See-through Windows: Vitrite brings the Mac's transparency feature to the PC

Vitrite is a free utility that brings the Mac's cool transparency feature to Windows--only with more options. Brien Posey explains how to install and use the tiny but useful program.

One of the cool GUI toys in the Macintosh is the transparency feature. You can see through an open window to a window behind it, or even to the Desktop. Now a program called Vitrite brings this useful feature to Windows PCs. However, the coolest thing about Vitrite is that you can actually control the level of transparency of each individual window with a series of shortcuts. The Mac makes your unused windows only a "little" transparent, but Vitrite lets you control which windows are transparent and to what degree at any given time. Vitrite also lets you toggle a window's "always on top" flag by pressing a simple keyboard combination. Vitrite is available under the GNU General Public License, meaning that you have access to the source code if you want to see what makes it tick. This Daily Feature covers Vitrite’s installation and configuration and highlights the program’s more powerful features.

Where to find Vitrite
Ryan VanMiddlesworth wrote the Vitrite software. The installation program is extremely tiny and is available in an 85-KB self-extracting installation file. If 85 KB is just too big for your Internet connection to handle, there’s a 43-KB version available in ZIP format. I recommend the self-extracting version, because the zipped version includes simply a DLL file and some text files that explain what to do with it. The self-extracting version supports full uninstallation.

Installing Vitrite
When you run the installation program, this first thing you’ll see is the end user license agreement. The software is licensed under the GNU General Public License. Although lots of legal terms go along with the license agreement, the licensing basically says that you’re free to distribute the software and to modify it provided you meet certain conditions, such as those covering the distribution of the source code. As you might expect, this means you can also download the source code from the same Web site. The source code is 33 KBPS in size and is intended for Microsoft Visual Studio .NET. If you need the source code for use outside of a GNU General Public License, the author hints that he’s willing to sell it.

After you accept the license agreement, the installation program will prompt you for the folder in which it will install the Vitrite software. The default location is \Program Files\Tiny Utilities\Vitrite. The installation consumes just 97 KB of disk space. Simply click the Install button. When you do, you’ll see a warning message stating that if you’re already running a previous version of Vitrite, you’ll have to uninstall it before you’ll be able to install the current version. Then you must click either Cancel to abort the installation or OK to proceed with the installation.

If you click OK and continue with the installation process, the application will install before you can blink because of its incredibly small size. The installation program will then ask you if you want Vitrite to run automatically when Windows boots. Click either Yes or No, and then the installation program will ask you if you want to run Vitrite right now. Finally, click the Close button to close the installer.

Using Vitrite
If you haven’t opted to run Vitrite automatically on bootup or after Setup completes, you’ll have to launch it through the Start menu. Vitrite is located on the Start menu at Start | Tiny Utilities | Vitrite | Vitrite.

When you launch the Vitrite program, it will appear as though nothing has happened. However, if you look in the system tray next to the clock, you’ll see an icon that resembles two window panes. This icon shows you that Vitrite is running.

The actual Vitrite interface involves using hot keys to adjust the transparency level of various windows. To adjust a window’s transparency, click on the window that you want to adjust so that it’s active. Next, hold down [Ctrl] and [Shift], and then press a number key. You must use a number key on the top of the keyboard rather than on the number pad. Likewise, there’s no getting around the requirement of clicking on the window that you want to adjust. If you fail to click on a window prior to adjusting it, you’ll adjust the transparency of the task bar instead of the window.

Too transparent
When I attempt to capture a transparent screen, my graphics software captures merely the desktop and completely ignores the transparent screen. If you’d like to see what Vitrite looks like, check out this screen shot, from Vitrite's site.

As you play with Vitrite, you’ll find that a transparency level of 1 makes the foreground window almost completely transparent. When used over a colorful background, you can barely see the window’s contents. I’ve found that this setting makes a handy “boss key.” When my boss (my wife) walks into the room, I can quickly press [Ctrl][Shift]1 to obscure the contents of my current window.

It’s strange working with a window that’s almost completely obscured. Even though you’re primarily seeing the background, the obscured window is still in the foreground and is therefore still active. So if you set Internet Explorer to a transparency level of 1, you can still surf the Web. You’ll just have to strain your eyes to see what you’re doing.

Another strange side effect is that any time you open additional windows, those Windows are normal rather than transparent. While this may sound obvious, it can be a little weird, especially when you consider that the pull-down menus found in almost every Windows application are actually created by opening additional window panes. This means that if you make an application completely transparent but select a menu, the menu will be completely visible, while the main application screen is almost completely invisible.

Pressing [Ctrl][Shift]0 restores the window to its full opacity. You can experiment with other numbers to figure out what level of transparency is right for you. If you enjoy using Vitrite, you’ll probably find yourself using different transparency levels for different types of applications.

Program shortcomings
There are a couple of bugs (or, as the author calls them, “unanticipated features”) that you should be aware of before using Vitrite. First, the Vitrite software will run only on Windows 2000 and XP. Windows 95, 98, NT, and Me are not supported. You also can’t control the transparency of the Command Prompt window. The software’s author promises a fix, or at least a better explanation, in a future version of Vitrite.

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