Better interface, more improvements on the way to Beta 1

When you compare the early pre-beta releases of Whistler--the next version of Windows 2000--with the first beta release of its predecessor, it's easy to see to difference. Unlike Windows 2000 (then called NT 5.0) Beta 1, Whistler is just bursting with usabilty, and even at this early stage, it's already apparent that the Whistler team is much, much further along then they were at the same point with Windows 2000.

Whistler is a work in progress, and Microsoft has been working on this product since before the release of Windows 2000. The first external releases of the product, builds 2211 and 2223.1, were previewed here back in April. These builds featured a couple of simplicity improvements from Windows Me, new Explorer view options, and a Neptune-inspired logon, but not much else. The first Preview release of Whistler, Build 2250, was released in mid-July and was also examined on the SuperSite. The Whistler Preview featured an early look at its new Themes-based "skinnable" user interface and many more refinements. Finally, in late August, Microsoft released the final Whistler preview, build 2257, before Beta 1, which is due in October.

Whistler Build 2257 ships in Personal, Professional, Server, and Advanced Server editions. This preview will examine all of these editions, and discuss some of the changes since the previous release.

Whistler Setup
Whistler Setup is currently in a bizarre halfway house between the Setup programs used by Windows 2000 (ancient) and Windows Me (modern, but low-res). As such, it features the same basic steps as Windows 2000 Setup, but includes the ugly DOS-based screens from Windows Me, along with the text from Windows Me Setup ("Windows Movie Maker makes it easy to..."), which is particularly hilarious when you're installing Advanced Server. Obviously, this will change.

There is one nice touch in Setup, however, and this was present in the previous build as well: Whistler now allows you to quick format drives, which saves a considerable amount of time when compared to the same process in Windows 2000. Also, when you're selecting the partition to which you'd like to install Whistler, the partition layout information is displayed differently, and the friendly partition names are no longer displayed. This is a huge mistake (if you have three identical drives or partitions as I do?) and should be rectified immediately before some big Microsoft customer blows away an important data drive.

Whistler Personal Edition
By default, Whistler Personal Edition now features the Start Panel replacement for the Start menu that was hidden in the previous build (2250). The Start Panel (Figure), along with a new-look Professional Theme, provides most of the obvious visual change in this build, and I suspect that most people will be happy with these defaults. But using the Start Panel--which can be set using an option in Start Menu Properties--removes most desktop icons for some reason, leaving only the Recycle Bin (Figure). And there's no way to get back the standard desktop icons, such as My Computer and My Network Places, without changing back to the "classic" view style. This is ridiculous, of course, but since we're pre-beta, I will assume that this will eventually change (hint, hint).

Whistler Personal Edition defaults to the same Web view folders found in Windows Me, though it retains the odd new Explorer view options found in previous builds of Whistler (Figure). Whistler Personal Edition supports one processor only and does not include the Remote Desktop functionality from other versions of Whistler. However, it does include the Remote Desktop client so that you can use Personal Edition to remotely control other Whistler machines if needed.

In Whistler Personal Edition and other versions of this build, new tooltips have been added to the Turn Off Computer dialog box (Figure). All version of 2257 support ClearType as well, and all of my Personal Edition screenshots were taken with this feature turned on. ClearType is only usable on laptops computers, however.

Whistler Professional Edition
Unlike Personal Edition, Whistler Professional defaults to the "classic" Start menu and Theme that makes the system look almost identical to Windows 2000. I turned this off almost immediately, however, reverting to the cool new Professional Theme and Start Panel, which I find more functional and attractive (Figure). The Whistler Professional Theme sports an interesting graphical anomaly: In addition to the standard "foreground" and "background" windows, which each sport their own color scheme, there's a new type of window, one that is "behind" and open modal dialog, such as the "About" dialog you can access from My Computer (Figure). When you open a model dialog, the window behind it--which can't be accessed until the dialog is closed--has its own color scheme now. I guess that's a good thing.

Like Personal Edition, the My Computer Windows in Professional are a confusing mix of new-style Web view and the Web view from Windows Me (Figure). Hopefully, Microsoft will revert fully to the new look and feel soon: Currently, you can see the old Windows Me style in many places, such as protected system folders (Figure). The new Control Panel carries over almost unchanged from the previous build, providing an interesting preview to Microsoft's future Web-based user interface (Figure). Hyperlinks in Control still open old-style Win32 applets, however, such as Display Properties (Figure). I recommend going all the way with the HTML, if possible, to avoid confusion.

Networking users will applaud a new feature that (finally!) allows multiple configurations on a single network interface card. This feature is exposed through an "Alternate Configuration" tab in the TCP/IP properties dialog for each NIC (Figure). Otherwise, networking is identical to that in Windows 2000, though the QoS (Quality of Service) Packet Scheduler is installed by default (only in Pro, not in Server).

Internet Explorer is updated to IE 5.6, but I've heard that 6.0 will be in the final version. I'd also note that the "Personalized Favorites Menu" feature is off by default, a minor victory for the average Joe. Other than that, most features are similar or identical to previous builds. The Add/Remove Windows Components dialog (Figure) carries over intact from Windows 2000, for example, as do most other user interface elements. As stated in the preview of build 2250, Whistler Professional now supports a Remote Desktop feature that allows a single network administrator to take control of the machine remotely for administration purposes. In industry parlance, this is A Good Thing.

Whistler Server and Advanced Server Editions
The Server editions of Whistler--currently Server and Advanced Server--contain the fewest changes. An improved Configure Your Server Wizard allows administrators to easily configure the server for a variety of tasks, such as Application serving (Terminal Services), Web serving, and the like (Figure). And the Server editions retain the "classic" Explorer from Windows 2000, though the new stuff is available optionally. I expect most system administrators to simply leave this as-is, thank you very much (Figure). And finally, in Whistler 2257, Internet Information Services (IIS) has been upgraded a notch to version 5.1, further indication that this release is a simple point release upgrade to Windows 2000, and not a major new product (Figure).

Conclusions
Like the Preview release, Whistler 2257 is a work in progress, but it's easy to see that improvements have been made, especially to the Professional Theme, which was particularly buggy before. I think it's clear that the majority of visual changes planned for Whistler have already happened and that the beta process will be used simply to fine tune these features and expand them with additional Themes and other functionality.

Microsoft has made many inroads with regards to simplication in Windows of late, and Whistler obviously continues this trend. Unlike some of the more questionable and half-hearted user interface gestures in Windows 2000--such as the lame Balloon Help explaining how to click the Start Menu--Whistler's changes seem to be better targeted at actual user needs. The Start Panel is a welcome and much needed update to the tired Start Menu, and the ability to "skin" the user interface with extensible Display Themes will likely be a big hit with users.

One major mistake that Microsoft will make with Whistler is to limit the Personal Edition to a single processor: Most enthusiasts and game players will want dual processor capabilities, whereas the corporate office drones targeted by Professional will never need such a feature. I recommend changing this configuration so that Personal, like Professional, has dual processor capabilities.

Overall, Whistler Build 2257 is a heartening indication that Microsoft has finally gotten it right. Critics have long lambasted the company for maintaining two separate 32-bit operating system lines (Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000). Whistler will silence these and many other critics.