Longhorn: Huge Jump From XP

Review: eWEEK Labs' tests show that Longhorn does represent a huge jump from XP, but it is two years from release. And with so many new subsystems, Microsoft will likely require every bit of that time to thoroughly chew all that it's bitten off.

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With its dramatically remade presentation, storage and communications systems, Microsoft Corp.s "Longhorn"—the next-generation Windows client operating system—gives Windows users and developers plenty to be excited about.

Back when Windows XP was still known by the code name Whistler, the most exciting thing about Microsofts client OS-in-progress was that it wasnt Windows 9x. But now that Windows users can take for granted such basics as real multiuser support and relative freedom from blue screens of death, it will take a lot more than making Windows a less-hated part of ones workday to spur enthusiasm for Longhorn.

eWEEK Labs tests show that Longhorn does represent a huge jump from XP, but it is, by conservative estimates, two years from release. And with so many new subsystems, Microsoft will likely require every bit of that time to thoroughly chew all that its bitten off.

In the meantime, Microsofts rivals arent sitting still. Apple Computer Inc.s Mac OS X, for example, already offers the sort of compositing graphical interface thatll be one of Longhorns main new additions.

eWEEK Labs installed Build 4051 of Longhorn on a 900MHz Pentium M laptop with 256MB of RAM. At this early point in its development cycle, we wouldnt expect the operating system to be built for speed—and, in fact, it was mind-numbingly slow in tests. We recommend testing this build on a system with considerably more RAM.

Some of the slowest—and the fastest—performance we experienced was linked to locating and sorting through local files. One of Longhorns most prominent new components is WinFS, a file system that lives on top of NT File System and enables speedy queries of certain items on a machines local file system. This capability is roughly akin to what Be Inc.s BeOS offered several years ago.

Unlike Bes BFS, however, most files in Longhorn (such as program and system files) will continue to exist separate from WinFS.

We could import our contacts from Outlook into WinFS, then work with them through Windows Explorer. However, WinFS operations such as deleting contacts took an inordinately long time to complete in tests, and opening WinFS store folders brought up the searching-flashlight animation while we waited for items to show up.

WinFS uses XML-based schemas for defining the sorts of metadata it stores for items. Longhorn ships with a number of these schemas, such as those for Word documents and contacts, and developers will be able to extend this capability for other file types.

We were impressed that we could filter almost instantly through files on our test system by typing keyword letters into a sidebar input box in Windows Explorer. This capability worked as well outside of WinFS stores as within them.

Windows Explorer has been reworked in Longhorn to expose the benefits of WinFS, ordering files by context as well as by location and offering much more metadata for initial viewing than in Windows XP.

Longhorn has a new look thats powered by Microsofts Avalon, the presentation system that brings hardware-accelerated, vector-based graphics to the standard Windows interface. In Windows Explorer, we could zoom our window views in and out, but almost all the icons are still bit maps, and they looked terrible when resized.

Internet Explorer has a slimmer look now, which reminded us a bit of Apples Safari. Also like Safari, the version of IE included with the Longhorn preview offers pop-up blocking and a download manager—both firsts for IE. (The tabbed browsing that distinguishes Safari and Mozilla, among other browsers, remains absent, however.)

The sidebar Microsoft has added to the Windows desktop works pretty much like the regular Windows task bar. However, it will also be able to host a variety of interesting applets, such as current headlines from a Rich Site Summary, or RSS, feed of ones choice. For now, the most interesting thing that inhabits the sidebar is a big, shiny-looking analog clock.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.