When it ships, probably late in 2006, Longhorn will feature dramatically redesigned graphics (Avalon), storage (WinFS) and communication (Indigo) subsystems, as well as a new driver model—all of which are intended to contribute to a client operating system thats significantly more stable, more useful and easier to develop for than Windows is today.
eWEEK Labs had the opportunity to gauge Microsofts progress when we tested Build 4074 of Longhorn, which was distributed to WinHEC attendees. (The build is also available to MSDN subscribers at www.msdn.microsoft.com/longhorn.)
Based on the time we spent in sessions at WinHEC and on our tests of the latest Longhorn build, it appears Microsoft is on track to deliver on its promises. However, if Longhorn is to be a success, itll require significant buy-in from hardware and software vendors. New hardware must be developed, and new drivers—in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors—must be written to run that hardware.
Also, for users to experience much of what Longhorn has to offer, applications that take advantage of Avalon, WinFS and Indigo must be written, and it remains to be seen whether developers will push Longhorn-only features in applications that must also support Windows 2000 and XP.
Perhaps most important, Longhorn will require much beefier hardware. Longhorns new subsystems add considerable overhead: When Longhorn ships, a very large portion of machines in use wont be able to take advantage of Longhorns new features—if theyre able to run it at all.
Spotlight on Avalon
We didnt notice changes in Longhorns WinFS storage system compared with the build we reviewed at Microsofts Professional Developers Conference last fall. Similarly, the Indigo communications subsystem didnt figure prominently in Build 4074.
Instead, the bulk of the changes we saw concerned Avalon, a new presentation subsystem that better exploits the high-end capabilities of graphics cards, improves graphics performance and stability, and makes it easier for developers to bring features such as three-dimensional images and video into their applications.
In Windows XP, few applications take advantage of the 3-D capabilities of graphics cards, and those that do arent accustomed to sharing. In Longhorn, more applications will demand these resources, starting with the basic user interface, which depends heavily on hardware rendering.
Microsoft has defined separate tiers of UI functions to support a wider range of hardware. In descending order of resource greediness, these tiers are labeled Aero Glass, Aero and Classic. (Projected requirements for these UIs are available at www.microsoft.com/whdc/device/display/graphics-reqs.mspx.)
Aero Glass and Aero look basically the same, with differing degrees of interface flash. Classic is meant to be a fallback for systems that cant handle Aero, and it provides a Windows 2000 look and feel.
We installed Longhorn on a 2.53GHz Pentium 4-powered desktop with 512MB of RAM that we outfitted with an Nvidia Corp. GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card with 256MB of RAM. On our system, windows appeared with a drop shadow and would maximize, minimize and restore with fancier animation than in Windows XP.
When we hit Alt-Tab to switch between running applications, we were treated to a 3-D animation reminiscent of the demos of Sun Microsystems Inc.s Looking Glass 3-D UI.
However, everything in Longhorn ran slowly. The start menu took awhile to appear, and items in the task pane, such as the clock, sometimes didnt show up at all. We tried to play video in Windows Media Player, to see if it would appear live in the 3-D task-switching effect, but video wouldnt play unless we disabled the desktop managers advanced features.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.