I am waiting for Longhorn. Thus, I was very interested in the new 4051 build. Here are my findings.
Disclaimer: I first want to state that the software being previewed is in [pre-]alpha, meaning that every feature, every bug, and every other thing can be completely different from the final product, currently due two to three years from now. I wish to state this obvious thing here, so that I do not need to emphasize it every time. Most importantly, I wish to state that the GUI presented in this build is temporary.
The new installation procedure for Windows is really a step forward, especially if you look at it from the end-user’s point-of-view, since the ‘text’-based part from the XP install has been removed. I do not think an installation can get much easier than this, I believe only LindowsOS 4.0 is more easily installed.
Still, there were two glitches during the installation that are worth mentioning. The first problem I encountered can be seen as my own fault, but, on the other hand, also as a shortcoming from Microsoft’s side. I created a partition for this new build using DiskDrake in my main OS, Mandrake 9.2. I rebooted using the Longhorn CD, only to encounter, after two thirds of the install, an error, stating that Windows Install could not initiate the third stage of the install. After some time I found out the problem: I accidentally created an extended partition for 4051 with DiskDrake. Of course this can be seen as a mistake from my side (I should have created a primary one, obviously), but I do not think that that is the whole story. In 2003, you should expect Windows to recognize the fact that the partition I selected was an extended one, and it should have warned me at the beginning. Of course you could also say that in 2003, Windows should have the ability to install on an extended partition, but that is a different story.
I created a primary partition and the problem was solved. But only to encounter another bug: Windows did not install its bootloader! It did erase my LiLo, but it did not replace it with anything else, leaving me unable to boot into Longhorn. I actually had to install LiLo again to boot into Longhorn. TouchŽ…
Sidebar. That is the word that pops into my mind when speaking about first impressions. That thing is really big, black and ugly. I have got nothing against sidebars (if you do, try QNX, its sidebar rocks!), but the one in this build is just too ‘present’. It might have to do with the fact that the sidebar is nearly empty, and that when filled with plug-ins, it is going to look all nice and pretty. But for now, it is better to just minimize the darn thing. The only five items (tiles) you can add to the sidebar in this build are the system tray, quicklaunch, the clock, a slide show (never quite understood what that is good for anyway), and a ‘sync’ tile, which synchronizes, for example, the available Offline Web Pages. Since I do not use Offline Web Pages at all, it is quite a useless tile to me, but, then again, that is just me.
A lot has been said about the new ‘Slate’ theme for this build. Before I actually used Slate, I was very skeptical. Judging by the screenshots released all around the net, I found it too big, too much wasted space, and so on. But now that I have used for a few days, I can say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it at all. The screenshots on the web must have been pretty low-res, and thus making the widgets look larger. But, as you can see by my 1280×1024 screenshots, the widgets aren’t that big and clumsy. They are way smaller than in Luna. The use of black is a relief, a huge improvement compared to the sugarcoated Luna.
Outlook Express 7 And Internet Explorer
IE has been given some new features and a new coat. New features are the download manager and the pop-up blocker. I know, not really innovative, but still very useful. And about the new layout, I love it! It brings forward the features you use the most (back/forward and address bar) and puts the lesser-used features on the background (stop, reload etc.). This will probably be a personal thing, but I like it. Please try not to judge before you have actually used it. I was also skeptical, but I have changed my mind.
There is not much to say about Outlook Express 7, on the other hand. It mainly has gotten a make-over, but nothing very impressive crossed my path during use (exception is the new way you manage contacts, but more later on this subject). And if you forget the security issues involved, OE has always been a pretty good email-client (yes, it must be said), so any changes aren’t really necessary. There is only one thing I do not understand: why haven’t they incorporated the vertical preview pane? That is really a mystery to me, as it can be found in Outlook 2003.
Something also kind of important is whether older applications/drivers will work when using 4051 (although I do not think anyone is going to use this build in a production environment).
The first driver I tried to install was the Ate Catalyst driver, version number 184.108.40.20696, for my ATI Radeon 9000 video card. This would prove to be impossible. After the install failed, it advised me to try to set the default VGA driver first, but this would not help either. I was forced to use the ATI driver supplied by Microsoft, version number 220.127.116.1168. Not really a problem though, as this driver seems to be working just fine, but still, I like to have the latest drivers installed.
The second driver I wanted to install was my soundcard driver, a C-Media 8738-based 5.1 soundcard. This driver installed without a hassle.
