In-Depth

Enter the Longhorn PC

System requirements proving hard to nail down; breakthroughs for some scenarios.

Whether your purchase orders involve dozens or thousands of machines, few acts are as stressful as buying new PCs in the year leading up to the release of a new version of Windows.

With the Windows Longhorn client scheduled for a late 2006 launch, Microsoft is intensely focused on the sensitive problem, which affects its own bottom line if system purchases tail off in the run-up to a new release. Microsoft officials acknowledged during several sessions at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in late April that by far the most common question they heard from IT executives was about Longhorn system requirements. Given the nature of Longhorn, even Microsoft's best efforts still might not make purchases of systems over the next 15 months an easy call.

Microsoft provided some very high-level information about Longhorn system requirements at WinHEC. "The majority of 2005 PCs and many older systems will run Longhorn," says Mark Croft, a Windows group product manager. For now Microsoft is recommending a minimum of 512MB of RAM and what it calls a "modern" CPU, defined as a mid-range to high-end processor.

The Rub
The issue is that with Longhorn, there will be a bigger difference in end-user experience between a high-end system and a bargain system than with previous versions of Windows. "The gap between value systems and high-performance systems will grow," explains Richard Russell, a Windows development manager.

According to Croft, a system running an older CPU with 256MB of RAM will run "perfectly well." He says to expect some performance numbers over the summer.

Longhorn Ready PC Program
  • 512MB of RAM
  • "Modern" CPU
  • Vendor commitment to shipping "Longhorn" graphics component

The difference will be most visible in the graphical user interface. The "Aero Glass" GUI will include transparency, reflections, advanced shading and some 3-D navigation features, along with image-based icons and folders. Only the most modern systems with up-to-date graphics cards and special drivers will be able to run Aero Glass. Lesser systems will be bumped down to a less-intensive version of the Aero interface and the least among systems will find themselves in a Windows 2000-style interface ghetto. Microsoft's vague system requirement statement doesn't yet reach down to the level of graphics cards.

Ready PC to the Rescue
Microsoft's solution for the PC buyer's dilemma is the Longhorn Ready PC program, to debut sometime in early 2006. To qualify for the program, PCs must sport a modern CPU, 512MB of RAM and a commitment from the OEM to ship a special graphics component for Longhorn, called the Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM), within 90 days of Longhorn's release. To qualify, the Longhorn graphics drivers can be included on a CD with the system or made available online for customer download.

For those making large purchases sooner and requiring quicker feedback, Croft suggests customers speak directly to their OEM suppliers. Most have been in discussions with Microsoft about the LDDM requirements and have a very good idea which of their systems will be getting Longhorn drivers.

Beyond the Basics
Longhorn should be arriving at the same time as two nearly simultaneous shifts in the underlying processor architectures go mainstream. One is x64 processors, the other is dual-core, followed by multi-core, processors. Like some shipping versions of Windows, Microsoft plans to support both technologies in Longhorn. While Windows XP Professional x64 Edition is available now, 64-bit driver support for hardware components will probably only begin to be widely available next year, putting the Longhorn release more in tune with the peripherals market.

Enter the Longhorn PC
(Click image to view larger version.)

External Displays
The appearance of the standard laptop is the most likely element of PC design to change with Longhorn—and it will be one of the most functional and visible changes in laptop design in years. With Longhorn, Microsoft adds support for auxiliary displays. The idea is similar to the external display on the outside of flip-top mobile phones that display the phone numbers of incoming callers.

For Windows, the external display will be capable of running even as the rest of the system is powered down. Users would have access to e-mail, calendar, music, battery status and other limited functionality. Touchpads would allow for navigation within the limited interface.

Prototypes and artists' renderings on display at WinHEC had the external displays on the laptop case, along the edge of the system or even between the display hinges to make it visible when the laptop is open or closed.

The idea has potential for some new form factors. One obvious implication on display at WinHEC was a headless server. The auxiliary display would offer many more options for monitoring and managing a server on a shelf or a rack than a set of blinking red or green lights. Other prototypes included a stand-alone monitor with only an auxiliary display and a desktop PC keyboard with the display built in, which could show new e-mail and other status messages when another application is commanding the full screen.

Real-Time Collaboration PCs
Another specialized area Microsoft hopes to see blossom with Longhorn is real-time collaboration, using the PC for audio and video conferencing. Company officials say they'd love to see high-quality microphones and cameras ship with PCs so that the PC becomes a default choice for collaboration rather than something requiring complex setup.

One way Microsoft is encouraging such scenarios is with support for a technology called microphone arrays. By using two or more microphones together, computers can isolate the location of a speaker and cancel out background noise, echoes and electronic sources of distortion. In Longhorn, Microsoft includes support for several geometric configurations of two to eight microphones. The company is encouraging OEMs to embed arrays in monitors and laptops.

Also on display at WinHEC were some new cameras capable of following a subject as he moved his head around. By encouraging the integration or inclusion of external cameras with nearly every desktop and laptop system, Microsoft is hoping to jumpstart use of real-time collaboration with Longhorn and other parts of its collaboration software stack.

The Waiting Game
While Longhorn system requirements aren't solidifying as quickly as hardware vendors and current PC buyers would like, Microsoft should resolve the situation in the second half of this year as graphics card requirements become clearer. Closer to the release of Longhorn, some new systems, especially high-end laptops, are likely to bring tangible leaps forward in usability.

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