Whistler gets a facelift and a simpler user interface

I had expected to write more about the Beta 1 release of Whistler, the next version of Windows, but with Beta 2 bearing down on us in the next 30 to 60 days, Microsoft released an interim build that shows off a bunch of new features not found in Beta 1. So I thought I'd look at the desktop versions of this build instead (Server hasn't progressed enough by this point to be interesting). Whistler build 2410 continues the simplification work from previous betas and begins to flesh out the final feature set with the inclusion of Internet Explorer 6.0, Outlook Express 6.0, Windows Movie Maker 1.1 (Personal and Professional only), Windows Media Player 8.0, MSN Explorer 1.1 (Personal and Professional only), and Internet Information Services 5.1 (Professional and Server editions only). Conspicuous in this release are some cool new high-color icons, some minor changes to the simplified Start Menu (previously called the Start Panel), a new sample UI skin, and a bunch of other small tweaks and fixes. Let's take a look.

Whistler 2410, like Beta 1, comes in 32-bit Personal, Professional, and Advanced Server editions, along with 64-bit version of Professional and Advanced Server. Personal is new to the Whistler family, and it will be provided as an update to Windows 9x and Windows Me users only. It is most notable for the number of features that are missing when compared with Professional; this includes a lack of multi-processor support, no multi-monitor support, no Backup utility, no ability to join a domain, the inability to host Web sites using IIS, and the like. All this is by design, people, and though I have arguments for including many of these features in Personal, the decision was made to differentiate the Personal SKU from Professional. The good news, of course, is that Personal will cost much less than Professional. I'm guessing that Microsoft will price Personal in the $50-$90 range, while Professional should retain its $129 price. By comparison, the Professional and Advanced Server editions are roughly identical with their Windows 2000 predecessors.

User interface
Since Beta 1, Microsoft has done a nice job of cleaning up Whistler; it's now a very attractive environment with minimal clutter. The Whistler desktop (Figure) sports only a few icons by default, though you can add old favorites such as My Documents, My Computer, and My Network Places fairly easily through Display Properties. The Recycle Bin has been moved to the lower right corner of the screen, where the Macintosh's Trashcan icon is found, a pretty provocative move on Microsoft's part. The new simplified Start Menu has been cleaned up a bit (the current user's name runs along the top horizontally, rather than vertically up the left side) and the option to cascade recently accessed documents actually works now.

Whistler is extremely customizable when compared to its predecessors, and this can be shown fairly clearly with the new Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog, which offers many more options. The new Start Menu can be toggled with what Microsoft is now referring to as the Classic Start Menu, and the list of options you get is pretty impressive (Figure), including the ability to add Netscape, Mozilla, or Opera as your Web browser of choice if desired. The behavior of the Taskbar and tray notification area appears to be identical to previous builds: It will hide inactive icons by default, cleaning up the default display nicely.

The Desktop Properties menu, like that in My Computer, has been changed somewhat. All Active Directory options are gone--sorry, it's always on--and the "Line Up Icons" option is now "Auto Line Up," and it's found under the "Arrange Icons By" sub-menu (Figure). And you can now lock desktop items, which is a nice touch.

My Computer
In My Computer, the changes continue (Figure). By default, icons are in Tiles mode, which provides large, colorful images in place of the old 32-pixel icons we're used to in previous versions of Windows. Web view is considerably nicer and more useful now, with a variety of commonly needed tasks provided, depending on the situation. For example, the top view of My Computer has options for file searching, viewing system properties, adding or removing a program, and changing a setting (a cute way of saying "Open Control Panel"). There are also links to other commonly accessed locations on the system, such as My Network Places, My Documents, Shared Documents, and Control Panel. Many people used to simply turn off Web view because of its waste of screen real estate, but Microsoft is really taking advantage of the space now and I recommend giving it a few weeks.

Control Panel
Control Panel is virtually unchanged, although some new Web view options have been added for each task or applet (Figure). I still think that the Control Panel--which defaults to a pretty, if useless "Category view"--is wrong-headed (see my review of Whistler 2250 for details), and now I know why. Over the years, Microsoft has done a variety of things to hide the more complex and underused options in its operating systems and applications. For example, Office and Windows 2000/Me sport personalized menus that hide infrequently used items unless they're specifically asked for; at that point, that option is then made part of the default set. With the Control Panel in Windows Me and, now, in Whistler, Microsoft is abandoning this approach and showing you a list of options, by default, that it thinks you will want. This is a mistake. Instead, Microsoft should treat the Control Panel like a personalized feature and show you all the options by default, and then, over time, remove the options that are never used. This will make its behavior identical to other parts of Windows and not unnecessarily make it harder to find options, as is now the case, when you first install Whistler.

The Control Panel is inconsistent in a variety of other ways too. Some options--such as User Accounts--open new windows, while others--like "Appearance and Themes"--open in the same window. But when you've navigated into a choice like "Appearance and Themes," the "Up" toolbar button breaks: Instead of returning you to the root of the Control Panel, it pops you back up to My Computer. That's ridiculous. And speaking of inconsistent, how about tying ALT+UP ARROW to the Up toolbar button in My Computer/Explorer; ALT+LEFT ARROW and ALT+RIGHT ARROW already work the "Back" and "Forward" toolbar buttons, respectively.

Searching in Whistler has changed dramatically (Figure). The first time you run Search, you can choose whether you want to use an animated character or use text only. The animated character is cute, I guess, but silly and pointless unless you're a teen-aged girl. I guess this is where marketing has taken us. In a never-ending quest to make everything so simple it's almost insulting, you can now choose what you want to search for ("Pictures, music, or video," "Documents," and the like) or you can search the Internet. Search results are returned in the humongous Tiles view by default, which is also silly: Give us Details view for this kind of thing, please (Figure).

