Using the Improved Taskbar and Start Menu in Windows 7

Two critical elements that have been revamped for the better are the Taskbar and Start Menu. Some persons I have had conversations with about Windows 7 think it’s a minor release and it’s just Windows Vista reloaded. Yes, it is built on Vista and that’s a very good thing, which means, your investments in that version of Windows will be brought forward in areas of application and device driver compatibility. Apart from that, what new user experiences does Windows 7 introduce? What about the learning curve? Office 2007, Microsoft’s desktop productivity suite revamped the user interface in applications such as Word and Excel, there was a small learning curve, but there were huge benefits because of what the new Office Fluent UI did for the Standard and Formatting toolbars by exposing more features that some end users didn’t even know exist in the suite. Windows 7 is pretty much based on some of those principles, exposing more benefits in the Windows interface.

Start Menu and Taskbar


What is the Taskbar? First introduced in Windows 95 as a replacement for Program Manager that was a part of previous Windows releases, it houses your running applications as buttons that you can use to switch between windows on screen. Releases of Windows over the years have added new features and functionality such as the ‘Quick Launch’ desk band in Windows 98, ‘Taskbar Grouping’ in Windows XP and ‘Taskbar Thumbnail previews’ in Windows Vista. Windows 7 combines all those innovations and made them even better. When you load the Windows 7 Desktop for the first time, everything might seem familiar except for the Taskbar which has grown a few inches in size. Shortcuts for applications such as Internet Explorer and the User Folder might look like enlarged Quick Launch icons; well it’s a combination of both. By default, application shortcuts, running applications and non-running applications are not labelled. In previous versions of Windows, a running program would display an icon along with the name of the button on the Taskbar. The Windows Team have changed this based on the probability of users experience identifying programs by clear pictorial representations, the Internet Explorer ‘e’ for web browser, a blue ‘w’ for Microsoft Word, the stacked CD icon with the play identifier for Windows Media Player.

Taskbar Thumbnail Previews Media Player Thubnail

Taskbar with interactive Thumbnail Previews

Notification Area Notification Area 1

Improved ways of controlling Notification Behaviour

Of course, if you don’t recognize a program shortcut on your Taskbar, you can hover over its icon which displays a floating balloon describing its purpose. One of the immediate benefits I discovered using the improved Taskbar with applications is a feature called Jump List. What it does is combine the ‘Recent Items’ menu from past versions of Windows and allows each application to have an individual Recent Items menu or Task list right click contextual menu with common activities that you might often associate with the program. Not all applications currently support the new feature, but I have discovered a handful that take advantage of it immediately, such as Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, Windows Media Player, Windows Live Messenger, Live Writer, Windows Programs such as WordPad, Paint and Notepad to name a few. Not all programs will reveal radical features in Jump List, as programs are updated, third party developers I am sure will add functionality to programs to harness the benefits of Jump List.

Preview Picture Preview Desktop

Preview your windows without distractions (left), get a glance at your desktop and Gadgets (right)

Right now, users will mostly see ‘Recent files’ for some applications or your browser History for Internet Explorer, you will discover unique functionality in programs such as Windows Media Player which displays a list of Frequent activity such as your recently played media, search queries, artiste played and Task for playing your library of music in shuffle mode. Windows Live Messenger which is available as a part of Windows Live Essentials includes Task such as changing your status, signing in/out, going to your home page, viewing your Windows Live Profile or check your email. Jump List on the Taskbar is not only restricted to applications, Folders also support it too; users can appreciate seeing a list of the most frequently accessed folders within a directory. If you want to add your favourite application, you can do so by clicking Start, right click a program from the recent programs list or all programs and click the ‘Pin to Taskbar’ link.

Color Hot Track 1 Color Hot Track 2 Color Hot Track 3

Color Hot tracking

Appearances Thumbnail Previews

The Taskbar for some persons might seem radical at first, but I have adjusted to it just fine, beyond Jump List, you will discover some cool effects and features when working with your applications. Thumbnail previews have become interactive. Internet Explorer for example which supports tabbed based browsing benefits from it immediately by displaying previews when you hover over its button on the Taskbar without the need to activate the window. You will be able to see a thumbnail preview of all open tab windows along with the ability see a full size preview when you hover the mouse pointer over each thumbnail. It’s a beautiful effect that saves time and makes working in Windows much faster. Applications and folders that are consolidated into groups automatically compose a group of thumbnails. Windows Media Player 12 Thumbnail supports unique functionality such as Previous, Pause and Next controls when playing an album. In addition to Thumbnail Previews, users can benefit from another significant productivity effect; the enhanced ‘Show Desktop’ button called ‘Desktop Preview’ allows you to get a glance at your Desktop or Gadgets by simply hovering the mouse pointer in the right hand corner of the screen. Your windows will immediately become transparent frames revealing the contents of the desktop. Another key feature is the progress bar which has been integrated into folder activities. For instance, when you are copying files from folder to folder or a network location or downloading a program in Internet Explorer, a progress indicator is displayed on the Taskbar button for that activity.

