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Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

For decades, the Alt+Tab order was the same as the Z-order, but that changes in Windows Vista if you use the enhanced Alt+Tab feature known as Flip, which is on by default on most systems. There are three types of interactive task switching in Windows Vista:

  • Classic Alt+Tab: This is the same one that's been around since Windows 95. It shows a grid of icons.
  • Flip (new for Windows Vista): This shows a grid of thumbnails.
  • Flip3D (also new for Windows Vista): This shows a stack of windows in 3D.

Classic Alt+Tab continues to show the icons in Z-order order, but the developer who wrote Flip told me that Flip changed it up a bit based on feedback from the design team. The first several icons are still shown in Z-order order, but if you have a lot of windows open, the rest of them are shown in alphabetical order to make it easier to pick the one you want from the list.

I think it's a good sign that nobody seems to have noticed. A lot of user interface work tries to be invisible.

Published Tuesday, July 01, 2008 7:00 AM by oldnewthing
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Comments

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 11:06 AM by John

I don't think it's so much that nobody noticed as much as it is that most people didn't understand how it worked in the first place.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 11:12 AM by tron

I wouldn't say nobody understood it in the first place. It's pretty when you're only using 3 or 4 windows that they show up in z order. I'd guess that it's more likely that people just can't keep track of the z order of more than a handful of windows... so after the first few, they could be random and no one would notice. That being the case, alphabetical seems better than z order, after the first few windows.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 11:22 AM by Rutger

whoops I am still on XP but I tend to use alt shift tab to switch sometimes, I hope that still works (switching to the last window in the z-order, that's the window you just minimized for example). Then again maybe I wouldn't notice but I ll see :)

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 11:29 AM by brian

I noticed the change.  The z-order allows you to swap between the app you are in and "that last app you were using"  quickly.

but it is hell when you need to switch to say one of the many instaces of program x that you opened an hour ago.

I think vista is a big improvement.  I hate my xp box at work.  I'm used to vista's alt+tab behavior/ui .

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:00 PM by Leo Davidson

I use Remote Desktop to my Vista machine a lot so I switch between Flip and Classic Alt-Tab a lot.

As I started reading this I thought an inconsistency between the two would be annoying and wondered why I had not noticed it yet. Once I read the explanation of what was different it made sense, though.

I doubt that anyone has a mental alt-tab stack beyond the last three or four active windows and it definitely makes sense to sort the remaining windows so they're easier to find. Seems like a good idea.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:13 PM by Stephane Lajoie

On my computer, Flip3D does not switch to the most recent window I had been working on with a single window-tab keystroke. It keeps me on the same window instead. To get to the most recent window, I would have to wait until everything animates into place and then hit tab again (while still holding the windows key).

Needless to say, that is far from a subtle change and it makes it unusable for me. I'm just grateful Flip3D got its own key instead of replacing alt-tab entirely; otherwise I couldn't be using Vista at all.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:22 PM by Glenn

When I have 40 windows open, having the last 20 windows I've used come first in the tab order is critical, so I'm not wading through windows I'm not using right now.

The only change alt-tab needs is to be much bigger.  It's still sized as if I'm on a 640x480 screen (in XP); 21 icons is far too small.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:36 PM by Shuva

I think Alt+Tab+ using the mouse scroll button would be worth a try. As an example if I do an Alt+Tab, keep just the Alt pressed and use the mouse scroll, this web page moves up and down instead of the icons.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 1:42 PM by Hallgrim

I find this very annoying. I tend to end up with a lot of windows open. specially when I am on a tangent. To get back to the important window with the real work, I always used to do shift-alt-tab. This does not work any more, I and it has been nagging me. Now at least I understand why it does not work anymore.

I would love to get the last few windows according to the z-order, just like the first few.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 2:08 PM by The Dude

re: Hallgrim

Alt-shift-tab does work in Vista...

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 2:08 PM by Alex

task switching remains an issue when compared with expose etc..

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 2:10 PM by Jacob

I often use Alt-Shift-Tab to get back to the window I last minimized. This behaves inconsistently when there are "a lot of windows open."

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 2:20 PM by ChrisR

@Glenn

You can change the number of rows and columns in the Alt+Tab window with TweakUI.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 2:55 PM by Dan

I think the key to the change in ordering not being noticed is the addition of thumbnails. Without these the only reference you have to understand the difference between windows with the same icon was position (unless you cycled through each one to see its title). The addition of thumbnails obviated the need for the order to be consistent.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 3:38 PM by JCAB

I don't know... I, for one have been mildly annoyed by this limited Z-order behavior. I've experienced the loss of recent windows regularly since I started using Windows Vista. I suppose this means that I regularly juggle more windows than the current Z-order limit.

