Quick Tip: Switch between application windows quickly

There's another quicker way to switch between windows of a specific application in Windows.

Chances are good that you already know that if you have multiple windows in a certain application open at the same time; you can hover over the icon on the taskbar and use the Live Thumbnails feature to see each window. However, there's another quicker way to switch between windows of a specific application - all you have to do is hold down [Ctrl] key as you click on the icon. Let's take a closer look.


As you know, with the Taskbar's Live Thumbnails feature, you just hover your mouse pointer over any button on the Taskbar and you'll see a thumbnail of that window's contents. If the application has several open windows, such as Windows/File Explorer, you'll see a thumbnail for each individual window, as shown in Figure A. When you see the thumbnail you are looking for, just click and its window will appear on the desktop ready for you to go to work.

Figure A

Fig A QTWS.png

The Live Thumbnails feature shows thumbnails of the open windows.

While using the Live Thumbnails feature access multiple windows in an application is a quick way to make the switch, using the Windows Switcher technique is a just bit quicker because it requires less mouse movement.

Returning to our Windows/File Explorer example, instead of hovering your mouse pointer over the taskbar icon, just hold down the [Ctrl] key as you click on the icon. Each time you click, one of the windows will come to the foreground, as shown in Figure B. When you see the one that you want, just release the [Ctrl] key.

Figure B

Fig B QTWS.png

As you cycle through all of the open windows, each window appears on the screen in a stacked formation.

As you can see, as you cycle through all of the open windows, each window appears on the screen in a stacked formation.

While I have used Windows/File Explorer in my example, this technique work in any application that has multiple windows open at the same time and is displayed on the Taskbar as a combined icon. This technique also works with certain tabbed user interface applications such as Internet Explorer.

You can use this technique in Windows 7 as well as Windows 8.

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Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.


A setting for the threshold number of instances that triggers Behaviour B.... (explanation here below)?

Behavior A: When I have many instances of the same application I can click on the icon on the taskbar and see a preview of all of them on a horizontal band at the bottom of the screen (normal behavior) . 

Behavior B: When those instances are many (above a given threshold number, ~=15 I'd say) this preview disappear and I see the full title of all of them stacked like it was in XP, and hovering over them I can see better with Aeroview which windows is the one I need. Question: is it possible to change this threshold number to a lower value, or to a value=1 so this becomes the default behavior?

The reason for this is that normal behavior is tiring and attention consuming, and you feel it after many hours of work and you have many windows and you very often have to switch between them.


I hold down the windows logo key on my keyboard , the one with a flag on it, hold that down with your thumb then tap the tab key, each tap of the tab  key while holding the windows logo key down scrolls them, release the windows logo key at the appropiate window. Anything open on my desktop is pulled in to the scroll


I personally appreciate this tip. I usually have 3-4 instances of SSMS and 2-3 instances of VS running and you can't tell which project is which from the thumbnails so this will be much easier.

When you add in that I usually have 2-3+ IM conversation windows open, Outlook, Word, a couple RDP Sessions going and some explorer windows open then the old the old alt-tab "fastest way" doesn't work that well.

When I alt-tab right at this moment I get 30 little thumbnails to sort throught trying to find the one that I need. This new ctrl-click method will be a time saver. Thanks


All and any time you need to use the mouse, it slows you down. 

alt-tab has always been the fastest way to "click through" a number of windows.


Did I miss something???

If I have four Windows Explorer windows open, I have to Ctrl-Click until the right one opens. And they open from first to last... No time save for this particular example.


Holding down the <Windows> button and pressing 2 repeatedly would be fast too.  (2 is used because the example above is the 2nd icon on the taskbar)


I don't see how "as you cycle through all of the open windows" is faster than scanning the thumbnails displayed by Live Thumbnails, and then clicking on the one I want. Cycling through open windows means that on average, you have to click through, on average, half of the windows displayed to get where you're going. Even worse, if you want to toggle back & forth between two of seven open windows, then for every other switch, you'll need to cycle around to get to the *previous* window you were working on.

No, thanks.

Craig Herberg
Craig Herberg

That is as pretty neat trick, and a nice alternative to the old tried-and-true Alt-Tab method.  Thanks for the tip.



If you notice, when you first bring up the Alt+Tab and get the window with all your thumbnails in it, the top of that window indicates what thumbnail you're looking at.   And as you 'Tab,' that descriptor changes.  I run anywhere between 2-8 Skype IMs and as I tab thru them, the username changes.  I know *exactly* which chat is which.  As I go thru my multiple Excel thumbnails, again, the file name is included.  There's never a question of where you are and what you're looking at.

And for those who like to 'click' .. you can do 'Alt+Tab' to bring up the 'all thumbnail' window and then click the one you want!   No 'Tab' .. just click.  Best of both worlds!



That's what I always use - alt+tab.   It's a very simple one-handed operation - extremely fast - and doesn't require constant reaching for, and clicking with, the mouse.   Agreed, that slows you down.

And if you want to go back because you alt-tabbed too fast and blinked, then simply add the 'shift' key.   You can use that one anytime you need it and you don't have to stop or start over.   And it still fits in with the one-handed technique.   The 'shift' key has all kinds of uses .. this one, copy/paste where you can add/subtract selected material in all directions, and many others.

If you look at Figure B, all the 'windows' are stacked - you can't even see what the next one is.   With alt+tab, you have all your 'thumbnails' displayed in a neat box.   You know where you are .. and you know where you need to go.

Somebody mentioned in going between two open programs, you needed to cycle through the entire list.   Wrong.  Bring up program #1 - alt+tab to #2 wherever it might be.   You just set a pattern.  Alt+tab will now take you between those two programs .. and not the entire list.

Simplicity .. not the 'new ethic' of constant mouse clicks or poking a screen.

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