On Exposé, Flip 3D, Switcher

In concluding this series on window management and Forgotten Hotkeys, there’s one more window management topic that will be discussed.

I’m one of those rare people who actually like Windows Vista. Sure, it’s far from what was originally promised in terms of features, but it’s still a quality improvement of life from the crusty 20001 version of Windows XP. Or at least it will be, once Service Pack 1 is released.

Like anything else, there’s plenty to be critical of in Vista. One feature that I find particularly lame is Flip 3D.

Windows Vista Flip 3D

It’s a poorly-done clone of Apple’s OS X Exposé feature, which itself is an exploration into zoomable UI.

OS X Exposé

Vista’s Flip 3D certainly looks cool enough, and you can use your mouse to spin windows around, which is entertaining for a few seconds. But it fails miserably in actual usability:

  • It only uses the primary monitor to show the window list, so any additional display space is completely wasted.
  • The windows are stacked on top of another, partially obscuring every one except the topmost one.
  • The arbitrary switch from a 2D desktop space into a 3D display space is mentally disconcerting. This change also slants and distorts windows, so readability is lower than it should be.

In their effort to distinguish themselves from OS X, Redmond created a non-feature. Flip 3D is better than nothing.

Windows 7 doesn’t do much to improve to improve the situation. Flip 3D remains almost exactly the same, with all its flaws.

Windows 7 Flip 3D

But we don’t have to suffer through Flip 3D when we can replace it. There are several nice alternatives. Personally, I recommend disabling Flip 3D and mapping Bob Nguyen’s outstanding Switcher to the Windows+Tab key combination.

Example of Switcher

Switcher has a number of nifty features:

  • Middle-click a window to close it.
  • The first 9 windows can be selected by number; the numeric shortcut is superimposed over the window.
  • Right-click a window to open it, and minimize all other windows.
  • Windows now have a large text label superimposed over the corner with the title and the icon so that you can tell what they are. This is helpful if you have many open windows, or if they’re thumbnailed particularly small.
  • You can perform an incremental filtering search on all open windows.

These are some killer new features. I’ve wanted to close windows by middle-clicking them from the zoomed. But that last item on the list is huge. Instead of playing Where’s Waldo with my windows, I can press Windows+Tab, then type exactly what I want. It’s a brilliant solution to The problem of accessing tabs in Tabbed Interfaces.

So how can we fix this? How can we integrate tabs with the existing navigational features of the operating system, such as the taskbar and Exposé? I keep coming back to search as the dominant computing metaphor. The only way I can think of is a plain-text facility where I type “Gmail”, and the OS will automatically highlight that tab (or window) and bring it to the front. That presupposes a high level of integration between the application tabs and the operating system, however.

It looks like Bob Nguyen was reading my mind. Pressing Window+Tab, then typing “Gmail” is the best thing ever as far as I am concerned. No, I can’t search tab contents, but I can now match by window title, which is good enough. The way that I can begin typing and watch the windows dynamically fling themselves off screen as they fall out of my filter in real time is a huge productivity boost. I cannot understate how important this feature is. It redefines the way I deal with windows; I can type what I want instead of expending the mental effort to visually scan thumbnails of 20 different windows.

Unlike Flip 3D, the graphical frills of Switcher are all in service of the functionality. That’s the way it should be. I highly recommend trying out the latest beta of Switcher. A fast video card is best for an optimal experience.

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