I suppose I could switch back to the classic XP behavior (if I find out where it is), but the thumbnails are so much better for visually choosing the right window that I just bit the bullet and got used to the current behavior.

But I'd just rather have the full Z-order. I'm the one who has been using the windows, so Z-order is way easier to find them than alphabetical. IMHO, this is akin to having a bit of a mess in your office such that you (and only you) can find everything relatively efficiently, as opposed to having someone else "put everything in its rightful place", thus making it more difficult for you to find the stuff.

Besides, it doesn't look like it uses the full title for sorting, because on my computer this "alphabetical" order really does look quite random. At least, I can't fathom how it figures to put "360.txt - Notepad" after "Razzle DBG f:\xenon JCAB0" and before "Search [QUERY:...]". Anyway...

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 5:22 PM by dhiren

I can't say I've noticed the change in order, but what does annoy me a bit about the new Flip/Flip3d is the inclusion of the desktop in the list... accidentally switching to the desktop makes some windows disappear into the notification area because they think they've been minimized, meaning I have to reactivate them with the mouse instead of being able to alt-tab back to them - getting to the notification area via the keyboard is too much of a mission.

Is there a single key-combo that sets focus directly on the notification area?

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 5:45 PM by Marc

I prefer the new system. Although I do wish for a Mac style thing where all Windows wiz in and take up the entire screen, so you can see them all at once.

I did notice something else in Vista today

When taking screenshots- if another window covers the window you're trying to take a screenshot of (using ALT + PRINC SCREEN) then it will be included.

I would have thought now each window has it's display separated and in memory all the time it would be easy to exclude covering windows.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 5:53 PM by Marc

> Is there a single key-combo that sets focus directly on the notification area?

On XP WinKey + Tab did this (obviously this does Flip 3D on Vista now)

If you are on the desktop however, shift + tab will make the notification area (not the task bar) active. Press it again to make the task bar active.

This only works when on the desktop, i.e. in firefox it pages up!

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 6:04 PM by RichB

On Vista, can I alt-F4 midway through an alt-tab much like I can on OSX? Any reason why not? Something historic perhaps?

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 7:26 PM by Ag

"Classic Alt+Tab" has been around longer than "since Windows 95". I know it's there in my Windows for Workgroups 3.11, and if it's there then it probably also is so in Windows 3.1 (and the Workgroups version). Windows 3.1 was quite a step forward from 3.0, even though one perhaps wouldn't think so. So maybe it was introduced in 3.1.

With no Taskbar in Windows 3.x it was of great use. One of the new features in Windows 95 was, as we all know, the Taskbar. Keeping the Taskswitcher/CoolSwitch in future versions together with the Taskbar made sense since it gave more options.

> "... in firefox it pages up!" Presumably since tab moves between links, so shift + tab moves backward, not exactly the same as page up.

And in Windows XP: WinKey + Tab doesn't shift focus to the Notification Area, it sets focus on the Taskbar. But when there, of course one can start to tab around to, among other, the Notification Area. Or as you say start at Desktop and reverse with shift+Tab.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 8:12 PM by Koro

Sadly, it seems that this "Flip" thing is implemented by Explorer, because when I kill it, it reverts to the old Alt-Tab window.

Why not implementing it a few levels higher, in the DWM maybe, and kill the old Alt-Tab completly? (Or at least save it for classic mode)

Compatibility restraints again?

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 8:27 PM by Miral

I think I did notice that the order was different somehow in Vista, but I didn't look into what made it different.  I like how it works now, anyway.

My favourite thing about using Flip in Vista is that I can hit Alt-Tab (holding Alt) and then mouse-click the window thumbnail I want to switch to.  When I'm not rapidly switching between two apps (which I also do a lot, but a simple Alt-Tab-release works for), I do that a LOT.

Flip3D never really caught on for me, though.  It was kinda cool the first few times, but the 2D thumbnails in Flip just seemed easier to use most of the time.

# Windows Confidential Column July 2008 by Raymond Chen in MSDN Mag

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 8:43 PM by Thomas P

Microsoft "Bob": does anyone know what Chen meant by "...somehow chanel[ling] the right spirits to mash your hands on the keyboard in exactly the right way, then out...will come a copy of Microsoft Bob from the Windows XP Pro CD ?  Notation: read his column @ the end of the July MSDN Magazine.  

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Tuesday, July 01, 2008 10:36 PM by Anon

I seem to remember that the Flip 3d jobbie, sends a different sequence of frame window messages.

It's all kind of important if you draw your own frame, want your windows to behave normally when minimised, tiled and so on. I guess however you're supposed to ignore all those frame window messages, and do it all in a simple client.

Oh my is NCCALCSIZE a distant memory now!

