With all the time I’ve been spending lately working on my Hackintosh, I’ve started getting disoriented in both the OS X and Windows environments. Being confused on the Mac is not exactly new for me, but losing my cool in Windows is a little disquieting.
I’ve been using Windows both personally and professionally for so long that I suppose I could be described as a power-user. I routinely use keyboard shortcuts and there’s a lot of habit built into my work-flow. Somehow using OS X has managed to really mess with my mind. When I first started playing around with Snow Leopard, I didn’t even notice what was going on when I hit command-tab. It probably took me a week to realize that command-tab was actually changing focus between open applications, not simply scrolling through all open windows in a most-recently-used (MRU) order.
Fast-forward two months, and my expectations have been modified. Now, instead of being disoriented by the app switcher in OS X, when I’m using Windows, I expect alt-tab to have the same behavior as command-tab.
These kinds of little mind-fraks can really slow down your workflow and increase your frustration level. I’ve spent some time looking for a Windows task-switcher that emulates the OS X behavior, but so far have come up empty handed. The closest I’ve been able to come is NTWind Software’s excellent VistaSwitcher.
VistaSwitcher allows you to navigate open windows using alt-tab in the normal Windows fashion. Where it gets cool is the with added functionality that it brings to task switching. Consider Windows 7’s alt-tab with Aero Peek:
It looks really pretty, certainly more aesthetically pleasing than its counterpart in Windows XP:
Once you get past the initial “gee that’s pretty” moment however, you start to realize that things aren’t all that much different. The only real change is the addition of thumbnail previews and the way it hides other windows as you tab through the window list. That’s it. No additional shortcuts for selecting multiple windows, closing or quitting programs, no filters to keep unwanted windows out of the tab cycle… really it’s just the same old functionality with some pretty graphics layered on top. I’d even venture to say that it’s less user-friendly because of the limited thumbnail preview size. With XP’s alt-tab, the window is represented by the program’s icon. The only visual ambiguity is whether or not the window you have selected is the one you actually want in the case that the program currently has multiple open windows.
In Windows 7, the visual representation of the window is far more difficult to discern, thanks to the tiny thumbnail preview that is supposed to tell you what you currently have selected. The problem with these thumbnails is that they are small, blurry, and not easily distinguished from one another without careful inspection or largely different window coloring. You end up having to look at the aero peeked version of the actual window behind the alt-tab bar to tell where you’ll end up. It sounds like no big deal on paper, but in practice it can really slow things down.
Now consider VistaSwitcher’s interface, as configured with default settings:
There are a few important things to note here. The windows are in a list on the right, and all of them are identified by their application icons, just like in XP. There is a large amount of text denoting the window title directly to the right of the icons. And the most important part… you can actually tell what program is running in the preview of the window you have selected. No ambiguity whatsoever.
I also like the fact that there is only one window preview displayed at any given time. Showing thumbnails of all your open windows is just plain distracting and unnecessary.
VistaSwitcher also has some awesome added features that I won’t get into in this post. Suffice it to say that there is a lot more you can do with this app than simple window switching.