September 20, 2007
I'm one of the rare people who actually likes Windows Vista. Sure, it's far from what was originally promised in terms of features, but it's still a solid quality of life improvement from the crusty old 2001 version of Windows XP. Or at least it will be, once Service Pack 1 is released.
Like anything else, there's plenty to be critical of in Vista. One particular feature of Vista that I find almost unforgivably lame is Flip3D.
It's a third-rate clone of Apple's OSX Expose feature, which itself is an exploration of zoomable UI.
Vista's Flip3D certainly looks cool enough, and you can use your mouse wheel to spin the windows around, which is entertaining for a few seconds. But it fails miserably in terms of actual usability:
- It only uses the primary monitor to show the window list, so any additional display space you have is completely wasted.
- The windows are stacked on top of each other, partially obscuring every window except the topmost one. This also makes the target area for selecting and clicking on any stacked window very small.
- The arbitrary switch from a 2D desktop into a 3D display space is mentally disconcerting. This change also slants and distorts the windows, so readability is lower than it should be.
In their effort to distinguish themselves from OSX, Redmond created a complete non-feature. Flip3D is barely better than nothing.
But we don't have to suffer through Flip3D when we can replace it. There are several nice alternatives. Personally, I recommend disabling Flip3D and mapping Bao Nguyen's outstanding Switcher to the Windows+Tab key combination.
I just noticed that Bao released a new beta version of Switcher:
- Middle-click a window to close it.
- The first 9 windows can be selected by number; the numeric shortcut is superimposed over the window.
- Right-click a window to open it, and minimize all other windows.
- Windows now have a large text label superimposed in the corner with the title and icon so you can tell what they are. This is helpful if you have many similar-looking windows, or if they're thumbnailed particularly small.
- You can perform an incremental filtering search on all open windows.
These are some killer new features. I've wanted to close windows by middle-clicking on them from the zoomed view forever. But the last item on that list is huge. It's a game changer. Instead of playing Where's Waldo with my windows, I can press Windows+Tab, then type what I want. It's exactly what I described in The Problem With Tabbed Interfaces:
So how can we fix this? How can we integrate tabs with the existing navigational features of the operating system, such as the taskbar, and Expose? I keep coming back to search as the dominant computing metaphor. The only thing I can think of is a plain-text search facility where I type "Gmail", and the OS would automatically highlight that tab (or window) and bring it to the front. That presupposes a very high level of integration between the application tabs and the operating system, however.
It looks like Bao Nguyen was reading my mind. Pressing Windows+Tab, then typing "Gmail" is the best thing ever as far as I'm concerned. No, I can't search tab contents, but I can now match by any window title, which is good enough. The way I can begin typing and watch the windows dynamically fling themselves offscreen as they fall out of my filter in real time is a huge productivity boost. I cannot understate how significant this feature is. It redefines the way I deal with windows; I can type what I want instead of expending the mental effort to visually scan thumbnails of 20 different windows.
Unlike Flip3d, the graphical frills of Switcher are all in service to the functionality. That's the way it should be. I Highly recommend trying out the latest beta of Switcher. But be sure to bring a fast video card to the table for the best experience.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
How can I possibly be advertising free software? I'm missing something
here. Bao does suggest that you can donate to UNICEF or Doctors Without
Borders if you like.
My apologies. I should have double-checked, but I could have sworn last time I clicked on a link to Switcher from your blog it was shareware. I must have gotten my wires crossed. I take back my criticism.
I will, however, still take issue with your choice of wording here.
"It's exactly what I described in The Problem With Tabbed Interfaces:"
No, actually it's not /exactly/ what you described, because:
"The only thing I can think of is a plain-text search facility where
I type "Gmail", and the OS would automatically highlight that tab (or
window) and bring it to the front."
Again, unless Gmail was the tab that happened to be in the foreground in your browser, this is completely moot. And, if Gmail were the foreground tab, you would be able to visually identify it anyway.
