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Yes, Windows Is Dumb: How the Taskbar really works

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Excerpted from
Yes, Windows Is Dumb
Easy Ways to Master Your PC
Copyright © 1998, Al Fasoldt


How the Taskbar really works 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, Al Fasoldt

One of the biggest complaints PC users have about an operating system that uses moveable windows is that the windows themselves get in the way. When one window covers up another one, how the devil are you supposed to get at the one that's hidden away?

It's a valid criticism—but only if your PC is running an older version of Windows. All the newer versions—Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4 and Windows NT 5—have a Taskbar that gives you immediate access to every window on the screen.

Betcha didn't know that. Most of the Windows users I've tutored didn't know what the Taskbar really does. They know the Taskbar is there, and they know there are horizontal buttons in the Taskbar that show what programs are running, but that's as far as most of them go. It could be that the idea of clicking a button at the bottom of the screen to pop a window to the foreground is just not your everyday example of an intuitive operation.

Intuitive or not, the way the Taskbar works is ideally suited for modern PC operation. Multitasking—running many programs at the same time, with many different windows open—is no longer an option in modern versions of Windows. It's the way we get things done. And rummaging through layers of window after window to find the one you need is dumb. (Worse, it's a waste of time.)

So that's why you need to listen up. The Taskbar isn't just a neat way of seeing what's running. It's a fast way of choosing which program should take center stage. It's also a great way to get rid of all the clutter so you can view and work on your Desktop.

Let's see what the Taskbar does.

First, of course, it displays buttons for each main program that's running. (Not all programs show up in the Taskbar. Some display an icon in the System Tray, at the right, and some don't display any indication at all. But most major programs use the Taskbar.) These buttons pick up their names from the caption in the program's title bar. Taskbar buttons start out fairly wide, then get narrower to make room for others when the horizontal space starts to fill up. (There's a trick you can use to tell Windows how wide to make the buttons by default. A free utility, "Missing Metrics," lets you dial in the width of Taskbar buttons, the spacing between them and a few other parameters. I'm not sure whether that utility, which was written in 1995, is still available.) It's important to realize that the Taskbar buttons do not, as some suppose, represent only programs that are minimized (reduced to an icon); they represent all the programs that can have entries in the Taskbar. Whether a program is minimized or not makes no difference. The Taskbar button is the same. (In fact, there's no easy way to tell from the button's appearance whether the program it represents is minimized or not. A button that looks pressed in shows that its program is in the foreground—which means that program isn't minimized—but all other buttons have the same appearance, no matter what their window status.)

Next, the Taskbar lets you bring any program's window to the top of the heap by clicking on the button representing that window on the Taskbar. You use the left button (or the primary button, if you've swapped buttons around). A single click is all that's needed.

There's more. If you right-click (or use the secondary mouse button) a Taskbar button, the window's Control menu opens. The Control menu is little used these days, having had far more importance under older versions of Windows, but it's handy nonetheless. It's normally accessed by a left click on the icon at the far left of a window's title bar. The choices that appear in the Control menu are Restore, Move, Size, Minimize, Maximize and Close. Choices that are impossible (such as maximizing an already-maxed-out window) are grayed out—are shown in faint gray outlines—and can't be used. By right-clicking the Taskbar button for any program, you can choose one of those options without the trouble of going to the program's window (or opening it if it's minimized) and clicking the tiny icon at the left of the title bar. I'd guess that few Windows users know about the right-click functionality of Taskbar buttons—a shame, if so, because clicking a wide button sure beats hunting around for a window and then carefully locating a tiny icon.

And more. By right-clicking a blank area of the Taskbar, you'll see a menu of choices. The menu is fairly simple under Windows 95 and Windows NT 4, and more advanced under newer versions of both systems. But all have two options that can be handy in day-to-day operations—Cascade (called Cascade Windows in later versions) and Minimize All Windows. The minimize-all function is a great way to clear all windows from the Desktop in a hurry, and it even turns into Undo Minimize All so you can click once and get all the windows back on screen quickly later on. But the best little trick in the small world of Taskbar techniques has to be Cascade, because it's able to rescue all the windows that have become lost or messed up (or hidden, or pushed mostly off the screen, or just plain botched up—I can't imagine a Windows user who hasn't run into problems like this). Click Cascade and all windows are snapped into a progressive alignment that starts at the upper left. All the ones that were hidden or AWOL will be lined up neatly. You can then rearrange them any way you want. (I like Cascade much better than the other auto-align options, Tile Windows Horizontally and Tile Windows Vertically, because Cascade usually keeps them from getting too small, too wide, too tall or too ugly.)

The Taskbar has other useful configuration options, too. Click away and try them out. Remember—click with the right mouse button (or the secondary button, for you swappers) and check the options that pop up.

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