Visual Tour: Vista's new UI

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The Aero Glass Theme

Perhaps the most talked about of Windows Vista's new features is the Aero theme with its Glass color scheme. Part of the discussion has centered on Microsoft's controversial decision to run Aero Glass only on systems with relatively powerful graphics capabilities. It's not so much an issue with home machines because the hardware required to run Aero Glass is becoming more mainstream, thanks to the influence of gaming and media applications. However, the corporate sector has been doing most of the griping, and that's because in most corporate IT departments, graphics are barely considered during purchasing decisions. The thinking seems to be that if the graphics hardware is good enough to run PowerPoint, it's good enough for a corporate desktop. The entire discussion might be moot, however, because when corporate IT departments finally get around to adopting Vista en masse in two or three years, Aero Glass-capable graphics should be standard on the kind of midrange PCs that corporate purchasers favor.

Windows Vista performs a hardware check on your system to see if it can handle the Aero Glass interface. If not, Vista shuts off Aero Glass. However, you can use a trick to force Aero Glass on, as long as you're using a WDDM-compliant video driver. In the Registry Editor (Start, Run, type regedit and click OK), navigate to the following key:

HKLM\Software\Microsoft

Add a new subkey named DWM and then create a DWORD setting named EnableMachineCheck. Leave the value of this setting at 0, which disables Vista's DWM-related hardware checking. Some caveats concerning this hack:

  • It does not work on all systems.
  • Even if it does work, it can make your system run extremely slowly. (There's probably a reason Windows shut off Aero Glass.)
  • Microsoft might not support the EnableMachineCheck setting in the final version of Vista.

The rest of the Aero Glass talk has centered on what this new theme brings to the Vista interface. The most obvious change is one that you've already had a brief taste of in your brief tour of the Vista interface: the transparency effects that you see in the taskbar and the Start menu. Transparency extends to all the windows and dialog boxes Vista displays. It even extends to the windows and dialog boxes of applications that weren't built with Aero Glass in mind because the DWM displays all screen output, so it can apply the transparency effect -- indeed, any of the Aero Glass effects-to any window or dialog box.

Figure 3.12 shows Vista with a window and a dialog box displayed. You can see (hopefully -- the effects could be difficult to discern in black and white) that the transparency effect is most apparent in the title bar, but it also applies to the window and dialog box borders. What's the point, you may ask? I think Microsoft's goal here is both simple and subversive: to change the user's focus from the window to what's inside the window. In other words, by reducing the visual presence of the window title bar and borders, Vista shifts the focus from the container to the content. Many of the features such as desktop search, virtual folders, document metadata and a de-emphasis on the traditional disk-and-folder storage model, are also designed to bring content to the fore.

The Aero Glass theme brings a number of graphical innovations to the Windows Vista interface.
 

FIGURE 3.12      The Aero Glass theme brings a number of graphical innovations to the Windows Vista interface.

Aero Glass also applies the following effects to the Vista interface:

  • Each open window and dialog box has a drop-shadow effect.
  • When you hover the mouse pointer over a window button, the button "lights up": You see a blue glow for the Minimize and Maximize buttons, and a red glow for the Close button.
  • Almost anything that's live (in the sense that clicking it will trigger some action) gets highlighted when you hover your mouse pointer over it.
  • In a dialog box, the default button (usually the OK button) uses a repeating fade effect in which the color that normally appears when you hover the mouse over a command button appears to fade in and out.

These interface changes are, thankfully, subtle. With access to Direct3D and graphics hardware accelerations, Microsoft could have cranked up the eye candy and turned Vista into a version of Halo or some other frenetic game. Instead, they opted for muted effects that enhance the look of the interface while also making users' lives easier. (For example, it's going to be much harder in Vista to accidentally click Close when you meant to click Maximize because that glowing red Close button will put an instant "Stop!" message into your brain.)

Another useful Aero innovation is the use of animations to enhance interface actions. For example, when you minimize a window, it noticeably shrinks down to its taskbar icon. When you restore it, the window expands to its previous size and position. Similarly, when you close a window, it fades from view. Aero Glass also implements blur effects when an action is performed quickly.

Better Cool Switches: Flip and Flip 3D

One of the first keyboard shortcuts almost all Windows users master is Alt+Tab for switching programs. As you hold down Alt and press the Tab key, a small window of icons appears, one icon for each open program window.