I know I'm just being pedantic, but your enthusiasm seemed misplaced to me since it really didn't solve the problem you were describing in the "problem with tabs" post -- being able to find that hidden Gmail tab.
Baby steps, indeed, but let's be consistent. As Odbasta mentioned, suddenly being able to search by window title is "good enough", when it wasn't before?
Wow, I'm cranky today.
*ahem* love your blog, keep up the good work, yadda x 3.
Hi Jeff. For those who are nervous:
There is a relatively new product called Enso Launcher at humanized.com which lets you hold the caps-lock key and issue commands. One command is GO whatever which is an incremental search for windows AND tabs such as firefox tabs. It works well and is cheap and sounds like what you are looking for. I have no affiliation with the Enso product other than that I saw it and installed the 30 day test-drive.
I remember the first time I saw Vista. I noticed the Flip 3D button was placed in the quick launch area. Can you imagine what it takes to be put there? Only show desktop, Internet Explorer and Outlook Express used to be there. And now this little feature which otherwise would not be noticed (alt-tab is difficult to discover) is getying all this exposure, not just in the Quick Launch area, but in the commercials as well. I remember thinking at that moment: "So, that's what Vista is all about... I think I'll pass for now...". It's really quite ridiculous.
For Windows XP try ReflexVision, IMO the best Expose clone.
Hey Now Jeff,
I currently prefer to use alt+tab not win+tab since the vin+tab takes a split second to load. I'm excited to try the switcher app you mentioned.
Coding Horror Fan,
I thought I should mention that I sometimes use a mouse-less windowing system called RatPoison (get it?) on my Fedora linux box - it let's me name windows and type portions of the names to select them. I believe it's been around for a *long* time, though I'd have to do some wikipedia-ing to be sure.
For all those commenting that Microsoft should hire Bao .. kinda ironic.
Q: Who are you?
A: I'm Bao, and I work at Microsoft on the Documents and Printing team, specifically XPS-related work. Wikipedia has more information. Disclaimer: Switcher is an independent hobby project, and is neither supported nor endorsed by Microsoft in any way whatsoever.
thank you thank you thank you. This post finally got me off of my ass to remove flip3d and I'm loving Switcher. I bought 10 copies! ;)
On my current keyboard, the Windows + Tab combo is extremely awkward. I can't do it without hurting myself. ;)
Just found a cool minimalist Alt-Tab replacement called SmartTab that gives a list of windows with full window titles and you can jump to each via number or letter key:
Heh, I bet Bao just had a large influx of traffic to his site. The numbers on that would be interesting... :)
In the screenshot of Switcher is looks like you're running as Administrator. Say it ain't so!
When you come to think of, does a regular user ever have more than 20 windows open? Maybe on average 5? (Just using my personal experience from non-technical friends/family here)
For them, Flip3D is "cool" and they might use it, after all, for 3-4 windows, it's usable.
I'm happy with plain AltTab and my task bar on the bottom of every screen (Thanks Ultramon :p)
I am working on a window manager application that will, hopefully, make working with windows even faster and easier than with the taskbar or even the Switcher for windows. But so far, it's not as pretty as this. Kudos to Bao!
I'm not very familiar with Windows programming so I don't know if it's possible so I'm just going to ask it here.
Is it possible to access the list of open tabs in Firefox/IE/any multitab app in order to make them searchable by Switcher?
Finally decided to ditch Flip3d for Switcher, very pleased. David Cumps has a point though, the average user usually doesn't have as many windows open but I find find it very hard to locate windows when I am busy with a project (10+ windows open). They are spread out across my 2 screens and with Flip3d I can't tell the difference between them properly.
Wow, that's actually a nice improvement. Sounds like once again the community it stepping up where Microsoft dropped the ball. I agree, Flip3D was cute the first time, but Expose wins the game.
