Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part three: Aero Snap Gives You Window Control

Aero SnapThere are a lot of subtle functions and effects built into Windows 7 that may seem either rudimentary or pointless at first glance but end up being very useful when you realize what they can do. Of these the new window control tool called Aero Snap is a much needed and hugely effective addition.

Snap your windows to any location

We’ve all run into this problem: When working with multiple documents, multiple file folders or using a web browser to research content while writing a document, doing image editing or programming a web site we keep having to switch between different windows. And if there’s a lot of switching back and forth or you have a lot of windows open at the same time this can get quite tedious. To aleviate this issue many end up trying to resize the windows so that each fit half the screen. In extreme cases (like myself), they buy a second monitor so they can place one folder or application on each screen. But even so you are still left with the annoying task of resizing your windows and drag them around.

That’s now a thing of the past. Windows 7 has an intelligent “window snapping” feature built in that does the brunt of this work for you.There are five main positions for this snapping feature:

  • Grabbing the top bar of any window (even when it is maximized) you can drag it in “hovering window” size to any place on your desktop. This pretty much eliminates the need for the Restore Down button in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Grabbing the top bar and moving the window to the extreme left of the screen automatically snaps the window to the left so it covers exactly half of the screen widthwise.
  • Likewise moving the window to the right makes it snap to the right and cover the right half of the screen.
  • Dragging the top bar to the extreme top of the desktop automatically maximizes the window to full screen mode.
  • Grabbing the top bar of any window and shaking the mouse pointer back and forth a couple of times automatically minimizes all the other windows on the desktop leaving only the shaken one.

Control your windows with the arrow keys

The above snapping actions are all cool, but the mouse movements are just the beginning. A far more important innovation is that you can also control the same window snapping functions using the Windows key in combination with the arrow keys:

  • Windows key + Up maximizes the current window.
  • Windows key + Down sets the window to “float” or Restore Down mode. Hitting Windows key + Down while in a window that is already floating minimizes it to the taskbar.
  • Windows key + Left snaps the window to the left half of the screen
  • Windows key + Right snaps the window to the right half of the screen

Practical useage

I’m sure you, like me when I first heard about this, are thinking “Ok, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m ever going to use this feature!” Trust me, you will. The power of this feature (and especially the key combinations) became obvious to me when I was doing the rewrite for my upcoming book Sams Teach Yourself Expression Web 3 in 24 Hours. A huge part of the rewrite consisted of opening two Word documents and cross-referencing them and opening two file folders and moving files back and forth between them. Since I do all my writing on my laptop I didn’t have the benefit of two monitors so I ended up having to fit two instances of Word or two opens folder on the same screen. This process now takes about 1 second and requires no fine motor skills or mouse work. Simply use the Alt+Tab combination to pick the appropriate window and hit Windows key + Left or Right depending on what location you want the window to be in. So when I was working with two Word documents side by side switching between single full-screen document view and dual document view became a matter of 3 or 4 keystrokes rather than Restore Down, resize with mouse, move around, switch back and forth etc etc.

It seems like a small thing but holy crap does it ever make my life (and yours) easier!

Bonus: Desktop Peek!

Desktop PeekOne of the things that really annoyed me about Windows Vista was all the Sidebar Gadgets. That is to say the gadgets themselves didn’t annoy me but the sidebar did. The whole point of having these gadgets available was, in my mind, to be able to access them and see them when I needed to without having to do a lot of moving around and closing windows etc. But the sidebar was a total pain and always got in the way so I ended up just turning the damned thing off completely. In Windows 7 the Gadgets are released from the sidebar and can be placed wherever you want them. But that still leaves the problem of how to see them quickly (not to mention all the other crap I store on your desktop). Well, there’s a really clever solution to this too: At the extreme right hand side of the taskbar there is a small rectangular box. If you hover your mouse over it all your open windows automatically become transparent and you can peek at your desktop. Clicking the rectangle minimizes all your windows so you have access to the desktop. Likewise clicking it again restores all the windows to where they were in the order they were stacked. Couldn’t be any easier.

You can read a very long and detailed explanation of how this all came about in the article Designing Aero Snap in the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part two: The Taskbar

The Windows taskbar was introduced with Windows 95 and has functioned as a launching application as well as a place to store and access minimized or hidden windows. But through all it’s following iterations it never really changed. Meanwhile other OS developers were introducing fancy new features like application docking and taskbar customization and Windows users started looking to 3rd party applications like Rocketdock to get the features they wanted.

Windows 7 shows a complete reinventing of the Windows task bar. More than a launch platform it is now a full fledged object dock with tons of added functionality and it is fully customizable. I could write a whole article just on the new taskbar, but here I’m just going to give you some highlights:

Object dock

TaskbarThe most useful new feature of the taskbar is that you can now drag and drop any item, whether a shortcut, a folder or even a file, onto it for easy access. And whereas in the older versions the quicklaunch icons were separated from the actual running app icons, they are now one and the same. In practical terms this means when you launch an application already docked on the taskbar it gets highligted rather than duplicated. And if yo launch several windows (or in the case of most browsers several tabs) they stack one behind the other to give you access to all of them at the same time. The same goes for file folders and documents. Additionally you can move and reorganize any and all items on the taskbar in any way you want even when they are open.

Aero Peek

Aero PeekIf you have multiple windows or folders open at the same time it can be tricky to remember which one contains which item. To abolish this problem the taskbar has a new feature called Peek. Like the name suggests it gives you a peek of the opened content when you hover over the different active icons providing a preview and full access to all the options without actually having to open them.

