For this preview, I had originally written a long-winded backgrounder about the history of Longhorn, and the ways in which this project has changed over time. I'll save the lengthy exposition for a future review, however, and get right to the point: Longhorn is now considered a major Windows release by Microsoft, and early alpha builds are now testing at the company's Redmond campus. Last month, some of those builds leaked to the Internet, causing a stir in the Windows enthusiast community. I take a look at one of those builds here.

One caveat, of course: This is an early alpha build and the final Longhorn product will bear little resemblance to what you see here. If you think back to the early Whistler builds, which featured the "Watercolor" visual style, you'll get the right idea: Longhorn is a work in progress, mostly current generation technology, and much of what's in there is just the same old stuff from XP. Major UI work, a database-based file system, integrated DVD burning, and other cool features are still to come.

OK, enough talk. Here's what's new in the Longhorn alpha.

How it works: Key Longhorn features

The following interactive images describe some of the key Longhorn alpha features in detail.

Feature drill-down

OK, let's take a closer look at the new features in the Longhorn alpha.

Welcome screen

The Longhorn alpha's Welcome screen (Figure) is a slightly modified version of the one in Windows XP, and it now features a time and date display, a frequent customer request. I wouldn't make too much of the color scheme or look and feel of the Longhorn Welcome screen, as this is bound to change. The design does resemble prototypes I've seen at the Microsoft campus (Figure), however.

Desktop and Start Menu

At first blush, the Longhorn desktop and Start Menu (Figure) are no different from their XP equivalents. However, there are a few small changes. First, you can add My Contacts and My Hardware nodes to the Longhorn Start Menu (Figure). My Contacts is non-functional in the build I saw, but I suspect that it's simply the friendly new name for the new Windows Address Book, which will be consolidated into the Windows Future Storage (WinFS) file system. My Hardware, clearly, is a friendly and more accessible Device Manager, though the version in the Longhorn alpha is limited (Figure).

My Computer and Explorer views

In My Computer, a few new features become visible. Under the scenes, the WinFS file system isn't implemented yet, but the services are running, and they tied the system up in knots, and must be turned off before the performance returns to normal. My Computer now features disk space graphics under each drive and a slightly modified Task pane, with integrated searching (Figure). There are new Explorer views as well, including a new Preview mode used in certain types of folders, which I discuss in the next section. The About Windows dialog (Figure) identifies Longhorn as Windows 6.0.

In Folder Options, a few new options are available, though their purpose is unclear (Figure). They are "Use breadcrumb bar" and "Use Domain Folder Sharing Wizard."

Special shell folders

Special shell folders such as My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music have been revamped to support the new Preview view style (Figure). This view style splits the folder view horizontally, providing a graphical, Web-like preview pane that is specific to the currently displayed content. In My Pictures, for example, you see options for viewing a slide show, creating an album, and burning a DVD (Figure). When you display a picture, the image's meta-data information is displayed in the Preview pane (Figure). Music folders are similar: Select a music file and its meta-data is displayed (Figure). A new Pivots choice in the toolbar expands to show grouping choices (Figure); for music, you will see options such as "Albums Grouped by Artist" and "Music Grouped by Album." The Preview area is resizable now (Figure), and as you drag the divider bar down, more information is displayed (Figure).

Display Properties

While the old Display Properties dialog is temporarily still available, Microsoft provides a preview of the new Display Properties application, which was written with the new .NET-based Avalon APIs (Figure). Most of the Display Properties nodes are broken in this build, providing either a bizarre XML error message (Figure) or a simple "under construction" message (Figure). One node that does work, however, is Display Connection Settings, which provides information about your display adapter and monitor (Figure).

Plex: A new visual style

You can use the old Display Properties dialog to enable the new Plex visual style (Figure), which has been touted on various Windows enthusiast sites lately. I don't consider Plex to be particularly attractive or clean, personally, and it resembles many of the home-made XP themes that you can find online (Figure). I prefer the standard blue XP style to Plex, and expect this visual style to disappear by later builds. In fact, Plex is so bad, that I originally thought that this Longhorn alpha was nothing more than a hacked-together XP build. I still wonder about it.

Sidebar

In the Taskbar settings dialog, you can enable the Sidebar (Figure), arguably Longhorn's most discussed feature. The Sidebar is basically a side-mounted menu of sorts, very much like the MSN 8 Dashboard, that lets you display XML-based components, called Tiles. When you enable the Dashboard, it appears (blank) on the right side of the screen by default (Figure). You can minimize it, add Tiles, toggle which side of the screen it appears on, resize it, and determine whether it's translucent (which Microsoft calls transparent). Available Tiles include a clock, a virtual desktop manager, a Most Frequently Used (MFU) programs list, the Quick Launch toolbar, an Internet search bar, a My Photos slide show, and a "user tile," which lets you quickly switch between users (Figure).

Each Tile can be resized (Figure), moved up or down in the Sidebar, or minimized, and some offer a pop-up menu that lets you access hidden features (Figure). You can also choose to use the Sidebar as your taskbar, in which case the normal taskbar disappears and the Start button moves to the Sidebar (Figure). Now, when you click the Start button, the Start Menu cascades out from the side of the screen instead of the bottom (Figure).

Conclusions

Longhorn isn't far enough along at this point to make any relevant conclusions. As I noted previously, the alpha build I've seen is analogous to early Whistler builds, or perhaps the first December 1996 Memphis release (which became Windows 98), because it's really just a holding place for a few technology tests at this point. Ultimately, the best is yet to come for Longhorn, but some of the bits present here are still interesting. With over two years of development time left, don't be surprised if the final Longhorn version bears little resemblance to what we see here today.