Take advantage of the Taskbar features in Windows 7

Greg Shultz takes a closer look at the taskbar in Windows 7. He describes each feature in detail and shows you how to take advantage of each of them.

As you may remember, back in the Windows 3.x days, Microsoft gave the operating system the ability to run multiple programs at the same time, which was a revolutionary change. Unfortunately, taking advantage of the new capability was rather difficult because the operating system didn't provide us with a good method for keeping track of, or switching between, all the running programs.

Fortunately, in Windows 7, Microsoft has provided us with several very cool, very graphical methods for switching between open windows or tasks. Of course, Windows Flip 3D, which uses visual depth to give you a very interesting way of switching, immediately comes to mind when speaking of new task-switching features. However, the tried-and-true taskbar has received many new and improved features in Windows 7 that not only enhance task switching but add a host of other features designed to improve the overall usability of the operating system.

However, it is all too easy to simply focus on the basic aspects of the taskbar and overlook all the other neat features. Therefore, in this edition of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll take a closer look at the taskbar in Windows 7. As I do, I'll describe each feature in detail and show you how to take advantage of each of them.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a corresponding TechRepublic download.

Thumbnails and more

Of course, the most prominent graphical feature of the taskbar is the 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. And because the thumbnails are live, they can actually show active operations, such as the progress of a file transfer operation, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

The Live Taskbar Thumbnails feature shows you live thumbnail images of running applications.
Of course, the Live Thumbnails feature first appeared in Vista, but Windows 7's taskbar builds on that foundation and provides many additional features. For starters, even though the thumbnails make it easy to identify the contents of the task, sometimes they just aren't large enough, so Microsoft added a new feature called Aero Peek. You just hover your mouse pointer over any thumbnail and you'll see the full window on the desktop, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Hover your mouse pointer over a taskbar button to see a thumbnail and then hover your mouse pointer over a thumbnail to see the full window.

If that's not the window you want, just move your mouse pointer away from the thumbnail and the window disappears instantly. If that's the window you want, just click the thumbnail and the window stays put.

There are several other taskbar enhancements in Windows 7 like larger thumbnail icons, a glass frame that includes a title bar, and the ability to show individual thumbnails for multiple instances of an application. For example, if you have three tabs open in Internet Explorer, instead of a stacked icon showing only the active tab, you'll see icons for each tab, as shown in Figure C, and you can easily switch directly to the tab that you want.

Figure C

Windows 7's taskbar shows thumbnails for each instance of an application.
On certain applications, like Windows Media Player, you'll even find a feature called Thumbnail Toolbars that provide application-specific controls. For example, from the Windows Media Player Thumbnail Toolbar, shown in Figure D, you can pause/play a selected song as well as switch to the next or previous song.

Figure D

Certain types of applications will display Thumbnail Toolbars, which allow you to control the application from the thumbnail.

Button feedback

Buttons on the taskbar can now provide all sorts of feedback. For example, taskbar buttons can now show the progress of an operation, such as the animated green bar that shows the progress of a file transfer, as shown in Figure E. This can come in handy when you are working on one task but want to keep an eye on the progress of another task working in the background.

Figure E

Taskbar buttons can show the progress of an operation.
Buttons can also indicate the presence of a confirmation or warning dialog box. For example, the button shown in Figure F, turned red to indicate that the file copy operation was stopped by a duplicate filename and a Copy File dialog box was prompting for a decision (Copy and Replace, Don't Copy, or Copy, but keep both files). Again, this type of notification can come in handy if you are working on another task in the foreground.

Figure F

This button turned red to indicate that the file copy operation was stopped by a duplicate filename.

In addition to providing notification, the Windows 7 taskbar also provides a feature called Color Hot-track. While this feature has no real significant benefits other than providing an aesthetic distraction, it is really neat. When you move your mouse pointer over a button on the taskbar for a running program, you'll notice that a light source tracks your pointer and the color of the light is based on the icon itself. For example, the light for the Windows Media Player button is orange, as shown in Figure D above.

More on Send To

In the blog "Move and Copy Files the Old Tried-and-True Way in Windows 7," I showed you how to configure the Send To command to send files to other destinations, such as a specific folder, or even to an executable file, such as WordPad, simply by adding shortcuts to those destinations to the Send To command's folder. However, the Send To command is already packed with additional destination — it's just that they are hidden. I'm not sure why, but they can be revealed easily.

Press and hold down the [Shift] key, right-click on a folder or file, and then select the Send To command. When you do, you'll see a slew of additional destinations.

What's your take?

Do you use any or all of the taskbar features in Windows 7? Do they improve efficiency? What's your favorite? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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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.

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