Tips for a cleaner Windows task bar

Windows taskbar with squished tabs

The Windows task bar has been sitting at the bottom of our screens, relatively untouched for the last 12 years. You open a window. It displays a new tab. You click on the tab to view the window. Simple. When you have a couple of windows open there really is no issue. Everything is laid out perfectly in front of you – window titles displayed clearly. But when was the last time you sat in front of your computer with only a few windows open? Web browsers, word docs, Outlook, etc… I’m lucky if I make it through the first 20 minutes of my work day without opening 5 different applications, each parenting at least a few windows. By the end of the day, the number of open windows usually hovers around 10 to 15 and along with it comes the inevitable task bar squish. Tiny tabs, grasping tiny icons that are but shells of their former selves.

Windows taskbar with multiple tab rows

Thankfully, Microsoft has always allowed us to expand the task bar vertically, which permits multiple rows of tabs to be displayed, giving them a little more space to breathe. I’m a two row kind of guy but I’ve seen some developers push it up to as many as four rows to accommodate their multitasking kung-fu. If you’ve got the screen real estate, this is by far the easiest solution. Just right click on the task bar, select “Unblock the task bar” and drag the top edge of the task bar upwards.

Some programs that don’t need to be accessed that often, or don’t generally have multiple windows associated with them, such as music players or IM clients, handily tuck themselves away in the system tray. The system tray is that mess of 20 little icons at the bottom right of your screen. If you think that one of the programs sitting in your task bar is a strong candidate for the system tray, check that application’s preferences carefully and you may be surprised to find that it can be hidden when you minimize the program. For Microsoft Outlook 2003 or later, simply right click the system tray icon and select “Hide when minimized”.

Responding to the pain that many of its users faced, Microsoft introduced a “Group by” function in Windows XP that joined windows from the same application into a single task bar item, with a foldout menu listing the open windows. This was a godsend before tabs became standard in all web browsers, as one could regularly have 10+ web pages open at a time without filling up the task bar. However, one could never get a good idea of all the windows that are open without going through each group. As soon as I switched to Firefox’s tabbed interface, I quickly reverted to my multirow task bar and disabled the “Group by” feature by right clicking on the task bar, selecting Properties and unchecking “Group similar programs…”.

With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft has remained true to its task bar formula while making small improvements. In Vista when you hover over one of the tabs in the task bar, it will show a little thumbnail version of the window to help you select the right one. Along with a thumbnail view when Alt-tabbing between programs, Vista is making inroads on how we juggle our virtual desktop but has yet to find its own version of Mac OS X’s killer feature, Expose. The good news is that many applications are taking windows management into their own hands through the use of tabs and other clever ideas such as Opera’s thumbnail preview which, similar to Expose, shows all your open browser windows at once.

Everyone has their own way of working with Windows which largely depends on what you’re working on. The challenge for Microsoft is formidable; it’s like trying to design a hammer that is also screw driver, a saw and a paint brush that needs to be childproof and strong enough to handle the most demanding users.

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