New Features & Improvements in the Windows 7 Taskbar

TaskbarWindows 7 has introduced a major redesign of the taskbar which packs a lot of improvements. The list includes features such as Aero Peek, overlay icons and progress bars, jump lists, pinned items and so on. In this article I will provide you a complete overview of the new features and changes introduced by Windows 7. I will start with the most visible changes compared to Windows XP and then I will introduce all the new features.

Taskbar Changes vs. Windows XP

Compared to older versions, Windows 7 introduces a lot of taskbar changes. The list is surprisingly long and they all represent usability improvements, even though you might not agree at first try:

  • Quick Launch - the Quick Launch area from Windows XP has been removed. It is no longer available as a separate area of the taskbar. Now the whole taskbar is a Quick Launch area which you can fill with shortcuts.
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  • Show desktop shortcut - the 'Show desktop' shortcut is now changed and moved. You can find it on the right side of the taskbar. It's basically a small transparent rectangle. When you keep your mouse over it, you will see the 'Show desktop' text above it. If you click it, you will see the desktop. If you click it again, it will restore all the open windows in their last known position. Also, if you keep your mouse over it and the Aero Peek feature (presented later in the article) is enabled, you will see a transparent contour of all open windows.
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  • Notification Area - the notification area has been changed as well. By default, it will hide all icons except the ones for the Volume Mixer, Network and Action Center. To access the other icons, you need to click on the arrow on the left.
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  • Grouping of similar items - by default, Windows XP grouped opened windows only when there were too many of them to fit inside the taskbar. In Windows 7, all similar items are grouped together, no matter how few.
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  • Bigger icons - this is actually the first change you will notice. All icons are bigger than they were in Windows XP. However they can be configured to be of a smaller size and look like in the screenshot below.
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New Features

In this chapter I will present the list of new features introduced in Windows 7. As you can see the list is long and very exciting. There is plenty of improvement which makes the usability of the Windows 7 taskbar superior to all previous versions of Windows.

  • Pinning items - pinning items to the taskbar means adding shortcuts to it, just like you would do in Windows XP in the Quick Launch area. To pin a shortcut, you can right click on it and select 'Pin to Taskbar'. Then you will see a new shortcut being added.
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  • Jump Lists - this is a very cool feature of Windows 7. When you right-click on a shortcut from the taskbar, you will see a mini Start Menu customized for it, which shows you commonly used destinations (e.g: Libraries in Windows Explorer) or most frequent tasks (e.g: 'Open new tab' in Internet Explorer). However, Jump Lists have these options only for applications which are developed to take advantage of this feature and right now there aren't too many. Upcoming versions of the most popular applications will surely include enhancements to support this feature and transform it into a true usability improvement.
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  • Interactive, Grouped Thumbnails - in Windows 7, all taskbar windows are grouped together, regardless the number. When you have multiple windows of the same application open, you will see its icon and some additional rectangles on its right. If you leave your mouse over the application icon, you will see a real-time preview of all its open windows. These preview windows are also interactive. You can close any of the windows by clicking the x button on the right and you can open a specific window by clicking on its thumbnail. This behavior can be confusing at first but, once you get used to it, you will not want to go back to the old ways.
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  • Aero Peek - this feature complements the interactive thumbnails very well. When you hover the mouse over a thumbnail preview on the taskbar, you will see also its corresponding window on the desktop with all other windows faded away into glass sheets. This feature is very helpful to users when identifying if the window they are about to open is the correct one. You get, at the same time, a real-time thumbnail preview plus the whole window with just a hover of the mouse. Aero Peek is also noticed when you hover the mouse over the 'Show desktop' button. You will see the desktop with all loaded gadgets plus the glass contour of all open windows. This is helpful when working with Desktop Gadgets which you want to see briefly, without requiring to switch windows.
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  • Thumbnail Toolbars - it allows the generation of window controls to appear when you hover the mouse over the thumbnail of an open window. When a movie is open, it allows you to stop it or start playing it directly from the thumbnail. Or, when listening to music, you can skip the current track or pause it. This feature is really great but, unfortunately it is available only for applications programmed to work with it. And, at the time of Windows 7's launch only Windows Media Player takes advantage of it. It would be great to see lots of applications making use of it.
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  • Overlay Icons and Progress Bars - this is another great small feature. It allows a program to show an icon or progress in context of its taskbar button. The most noticeable is when copying files and folders in Windows Explorer. During the copy activity you will see a progress bar showing the status of the copying process. When done, it's going to fill up and disappear. This is extremely useful as you no longer need to open the Windows Explorer window to see how the process is progressing. Again, applications can be programmed to take advantage of this feature. For example, it can be very useful for file archivers.
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  • Color Hot-track - when moving the mouse over a running window from the taskbar, you will see a dynamically colored light effect. This light effect follows your mouse movement over the taskbar icon and it is based on the color of the icon. As you can see in the screenshot below, the colored light is orange for Winamp, a mix of white and orange for Windows Virtual PC, blue for Windows Help and again orange for Firefox.
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Video Tutorials

For those of you who prefer video, I recommend two great videos published on ZDNet by Ed Bott. The first is called 'Windows 7 in action: A smarter way to manage windows' and it shows Aero Snap and Aero Shake in action.

The second is called 'Windows 7 in action: do more with the taskbar and Jump Lists' and it gives you a more general overview of the new taskbar and shows how to pin items.

Conclusion

The Windows 7 taskbar was seriously enhanced. The usability improvements are just awesome and you will never want to go back. After using Windows 7 for a couple of weeks the old taskbar will feel very outdated and cumbersome. If you already used Windows 7, don't hesitate to talk about your experience. Also, if you know some nice tricks for the new taskbar, don't hesitate to leave a comment. Most of our readers will be interested to know them.

Related articles:

How to Pin Any Folder to the Windows 7 Taskbar
How to Customize the Taskbar
How to Snap Windows Side by Side on a Dual Monitor Setup
Taskbar Productivity Tips & Shortcuts