This handy shortcut -- generally known as the cool switch -- has served us well since Windows 95, but it suffers from a glaring drawback: The Alt+Tab window shows only the program icons and titles. You can usually figure out which window you want to switch to, but sometimes the limited size of the cool switch window text box means that you can't tell whether the current window is the one you want.

If you installed any of Microsoft's PowerToys utilities for XP, you might have used the Alt+Tab Replacement PowerToy. This small utility intercepted Alt+Tab keystrokes and displayed a large window that, as you pressed Tab, showed you not only each icon, but also a copy of the entire program window, making it easier to select the one you want.

If you have a video card that supports the Windows Vista Device Driver Model, Vista's version of the cool switch is similar to the Alt+Tab Replacement PowerToy. When you hold down Alt and press Tab, Vista displays not an icon for each open window, but a scaled-down version of each window. (There's also an icon for the desktop, which gives you a quick way to minimize all open windows and get to the desktop.) The power of WPF brings two considerable benefits to this so-called Flip method of switching windows:

  • The WPF vector-based graphics ensure that the scaled-down windows are easily viewed and that the contents of these miniature windows are still fully readable.
  • The WPF access to the GPU and its hardware acceleration mean that the scaled-down windows are "live" in the sense that they reflect the current state of each window, even if a window is playing full-motion video.

Figure 3.13 shows the Flip feature in action.

Press Alt+Tab to flip through live thumbnails of your running windows.
 

FIGURE 3.13      Press Alt+Tab to flip through live thumbnails of your running windows.

Flip is a nice update to the Alt+Tab cool switch, but Vista has another trick up its window-switching sleeve: Flip 3D. Press Windows Logo+Tab to convert the open windows to a 3-D stack, as shown in Figure 3.14. To flip through the thumbnails, hold down the Windows Logo key and press Tab. Alternatively, press Windows Logo+Ctrl+Tab to get a 3-D stack that doesn't require you to hold down any keys. When you have the stack displayed, you have two choices:

  • Use the arrow keys -- Press the down arrow or right arrow to move thumbnails toward the front of the stack; press the up arrow or left arrow to move thumbnails toward the back of the stack.
  • Use the scroll wheel on your mouse -- Scroll forward to move thumbnails toward the front of the stack; scroll backward to move thumbnails toward the back of the stack.

As with the Flip method, Flip 3D thumbnails show live content. When you bring the thumbnail you want to the front, press Enter to switch to that window.

As I write this, there is talk that some keyboard manufacturers will be adding a Flip 3D key in upcoming configurations. It's a certainty that Microsoft's own keyboards will include this feature, and I'm sure other manufacturers will follow suit.

Press Windows Logo+Tab and then scroll the mouse wheel to flip through a 3D stack of live thumbnails.
 

FIGURE 3.14      Press Windows Logo+Tab and then scroll the mouse wheel to flip through a 3-D stack of live thumbnails.

Taskbar Thumbnails

The taskbar's main duty is to play host to a set of buttons that represent the open windows on the desktop. You can switch to any window by clicking its taskbar button. In theory, it should be straightforward to choose the taskbar button for the window you want to activate because each button shows the window title and the icon associated with the program. In practice, however, picking out the correct taskbar button is often problematic because many window titles don't fit entirely inside the button. This is particularly true of documents, which tend to have longish names. The situation worsens as you open more windows because the more buttons there are on the taskbar, the smaller each button becomes.

The "solution" to this dilemma has long been the pop-up banners that appear when you hover the mouse pointer over a taskbar button. These banners show you the full title of the window. The pop-ups help, but you can still have problems figuring out the correct button if you have opened several documents that use similar names.

What you really need to know in these cases is what's inside each window, and Vista has just the thing: taskbar preview windows. When you hover your mouse pointer over a taskbar button in Vista, the WPF displays not only the window title, but also a thumbnail image of the window. As you've probably guessed by now, these thumbnails are live, so they show real-time changes to the window state, such as a running video. Figure 3.15 shows an example of a taskbar preview window.

When you hover the mouse pointer over a taskbar button in Windows Vista, a live thumbnail of the window appears.
 

FIGURE 3.15        When you hover the mouse pointer over a taskbar button in Windows Vista, a live thumbnail of the window appears.

One of Windows XP's solutions to taskbar clutter was to group similar taskbar buttons together. For example, if you had several Internet Explorer windows open, XP would show just a single Internet Explorer taskbar button with an arrow. Clicking the arrow displayed a list of the open Internet Explorer windows, and you could then click the window you wanted to activate.