Applications I tried to install ranged from MSN Messenger 6.1 (ran just fine), Office 2003 Beta II (custom install including: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook 2003, all worked seamlessly), Opera 6.21 (my favorite browser, also ran without a hassle), and the same goes for my other favorite browser, FireBird 0.7.
Of course I cannot try every application, but given the fact that the above seem to work just fine, I assume that the number of incompatible programs is small.
The first benefit of WinFS can be found when you open the “My Computer” window (now known just as “Computer”, by the way), in the form of the “Contacts” folder. Here, contacts are shown as files, with editable tags, much like .mp3 tags. Email addresses, phone numbers etc. can be entered here. Double-clicking opens an easy-to-use dialog that you can use to edit the tags. Take a look at the screenshot. Upon starting Windows/MSN messenger for the first time, contacts from that source are automatically imported.
Whether you find this useful or not is completely a matter of taste. Although I never used ‘contacts’ anyway (the mail addresses I need are all stored in my MSN list, and besides that, I have the good old (mobile) phone), for companies this might be very interesting. It surely eases the customization of your contacts list.
Another new feature is the “defaultstore” folder. This folder, using a network folder icon, does some interesting things. When a number of, let’s say, pictures is copied into this directory, it can sort those files in a number of ways, to your liking. These include “name” (obviously), “date taken”, “size”, “dimensions”, “date modified” and “lens aperture”. These sorting methods have sub-options, which you can use to filter the pictures. You can, for example, select to only show pictures with a resolution of 1280×1024. Of course different sorting methods are available for different types of files.
Another, more interesting, sorting method is “stack by …”. This will produce stacks, showing, physically, how much is in each stack. When I used the “stack by name” option, for example, it produced two stacks: “A-H” and “I-P”, with the latter having three pieces of paper, and the former only one, and thus telling me that the “I-P” contains more pictures than “A-H”. These stacks are handled like directories. Nice features, and I hope to see more of this, soon.
Speaking about stability is not very fair of course, in the pre-alpha stage. But, besides 4051 being very slow (loading the sidebar/startpanel alone takes about five to ten minutes), it is more stable than I had expected. I also must say that I did not use any tweaking guides and/or patches. I will include a paragraph describing the speed improvements gained from doing so. I have experienced two reboots in 4 days, for a pre-alpha that is not all that bad. How it will turn out in the end is of course impossible to say.
The Build After The Tweak
Using the tweak guide, you can seriously improve both speed and stability in this new build. The actions taken to achieve this, range from uninstalling certain Windows components (WinFS, for example, a real strain on your system’s resources), to disabling all kinds of services (much as in the tweaking guides for older builds). The improvements are remarkable: loading the startpanel/sidebar is reduced from five to ten minutes to a matter of seconds, programs load much faster, and so on. When using Longhorn for a longer period of time, I seriously recommend performing the tweaks.
There are also some drawbacks of course; disabling WinFS for example has some serious consequences: Outlook 7 will not start, since the new contacts system relies on WinFS. There are probably some other setbacks as well that I have not encountered yet.
It is very difficult to draw any conclusions at this early stage. With the final release being years ahead of us, there is not really anything sane to say about where Microsoft is heading. All I can do is try to give an objective judgment of where this ‘version’ of Windows stands, compared to its predecessors.
If this version of Windows were more stable, it would be an excellent candidate for a (free) upgrade, in my opinion. The reworking of the GUI and the newer versions of IE and OE could be released as a sort of upgrade, maybe even through Windows Update. The new features are highly needed in modern-day computing; pop-up blockers, download managers, new GUI features are improvements people have been asking for. Of course, one could install Opera, of course, one could install WindowBlinds, but hey, what does the average Windows user know about that? You do not miss what you do not know.
It could also bridge the gap between now and Longhorn’s release (a lot of complaining has been going on about that issue).
As for me, Longhorn is going to stay on my computer for a while, because I like messing around with software that has not been finished yet.
People might say that this release is just XP with a new coat. They are completely right, in my opinion. But darn, that new coat looks nice.
– AMD Athlon XP 1600+
– MSI K-7T Turbo2
– ATI Radeon 9000 128 MB DDR-RAM
– CMI8738-based soundcard
– Compaq v75 17″ monitor
– LG DVD-Drive
– Samsung CD-R(RW)
– Realtek 8139-based network card
– Microsoft Trackball Optical USB
– Standard PS/2 keyboard