Windows 7: The New Taskbar
Like buses, you wait years for a new operating system to turn up and then you get two of them in the space of a couple of years. This year a rather large bus will be arriving from Microsoft, going by the name of Windows 7. This is the latest operating system to emerge from Microsoft’s lair in Redmond, which entered public beta last week, allowing the world to have a play with what’s to come later on this year.
In this new series of articles I’ll be taking a look at the big changes that are coming in Windows 7 and showing what effect they will have on your experience of using a Windows operating system. Today’s article focuses on the new evolution of the taskbar found in Windows 7, which has affectionately been dubbed the Superbar by many industry folk.
We’re all familiar with the taskbar, that strip of screen space containing window titles, annoying little icons and the infamous Start menu. If you were hoping it would never change, Windows 7 will disappoint, as the new taskbar has evolved into a new beast that will take some getting used to. Once you do however, you’ll find that it’s now more efficient to navigate between windows and interact with your applications. Rather than the traditional small icon and text description of previous taskbars, the Superbar uses slightly larger icons and drops the text, allowing much more space for open windows.
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Vista brought in thumbnail previews when you hover over an open window, but 7 extends this further. When you have multiple instances of an application open, they are automatically stacked into one icon. If you hover over the icon, thumbnail previews are now shown for all open instance of that application. The window title and thumbnail are both displayed now, making it much easier to find the window you want.
Previewing Windows with Aero Peek
As the number of windows we have open at one time is ever increasing, it becomes a problem to locate the exact window you want. This is where Aero Peek steps in. When hovering the cursor over a thumbnail preview icon, the window that the preview belongs to is brought to the front of the desktop, with the remaining windows displayed as outlines. This makes it much easier to see exactly what the window is, before having to switch to it. In the screenshot below you can see this effect in action. This process also works the same for showing the desktop, which is now accessible using the thin rectangle bar shown at the far right of the taskbar.
The taskbar uses a variety of effects on the taskbar icons to show you the status of the application. For windows that are currently open, they are outlined and given a faint glass effect. In the above Thumbnail Preview screenshot you can see that Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Windows Live Messenger and Notepad are outlined in this manner.
On the Internet Explorer icon you can see there is a misting effect to the icon, which appears when the cursor hovers over a running application icon. The misting effect is coloured depending on the primary colour used in the application icon, making it easier to tell which application you’re hovering over. When an application is pinned (more on this later), but not running, the icon is displayed without any effects.
When multiple instances of an application are open, a thing bar to the right of the icon is displayed. This can be seen on the Internet Explorer and Windows Live Messenger icons, representing that there are multiple tabs open in IE and multiple IM windows open in WLM.
Applications don’t have to be running for them to appear on the new taskbar. While previous releases of Windows featured Quick Launch as a means of keeping links to your favourite applications on the taskbar, Windows 7 integrates this in a subtler way. Any application icon can be dragged onto the taskbar to “pin” it to the bar. This allows the icon to be used as a short cut to launch a new instance of that application as with other icons. Pinned icons can be dragged to reorder them as you want.
Since the new taskbar doesn’t have text labels enabled by default, progress bars have been integrated into the icons themselves. In the example below, the progress of a file transfer in Windows Explorer can be seen. The background of the icon will gradually be filled with green as the transfer progresses. The progress bars should be compatible with most Microsoft applications, but compatibility with third party applications can be a bit hit and miss with this feature.
In order to add more functionality to icons, a feature called Jump Lists can be used by applications to include shortcuts to commonly used functions. The example below shows a Jump List for Windows Media Player, which gives a couple of application specific options for controlling your music. Applications such as Internet Explorer provide links to recently visited sites and Messenger provides a quick option to change your online status. While the functionality offered is fairly limited at present, it is expected that this will be expanded upon in future beta builds.