This Switcher app seems like a very nice solution for Vista users. Does it work with XP by chance? :)
I believe that's the first time I've been linked to from Coding Horror. Sweet!
This is one of the few blogs where I actually read every article...
Is there anything similar to Switcher that works on XP?
running as Administrator. Say it ain't so!
Yes, running as admin in a virtual machine. Awful, just awful..
I should also mention SmartFlip, which presents a circular arrangement of Windows. It's also better than Flip3D, but what isn't, really? Not sure how this approach can take advantage of multiple monitors, though.
The thing to do here is to add in a little background processing on the windows. If you had Switcher+OCR, it still wouldn't be perfect. But it would kill anything out there right now.
Also, one wonders whether there's a way for it to hook into the Windows text rendering engine. Switcher could then stream the text for each windwo as it's rendered. That way, anything that the user has seen in a window, Switcher could search.
Anyway, just two ideas on the topic. I use Linux so this isn't too helpful to me, but it's still cool.
I agree that Flip3D is fairly useless. Pretty, but useless. I've tried out the newest edition of Switcher and I'm impressed enough to continue using it.
Well done, Bao!
I should have mentioned this in my last comment...
You can still use this very effectively even with a mediocre video card by turning off all the animations. You won't get the pretty graphics, but the functionality is all there, and is instantaneous.
I have a fast video card, but I disable the animations anyway for the fastest possible experience.
Where is the "Switcher" for Windows XP??
"It looks like Bao Nguyen was reading my mind. Pressing Windows+Tab, then typing "Gmail" is the best thing ever as far as I'm concerned. No"
or maybe the developers of the Gnome Desktop for linux read your mind. Linux users have had this ability for almost 4 years now... Oh yeah and with compiz we have much better window management features that just expose or flip3d (lame).
Nope, Vista (with Aero enabled) only.
Very interesting! I've always just used the bottom taskbar to flip around, but I'm only on one monitor (albeit a 1920x1200 one). Switcher looked interested but I didn't see it as good enough to switch to. With the incremental search, though, it's definitely worth it. Amazing UI and interface! MS needs to offer this guy a job and buy the product.
Does Expose have incremental search filtering like this? I'm not familiar with it, except that it's supposed to be very good...
Another Switcher tip-- you can use tab or arrow keys to select windows, too. This is very helpful after searching. When I type "inbox", I get two results and I can quickly arrow left or right to pick the one I want.
As usual, the browser is problematic in this context because it's a generic container for so many things-- static websites, full blown apps, flash games, messaging, etcetera.
I find that Compiz has some really nifty features for handling lots of windows. The main thing for me is making virtual desktops usable. Before Compiz I couldn't bring myself to use virtual desktops, because the instant switching between them introduced a huge disorienting visual disconnect. Using the cube and rotate plugins I can now spatially organize things in my head, the feeling that the email client is on the right side and feed reader on the back is so strong I feel I could touch them if I wanted. This combined with multiple monitors effectively means that I have enough desktop space to not have to do much switching. Of course there is the Expos equivalent scale plugin that works really well when I switch between windows on one cube face, because there only are a few windows to switch between. I could talk about this on and on, but the fact is that Compiz is so effective at making window management manageable that without it I feel claustrophobic because the desktop is so cramped. All the quick and fluid animations combined with the ease of moving and resizing windows in Unix makes the desktop experience seem somewhat Minority Report like.
Tabbed interfaces are mainly found in browsers, and the main browser I can think of that gives open and quick access to do something like this is FireFox.
So, I would imagine it would be possible to do something simple like: create a FireFox extension that writes the tab number, page title and URL of your tabs to a text file, like this:
[number]./[page title]./[URL]./ nextitem...
./[Coding Horror: On Expos, Flip3D, and Switcher]./[http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000958.html]
Then, something like Switcher could search the text file for your query, and possibly load up the direct tab with a click.
Or something along those general lines--if technically possible...
