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Using the Taskbar

That little strip of real estate at the bottom of the Windows desktop is called the taskbar. The Windows 7 taskbar lets you open your favorite applications and documents, as well as switch between open windows.

Introducing the New Windows 7 Taskbar

In previous versions of Windows, up to and including Windows Vista, the taskbar 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 separate 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) 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.

Deciphering Taskbar Icons

If you’ve used previous versions of Windows, you’ll notice immediately that the Windows 7 taskbar looks a bit different. It’s more glass-like than older taskbars, a little taller as well, and it displays icons, not buttons. There are no labels on the icons, just the icon graphic.

The advantage to this new design is both visual (a much 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 displaying more items in the same amount of screen real estate.

Because of the multiple functions of these new taskbar icons, 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.

As you can see in Figure 3.10, 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 3.10

Figure 3.10 The new Windows 7 taskbar with a variety of icon buttons

Opening Applications and Switching Between Windows

Using the taskbar is simplicity itself. 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.

Using Jump Lists

The Windows 7 taskbar becomes even more useful with the addition of Jump Lists—kind of context-sensitive pop-up menus for each icon on the taskbar. To display an icon’s Jump List, shown in Figure 3.11, right-click the icon.

Figure 3.11

Figure 3.11 A Windows 7 taskbar Jump List.

What you see in a Jump List depends to some degree on the application associated with the icon. For example, Windows 7–specific apps will display more specific (and useful) Jump Lists than applications developed prior to Windows 7; an app has to be written specifically to take full advantage of this new feature.

Most Jump Lists contain the following items:

  • The most recent documents opened in this application
  • A link to open a new instance of this application
  • An option to unpin this item from the taskbar (for shortcut icons)
  • An option to close the current window (for open-window icons)

Win7–specific apps offer more application-appropriate items on their Jump Lists. For example, Windows Media Player 12 has a section for frequent playlists and albums, as well as a Tasks section with the most-recent program operations.

In short, Windows 7 taskbar Jump Lists are a lot like traditional right-click pop-up menus, but with more useful options. They make the new taskbar icons more useful than they would have been otherwise.

Managing Taskbar Buttons

Now that you know what the Windows 7 taskbar does, let’s look a little at how to manage the new taskbar.

First, know that you have total control over the order of icons on the taskbar. Just drag and drop a taskbar icon from one position to another, and there it stays.

To add an application or document shortcut to the taskbar, just navigate to that item using the Start menu or Windows Explorer, right-click the item’s icon, and select Pin to Taskbar. Alternatively, you can drag an icon from any folder to the taskbar. Either approach is quick and easy.

To remove an item from the taskbar, right-click it and select Unpin This Program from Taskbar from the Jump List.

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