Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

Now that it's gold, here's an inside look at the best and the worst of Windows Vista

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Getting Around

Finding your way around Windows hasn't always been easy. But Microsoft has made several key additions and tweaks to Vista that make managing windows and finding files much, much simpler.

Live thumbnails, Flip, and Flip 3D

The Windows taskbar is still one of the best user interface tools that Microsoft has ever devised, Windows 95's great window-management improvement. It places buttons on the taskbar for every application, folder or other object you have open. The problem with the taskbar is that it's easy to forget what's in the windows, so it's hard to find the ones you want. But Vista has solved that problem with live thumbnails -- pop-up thumbnail tiles that show the contents of the window. To make them appear, you hover the mouse pointer over the taskbar button.

Hover over a taskbar button for a peek inside that window.
Hover over a taskbar button for a peek inside that window.

Two other window-management features are Flip and Flip 3D. Flip is an upgraded version of the Alt-Tab Task Switcher from earlier versions of Windows. Alt-Tab gives you a palette of all open programs -- you hold down the Alt key and cycle through those programs with the Tab key. The one that's selected when you let go of the Alt key will then open up front and center on your screen. What's different is that instead of names of programs with static icons, Flip uses the live thumbnails for those programs, which makes it a good deal easier to find what you want.

Flip 3D provides a 3-D rendering of all your open windows. It lines them up in order, showing them from at a one-quarter angle, and marches them in procession. Flip 3D uses the Windows key and the Tab button; the window on top is activated when you let the Windows key go.

Microsoft has added the "Switch between windows" icon on the Quick Launch menu, which lets you activate Flip 3D entirely by mouse. You can even use the scroll wheel to cycle forward or back through the windows. When you select the window you want, clicking the primary mouse button brings it to the front.

See all your open windows as once with Flip 3D.
See all your open windows at once with Flip 3D. (Click image to see larger view)

Rediscovering Windows Explorer

The lowly Windows Explorer window has gotten a pretty good makeover in Windows Vista. One of the best new folder features in Vista is called graphical bread crumbs, a useful navigational tool.

On the Web, the term bread crumbs refers to the clickable path that shows each level as you tunnel into a Web site. Levels in Web breadcrumbs are often separated by the pipe ( | ) or greater-than ( > ) symbol. The hyperlinks make it easy to jump back to specific pages you've already visited.

Microsoft applied that user interface technique to the navigation, or address, bar in Windows Explorer windows. Graphical bread crumbs is a programmatic version of the drill-down hypertext navigational systems commonly used on the Web. So, for example, when you're in Computer (what's called My Computer in XP), and you drill into Local Disk (C:) > Program Files > Macromedia > HomeSite 5, the Address bar displays the bread crumbs, showing each level, like this:


Each level, such as Program Files, is clickable. And when you click it, you open that folder instead. That makes it easy to back up, take a different branch, and so forth. You thought what you were looking for was on Drive C: and now you realize it's on Drive D:? No problem -- just click the step right before "Local Disk (C:)," usually "Computer," and choose Local Disk (D:) from the drop-down menu, like this:

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