One of the most common perceptions of windows is that it is a PUI (PARC User interface) oriented operation system. In other words the mouse is required to do everything. This is in many places true but fortunately Microsoft has recently changed this and incorporated the keyboard more and more into what was previously a mouse only domain. With Vista and Windows 7 a whole range of new keyboard shortcuts emerged and slapping on some third-party tools on top of that and we get a full-fledged keyboard experience.
This is a short introduction to how I use Modern Windows features and various third-party tools to optimize my workflow using the Keyboards in Windows..
In the past context switching has for me always been associated with Unix and the concept of virtual desktops. The idea with virtual desktop is that you define a fixed set of contexts and then (normally) using keyboard shortcuts you switch between them. This has been attempted many times on windows but due to various issues with the Windows windowing model this never works out as smoothly as it does on Unix.
Thus, me being an avid Windows user, have never really gotten around to it. But a few years back I started to use a different approach to context switching. I discovered a tool from Stardock called Keyboard LaunchPad which introduced the idea of using keyboard shortcuts to switch between fixed applications. In essence bind Explorer to +E and so on and so forth. After having lived happily with this for years I ended up on Windows Vista which: Tada had hijacked all my shortcut keys assigning them to launching programs instead. Now this might sound like almost the same thing but alas it is something very different indeed and in my humble opinion completely useless. If I have Google chrome started I want to switch to it not start a new instance.Thankfully this was fixed with Windows 7 which now does switching.
Modern Context Switching
I call this modern as I feel the Unix model of having Virtual Desktops is dated. The main problem is that virtual desktops assumes that a given context always need the same toolkit and that a given tool is only associated with a given context. Where as with the multi purpose tools we have today you cant not normally associate a single tool with a context and definitely not vice versa.
So the first ting to understand is how this is handled in Windows 7. The idea is that the Windows button in conjunction with a number will launch or switch to the application in the n:th place of the taskbar. In the following example we can thus click to switch to Google Chrome, to switch to Thunderbird, to Visual Studio and so on and so forth.
Now this is much better then just switching all applications around as you quite often work with the same web browser in many context and I tend to use notepad++ as a “clipboard history tool” and generic text manipulation tool. So instead of switching between desktops we simply switch between applications.
I have in for almost as long as I can remember been using multiple monitors. It started back when I was programming assembler and you could connect both a monochrome monitor and a color monitor (they used different video memory) to Microsoft CodeView showing the application on one and the debugger on the other. Then I used it with 3D Studio MAX and pretty much everything since then. Now with modern widescreen monitors the need is somewhat lessened (especially if you have window positions tools in place). But I still find it extremely nice to have all passive applications (which does not require input) reside on a side monitor and all active (which requires input) ones on the other monitor. This means I usually put things like chat windows, Spotify, widgets and such on the secondary monitor.
To make the most of this though you need to quick be able to switch application into active mode and back into passive mode. This is important as the secondary monitor to the right of my 23” monitor is by far to far away for me to b able to interact with it. Happily in Windows 7 Microsoft added a couple of keyboard shortcuts for this.
will move a window from a monitor to the next monitor on the left and will do the same moving a windows to the next right most monitor. In my case I just have two so both these do the same: Toggle the monitor a windows is showed upon.
Another issue which often plagues Windows user is the lack of a modern console application. Unfortunately Microsoft has not deemed it important enough to rectify this with Windows 7 but fortunately others have. I currently use two open source tools one called ConEmu-Maximus5 and the other Far Manager. This gives me a modern tabbed console which is very feature full and rapidly evolving. The main benefit of conemu over other similar tools is that it integrates with Far Manger very nicely. It can also launch putty inside tabs but this is a bit flaky currently and nothing I use.
Now tying this into the keyboard I figured I would mention some keyboard shortcuts which really makes conemu and Far Manager shine. First off you can switch tab using Host+#. In my case this means to . But once you add in Far you have automatically get command history with completion as well as filename completion and other such thing. And I honestly think the Far version of completion is by far beyond the similar bash equal if you look in the screen shot on the right typing more n pops up a list with all available file starting with n (as well as all historical entries matching “more n”).
I think someday I will write-up a blog post on just Far manager as it is one of the best tools I have ever come across.
So to summaries a bit: Windows has a lot to offer when it comes to keyboard shortcuts and tools for managing your contexts and work flow. I think, as is often the case, Microsoft main problem is the perceptions people have about their tools and not the quality of the tools.
IN this section I only mentioned three tools by name:
- Keyboard LaunchPad Which I no longer use in favor of AutoHotKey which is better, more flexible and free (albeit slightly more difficult to use)
- FAR Manager Free, Open Source file manager
- ConEmu-Maximus 5 Free, Open Source shell for Windows.
In addition to this I almost mentioned another tool I use often which is called Actual Window Manager. I use this for managing Windows and such but since I wanted to keep this article short I left that out. It is not free and not Open Source but has a myriad of cool features and is to my knowledge the most complete Window Manager out there.