Tiny Footprint Mode

“Where did my Task Manager tabs and buttons go?”Windows Task Manager Tiny Footprint Mode

Ah, welcome to “Tiny Footprint Mode“.

This mode exists for geeks who want to put a little CPU meter in the corner of the screen. To go back to normal mode, just double-click any empty space in the border.

This is one of those geek features that has created more problems than it solved. Sure, the geeks get their own little CPU meter in the corner, but for every geek who does this, there are thousands of normal users who get into Tiny Footprint Mode and can’t figure out how to get back.

Exercise: “I can’t close my apps using Task manager. What do I do?”

Windows 8 Task Manager Tiny Footprint Mode

Windows 7 Flip 3D

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.

The Forgotten Hotkey

Windows 7 Alt-Tab

Originally, Windows came with just one task-switching hotkey: Alt+Tab. The keystrokes may be the same, but the experience for the user was quite different. There was no Alt+Tab window. Instead, when you pressed the Tab key, a different program received focus. And minimized applications were not opened; you had to open them yourself after you released the Alt key.

The Alt+Tab functionality in Windows 2.0 took us closer to the Alt+Tab behavior we have today. Overlapping windows were maintained in a front-to-back list (known as the z-order), and each press of the Tab key selected the next window, temporarily bringing it to the front so you could see it.

When you released the Alt key, the window you selected was raised to the top of the window stack.

For example, if your window stack consisted of windows A, B, C, and D, using Alt+Tab to select window C would result in a new window stack order of C, A, B, D.

In Windows 3.0, the Alt+Tab hotkey got a face-lift. The effect on the z-order remained unchanged, but there was a new interface for getting there. Instead of temporarily showing each window, it merely showed you the window’s icon and title. Only when you selected a window was it brought to the top of the window stack.

This was known as Fast Alt+Tab. For a time, you could choose whether you wanted the new design or the old one, but the new design was so much more popular that when support for the old design was silently removed with the release of Windows 95, nobody seemed to notice, much less complain.

Windows 95 and Windows Vista included cosmetic tweaks, with Windows 95 adding a grid of icons and Windows Vista adding live thumbnails to help you move to the window you want more quickly. (By the way, here’s a little-known feature: in Windows Vista, you can use the mouse to click on the thumbnail to switch directly to that window.)

Flip, the enhanced Windows Vista Alt-Tab list

Unfortunately, with all this excitement attached to Alt+Tab, another hotkey has been woefully neglected. Windows 2.0 introduced the Alt+Esc hotkey. Whereas Alt+Tab lets you pick an application, Alt+Esc lets you cycle through them.

When you press Alt+Esc, the active window is sent to the bottom of the window stack, allowing the window beneath it in the z-order to become the new active window. And if the next window is a minimized window, it stays minimized. While this may sound like an annoyance, it is actually a useful device, as it lets you skip past minimized applications without having to open them.

Say the window stack consists of windows A, B, C, and D, for example. Pressing Alt+Esc will push window A to the bottom (resulting in a stack order of B, C, D, A). Pressing it again will push window B to the bottom (resulting in C, D, A, B). Since Alt+Esc doesn’t open minimized windows, if window B were minimized, it would remain so.

Adding the shift key to the Alt+Esc sequence does the reverse: the bottom window from the stack is brought to the top (but not opened). You can switch between two windows by putting one at the top of the window stack, putting another at the bottom, and then using Alt+Esc and Alt+Shift+Esc to switch between them.

While Alt+Tab got all the attention during the evolution of Windows, poor little Alt+Esc sat on the sidelines, sobbing quietly to itself for having been neglected all these years. But Alt+Esc’s relative neglect has also been an advantage. While many developers write programs that attempt to enhance the Alt+Tab user interface, nobody messes with Alt+Esc.

Like a crystal radio during a power outage, Alt+Esc comes to the rescue when your Alt+Tab and other task-switching enhancements stop working. If your Alt+Tab enhancement has gone haywire and a bad shell extension has messed up your taskbar, don’t despair. You can then dig into your bag of tricks and pull out Alt+Esc, the backup task switcher hotkey that’s there when you need it, because it never occurs to anybody to interfere with it.

Bonus Reading: Exploding Coffee Machines

The Alt+Tab Order

What determines the order in which icons appear in the Alt+Tab list?

An example of the Alt-Tab list

That depends on whether you are using Windows XP or Vista and later.

In Windows Vista, there is an enhanced Alt+Tab feature known as Flip, which is on by default on most systems. There are three types of interactive task switching in Windows Vista:

  • Classic Alt+Tab: This is the same one that’s been around since Windows 3.1. It shows a grid of icons.
  • Flip (new for Windows Vista): This shows a grid of thumbnails.
  • Flip 3D (also new for Windows Vista): This shows a stack of windows in 3D.

For Classic Alt-Tab, the icons appear in the same order as the window Z-order. When you switch to a window, then it comes to the top of the Z-order. If you minimize a window, it goes to the bottom of the Z-order. The Alt+Esc hotkey (does anybody still even use Alt+Esc?) takes the current top window and sends it to the bottom of the Z-order (and the window next in line comes to the top). The Alt+Shift+Esc hotkey (I bet you didn’t know that hotkey even existed) takes the bottom-most window and brings it to the top, but does not open the window if it is minimized.

The presence of “always on top” windows makes this a little more complicated. The basic rule is that an “always on top” window always appears on top of a “not always on top” window. So if the above rules indicate that a “not always on top” window comes to the top, it really just goes as high as it can without getting on top of any “always on top” windows.

