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What’s New in Visual Studio 2013 Preview

Lynn Greiner attended the recent Microsoft BUILD conference, and came home with a few shiny new beta toys. Here’s her view of the Visual Studio 2013 features you really need to know about.

Visualstudio_logoOne of the more entertaining things at Microsoft’s developer conference, BUILD, is getting a peek at the latest and greatest development tools from the folks who wrote them. That’s the tech entertainment, anyhow; we ladies also derived great amusement from the monumental lines at the men’s room after the keynote presentations (sorry guys – it’s a geek girl thing). The Microsoft experts shoot from the lip, often with humor, and they sometimes even admit that, yes, they blew it in the last version.

This BUILD conference, held a scant eight months since the last one, was no different. Build 2012 featured the just-released Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, along with updates to Visual Studio 2012 so people could actually produce apps for them. Last month’s Build 2013 saw the release of the Windows 8.1 Preview, along with the previews of a shiny new version of Visual Studio (VS) and .NET Framework 4.5.1, an in-place update to .NET Framework 4.5.

Why so soon? There’s method to Microsoft’s madness, according to Soma Somasegar, corporate VP of the company’s developer division. After years of being out of synch with major Windows releases, Visual Studio’s release cycle will now be in step with those of the products it’s used to develop for. Hence the preview of VS 2013 arrives alongside the Windows 8.1 preview, and it contains the new tools necessary for Windows 8.1 developers. As Windows evolves with increasing rapidity, says Somasegar, so will VS.

So, what’s new?

For starters, the VS 2013 Preview (including .NET 4.5.1) is a Go Live release. That means Microsoft is confident enough to license and support it for use in production environments. It doesn’t, however, mean VS 2013 is in its final form. I heard plenty of requests for feedback on features from presenters during sessions. Microsoft’s developers have taken a first swat at a number of items, and are awaiting developer reaction before engraving them in stone. So give that feedback when you play with the preview; it’ll pay off.

The first thing you’ll notice when you fire up the product is the choice of a third theme. As well as “Dark” and “Light,” you can now choose a “Blue” template. You’ll also see that Microsoft has addressed some of the most common gripes about VS 2012: You can now better differentiate between regions and components thanks to improved contrast, and the icons are better differentiated (with color, even). There’s been a lot of work on the contrast between regions, and on the definition of lines, so you can actually see what the heck has focus. Even the Taskbar icons have had some attention; if you have multiple instances of VS running, the one with focus has a purple background, while the others are grey.

Better still, if you sign in to your Microsoft ID from within VS, you can synch your preferences for the IDE and controls between machines so you don’t waste time tweaking the UI on every single computer you work on. And if you’re part of a team that needs to use the same formatting in a project, only one person needs to set up the nitty-gritty bits and export them to a file. Everyone else on the team can then import the settings.

Some of the productivity power tools, such as auto brace completion, formerly available as add-ins, have been baked into the product. You’ll also find an enhanced scroll bar in the editor that gives you a teeny preview of the code, with errors, changes, and breakpoints flagged, that zooms to a view of the code as you scroll. It’s an easy way to find exactly what you need to work on, without losing your place in the editing window.

Another new feature, “Peek,” lets you click on an item and see a secondary window showing the underlying definitions; you can in turn click on items in the peek window to drill in farther. There’s a trail of breadcrumbs so you don’t get lost. If you want to, you can then put that peek window into a tab in the IDE for further attention.

Search and GoTo have also had some love, making it easier both to find things, and to get back to where you started from as you wander through a project. Add CodeLens (Code Information Indicator), which uses project metadata and information from Team Foundation Server to place decorators on each of the methods in the code that show what change sets led to the creation or recent change in the code, who was the last person to work on it, what unit tests cover the method (including the latest pass/fail state), and what code references exist, and you’ve got an unprecedented view into what’s going on in the project.

There are also tools to determine energy consumption and UI responsiveness in XAML and HTML apps (great for mobile apps), and generally improved integration with the Windows Store. These tools are pulled together in the Performance and Diagnostic Hub. HTML5 is now a first class member of the toolset.

When you’re debugging, it’s often hard to sort out what emitted from your fingers, and what’s part of the libraries and other components supplied in VS, so Microsoft has slipped a tool called “just my code” into C++. It filters the call stack down to the code you wrote, replicating the experience available in managed languages. Microsoft has also fixed “edit and continue” in 64-bit .NET applications so it works as it does in 32-bit apps.

C++ also received NuGet support, so third party vendors can expose their libraries as plugins to VS 2013, and you’ll also find new C++ libraries for Azure Mobile Services, and a better XAML editor with built-in Intellisense.

For source control, Git, formerly an add-on to VS 2012, is now included in VS 2013. This gives you the choice of using the original Team Foundation Version Control (TFVC), or an external service such as CodePlex or GitHub.

This is, of course, just a subset of the new goodies in VS 2013, but it offers a taste of what’s to come. For a serious look, download the preview and play.

Visual Studio 2013 Preview runs on the same operating systems as VS 2012: Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1, and it can be used to develop apps that run on systems back to Windows XP.

Need to snag the Windows 8.1 Preview, or additional tools including app samples? Grab them all here.

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