Peek manifests itself like a bigger taskbar with preview images of each of the open windows, tabs, files or folders and when you hover your mouse over each of them, the full window gets switched to the object in question giving you a quick preview. When I’m writing I usually have multiple browser tabs, three or four folders and at least two or three Word documents open at the same time and this feature makes it infinitely easier for me to find what I’m looking for rather than having to Alt+Tab my way through all the opened elements.

Enhanced functionality

Enhanced functionalityIn addition to simply launching and previewing open applications, the taskbar gives you enhanced and program-specific functionality at the click of the right mouse button. This activates a pop-up menu which, depending on the icon in question, gives you a list of everything from bookmarked or pinned pages to recently viewed documents and frequently accessed folders. And for each of the pinned applications you can pin sub-elements directly to the taskbar for instant access. In practical terms it functions like a favourites list for all your applications allowing you to pin important or useful documents, graphics, web sites, folders, videos, projects, whatevers directly to the taskbar for instant access.

See only what you want to see

One of my pet peeves with the taskbar in XP and Vista was the section that is supposed to give you information about running background applications such as virus scanners, wireless status, audio, video etc. My big problem with this feature was that everything and it’s seccond cousin twice removed wanted to get top billing in the bar and as a result I had this insanely annoying accordion thing going on where I needed to hit a button to make all the icons appear and then quickly navigate to the right one to make my change.

Taskbar itemsNo more! The new Windows 7 task bar lets you decide exactly what icons to display and what icons to ignore. And you are provided with two levels of access: The icons on the taskbar itself and the icons in a pop-up menu that can be accessed from a button. With these two features you can hand pick what application icons you want to see and which ones you don’t care about. And as with the other applications you can reorganize the icons in any way you want giving you full control over your workspace.

Windows 7

10 reasons you’ll love Windows 7, part one: It just works!

I’ve been using Windows 7, first in Beta and now in Release Candidate, since early March or so. And I am thorroughly impressed. I was never a Vista hater – and I think most Vista haters either never actually tried Vista or refused to accept that Vista and XP were not the same thing – but there were still a lot of things I didn’t like about the operating system. With Windows 7 on the other hand, I really don’t have any complaints at all and I can honestly say that when the masses get their hands on this operating system they will fall in love with it. Not because it’s shiny and new, not because it doesn’t crash (although Vista really doesn’t crash either, but that’s not what I’m talking about here) but because it makes life easier for the user.

So in the coming week I will publish ten articles outlining ten Windows 7 features that will make you fall in love with the application (and quite possibly reconsider your “Mac is better” stance):

1. It Just Works – Right Out of the Box!

The first thing that astounded me with Windows 7 is that it works properly out of the box. That may sound weird but if you’ve even tried to reinstall a Microsoft operating system on a computer, be it a branded unit, a custom built machine or a laptop, you know that the OS install is just step one of several. In the old days, simply installing the operating system would give you a computer with terrible screen resolution, no networking and generally sub-par performance. To get things running properly you needed to search for and install numerous drivers including screen drivers, motherboard drivers, networking drivers, audio drivers etc etc. All of this took time, effort and a lot of patience – three things people normally don’t have.

To try to curb this problem many PC manufacturers ship their computers with custom OS installs that revert the system back to store shelf operation. The problem with this is that the manufacturers have started selling space on these reset systems and filling that space with bloatware and garbage you don’t want and don’t need. And when you revert your system to shelf operation it means reinstalling all the trash – an operation that ruins performance and clutters your PC. All in all it’s a crap chute.

No more: Windows 7, out of the box with zero custom drivers and no setup, works properly on most if not all modern computers. Case in point: I just installed Windows 7 RC on my wife’s aging Toshiba Satellite M100. It took 15 minutes in total and once the OS was installed, everything except the audio and the scrolling function on the mouse pad worked perfectly (and in the Windows 7 team’s defense, there is a known problem with the M100 audio because the drivers from the audio manufacturer don’t work properly). I had wireless networking, full functionality including custom Fn keys, optimal screen resolution and performance and even card reader functionality. When I installed Vista Ultimate on the same computer a week earlier I had to download and install 12 drivers to get the same functionality.

The same can be said for my Sony Vaio SR140D only this time no drivers were needed to get the computer up to fully working status.

Why does it work so well now? With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft ran into an unexpected problem: The 3rd party component manufacturers were unbelievably slow in rolling out drivers for the new OS and as a result users were stuck with computers that didn’t work properly. And even though the driver problems sorted themselves out over the first 6 months of Vista’s life, the damage was done and people wrongfully blamed Vista (and Microsoft) for the problems. The Windows 7 team took the experiences from the Vista launch to heart and devised a novel yet ingenious solution: Invite all the hardware manufacturers to work with the development team on the Microsoft campus to create generic drivers for all their hardware, and place those generic drivers either in the install itself or in an open repository for easy access.

As a result when you install Windows 7 on a computer with hardware from a known manufacturer, the installation disk more than likely already has a fully functional generic driver for that hardware that works to spec making the search for specialized drivers pretty much pointless.

But does it crash?

Much has been made of the Windows platform’s uncanny ability to crash at the most inopportune of times. But truth be told this really isn’t as big an issue as it is made out to be. In my experience (and for the record, I currently have 7 computers running in my house) computers crash for two reasons: Either you make them do something they really shouldn’t be doing or something inside the computer goes bump in the night. System crashes caused by “crappy” operating systems are incredibly rare and just as likely to happen on a Mac or a Linux based computer as a PC.

That said I have managed to crash Windows 7 RC once while trying to run a corrput .avi file in Windows Media Centre, Windows Media Player and VLC at the same time. Not surprisingly when all three applications encountered the same bad part of the clip at the same time things went horribly wrong and the famous blue screen of death appeared.

My point is this: If your Windows 7 computer is functioning properly hardware wise and you’re not trying to bring it to its knees, it won’t crash. Period.