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Getting to Know the New Windows 7 Taskbar

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One of the best new things about Windows 7 is its revamped Taskbar. In this article, Easy Computer Basics, Windows 7 Edition author Michael Miller walks you through all the new Taskbar features and shows you why it will make you more productive.

For a sneak peek at the Windows 7 Taskbar in action, see Michael Miller's video, Windows 7 Taskbar Video Walkthrough.

Windows 7 offers many new features that make it worth the upgrade. One of the most useful of these features is the new taskbar, which is totally different from anything you've used in previous versions of Windows. In fact, the redesign of the taskbar is so ambitious that it might confuse some experienced Windows users.

In previous versions of Windows, the taskbar (that little strip of real estate at the bottom of the desktop) existed to show you which programs or documents were currently open in Windows. Every open application or document had its own button on the taskbar; you could easily switch from one open window to another by clicking the appropriate taskbar button.

That changed a little with Windows XP, when Microsoft added a Quick Launch toolbar that you could dock to the taskbar. The Quick Launch toolbar could be configured with buttons for your favorite apps, which could then be quickly launched from the toolbar—which, when docked, appeared to be part of the taskbar. In Windows XP, the Quick Launch toolbar was activated by default; it was still around in Windows Vista, but not automatically displayed.

Well, in Windows 7, the taskbar takes on the attributes of the traditional taskbar plus the old Quick Launch toolbar—and a little more. That is, the Win7 taskbar includes buttons (actually, just icons—no text) that are not just for running applications and documents but also for your favorite applications.

Click an icon to launch an app or click an icon to switch to an open window; taskbar icons exist for both. In this aspect, the new taskbar more than a little resembles the Dock from the Mac OS.

And hence the potential confusion. In previous versions of Windows, a taskbar button represented one thing and one thing only: an open window.

In Windows 7, a taskbar icon can represent a currently open window, a group of open windows (multiple documents for the same applications), or a shortcut to a program that isn't currently running. Unless you look closely, it's difficult to see the difference between different types of icons.

Deciphering the Taskbar

First things first. The Windows 7 taskbar looks different from the taskbar in Windows Vista and previous versions. It's more glass-like than the old taskbar, a little taller as well, and it displays icons, not buttons. There are no labels on the icons, just the icon graphic.

The advantage of this new design is both visual (cleaner look) and practical (the new icons—while larger than the icons on the old text buttons—take up less space on the taskbar). It's easier to see what's what, while at the same time more items are displayed in the same amount of screen real estate.

As I noted previously, it's difficult to look at an icon in the taskbar and determine whether it represents an open or closed application or document. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Here's the key.

An icon for a not-yet-open application or document—essentially a shortcut to that app or doc—appears on the taskbar with no border. An icon for an open window has a slight border, while still appearing translucent. An icon for the currently selected open window also has a border, but is less transparent. And if there is more than one document open for a given application (or more than one tab open in a web browser), that app's icon button appears "stacked" to represent multiple instances.

Figure 1 The new Windows 7 taskbar with icons for a (closed) application, open application, open application with multiple documents, and currently selected window

Click a shortcut icon to open the associated application or document. Click an open window icon to display that window front and center.

If you click a multiple-window icon, however, something interesting happens: Windows displays thumbnails for each of that application's open windows. (The same thing happens if you hover the cursor over any open-window icon, actually.)

Move the cursor over a thumbnail, and that window temporarily displays on top of the stack on your desktop, no matter what its actual position. Click a thumbnail to switch to that window, or click the red X on the thumbnail to close the window.

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