I definitely noticed (as I remember it was noticeable for about a day - until I fixed it). I probably noticed so that others didn't have to.

I guess that's called "below the radar".

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 3:20 AM by dhiren

-offtopic-

Thomas P: Raymond's article about Bob said that the guy responsible for filling the empty space on the XP cd used Microsoft Bob as the filler material. When he encrypted it, rather than using a specific key, he just bashed the keyboard randomly. So, in order for you to decrypt it, when it comes time to enter the decryption key, you'd have to bash the keyboard in exactly the same way to reproduce the encryption key.

I'd imagine if you were able to channel the subconscious spirit of the guy who did the original bashing, you might be able to do it.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 5:56 AM by Simon

Thank-you so much for this! I've been trying to work out for ages what was going on where the window I was looking for jumped right to the end of the Z-Order - I don't remember visiting all those other windows. Of course, now I realise it just got sorted to the end of the list. I guess at least now I'll know where to go looking...

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 6:48 AM by Chris J

@Koro: I'd not be happy if they killed alt-tab in Vista. I'm still using a keyboard without a win-key (an IBM Model-M) simply because I've not come across a better keyboard :-)

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 7:59 AM by Stephen Mok

> Is there a single key-combo that sets focus directly on the notification area?

dhiren, Win + B focuses on the 'Show hidden icons' arrow in the notification area... so Win + B, Right Arrow should get you to the first visible icon in your notification area.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 10:17 AM by Frode A.

Marc: Search for Switcher in google, and you'll have your wish. It's a program written by Bao Nguyen especially for Vista + Aero to mimic Expose's behaviour.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 10:30 AM by Neil

>I often use Alt-Shift-Tab to get back to the window I last minimized. This behaves inconsistently when there are "a lot of windows open."

Does Alt+Shift+Esc, Enter work? (Side note: this doesn't work in Windows 95 when an MS-DOS Prompt is active; the Shift is ignored.)

>"Classic Alt+Tab" has been around longer than "since Windows 95". I know it's there in my Windows for Workgroups 3.11, and if it's there then it probably also is so in Windows 3.1 (and the Workgroups version). Windows 3.1 was quite a step forward from 3.0, even though one perhaps wouldn't think so. So maybe it was introduced in 3.1.

But for those of you who didn't like it, there was a control panel preference called "Fast Alt+Tab Switching". As I recall if you turned it off then Alt+Tab cycled through the windows like Alt+Esc did but also restoring them.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 10:30 AM by David Walker

@dhiren:  Programs whose windows minimize themselves into the "notification area" need to be shot.  IMHO.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 12:39 PM by GregM

David, you mean like task manager and process explorer?

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Wednesday, July 02, 2008 2:32 PM by Ulric

@Stephane Lajoie

>On my computer, Flip3D does not switch

> to the most recent window I had

> been working on with a single window-tab

> keystroke. It keeps me on the same window

> instead.

It's not your machine.

Alt+Windows gets into Flip3D, the 3D side view of the desktop and you can decide what to do next (including click the window)  It's not really for fast switching between two apps, but for making sense of what you got.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Thursday, July 03, 2008 12:25 AM by Dean Harding

GregM: With Task Manager and Process Explorer, it's an option so you can at least turn it off (in fact, since it's off by default, you have to turn it ON). I'd be quite happy with that. I think David is talking about programs where it's not an option (though to be honest, I can't think of any off the top of my head).

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Thursday, July 03, 2008 9:44 AM by GregM

Dean, that would be a much more sensible assertion.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Thursday, July 03, 2008 4:09 PM by Illuminator

Well this explains the subtle brainfart I experience when I Alt+Tab and see most of my 10-20 windows in a jumble. I need the Z-order sorting back somehow, it better models my mental work progression than an arbitrary alphabetical sort. Windows I haven't touched in a while gravitate to the end of the list.  As in: hello, duh?

When does a tabbed Internet Explorer window title start with I?  Or Mozilla Firefox start with M?

Guess what, I need Explorer to sort files by extension too.

The passage of time isn't going to cover anyone's retarded decisions and make me accepting of these things.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Thursday, July 03, 2008 8:51 PM by Maurits

> I've experienced the loss of recent windows regularly since I started using Windows Vista

Me too, FWIW.

# re: Windows Vista changed the Alt+Tab order slightly

Monday, July 07, 2008 6:27 PM by Neil

>My favourite thing about using Flip in Vista is that I can hit Alt-Tab (holding Alt) and then mouse-click the window thumbnail I want to switch to.

Better still, you can hit Ctrl+Alt+Tab, then you don't need to hold down Alt.

It does however emphasise that (unlike previous versions of Windows) Alt+Tab and company deactivate the foreground window.

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