Classic Start Menu, this is still available as well (Figure).

One item of note: When you use the Simple Start Menu, three of the default items (My Computer, My Network Places, and My Documents) are inexplicably hidden. Thankfully, you can turn these back on from within Display Properties if desired (Figure).

The taskbar has been improved as well, with a new grouping feature that kicks in when enough Windows are open. If you have several, say, Word documents or Internet Explorer windows open, Whistler will group them into a single taskbar button with a collapsing menu that you can use to access the individual windows (Figure). In the taskbar notification area by the clock, a number of simplicity improvements have taken place as well: The volume icon is removed by default (you can replace it if you'd like), and the icons in the tray are hidden, by default, until you need them. You can access hidden tray icons using a new chevron icon that slides back and forth as you mouse over it. Best of all, you can configure each tray icon individually, so that icons you need to access frequently are never hidden (Figure).

Themes
Though this topic has probably been beaten to death, Whistler features a new "skinning" feature called Themes that will eventually allow users to completely customize the look and feel of Windows. In the current beta, only one Theme is provided, called Professional (Figure). You can also revert to the classic Windows look and feel is desired.

File views
Whistler includes a number of new ways to view files and folders in My Computer windows. You can automatically arrange file types as before, but now you can also arrange icons in groups (drive or file type, for example) or view them in a new Tile mode (Figure). I find this feature extremely confusing, to be honest, as there are a number of new ways to view files and folders, while some of the old ways are missing. And you can't combine all view styles: For example, you cannot tile icons that are not automatically arranged.

Dynamic Update
All versions of Whistler Beta 1 include a new feature called Dynamic Update that is invoked in the early stages of Setup (Figure). This feature optionally checks the Windows Update Web site before Setup proceeds, allowing you to download the latest updates and fixes before the operating system is even installed (Figure). Obviously, this is a wonderful feature, and though it's hard to test at this point in time, I envision even Service Pack updates being made available to users this way in the future.

Automatic Updates
Like Windows Me, Windows Whistler supports an Automatic Updates feature that will optionally keep your system up-to-date with the latest software updates and fixes. But of course, Automatic Updates can be configured to work manually or not at all, if you're worried about the Big Brother factor. In Whistler, this feature has been updated with security checks that require administrator privileges, and, unlike the version that was later added to Windows 2000, it supports multiple simultaneous users on the same machine.

Device Driver Rollback
In Whistler, it's possible to rollback the installation of a device driver to the previous version if the new one causes any instability or other problems. This is a huge win for users, as the installation of the wrong device driver is a leading cause of system instability.

Application Compatibility modes
Whistler, finally, introduces an emulation mode for applications that expect to be running under older versions of Windows, such as Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0. In Windows 2000, this problem could only be partially overcome by using the App Compatibility tool, which was buried on the Windows 2000 CD-ROM. Now an integrated feature of the OS itself, it's possible to ensure that your older applications keep working when you upgrade to Whistler.

Whistler maintains a database that will automatically fool many applications into working. But if the application isn't in that database--which will be updated over time from the Windows Update Web site--you can simply right-click any application or shortcut and choose the "Run in emulation mode" option, and then choose "Windows 95" or "Windows NT 4.0" (Figure). Voila: In most cases, the balky application will run--or install--just fine.

Remote Desktop
As mentioned previously, all versions of Whistler now include the Terminal Services functionality previously found only in the Server editions of Windows 2000. Now dubbed Remote Desktop, this feature allows users to ask for help, chat, perform file transfers, or even share control of the system, with a system administrator (Figure). This feature is roughly analogous to the "Administration" mode of Terminal Services, where only one person can remotely access the system at a time.

My Pictures improvements
The My Pictures folder has been enhanced to surpass the functionality of that folder in Windows Me. In Whistler, the thumbnail generation engine has been speeded up, while several capabilities have been added, such as the ability to rotate the currently previewed image and view the previous and next pictures in the folder. It's also possible to print, email, or publish images to the Web directly from this folder, without loading a third-party application. Finally, the Slideshow functionality from Windows Me was added as well.

ClearType
In a thoroughly buried option somewhere in Display Properties, you can enable ClearType to smooth the display of fonts (Figure). This is a wonderful option for laptop users and other with LCD panels, though it looks miserable on a normal monitor display. ClearType effectively triples the horizontal resolution of the screen, and you can really see the difference.

User switching
Whistler Professional offers an interesting new feature called User switching, that allows you to logon as one user, load up a bunch of applications, and then logon as a new user, without disrupting the first session. Then, you can jump back and forth between these unique sessions, each with its own set of running applications and documents. To use this feature, you have to first enable it from the User Accounts Control Panel. Then, each time you logoff, you have a new "Switch User" option available to you (Figure).

Note that this type of feature has been available in Linux and other operating systems for some time.

Conclusions
As a work in progress, it's not fair to hold Whistler Beta 1 up to the standards of Windows 2000 or Windows Me. But even at this early stage of the game, it's clear that Whistler is something special. I'll have more information about Whistler Beta 1 soon.