Pre-beta Longhorn builds all featured one obvious user interface enhancement: the Desktop sidebar, which housed a pretty analog clock. Alas, this has been ejected from the beta and almost certainly won’t be returning. The only reason for this seems to be that users running resolutions of 1,024 x 768 and less would have seen too much space sacrificed to the new look. Instead, the initial Desktop looks functionally identical to Windows XP’s, with the Start button, System Tray and Recycle Bin all in their familiar positions. The difference is in the presentation: the Recycle Bin is a 24-bit colour affair with faux reflections, and the Start bar is again more attractive and subject to artistic lighting effects.
This is the Windows Aero Glass theme, and it’s most obvious when you open a window. Window frames and borders are now translucent, showing the contents of windows underneath, and all windows have a pronounced drop-shadow effect on the Desktop below. Fade effects are everywhere, and window Minimise, Maximise and Close icons have a pleasing ‘activated’ glow when the mouse is hovered over them. It’s all part of the DirectX 9-based Avalon display engine and, if Microsoft personnel are to be believed, the effects present in Beta 1 are just the beginning. With Beta 2 and later releases, more will be made of the hardware acceleration features in current graphics cards to enhance the look still further.
Click the Start button, and again you’ll see something similar to what you’re used to with XP. However, the behaviour of the Start menu is now much saner: click on All Programs and, instead of a list of programs popping up to the right and obscuring everything else on screen, it appears within the confines of the left-hand side of the list. Click another submenu (for instance, Accessories) and that list opens up in the same place. A back button at the bottom lets you retrace your navigation. It’s a little unexpected at first, but much better than the old system of displaying lists and sublists of programs halfway across the Desktop. In addition, as soon as you click the Start button, you’ll see a search box that automatically gains keyboard focus. Type the name of a program and Windows will show any matching programs as you type – for instance, type ‘calc’, press Enter and Calculator will appear before you. It’s a huge blessing for anyone with dozens of programs installed.
And that search box is the first of many instances within an OS that, from the user-interface point of view, is almost entirely focused on searching and automatic data organisation. Vista is the first OS to elevate metadata – data that describes data – far above notions of physical location or organisation on disk.
Open up the Documents folder – as we mentioned in our brief preview last month, Microsoft has got rid of the unbearably twee My Computer and My Documents affectation – and the default view is not of your hard disk folder but of what Microsoft calls a virtual folder. These are clearly distinguished in Explorer windows by their blue colour, whereas ‘real’ folders on the hard disk are yellow.
Virtual folders build themselves around the mainstay service in Windows Vista – the Windows Search Engine. This is based on the indexing service that’s been present since Windows 2000. Virtual folders present data on your hard disk based on content or metadata garnered by the Windows Search Engine as it trawls your system, and not by its location on your hard disk or disks. There are several standard virtual folders predefined, including Keywords, Rating and Type.