What about Instant Viewer that comes with Microsoft's Intellipoint software? I don't know if it is possible to use without an MS mouse, but I find it far more useful than Flip3D and/or Alt-Tab. It arranges the open windows in a dynamic grid based on the number open and lets you click the one desired. Since it's tied to one of my mouse's alternate buttons, I can switch apps in a second.
Jeff: I know this is primarily a Windows blog, but at least some mention of compiz fusion is in order. I've been using compiz for some time now in my Ubuntu install and it blows my mind. I'm sure you've seen it already, but check this video again: http://youtube.com/watch?v=E4Fbk52Mk1w
A lot of what you see in the video is admittedly silly eye candy, but the productivity boost that I get from the superb window management in compiz is indeed very non-silly.
I also have a problem with your contradiction with your previous "tabbed browsing" post. Back then (15 days ago...) your main problem with tabbed browsing is that you couldn't find your gmail tab when looking at thumbnails of your open windows. This is a valid point, and I think we all struggle with it in our own way. But all of a sudden, you say today, "I can now match by any window title, which is good enough". It just seems odd to me that you give high praise to the incremental filtering search available in Switcher when it fails to address the "go to gmail tab" issue. Am I missing something? Did you change your mind about tabbed browsing?
Just my two cents. First time post here. Keep up the blog, I really enjoy it!
Jeff, I'm a little disappointed. It's one thing to do proper advertising, which you warned us about and it's fairly unobtrusive on the blog. It's another for you to peddle this software and have us believe that you get nothing from your periodic advertisements of it.
Now onto my real gripe -- you cited that a big problem with tabbed interfaces is that if a tab was hidden with the content you wanted, you couldn't find it. Now you turn around and say that this new filtering feature is EXACTLY what you were complaining about, and that it's somehow fixed your problems, yet then you plainly say "No, I can't search tab contents". So what you're saying is -- unless the tab you want is at the foreground of your browser, you won't be able to find it anyway. In which case, you're back to having one window open for every site you have open, otherwise your search won't work.
What's really solved?
It's another for you to peddle this software and have us believe that you get nothing from your periodic advertisements of it.
How can I possibly be advertising free software? Bao does suggest that you can donate to UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders if you like.
If I talk about something here, it's because I like it, or because it's germane to the topic of the post. That's the only reason there is, and the only reason there ever will be.
Now you turn around and say that this new filtering feature is EXACTLY what you were complaining about
It is a search feature for windows on the desktop, which is what I said. I would like it to be extended to work with tabs, if possible, but we have to take baby steps before we can walk.
Also check out the alt-tab task switcher powertoy
Maybe it's just me, but it seems a little unfair to compare the Flip3D feature to Expose, when it is much, much more akin to the basic alt-tab, on which it has much improved.
I never really use Alt+Tab. I even have the afore mentioned Enso, but I think I just don't have enough windows open to warrent it.
Thanks to Eric J in the comments above - if you're running XP I can highly recommend SmartTab - free, fast, efficient and great usability. Another reason not to upgrade to Vista yet!
"it seems a little unfair to compare the Flip3D feature to Expose"
Not when they have the same purpose, and Expose does it so much better and also happens to be older.
I wonder if anyone has made a flip3d compiz fusion plugin yet...
I do like scale and ring switcher though... pretty nice.
Of course people will like vista-- they did a lot of catching up in the userland... hmm.. do you still have to put up with fragmenting on your hard drives?
Another switching tip is to use AutoHotKey. For the geeks out there, you can define your own keyboard shortcuts macros to minimize/maximize.
For example, ctrl+alt+e opens emacs (or maximizes if open). ctrl+alt+f opens firefox (or maximizes if open). It's pretty "fun" switching between apps using the keyboard.
Anyway, the script looks something like this:
This cracks me up. Mac had Expose since 2003 and Apple is about to raise the bar again with virtual desktops (I know there's Virtue Desktops, but window management in it is awkward at best). I guess it'll take Microsoft another four years to screw up their rip-off again, and another year for "community" to come up with a lame ass "me too" implementation.