Jump List 1 Jump List 2 Jump List 3

Various Jump List Activities by supported applications.

New Capabilities and Settings

Notification Area or System Tray features new options, in addition to showing full time and date, users can gain more real estate by controlling notification icon behaviours. A ‘Show hidden icons’ button reveals a floating balloon with a small gallery of icons and option for customizing the behaviour. This leads to a new Notification Area Icons Control Panel item. What I like in particular about this new setting is the clear organization of your notifications and ease of controlling the behaviours, from here you can choose to hide or show an icon at all times or show just the notification. To further clarify things, a link to a separate area available just for Windows 7 System Icons such as Clock, Volume, Network, Power and the new Action Center allows you to turn these settings on or off. If you mess something up or get confused, you can simply click the Restore default icon behaviours. The new ‘Eject’ device contextual is more informative too, displaying the name of the device instead of just the drive letter. Safely ejecting a device can be done more confidently too, in prior versions of Windows, you always closed all open programs and windows launched from a USB device before ejecting yet Windows kept insisting that you need to close all activities before removing the device. Now you can ignore that and force a device close and eject without any concern.

Taskbar Appearance 1 

Default appearance Always Combine, hide Labels

Taskbar Appearance 2 

Combine when Taskbar is full

Taskbar Appearance 3

Never combine

Taskbar Appearance 4

Never combine with small icons 

One of the most requested functionality for the Taskbar over the years has been the ability rearrange your Taskbar buttons just the way you want. Sometimes we have programs setup up a certain way and would like to set a priority over which is closest to the Start button, now you can with a simple drag and drop action rearrange shortcuts and running applications on the fly. The Taskbar adapts the most predominate RGB value of an icon, making each program use a distinguishing colour effect when hovered over. Taskbar Properties appearance includes options for controlling how and where it is displayed on screen. For novices, you can have your Taskbar positioned on the right, top or left of the screen power users can still use the familiar dragging capabilities that you have known since prior releases. Taskbar button behaviour can also be controlled here too, the default layout in Windows 7 is ‘Always combine, hide labels’, in addition to this, there is a more classic look called ‘Combine when taskbar is full’ which simply enables labels with the large pictorial representations. If you want an even more classical yet familiar Vista style layout the third option ‘Never Combine’ along with ‘Use Small icons’ restores this behaviour.

Start Menu 1 Start Menu 2

Start Menu 3

Improved Start menu supports Jump List, along with new Power Option Settings

Start Menu

The Start menu has been through a few changes throughout the years, also introduced for the first time in Windows 95, the most radical update since was Windows XP which featured a two pane menu with links to recent applications along with common locations such as My Documents, Music, Pictures and default applications for common programs such as Web Browsing and Email and the ability to set default programs for common activities such as Email, Music and Web browsing. Windows Vista introduced additional functionality such as built in Search, a Connect to link for all your network connections and a simplified Power Options area. A major departure in Vista was the cascading Programs menu which was replaced by a hierarchical listing of programs and application groups. Windows 7’s Start menu is more about refining these features. The Start menu integrates Jump List functionality similar to the Taskbar.

Detailed Search Results 1 Detailed Search Results 2

Detailed Search Results Windows 7 Start menu (above), comparison in Windows Vista (below) click to enlarge

Start Vis Search 1 Start Vis Search 2

Search is more detailed displaying more categorized results with total listings within each category. New Categories include Documents, Music, Control Panel Items, Pictures and Videos. Appearances have also changed, instead of utilizing just the recently used application pane for search results; the entire pane is utilized for results. An even more simplified Power Options allows users to set the default setting whether you want it to be Shutdown, Hibernate or Sleep, you can still choose another option from a pop out menu. Searching from the Start menu features a new option; you can search for Task Pane links along with the ability to use natural language queries. New Search areas include Public Folder along with the option to display links and menus for Recorded TV and Videos. Old links that have been turned off include ‘Recent Items’ which makes sense since applications carry their own recent activities and the ‘Connect To’ link now replaced by the more convenient Network notification icon which reveals available wireless Networks, Dial up and VPN connections.

So this was a look at using the new Taskbar and Start menu and realizing its new benefits. It’s radical for the better. It makes application switching less of a puzzle while also enhancing the general user experience of working with your programs in a more convenient way. The Taskbar has come a long way since its days of ‘it works just like switching channels’. Users expect a rich experience and the compelling aesthetics such as interactive thumbnail previews and enhanced search functionality provide a cohesive application experience for end users.

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