While many will simply brush off the new Aero UI features -- Snap, Shake and Peek -- as being nothing more than eye candy in Microsoft Windows 7, these three items have actually been designed to address the lack of any real improvement in a very common task that has been around since Windows came into being -- managing multiple open windows.
If you've been working with the Windows operating system for a while, then you know that the problem of managing multiple open windows is an old one and that over the years, Microsoft really hasn't devised anything new for you to more efficiently work with multiple open windows. Sure, there have been many advances in task management, but when it comes down to actual window management, there hasn't been much innovation. That's what makes Snap, Shake, and Peek so exciting.
In this edition of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll examine the management of multiple open windows in the Windows operating system over the years. I'll then focus on the windows management solutions offered by the new Aero UI features: Snap, Shake, and Peek.
This blog post is also available in PDF format in a free TechRepublic download.
Before I begin, I want to preface this discussion by saying that I recognize that task switching plays a big role and is very intertwined in managing multiple open windows. However, I don't want to get sidetracked by discussing task switching or the Taskbar. Instead, I want to stay focused on the display and manipulation of multiple open windows within the Windows operating system's user interface.
Cascade, Tile, and Minimize All WindowsBack in the Windows 3.x days, when task switching really came into being in the Windows graphical user interface, users could actually open multiple windows (applications) and concurrently perform multiple operations. You could minimize a window when you were ready to move to the next window, which you would maximize. To help you keep track of and work with multiple open windows in Windows 3.x, Microsoft provided the Task List window, which in addition to displaying a list of running applications, provided two buttons titled Cascade and Tile, as shown in Figure A.
Windows 3.x's Task List provided you with the Cascade and Tile buttons.
Besides minimizing and maximizing, Cascade and Tile were the only features that were designed to allow you to rearrange the open windows on the desktop. More specifically, they were designed to allow you to be able to see all the open windows at the same time. (If certain windows were minimized, neither the Cascade or Tile actions would include them.)
When Microsoft introduced Windows 95, one of the key features in that operating system was the Taskbar, which appeared at the bottom of the desktop. With this new feature, every running program, whether maximized or minimized, had a button on the Taskbar, which made it easy to see exactly what programs were running.While the Taskbar provided a better way to keep track of running programs, it really didn't provide any new ways to work with multiple open windows. In fact, when you right-clicked on Windows 95's Taskbar, a context menu appeared, as shown in Figure B, which provided only a slight variation from Windows 3.x's window management features. While the Cascade command remained the same, the Tile command was now separated into two functions, Tile Horizontally and Tile Vertically. In addition to those commands, the Minimize All Windows command was added and allowed you to essentially clear all open windows so that you could access the desktop.
In addition to the Cascade command, Windows 95 split the Tile command into two functions.Those three window management features remained virtually unchanged from Windows 95 thru Windows Vista. Along the way they were renamed and Cascade became Cascade Windows; Tile Horizontally became Tile Windows Horizontally and then Show Windows Stacked; and Tile Vertically became Tile Windows Horizontally and then Show Windows Side by Side. In addition, the Minimize All Windows became the Show the Desktop command and was augmented with an icon on the Quick Launch bar. The Taskbar context menu is shown in Figure C.
While the Cascade and Tile features were renamed several time over the years, they essentially performed the same operations.
(To be fair, Vista did introduce Flip 3D, which is a very interesting feature as far as viewing windows goes, but it really doesn't count here, because it is aimed more at switching tasks than arranging open windows.)
As such, even though the Windows user interface changed over the years, we were basically stuck in the early 90's as far as window management features went. Until Windows 7, that is.
With the introduction of Snap, we now have a completely new way of managing open windows. This feature allows you to arrange open windows, including maximizing and resizing, just by dragging and dropping a window to different edges of the screen. When a window is dragged to the correct position, a ripple effect will emanate from the cursor and you'll see an animated outline of the window instantly appear in its new position. As soon as you release the mouse button, the window will snap to that position.
For example, you can maximize a window by clicking and dragging its title bar to the top of the screen. To restore a maximized window, just click and drag the title bar toward the middle of the screen. To position a window on half of the screen, just click and drag the title bar toward the left or right side of the screen. (The further to the right or left side of the title bar that you click and drag, the quicker the snap occurs.) To stretch a window that is in the middle of the screen so that it spans from the top to the bottom, just click the bottom or top edge and drag toward the bottom or top of the screen.
While in this simple explanation, Snap may not sound all that functional, once you begin using it to manipulate windows when you are running multiple applications, you'll really begin to appreciate the capability that it brings to the user interface.
For example, when you need to copy files from one folder to another, you can use Snap to position two Windows Explorer windows side by side and easily drag files from one to the next. If you're reading a long document in one window and want to keep an eye on a Desktop Gadget, you can use snap to stretch the document window from the top to the bottom of the screen. If you're using multiple monitors, you'll discover that Snap allows you to drag a maximized window from one monitor to the next.
If you continue using Snap, you'll become more and more proficient at it. In fact, you'll come to depend on it so much so that if and when you go to use Windows XP or Vista, you'll definitely miss it when you find yourself manually dragging and resizing windows.
If you haven't seen Snap in action, you can check out this ZDNet video demo.
If you're interested in learning more about the development of Snap, you can check out the Designing Aero Snap article on the Engineering Windows 7 blog.
Shake also provides a new way to work with open windows. When you have multiple windows open at the same time, you can use Shake to quickly minimize all the open windows except the one that you want to focus on. Just click the title bar of the window you want to work with and while holding the mouse button down, shake the window back and forth. (You don't have to shake wildly; just a couple of flicks of your wrist are all it takes.) When you do, all other open windows instantly minimize to the Taskbar. To restore all the minimized windows, just click and shake the window again.
Again, within this simple explanation, Shake might not sound all that functional; however, once you begin using it when running multiple applications, you'll really begin to appreciate the capability that it brings to the user interface. Especially if you have to use Windows XP or Vista and find yourself manually minimizing multiple open windows.
If you haven't seen Shake in action, you can check out this ZDNet video demo.
PeekA vast improvement over the old Minimize All Windows and the Show Desktop commands, the new Peek feature allows you to instantaneously make all the open windows on the desktop become temporarily transparent so that you can see any icons or Gadgets on the desktop without having to minimize anything. To activate Peek, you just hover your mouse pointer over the transparent Show Desktop button in the bottom right corner of the screen. When you do, all you'll see of the open windows is a faint outline, as shown in Figure D. When you move your pointer off the button, the windows reappear.
When you hover over the Show Desktop button, all the open windows on the desktop become temporarily transparent.
If you click the transparent Show Desktop button, of course, all open windows are minimized. Click it again, and all the minimized windows are restored.
What's your take?
Snap, Shake, and Peek may seem like nothing more than eye candy to the uninitiated, but once you begin using them on a day-to-day basis, you begin to take them seriously. It is such a practical feature that many third-party developers are now working on small applications that will allow you to emulate the effects in Windows XP and Vista. What's your take on Snap, Shake, and Peek? If you have any questions or comments concerning these features, 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.