I've not found a great "switcher" for Windows XP, but I did manage to find a great Virtual Desktop application for Windows XP.
It's called Dexpot. It is by far the best virtual desktop application that I've found outside of a linux environment.
In defense of Flip3D, (and here I'm going to be standing alone on one side of a very long line) I find it invaluable on my tablet PC.
The screen isn't large enough (in portrait orientation) to make use of Alt+Tab, and an expose like system would have a similar problem.
However with Flip3D (assigned to a pen flick, one of the best new vista features) I can skip through my open windows using the pen and a few simple gestures without having to trawl around on the taskbar (which also has size problems with running in portrait mode), or (heaven forbid) switch back to notebook mode.
So there's the other side of the story, feel free to ridicule or ignore me, I know better than to try to change a geek's mind once it's been made.
Jeff have you used/seen Beryl/Compiz desktop effects on Linux? Seeing that, Vista stuff is pretty ... ermm... "crap", to be very polite (for paying $300 for just that !!!! - No actually your not just paying $300 for that, you need to upgrade your system as well and all that. Beryl/Compiz runs "smooothly" on my pentium 4 1.7Ghz with a stupid integrated intel graphics 64mb, with 512 mb of 266mhz ram. Any more incentive i should go to vista?)
I recently shifted my work and usage from XP sp2 to Fedora core 6. Vista looked good, but it was a complete turnoff knowing ill have to upgrade my PC to get atleast a "little" taste of its power. (heck it doesnt even recongnize my iPod shuffle as a USB by default... wt*)! ... SP1 and all that, yeah right. I'm betting on the fact that MS is already ready for an SP2 as well. Microsoft is getting real desperate to keep up with everything. They promise more stuff, they deliver lesser than the required features. (compare the number of utilities that come with Vista and that come with any distribution of Linux. And that too useful utilities. notepad/paint/IE.... HELLO WORLD!!!! WAKE UP!!!!!!! $300 for thattttt???)
Just see how desperate they are with channel9 and all that stuff telling people "how cool" their tech is. Visual studio 2008 is on its way, and people expected lots n lots of native c/c++ code support because there is a huge market of that (regardless of how much MS brags about .Net everywhere). Sumo (Lead at Developer Division) says we'll give you all that in Orcas+1... around 2009?. I mean, WHY DO THEY THINK WE'LL STICK TO THEM TILL THEN? they are just being arrogant now knowing that they have a user base that will not switch to anywhere else and they can drive them however they want.
My suggestion to anyone who reads this, lets not make MS feel like GOD of Software on this earth. Give Open Source a try, with a little understanding and tolerance and open mindedness, you'll find that there is a lot bigger and better world out there.
Flip3D - Not entirely bad.
Like most people here, when I first saw this feature I had similar thoughts: "that's kinda hard to use... and ineffective". But the rational side of me asks... why? Ok, it looks cool to some people. But wait.. perhaps there is a more useful purpose to it?
How many times have you heard something like: "I was working on my Word document, and then I opened the Internet and it deleted what I was working on..." (What happened? Internet Explorer opened up and maximized on top of the other windows). This sort of confusion still happens a lot. I'm thinking of people in my mum's generation.
Flip3D illustrates the layered windowing concept very concisely. And for a lot of people over the age of 50 and under the age of 7, believe it or not, layered windows can still be really confusing.
Why so much talk about switchers these days? Flip3D, Bao's Switcher, Desktop Cube... Are users that entrenched with how to move from one application to another? I use Mac, Windows Kubuntu interfaces in their plain-simple default behaviour. While I like the visual candy that Kubuntu's DesktopCube Mac's Expose offer, I certainly focus on the task at hand; my job! Is this the next time-waster at work?