Help and Support
Help and Support (Figure) hasn't changed much in this build, but I still think it's pretty ugly when compared to the clean and bright version found in Windows Me. On the other hand, I'm sure that Help in Whistler will be far more comprehensive, so there's a lot more info to get across here. I hope to see this change dramatically in the future.

In Whistler, each network connection (even in Personal) gets an alternate configuration so that you can easily use the same connection at work and home without having to constantly reconfigure, as you do in Windows 2000 (Figure). This is a welcome feature that should have been included in Windows 2000. Whistler drops support for legacy networking protocols such as NetBEUI, though I've heard that Microsoft may include support on the Personal CD-ROM; we'll have to wait and see.

Application compatibility
For better compatibility with older applications that might not be able to deal with Whistler's version number (essentially NT 5.1), Whistler includes a Compatibility Mode that can fool apps and setup programs into thinking that you're using a Windows 95 or NT 4.0 system. This feature was actually included in nascent form on the Windows 2000 CD-ROM, but the version in Whistler is built right into the OS. Here's how it works: The Properties dialog for an application shortcut includes a "Run in emulation mode" option that lets you choose Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 (Figure). Check off the OS you'd like to pretend you're using and fire away: When the application runs from that shortcut, it will think it's in the environment you chose.

Reliability and stability features
Like Windows Me, Whistler includes System Restore, which will allow you to "roll back" your system to a previous time if a device driver or application install renders your system unstable. The UI for System Restore is absent in this build, however, so there isn't much to do with it yet, but the Whistler version does offer at least one improvement over the one in Windows Me already: In System Properties, you can set up System Restore to work with individual drives (Figure), whereas it was an all or nothing affair in Windows Me. Windows Me also includes a variant of System Restore on drivers, and it does so on a per-driver basis: You can now roll-back the driver on any device, and Windows Me will return the driver to the last known-good version. Good stuff for reliability.

Internet clients
Whistler includes Internet Explorer 6.0, which features a variety of poorly implemented Explorer bars that seem to be inspired by MSN Explorer but implemented like the Explorer bars in the Macintosh version of IE 5.0. A thin strip of icons runs down the left side of the browser (Figure), and it expands when moused-over (Figure) to reveal the choices: Search, Media, Contacts, History, and Folders. The Search option displays the same Search functionality we discussed previously, though it assumes you want an Internet search of course (Figure). The Media toolbar will be familiar to anyone that's seen MSN Explorer; it provides a built-in Windows Media Player (Figure) that can be optionally configured to appear anytime you view a Web page with video or audio. Like the player in MSN Explorer, this player can be popped-out into its own window. The Contacts option can show contacts from Outlook Express and/or MSN Messenger; why my Hotmail contacts don't show up here is beyond me (Figure). The Favorites, History, and Folders options appear to be unchanged from IE 5.5. Whistler also ships with MSN Explorer, though it's not the default browser, at least not yet, even in Personal Edition (Figure).

Outlook Express 6.0 doesn't appear to be dramatically different from its predecessors. I don't use OE all that often, however, and I could be overlooking something here. They do make it much easier to signup for a Hotmail account, however.

Digital Media
Whistler includes Windows Movie Maker 1.1 (Figure), which doesn't yet appear to have any improvements over the version in Windows Me. Windows Media Player 8 is also included (Figure), though it appears to be mostly broken in this build. I haven't seen any difference between WMP8 and WMP7 yet either, though I've heard that it will include a new "corporate" user interface by default in business versions. We'll see.

If you've got a CD-R or CD-RW attached to your system, Whistler makes it possible to write CDs without adding any third-party software. Fans of Adaptec EZ CD Creator have nothing to fear for now, however, as the feature is completely hidden and hard to use. Here's how it works: You select files in Explorer that you want to write to a CD-R or CD-RW, and then choose Send To --> Writable CD from the right-click Properties menu (Figure). The files are placed into what Microsoft calls a "staging area" until you've chosen all the files you'd like to write. If you choose to navigate to the writable CD in Explorer, what you'll see are empty icons representing each file you'll be writing; they are each denoted with a small bulls-eye overlay graphic (Figure). Once you've chosen all the files you'd like to write, you can choose "Write to CD" in the Web view pane of Explorer (Figure) and the files will be written (Figure). After that is complete, the disc is closed (Figure), though it'd be nice if there was a way to choose whether to close the CD apon completion because it's impossible to add files to a closed CD-R. If you've got a CD-RW and CD-RW disks, this isn't a problem, as you can erase the CD-RW and start over, or simply add files to that disk whenever you want.

Not surprisingly, the CD writing feature in Whistler is pretty bare bones, and I didn't see any way to name the CD, for example (it defaults to the date). I fully expect Microsoft to improve this in a future release, when they will no doubt explain that, due to user request, they've made this feature more powerful and easy to use. I'm sure the Adaptecs of the world are just thrilled about this.

Whistler has come a long way since its alpha and Beta 1 releases last year. For desktop users--consumers and business desktops--Whistler will be a fairly dramatic release offering numerous simplification and ease of use changes, along with a host of small fixes and changes designed at answering core user requests. The Server picture is a little hazier, as current versions of Whistler don't offer much in the way of improvements for the Server editions. But the Whistler desktop versions, which are due to ship in Q3 2001, are truly compelling, especially for Windows 9x/Me users hoping to make the jump to the Windows 2000 product family without paying the price for hardware and software compatibility. Windows 2000 Professional users will have less to look forward to in the new release, though it's still a nice improvement over today's desktop.

When Beta 2 is finally released, I'll have more to say about Whistler. Until then, enjoy this preview of the future of Windows.