Microsoft released a developers' alpha version of Longhorn at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). After playing with it for a few hours, I can tell you that Longhorn is far from complete, but what I saw looked great.
The first thing you notice after booting this Longhorn alpha is the beautiful icons. Many, including the main ones, like folders, drives, and Computer (the "My" has been dropped), are richer, more detailed, and more three-dimensional.
But that's just the beginning. Open the Start menu and Click "All Programs". Instead of the familiar cascading menu, the left panel changes into a list of all your programs, expandable by clicking the folder icons of what used to be submenus.
Want to go to a program that's not visible? The list is scrollable, but you can also move quickly by simply typing appropriate letters. Another nice improvement: A Run text box is located right there on the Start menu.
You will also find major improvements in Windows Explorer.
First, all the displayed drives have bar charts showing their used and empty space. Look closer, and you may notice the lack of drive letters. Longhorn isn't about to show you any DOS-like paths unless you ask for them. (But yes, they are there if you need them.)
Go into a drive, and then into some folders, and you'll discover that the Address Bar also avoids anything DOS-like. Instead, it displays the path as a series of pull-down menus, one for each folder above the current one. You can pull down any of these for quick navigation around your PC.
Here's something very cool: Click the View icon on the Standard Button bar and you'll get a slider that lets you zoom in and out for a closer or wider view of your icons (which are often views of your files rather than symbols of their file types). It also lets you switch between the various familiar views.
Easier and more powerful searches are a large part of what Longhorn is about, even without the WinFS file system. In Longhorn, Explorer displays column heads for easy sorting, even when it's not in Details view. And these column heads do a lot more than sort. Click, say, the date header, and you'll get a drop-down menu that clearly spells out the "Oldest on top" and "Newest on top" options, and also lets you choose to only view files altered today, last week, or last July.
Of course, it will take a lot more than better searches and an improved user interface to get people to upgrade their operating system. Perhaps, when Longhorn finally arrives, we'll actually get an easy, stable, fast, and secure version of Windows.
Then again, maybe not.
Lincoln Spector writes for PC World.