If I **have to** make suggestion; it would be that desktop layout manager be created that function on the primary monitor only. Using multiple monitors, I like debug windows, runtime windows development windows on separate monitors. I would like to be able to have multiple desktops on my main monitor only. Most layout managers have pinning or window management; but that is weak.
Oh well. Until then UltraMon it is!
Bit late the the party, but for the sake of posterity this thread needs an additional mention of virtual desktops. Their utility simply can't be overstated.
If you were still wondering what to do with the forward/back buttons on your MS Natural 4k keyboard, this is your answer. If you want even more fun, give yourself a desktop grid, and bind up/down to the side buttons on your mouse (and if you don't have those then consider a new mouse).
Personally I run a 8x3 grid of desktops, each at 3200x1200. Obviously do not use all 24 desktops in this configuration, but it allows me to order tasks in a consistent manner. Each given task gets a central desktop, and then supporting material for those tasks go on the desktops surrounding that core task.
This proves a consistent way to access associated sub-tasks of any primary activity. For example, writing code:
1) Source editor gets a desktop entirely to itself, full screen.
2) Documentation is always on the desktop "above" and so may always be reached with one button press on my mouse. Always.
3) Build and debugging environment is one desktop below the source editor. Going from debugging to code is, once again, exactly one button press. Additionally, because my desktops wrap, it is also exactly one button press away from docs.
This is of course only one example, many people may prefer to more tightly intermingle their sub-tasks. In either case however, virtual desktops provide a deterministic method of accessing known window sets. There is no searching through a list, no rummaging around on the taskbar, and as nice as the zooming metaphor is, it still requires hunting through a list.
If you don't currently use virtual desktops, give them a try. Personally I'm using the implementation included in Beryl on Linux, but I know that there exist various implementations for both Windows and OSX.
These types of Microsoft bashing rarely end in anything constructive. The truth is Vista is much more than Flip3D and they were targeting an experience with Flip3D where a user can get a quick glance of windows as they were moving between open windows, not a detail look at everything on the windows (though is does continue to update the windows that are displayed in the Flip3D interface). I look at this product as a additional way to use ALT-TAB with a bigger preview of the window.
I tried flipper. It's astonishingly choppy with a GF7600Go; then again, Flip3D with a lot of windows open is slow as well. I would have to give the "most useful 3D desktop" award to Compiz Fusion on Linux. The effects are smooth and if you take it down below the "Haha, look my Windows are made out of Jello" level to just minimize close etc effects (simple ones like fade or zoom), scale (Expos'e), and the Expo view, it becomes very useful and it runs very quickly. Shame it's so buggy... It's getting better, but with non-open source drivers there are still a few strange glitches...
Sorry, when I said "Flipper" I meant "Switcher". Don't know how I transposed Flip3D and Switcher, but I did.
The thing I like about Flip3D over Expose is that I can just scroll through a single dimensional stack of windows and find the one I have, while Expose is two dimensional, making it difficult for me to scan through all the open windows and pick the one I want, especially if there are a lot of windows.
I think Compiz Fusion would have deserved an honorable mention in the article. It works great on just an average graphics card, and for a long time you have been able to do everything that is mentioned above.
Ok, I have to admit not having read all comments now, but some are just ridiculous. You don't need to do OCR on the windows or code Firefox extensions that write all tabs to a text file just to make them searchable from Switcher. There is a magic thing called Accessibility APIs. You know, the stuff that speech recognition uses to give meaningful results when you say something that's on the screen (which includes menus, links on web pages and the like).
So probably all information is already present, Switcher only needs to tap into that and use it. Although prioritizing might be a bit difficult. Certainly a window title should have more weight than a single word buried in some web page opened in a browser. But essentially it may be possible with what Vista gives us already.
One thing I surprised with expose, is it's ability to randomize the windows placement. Even with 2 duplicate finders (same dimension) + 1 other window, the expose placement will be different on every active window prior your expose.