You may have run across the term “fast task switching”. This was the term used to describe the precursor to the current Alt+Tab switching interface. The old way of switching via Alt+Tab (Windows 3.0 and earlier) was just like Alt+Esc, except that the window you switched to was automatically opened if it had been minimized. When the new Alt+Tab was added to Windows 3.1, we were concerned that people might prefer the old way, so there was a switch in the control panel to set it back to the slow way. (There is also a setting SPI_SETFASTTASKSWITCH that lets you change it programmatically.) It turns out nobody complained, so the old way of task switching was removed entirely and the setting now has no effect.

This does highlight the effort we take to try to allow people who don’t like the new way of doing something to go back to the old way. It turns out that corporations with 10,000 employees don’t like it when the user interface changes, because it forces them to spend millions of dollars retraining all their employees. If you open up the Group Policy Editor, you can see the zillions of deployment settings that IT administrators can use to disable a variety of new Windows UI features.

Another example of the enhanced Alt-Tab list

In Windows Vista, Classic Alt+Tab continues to show the icons in the Z-order, but the developer who wrote Flip told me that Flip changed it up a bit based on feedback from the design team. The first several icons are still shown in the Z-order but if you have a lot of windows open, the rest of them are shown in alphabetical order to make it easier to pick the one you want from the list.

Windows 7 Flip 3D

I think it’s a good sign that nobody seems to have noticed. A lot of user interface work tries to be invisible.

Or perhaps nobody cares.

Segoe UI gets a facelift in Windows 8

Segoe UI Comparison

The hallmark Windows font, Segoe UI, has gone under the knife for its appearance in Windows 8 with a handful of changes and improvements. Some obvious – styling of particular characters of numbers, new variants, and others not so obvious – addition of OpenType stylistic sets, ligatures, and international character sets.

Thanks for a heads up from David Warner, Microsoft has been slowly bumping up the version number of Segoe UI from 5.01 in Windows 7 to 5.12 in Windows 8′s Developer Preview and more recently 5.16 in the Consumer Preview.

The most obvious changes out of the box are in the characters “I, Q, 1, 2, 7″ where the serifs in I and 1 are removed in favor of a more genuine san-serif look, the tip of the Q straightened but 2 and 7 more curved.

The new Segoe UI also adds support for OpenType stylistic sets and ligatures which increases variation across the standard character set. New features include small caps, old-style and tabular (monospaced) numerals. In fact, the old variations of the characters above are included in the alternative style set (style set #20, in fact).

Microsoft’s fonts team has also worked on improving the hinting of Segoe UI, especially the Light variant which was never properly hinted. The lack of hinting in older Segoe UI is particularly noticeable with lowercase bs, ds, ps and qs, the ‘round parts’ of which don’t line up well with other characters. The heights of numerals are also variable at some sizes. The new version has much more consistent hinting across the entire range of font sizes, especially at sizes 20pt, 24pt and 26pt. Just take a look at the “X” in the image below to see what I mean.

Segoe UI Glyph Comparison

With over 2000 extra glyphs and 800 extra characters, the new versions of Segoe UI also new variants. All existing variants of Segoe UI have been updated, three new italic variants, and there is one new variant: Segoe UI Semilight used in captions and small captions. The new Segoe UI also broadens internationalization support with additional language character sets for Armenian, Hebrew, Georgian, Thai, Lisu and various Indian and African languages.

For a side by side comparison between the two versions, take a look at the image below kindly provided by David Warner.

Lindsay's Skype "Stay Together" Story

Microsoft offers $10,000 travel voucher for Skype “Stay Together” story

If you can look past the irony of a Microsoft competition about connecting people all around the world open only to US residents, you could win a $10,000 United Airlines travel voucher for simply using Skype.

Last month Skype launched a new advertising website called “Stay Together” with a series of intriguing stories based around people using Skype to stay in touch with distant family, relatives or friends.

There’s a particularly interesting one about Lindsay from Alabama who traveled to Australia and unexpectedly became a zoo keeper. After returning to the US, she uses Skype to keep in touch with wombats, kangaroos, koalas and the Aussie zoo owner family who she now considers her extended family.

For the competition, the website is accepting user submissions of their own “Stay Together” stories. There’s over 370 submissions so far and users can read and vote on. Currently the most voted story is a soldier deployed in Iraq who stays in touch with his sister using Skype.

Competition closes soon on July 22, 2013.

Windows 8.1 Touch Scrolling Bug

Windows 8.1 Preview Breaks Touch Scrolling for Windows Store XAML Apps

If you’ve installed the Windows 8.1 Preview build 9431 on the Surface or any other touch computer, you might have noticed that touch scrolling is really buggy if not completely broken in XAML Windows Store apps such as the official Twitter app or MetroTwit. This is a known bug.

At BUILD 2013 I learned a bug creped into the WinRT framework and caused any virtualized ListViews with variable sized items (like the tweets in Twitter app) to scroll unpredictably when panned with touch. Fortunately it has been fixed so when Windows 8.1 RTMs it’s all good, but for anyone who downloaded the Preview a patch is uncertain.

In my opinion, touch scrolling is a highly essential aspect of the user experience, especially when over 6,000 attendees of BUILD just received two tablets for free and are eager to try out the Windows 8.1 Preview. It’s understandable a preview release build has bugs but it’s unfortunate this bug has such a severe impact on a pretty important aspect of the touch experience.

The fix missed the Windows 8.1 Preview day-0 hotfix cycle, which was made available yesterday through Windows Update. It may even face an uphill battle for future Windows Update patches because it’s not a critical security, data loss or crashing issue.

If you have Windows 8.1 Preview on your tablet and have been suffering scrolling issues, this is why. I sincerely hope the Windows team can come together to push out a fix as soon as possible.