Visual Studio 2005 is the newest version of Microsoft's software development package. Unlike its immediate predecessor, Visual Studio .NET 2003, the ".NET" aspect has been dropped from the product name, to reflect the fact that modern versions of Windows (notably Windows XP and Windows Server 2003) are built entirely on the now well-established .NET software framework (which itself is being upgraded to version 2 with the advent of VS2005) and the old, pre-.NET days are gone.

Like previous incarnations, VS2005 includes a number of related development applications. Visual Web Developer is the IDE for developing Web projects, plus desktop application programming tools for Visual Basic, C++, C# and J# (Microsoft's take on Java). Since the line between desktop and Internet applications is becoming harder and harder to discern, it's unsurprising that VS2005 requires Internet Explorer 6 to be installed before it'll start up. When you first run the package it asks you to select a default profile - basically, you're telling it what kind of development you'll be predominantly undertaking. Your selected option will take precedence whenever you (say) create a project, though the alternatives are listed under the "other" section.

The basics of the VS2005 IDE are very similar to those in the previous edition, which means that in terms of usability it's straightforward to move. The main differences are that the toolbox (the item picker from which you select form items) has new sections for Crystal Reports entities and database-related items, and that the solution explorer (the window that shows what items are contained within what projects, and what projects are contained within the current development solution) includes a new "Data Sources" tab for defining database connections.

Like the previous version, VS2005 allows you to develop not just Windows applications but also several others, including ASP.NET Web sites, Web services (functions that are exposed to the Web via SOAP/WSDL), applications for Windows CE devices (PocketPCs and SmartPhones, for instance) and Office applications. The latter integrates with Office 2003, so you'll need to have that on your development PC to produce Office applications; although you could use Microsoft's Office Interoperability functions in VS2003, the new version is far more integrated with the Office suite and thus Office application development is much more visual than before. The last important item to mention is the SQL Server "database project"; one of the key features of the impending SQL Server 2005 is its close integration with the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR), and VS2005 is intended as the "obvious" choice of an IDE for developing integrated .NET/SQL Server applications.

The Web site development tools are also rather less clunky than before, probably because of the close integration with Internet Explorer. The old version filled your default Web directory with loads of guff and felt very much like an afterthought; the new version keeps its files to itself, and appears to use its own separate HTTP server to service requests when you run your Web projects.

The development and debugging tools are also improved relative to the previous release. It's now simpler and more intuitive to look at variables during debugging runs via the new "visualizer", and debugging of multi-threaded programs is also improved with the ability to add breakpoints into specific threads, not just into the source code that is common to all similar threads (as used to be the case). Particularly useful is the "edit and continue" function that lets you change source code on the fly; in the previous version you had to kill the running object program before modifying the code, whereas you can now change the bit you want to change and hit "continue".

As with most other new products in the Microsoft line, XML is also more prominent in VS2005 than it was previously. As well as being used as the common structure for configuration files, it's also supported much better than before as an object structure – that is, you get an XML editor, support for XSL in the debugger, and automated functions for doing clever stuff like translating DTDs into schemas.

Visual Studio 2005 soaks up all of the features that have been devised and tried out as add-ons to various products since Microsoft decided to adopt the .NET CLR and the XML family as key components. At the same time, the company seems to have listened to developers' comments, and have responded with an improved IDE and more clever debugging tools than were previously available. The beta still has a few bugs, but this is no surprise for a beta release, and with any luck most will be addressed in time for the product's projected launch next spring.

OUR VERDICT

Because of its close integration with Office 2003 and SQL Server 2005, I suspect many developers will want to sign up to an MSDN developer suite instead of purchasing VS2005 on its own, since an appropriate MSDN subscription provides a developer right-to-use licence for SQL Server and Office as part of the package.