Windows Vista keeps this feature, but with a slight twist. When you hover your mouse pointer over a button representing a group of windows, a stacked thumbnail appears, as shown in Figure 3.16. The thumbnail that appears at the front of the stack is the window that you opened first. Note, however, that you cannot navigate the stack, so this version of the taskbar thumbnails is not all that useful.

When you hover the mouse pointer over a grouped taskbar button, a stacked thumbnail appears
 

FIGURE 3.16      When you hover the mouse pointer over a grouped taskbar button, a stacked thumbnail appears.

New Folder Windows

Microsoft has spent a lot of time rethinking document storage and has incorporated into Vista some substantial changes in the way we view, navigate and use folders. For now, let's take a tour of the new interface features that you'll find in Vista's folder windows. Figure 3.17 shows a typical example of the species, the Documents window (formerly My Documents).

Navigating Folders

One of the most fundamental and possibly far-reaching of Vista's innovations is doing away with -- or, technically, hiding -- the old drive-and-folder-path method of navigating the contents of your computer. You could go your entire Vista career and never have to view or type a backslash. Instead, Vista implements drives and folders as hierarchies that you navigate up, down and even across. As you can see in Figure 3.17, the Address bar doesn't show any drive letters or blackslashes. Instead, you get a hierarchical path to the current folder. The path in Figure 3.17 has three items, separated by right-pointing arrows:

  • Desktop icon -- This icon represents the top of the hierarchy. You'll see a bit later that you can use this icon to navigate to your computer drives, your network, the Control Panel, your user folder, and more.
  • Paul -- This represents the second level of the example hierarchy. In the example, this level represents all the folders and files associated with the account of a user named Paul.
  • Documents -- This represents the third level of the example hierarchy. In the example, this level represents all the folders and files that reside in the user Paul's Documents folder.

Vista’s folder windows boast a radical new design.
 

FIGURE 3.17        Vista’s folder windows boast a radical new design.

If you miss the old pathname way of looking at folders, you can still use drive letters and backslashes in Vista. Either right-click the path and click Edit Address, or press Alt+D. To return to the hierarchical path, press Esc.

This is a sensible and straightforward way to view the hierarchy, which is already a big improvement over previous versions of Windows. However, the real value here lies in the navigation features of the Address bar, and you can get a hint of these features from the nickname that many people have applied to the new Address bar: the breadcrumb bar.

Breadcrumbing refers to a navigation feature that displays a list of the places a person has visited or the route a person has taken. The term comes from the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, who threw down bits of bread to help find their way out of the forest. This feature is common on Web sites where the content is organized as a hierarchy or as a sequence of pages.

Vista introduces breadcrumb navigation to Windows not only by using the Address bar to show you the hierarchical path you've taken to get to the current folder, but also by adding interactivity to the breadcrumb path:

  • You can navigate back to any part of the hierarchy by clicking the folder name in the Address bar. For example, in the path shown in Figure 3.17, you could jump immediately to the top-level hierarchy by clicking the Desktop icon on the far left of the path.
  • You can navigate "sideways" to any part of any level by clicking the right-pointing arrow to the right of the level you want to work with. In Figure 3.18, for example, you see that clicking the Paul arrow displays a list of the other navigable items that are in the Paul folder, such as Downloads, Music, and Pictures. Clicking an item in this list opens that folder.

Breadcrumb navigation: In the Address bar, click a folder’s arrow to see a list of the navigable items in that folder
 

FIGURE 3.18        Breadcrumb navigation: In the Address bar, click a folder’s arrow to see a list of the navigable items in that folder.

Instant Search

The next major change to the folder window interface in Windows Vista is the Instant Search box, which appears to the right of the Address bar in all folder windows. Search is everywhere in Vista, and I go into it in much more detail in Chapter 4. For folder windows, however, the Instant Search box gives you a quick way to search for files within the current folder. Most of us nowadays have folders that contain hundreds or even thousands of documents. To knock such folders down to size in Vista, you need only type a word or phrase into the Instant Search box, and Vista instantly filters the folder contents to show just the files with names or content that match the search text, as shown in Figure 3.19. Vista also matches those files that have metadata -- such as the author or tag -- that match your text.

With as-you-type folder searching, Vista displays just those files with names or metadata that match your search text.
 

FIGURE 3.19              With as-you-type folder searching, Vista displays just those files with names or metadata that match your search text.

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