After spending a bunch of time with Longhorn build 4051, a pre-beta or alpha-quality build of Microsoft's next desktop Windows version, I can safely say it isn't much different from previous alpha builds from a usability standpoint. It features a new Windows XP-like visual style, called Slate, that replaces the awful Plex theme from previous alphas but closely resembles Microsoft's latest thinking on the Aero user experience. This has a number of ramifications for the future, but I'll discuss that below. The key point to take away is that 4051 isn't viable for day-to-day use. That is, you can't dump Windows XP and jump to this Longhorn version.

Specifically, Longhorn build 4051 is designed for developers who want to start investigating the Longhorn Software Development Kit (SDK) and the unique new features it exposes, such as the .NET-based WinFX Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the Avalon graphics engine, the Indigo Web services framework, the WinFS storage engine, and so on. To this end, Longhorn 4051 is a capable system that works well: I've installed the Visual Studio "Whidbey" beta and the Longhorn SDK on all of my Longhorn test systems and have been spelunking into the depths of Longhorn for a few weeks now, interested to see what low-level details I can turn up. It will probably be a while before I have anything to report, but I'll keep digging. It's been a while since I've done this type of coding.

For most people, of course, programming isn't very exciting. And I realize there are those out there who are interested to see how Longhorn 4051 compares to previous alpha builds, so I'll provide that information here. It's important to note, at this early alpha stage, that Longhorn is very much a work in progress. Much will change over the next two years, most notably the bits that end users interact with. So don't get too excited about any of the graphical wins or losses here. None of this is written in stone.

Setup

Longhorn build 4051 can be installed from CD or DVD. Neither version will upgrade a previous Windows version, so a clean install is your only option. Longhorn's Setup application has been pleasingly updated with a fresh, dark look (Figure) that, like previous builds, skips over some of the options we're used to getting in previous Windows versions. On the new Summary page, however, you can see the start of some customization options (Figure), though only a few options are currently changeable; specifically, you can change the installation location and the computer name. Other options, like user accounts, regional settings, keyboard, and time zone, cannot be changed in this build. Clearly, that will be changed in the future.

If you choose to modify the installation location (Figure), a key step in a dual-boot install, you'll see some new options. Now, Windows Setup can extend partitions in addition to creating and deleting them, a nice addition. After that, Setup collects information and copies the files needed for Setup (Figure) and spends an ungodly amount of time detecting hardware (Setup says this will take up to 10 minutes; in this build, that's a huge understatement). Then, the system reboots and you're treated the new Longhorn boot screen (Figure).

On boot up, you're treated to a bizarre list of nonsensical technical notes ("Waiting for Profiles...", "Waiting for DIMS...", "Waiting for GPClient..." and so on) that provide absolutely no valuable feedback to the user. And then the Longhorn desktop appears (Figure) and, after an interminable wait, the taskbar and Sidebar appear (Figure). Think you're done? Think again: Longhorn build 4051 has a serious issue with hardware, and you'll spend the next 20 to 60 minutes, depending on your system, waiting for the system to detect and, if you're lucky, configure your hardware. If you're not so lucky, Longhorn won't find much of your hardware and you'll be forced to try and install XP drivers instead. Good luck, and check out my Longhorn 4051 Tips & Tricks page for more information on making this work.

New Welcome screen

The Welcome screen (Figure) has been updated a bit from the version in build 4029, mostly with Slate-oriented graphical touches.

Desktop, taskbar, and Sidebar

There's a new Longhorn wallpaper (Figure), of course, and the new Slate theme, but little has changed with the desktop, taskbar, and Sidebar. In fact, some things have regressed: The Sidebar exhibits a nasty memory link in explorer.exe, so you're going to want to turn it off unless you're developing Sidebar tiles. Turning off the Sidebar otherwise isn't a huge loss, frankly, as there are few tiles to add, and of the ones that do exist, few work properly anyway. Curiously, there are fewer available tiles in this build than previously, too: Build 4051 ships with just a new clock (which, honestly, has been dramatically improved), the Classic Tray (which replaces the tray notification area from XP), Quick Launch, Slide Show (for displaying photo slideshows), a Sync, an update from the old Synchronize tile, which still doesn't work.

I understand and appreciate the point behind the Sidebar, but there's a working version available today in MSN 8.x, in the form of the MSN Dashboard (Figure). Of course, you have to be a paying MSN member to get this functionality today, but at least it works and works well. The Sidebar in today's Longhorn alpha builds is simply unusable.

Like previous builds, 4051 includes a bizarre variety of Start Menu, taskbar, and Sidebar customization options, and I suspect these will befuddle normal users unless they're cleaned up dramatically. Currently, you can access the basic customization features from Taskbar and Start Menu Properties (Figure), which now has options enabling and auto-hiding the Sidebar. A new Positions tab (Figure) gives you access to wide range of Sidebar and taskbar locations and sizes, though the taskbar sizing options don't work, so you're stuck with just the XP-style taskbar when the Sidebar is turned off.

On the desktop, some low-level file system changes shine through. Media files like images and videos and folders display as small thumbnails now, letting your visually preview their contents without having to open them (Figure), ala normal folder views (but not the desktop) in Windows XP. You still can't change the icon view to Details view or whatever, and I suppose we'll never really see that, but it'd be nice if Desktop was less a special folder and more malleable like other folders.

Start Menu

The new Longhorn Start Menu currently resembles that in XP but adds other options. You can now view the following items:

Documents - A Library, or special shell view, of all documents on the system.
My Documents - Same as Windows XP.
Recent Items - Same as Windows XP.
Photos and Videos - A Library of all image and movie files on the system.
My Pictures - Same as Windows XP. This option is off by default.
Contacts - A Library of your contacts, groups, and organizations.
Games - A Library that manages the games installed on your system.
Music - A Library of all audio files on the system.
My Music - Same as Windows XP. This option is off by default.
Computer - A replacement for My Computer.
Network Places - A replacement for My Network Places. This option is off by default.
Control Panel - Same as Windows XP.
Connect To - Same as Windows XP.
Hardware and Devices - Same as Windows XP, though the Hardware and Devices control panel has dramatically changed in Longhorn.
Help and Support - Same as Windows XP, though the Help system has been dramatically refined in this build to more closely resemble the Help system from Microsoft. This isn't an improvement in my mind, but the feature is currently unimplemented in 4051, so it's too early to say.
Search - Launches the new new WinFS-based Search tool, which is horribly broken in this build. You can search "My Stuff" (duh), Contacts, Email, Help & Tasks (whatever that means), and Internet. It doesn't work.
Printers and Faxes - Same as Windows XP.
Run command - Same as Windows XP.
Set Program Access and Defaults - Same as Windows XP. This option is off by default.
System Administrative Tools - Same as Windows XP. This option is off by default.

Clearly, this is a work in progress, and I think we can expect the new Libraries, like Photos and Videos, to win out over the old special folders, like My Pictures, over time.

Libraries

Longhorn's new Libraries debuted in build 4015, so please see my preview for more information. In that build, most of the Libraries were dead in the water, but a few actually work this time around, notably the Contacts library. Now, you can add persons (contacts), organizations, and groups, and if you logon to Windows Messenger, those contacts will be added to your list automatically (Figure). Filtering even works, sort of (Figure).

What doesn't work is document filtering. By default in this build, documents you add to My Documents, or whatever, are not added to the Documents library automatically. Instead, you have to manually drag them over to Documents. Naturally, this will work in later builds, so we'll conveniently skip over what will likely be one of Longhorn's coolest new features--its WinFS-based data mining and filtering capabilities--until we see a build in which it actually works.

Next: Longhorn Presentation Technologies