10 great features to use in Windows Vista – part 1
August 18, 2007
I am going to be very careful in introducing this article. This is my personal view of some features that have been included in Windows Vista and why I like them. I do not claim they are the best features. I have no opinion on whether these are better implemented than in some Linux build or Mac OS. This is simply about the things I have found added to my productivity over the last 6 months of using the RTM version of Vista Ultimate. This is the first 5 of 10 useful things which are right there, out of the box, no third party applications or tweaks required. Items 6 to 10 will follow in a second article very soon.
Note: I certainly do not think these are necessarily big enough to merit an upgrade to Vista on their own. They are probably good enough to choose to have Vista on your next machine rather than sticking to your old ways and asking for XP to be installed. In a follow-up article I may discuss more of the technical reasons why Vista is worth having (and potentially upgrading to if those factors are important to you). Today’s list is built around things the everyday user will benefit from in their daily interactions.
This first one in this arbitrarily-ordered list: if I create a new folder in a Save dialogue it is opened after I do the initial rename of it. Simple, and so obvious in hindsight – if I create a new folder then almost always it is so I can save in there straight away. Very occasionally I might be doing it for later use, but this has to be less than 5% of the time, so this is a definite time saver (and avoids errors where you create a folder and then forget to open it before hitting the final Save button.
Similarly, at number two another change which is actually very small, but made me think “that’s so simple, why did they not do it before?”. Cascading empty folders all the way to the bottom when the top one is opened. What do I mean by that? I often create folder structures which may not yet have files in them, either through scripts (maybe to create all the months to hold files when I come to them later in the year) or by copying folders from elsewhere (to replicate the locations of Excel workbooks within a client’s file system so that cross-references work for me). In previous versions of Windows if I wanted to open or save a file to these, I would have to tediously open every folder to get to the bottom of the tree. In Vista, if a folder contains only one folder and no files, then it automatically expands the child folder and so on down the tree until it reaches a file. Now, I know some people may not have quite so many single-branched directory trees as I seem to collect, but for me this is a great time saver and seems so obvious in hindsight.
Sticking with explorer, my third useful feature is that when I rename a file it does not select the extension. Great, I can just get on with typing my new filename without fiddling about first. In XP this was the issue that made it a hard choice on end-user machines between always showing file extensions (which risks them being altered in error) or not showing them which makes some explanations or troubleshooting take longer. I have one minor bone to pick with this feature, in that I often want to simply append something to a file name, such as _original or _old or just _1. My instinct is to select the file, press F2 (which selects the filename ready to edit) then press the right cursor to drop off the selection and land to the right of it (which is what would happen in most applications when something like a word or partial word is selected). Unfortunately it takes the cursor key too literally and moves one character over – to the other side of the ‘.’ and into the file extension part. So I have to then left arrow to get where I want to be. I hope this quirk of explorer is fixed to make life easy for us old-school keyboard pilots (or anyone who has given up using a pointing device on public transport).
A fourth improvement to explorer is that when I copy and paste a file in the same folder it gets renamed “Foo – copy” instead of the old XP form “Copy of foo” which took it out of the original filename order. This was particularly frustrating when dealing with big folders of digital photos, I would often copy an image in order to edit it without changing the original but I would have to scroll back up to find it, then rename it so I could see it next to the original so I could see which ones I had done. The new way makes far more sense to me. One frustration is that this behaviour only seems to be exposed through the Explorer GUI itself (the “file manager” bit if you see what I mean), so other applications may still use the old method. Notably, Picture Manager 2007 still has the old-style behaviour, which is pretty annoying. I guess this is because of the lack of cohesion between the different coding teams on Windows and Office – partly due to practicality of any communication between such huge teams, and partly down to the numerous lawsuits which pretty much require MS to work in Chinese Cubicles.
Lastly for today, a tool which I first saw on the EVO tour in Leeds last November, demonstrated by James (or was it James?). Recently I have seen several people blog about it on the basis that it’s a great feature and no-one knows about it, meanwhile I’ve just been getting on and using it quietly, not realising how elite I was! So what is it? The snipping tool is used to take screenshots and is found under All Programs > Accessories (or of course just start typing “Sni…” in the Start Search box and it will find it). I find it really frustrating when people cannot remember (or have never been told) how to use Alt-PrtScr to grab a snaphot of the window which had focus and instead send an email or post a forum question with an entire desktop image for the sake of a one line error dialogue (made with just PrintScreen on its own). The snipping tool should help as it makes this much easier through a drop down menu (on the “New” button shown in the shot below) to choose a whole screen, one window, a rectangular section or a freeform shape. A window is really easy to select – when you hover over an open window it gets a red outline, you click anywhere in that window to grab it.
The freeform can be fun or just quick and arbitrary, or allow you to deliberately miss some important part of the screen out. To be honest, it’s the one which always gets used at demos, gets an “ooo” from the audience but is probably the least used in everyday work. Personally I’m a rectangles kind of guy – as Monica says on Friends, “if it’s not a right angle, it’s a wrong angle”. The Vista snipping tool has some other nice features like the pen, highlighter and eraser functions. The eraser only erases pen or highlighter items, not the underlying image, that you can remove by drawing over it with a broad pen (in white for example).
All of these are so much easier to use with a “real” mouse than a laptop touchpad, I am surprised they did not include a block drawing tool (more rectangles!) to make it easy to black out things like usernames, IP addresses or URLs to remove information you don’t want to share. Or if you just really don’t like Mondays.
Once snipped and edited, you can copy images to the clipboard using the usual Ctrl-C, save to a file or send on an email. If you close without saving you are even prompted to do so, and have several choices of formats – good ol’ windows bitmap (BMP) not being one of them as we move into the 21st century.
5 more great features coming to an article near you soon…