Technology

Looking at Longhorn

Journals.ars has an entry posted in the M-Dollar section with screenshots of Longhorn Build 5203. For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, Longhorn is the code name for the next iteration of Microsoft Windows that is set to replace WindowsXP. Currently, Longhorn (or whatever it will be called) is set for release in late 2006, but some sources claim that the date will probably slip to early 2007. Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t help but check the images out. Even though I’m a pretty die-hard Mac user, I still love ogling screenshots, especially desktops of any yet-to-be-released operating system (OS).

I can’t comment on things like functionality or performance of this build. I personally haven’t had the opportunity to play around with any Longhorn builds, so anything I say on those matters would be uninformed speculation. Therefore, these comments will be limited to the appearance of the Longhorn interface in this build. Please note that these comments may quickly become out of date seeing that this is unfinished software, and the interface may go through several revisions before the product’s release.

Nice Comments

On the whole, the interface seems pretty sleek and elegant. It retains familiar Windows metaphors while visually separating itself from prior releases. With this release, Microsoft has definitely addressed the garishness of WindowsXP and the criticisms leveled toward the “plex” interface of previous Longhorn builds.  Also, the icons are showing improvement. I especially like the Recycle Bin icon, but I wish the screenshots here included the full state of the Recycle Bin as well.

The “Computer” window in screenshot seven has nice progress bars visually representing how much of the disk space is currently being used. I have to admit that a similar function is lacking in the Mac OS X Finder. (Yes, I know that the Finder shows how much space is available at the bottom of the Finder window, but visual indicators are nice too.) Also the Spotlight…err, Search field in the Start Menu is a nice touch.

Concerns

Interface translucency is a very cool thing, and I am a sucker for glassy effects. However, translucency in the title bars may not be a good idea, especially in Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer where the location and search fields are also translucent. Some serious usability issues could come out of this (as Apple learned in the early OS X days when inactive title bars became translucent.) On the other hand, the blurring of the background through the translucent objects may alleviate this problem.

Another issue could be performance. Okay, now I’m speculating, but eye-candy like translucency and gaussian blurs eat processor cycles. Also, cool 3D effects have also been demoed – again more cycles. Hopefully the new Desktop Composition Engine (DCE, code named Avalon) will help take care of this, much as Quartz Extreme helps offload much of the eye-candy in Mac OS X onto the graphics processor. Additionally, Microsoft will probably let the user decide what eye-candy is active in the Appearance Manager.

Finally, Microsoft seems to be falling prey to the visual inconsistencies that have been cropping up in Mac OS X for the past few years. In Longhorn, there is a black gradient Taskbar which opens to a Start Menu that follows similar aesthetics. This contrasts with glassy windows in Windows Explorer as well as some applications like Paint and Internet Explorer. Furthermore, one of the screenshots shows navigation and information elements within two different file windows where the information has backgrounds of different colors. (Perhaps this isn’t so bad because the different colors may represent different directories, but it still seems like overkill.) Then, also in this category, is Windows Media Player, which seems to follow its own set of rules separate and apart from the rest of the OS (much like iTunes does in Mac OS X).

Miscellany

What is with Microsoft’s obsession with green elements? They are all over the place in XP, and here we see that the Star Menu’s active state is green. Oh well, at least it doesn’t clash with the rest of the interface like it does in XP’s Luna style.

Is it me, or does the search icon in the Start Menu, Windows Explorer, and Internet Explorer look exactly like the icon for Apple’s Spotlight and the search field in Safari? (Edit: I’ll take this one back. After looking over GUIdebook, this icon seems a natural evolution of the icon Microsoft has used for search since Windows 95. Also, it’s pointing the opposite direction from Spotlight’s and Safari’s icons.)

Conclusion

Microsoft is making progress with WIndows Longhorn, and it looks to improve on Windows’ strengths while addressing some of its past weaknesses. It has hit some serious bumps in its development, and it will be some time before Longhorn reaches the potential that it initially promised. Regardless, this looks like it is shaping up to be a decent upgrade for Windows users, and while it may not inspire any switchers off the Mac (not me at any rate), it will have some of us wishing Mac OS X had translucent windows instead of brushed metal.

For further reading on Windows Longhorn, visit the Longhorn section of the SuperSite for Windows.

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