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Windows XP Unwired

A First Look at Longhorn

by Wei-Meng Lee, author of Windows XP Unwired

Microsoft released the second build of Windows Longhorn at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in early May. This latest build is much more stable than the one distributed at the Professional Developer Conference (PDC) in 2003, and includes more features as well.

If you haven't obtained the latest build (Build 4074) yet, and are an MSDN subscriber, you can download it from the MSDN Subscriber Download site. The download is about 700+ MB, so you need to have broadband access in order to download it. Also, the image will not fit onto a CD; you need a DVD writer.

In this article, I will walk you through some of the features in the most recent build of Longhorn.

My Test Computer Configuration

I first tried loading Longhorn using Virtual PC and allocated 512MB of memory for the image. However, near the end of the installation, the system took forever to detect hardware on my system, and so I gave up trying on the Virtual PC. You might have luck using the Virtual PC, but I couldn't seem to get it to work.

Instead, I decided to install Longhorn fresh on a new computer. I used my Dell Inspiron 5150 notebook -- a 3.06 GHz Pentium 4 with 512 MB RAM. It has a NVIDIA GeForce FxGo5200 graphics card with 64MB of video RAM. Longhorn installed without any problems.

Start Menu

The Start menu is still the familiar Start menu that you get in Windows XP (see Figure 1).

You do have the option to change it to the classic Start menu, as you can with XP. I still prefer the classic Start menu, which is less cluttered than the default one.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Start menu in Longhorn.


One new feature of Longhorn is the Sidebar, a placeholder for commonly used items. By default, the Sidebar is docked to the right of the screen. To customize the Sidebar you right-click on it and select the various items (called Tiles) to display in the Sidebar (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Adding Tiles in the Sidebar.

Some interesting Tiles that you can add into the Sidebar include:

The Sidebar with all the Tiles selected is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The Sidebar will all Tiles selected.

The Clock tile at the bottom of the Sidebar is quite a nice addition. It displays a clock and a calendar. To ensure the clock displays the local time, you need to set the Clock tile property to use the local time zone (configured in Control Panel, Date and Time). When you click on the Clock tile, an enlarged image of the clock is displayed (see Figure 4). You can also set an alarm by moving the little blue dot on the clock face.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Clock tile.

If you are running Longhorn on a small monitor, the Sidebar can actually take up quite a substantial portion of your screen. A better way would be to minimize it (see Figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Minimizing the Sidebar.

Internet Explorer

Longhorn ships with Internet Explorer 6.05, a slightly newer version than the one shipped with Windows XP.

The toolbar of IE has been rearranged. Other than that, nothing much seems to change (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. The slightly new IE in Longhorn.

Disappointingly IE still doesn't support tab-browsing, at least in the current version. However, it does come with popup window management, which allows you to block popup windows, the same as will ship with SP-2 (see Figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7. IE supports blocking popups.

Sync Manager

One new application in Longhorn is the Sync Manager (located in Control Panel).Using the Sync Manager you can synchronize the contents of designated folders with a backup device (see Figure 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8. The Sync Manager.

Figure 9 shows configuring the folders on my desktop to synchronize with my thumb drive.

Figure 9
Figure 9. Synchronizing the folders with my thumb drive.

This feature is useful for people using multiple desktops (such as in the office and at home). Using a thumb drive (or portable hard disk), you can now synchronize your work with all your machines.

Outlook Express

Outlook Express is upgraded in Longhorn to version 7 (see Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10. Outlook Express 7 in Longhorn.

Outlook Express 7 in this version of Longhorn only supports POP and IMAP (see Figure 11), and so Hotmail users will be disappointed. Considering that Outlook Express in the current version of XP supports Hotmail as well as HTTP mail, one would hope that support will be built into the final version of Longhorn as well, but we'll have to wait and see.

Figure 11
Figure 11. Outlook supports POP and IMAP in pre-beta.

New Themes

There are two new themes in Longhorn -- Slate and Jade. Figure 12 shows the Jade theme -- a combination of silver and blue. The new themes have received a lot of comments and criticisms from testers on the Web. But I think it is still too early to judge the looks since the final product may be drastically different.

And as a Mac user I find the theme eerily similar to Mac OS X. However, expect more themes to appear in subsequent builds.

Figure 12
Figure 12. The new Jade theme.

3D Desktop

One of the most impressive features in Longhorn is no doubt the Avalon Desktop Windows Manager (DWM). Avalon is the new 3D GUI in Longhorn. If you are lucky enough (that is, your hardware is powerful enough) you should be able to see it for yourself in this current build.

To invoke DWM, open up a command window and type the following command (note the directory):

C:\WINDOWS\I386>sbctl start

Wait a few seconds and you should notice that your windows are now three-dimensional (see Figure 13, and note the shadows). Again, this looks much like Mac OS X's Aqua UI.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Windows in 3D Avalon.

But that similarity ends when you press Alt-Tab! All open windows will be stacked up (see Figure 14). Each tab will cycle through the windows, with the active one displayed at the front of the window stack. I did find some inconsistencies in the implementation, but hey…this is pre-beta software!

Figure 14
Figure 14. The windows all stack up when you press Alt-Tab.

Even though I can invoke DWM on my machine, it is painfully slow. A few minutes into it I looked for a way to switch back to the 2D mode. Fortunately, it is simple:

C:\WINDOWS\I386>sbctl stop


Overall, this build of Longhorn spots some improvements in UI. Performance-wise, it is still slow for two reasons:

This piece just skims the surface of what's in Longhorn. In future articles I will dive deeper into each Longhorn feature.

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.

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