With the crucial Beta 1 release delayed two weeks to late October, Microsoft has released an interim build of the next version of Windows 2000 to testers for evaluation. Whistler build 2267 was released late Tuesday, offering small improvements to the previous alpha build, but no major new features. And in a bid to prevent piracy, Microsoft has instituted a new policy for testers where beta builds of Whistler are now downloaded or installed live over the Web using Microsoft Passport validation. I've been able to spend a few hours with the Professional and Personal editions of Whistler build 2267, and have found that Microsoft was probably wise to delay Beta 1: The new skinnable user-interface is finally coming together, but it's taken the company months to get it to this state.

Simplification is clearly a goal for Whistler, and even the Setup Wizard has been enhanced to make the process easier for the user. In Windows 2000, for example, it was easy to blow away a previous installation of Windows if one forgot to open the "Advanced" options dialog during Setup. But Whistler removes this ambiguity by providing an "Installation Type" option during the very first phase of Setup: If the user chooses to perform an Express Upgrade, Setup will automatically upgrade the current version of Windows and maintain the user's settings. But a Custom Install option allows the user to customize the installation directory (for dual boot), the language options, and the type of file system used.

One other nice touch: In Windows 2000, it is possible to boot the installation CD to access recovery features in the even that the system no longer boots. But to get to this feature, you have to sit through the file copy phase of Windows 2000 Setup, which needlessly copies numerous files to the hard drive in anticipation of an OS installation, a costly design flaw time-wise. But when the Whistler CD boots, you are presented with an option to press F5 to start the Automatic System Recovery (ASR) feature, and it happens before the file copy phase. It's a small thing--like the capability to perform quick formats of partitions during setup--but it makes a big difference.

Visually, Whistler 2267 resembles the Preview and alpha builds that have come before. But 2267 finally allows the user to modify the look and feel of the system with a fully fleshed-out Display Properties dialog, making it as functional as Windows 2000 in this regard. And small improvements abound in the UI, including a new-look Start Panel that replaces the old Start Menu in both Personal and Professional editions. The new Start Panel offers quick access to recently accessed applications and common system tools such as My Documents, My Computer, Control Panel, and Help and Support. Start Panel is highly customizable and likely to win many converts.

The Help and Support application, which is based on the help system in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), is midway through a UI change as well. Help and Support retains the basic layout of the version in Windows Me, but the look is all new and the Whistler version is packed with numerous new options, including a set of Whistler Support Services and Recent News Headlines that will make this a central point for support. Beginning with the Beta 2 release of Whistler, Windows Update will be integrated into Help and Support, providing a number of new features. Chief among these is the capability to keep numerous Whistler machines on a network up-to-date using a single computer. Microsoft hopes that both home and corporate users will be able to take advantage of this feature.

Whistler 2267 also introduces a Compatibility Center, which will eventually allow users to research whether particular hardware devices are compatible with this OS. Compatibility Center can be used to search for compatible products before purchasing or troubleshoot compatibility issues with existing products. Like Help and Support itself, Microsoft intends to open Compatibility Center to hardware makers so that users can gain access to support information from these companies in a single place.

Overall, Whistler 2267 isn't a far-reaching release, and most of the improvements are visual, rather than architectural, in nature. On the other hand, it's clear that Whistler will have some heady hardware requirements, as the new user interface slows things to a crawl, even on the speedy evaluation machines I used to test the build. I've been told that Microsoft will be a bit more honest on the minimum hardware requirements with this release, and I wouldn't be surprised to see "128 MB of RAM" listed among those requirements. Microsoft tends to raise the bar, hardware-wise, with each release of Windows, and Whistler will be no exception