General productivity enhancements for Vista (and XP): Taskbar

This is my own personal list of general productivity enhancements for XP/Vista, many of which involve small, resource friendly 3rd-party tools. My general criteria for OS supplementation tools is as follows: They should be simplistic, small, and speedy. It's not much use if it doesn't feel as if it's a part of the operating system itself.

Unfortunately problems and incompatibilities can arise, and there will be a section at the end to address these.

The Taskbar

If you're like me you would prefer to have all of your notification area icons visible. However you may find yourself with less than sufficient room on the taskbar for the tasks themselves. This is especially true if you have a rather wide quick launch area—which can be very valuable, as you'll see in a moment. Some attempt to alleviate this issue by expanding their taskbar to two separate rows, but the additional bulk at the edge of your screen isn't very pleasing, nor will your pointer movement be as precise now that you've introduced a soft edge instead of the single hard edge of your monitor.

Likewise XP/Vista's similar task grouping feature has always struck me as a rather primitive and ineffective solution since you lose quick access to all of your tasks.

A very neat way of opening up space on your taskbar is to move minimized windows to an auto-hidden dock using RocketDock: a minimally intrusive, adequately configurable, speedy little Apple-esque application dock.

Configuring RocketDock version 1.3.5 as a Minimized Window Dock

RocketDock in action as a minimized window dock.

Although RocketDock is primarily an application launcher, it can be configured to only display minimized windows, as well as be out of your way. Windows minimized to the dock are not displayed on the main taskbar.

I went to the trouble of exporting my RocketDock registry settings and comparing them to the defaults. What remains is a Windows Registry file of only the relevant settings for the particular transformation you see pictured above. I have annotated each of the settings in the file, and you may download it here: RocketDock v1.3.5 minimized window configuration.

I strongly advise that registry files from every source be previewed in a text-editor before being imported to the registry, due to the awesome and unchecked power that registry modifications can have on your system. Previewing the above file you should be able to note that the only registry key affected is RocketDock's current user settings at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\RocketDock.

Be advised: Holding the Ctrl key when minimizing a window is designed to bypass minimizing to the dock. Holding Ctrl+Alt+Shift will toggle whether or not to minimize that window to the dock normally (these are stored in the registry as the process and window class names I believe).

16 February 2008 On Windows Vista systems RocketDock utilizes Desktop Window Manager (DWM)'s public API for reliable live window thumbnails. However, rather unfortunately, in this mode the application's icon is no longer overlayed on the thumbnail. If you can stomach semi-frequent inaccurate thumbnails, then adjust RocketDock.exe's properties and enable Windows XP compatibility for the old (and in my opinion, more useful) behavior seen in the updated screenshot. Or, as I will be doing, you could register with RocketDock's bugtracker and gently persuade PolyVector to add the icon overlay to Vista DWM thumbnails as well.

Your taskbar is on the wrong edge

Taskbar at top of screen, near application menus.

This may be a subject of contention, and you should of course use whatever you prefer, but in my opinion the taskbar is on the wrong side of the screen. It should be on the top, not the bottom. Although perhaps jaded from all of the separate versions of Windows happily placing the taskbar at the bottom, I had a moment of clarity in which I questioned the traditional, and I moved beyond. Why is the top edge the better edge? The reason is fairly simple: that's where everything else is. Application menus and buttons have a long history of residence near the top, as well as address bars. I find it preferable that my eyes and pointer need no longer unnecessarily traverse back and forth between edges.

Now it's true that this will place a buffer between the top edge and maximized windows—potentially slowing down the time it takes to target the titlebar (for double-click restoring) or the window buttons, but I find those too slow anyways, and don't use them. (Also, maximized windows aren't quite as useful as they once were.)

Use a persistent stand-alone OS toolbar for mouse application launching

A persistent stand-alone OS toolbar.

The Quick Launch toolbar is underrated. What appears to be a small space for launching a few specific applications in an unorganized manner need not be any of these things. It is rather apparent that the quickest application launching possible with the mouse alone would require the least input and thought from the user. The start menu is not in the least suitable, requiring far too much scrolling, clicking, and searching for company branded folders, all with the same generic folder icon. Quick Launch is always immediatly present and visible (unless you use autohide) and it's a one click solution. Once we've learned to associate an icon with its respective purpose they are much faster to process and far more compact than text.

Unlock your taskkbar if it's locked (context menu). On XP you could simply grab the Quick Launch toolbar by its border and drag it anywhere you would like—leaving it as a floating toolbar, docking it against an edge, or adding it to an existing toolbar. On Vista you can't drag around toolbars like this—but you can drag the folder itself to an edge to create a toolbar, and then as in XP, add additional folders to this toolbar with Toolbars in the context menu.

So to give Quick Launch its own stand-alone toolbar in Vista it may be fastest to right click the current Quick Launch toolbar, select Open Folder, navigate up to its parent, and then go ahead and drag "Quick Launch" to an absolute edge of your desktop. Be careful not to drop the folder on your desktop itself. Note that there is no cursor change or other indication for this, which is a bit bizarre.

On my 22" widescreen monitor at 1680 x 1050 resolution I can fit a maximum of about 70 icons across the bottom (the natural place for the toolbar, since my taskbar is at the top).

Now wait a minute Chris. 70? You said organized.

70 maximum. Use as many program shortcuts as you find agreeable, and would like to launch in a single click. For everything else there's a two click solution:

Never navigate your start menu again: Quick Launch pop up menus

My menuApp configuration as an example.

I know of two beautiful universal pop-up menu applications. ShortPopUp and menuApp. They both operate the same: they show a pop-up menu of the contents of the folder in which they are run. Therefore creating a shortcut to either of these programs and specifying a folder full of shortcuts (or files) as the folder to "Start in" yields a fantastic menu for your toolbar. There are essential differences between the two.

Pros
  • very fast with a background server and cache (but server crashes under Vista)
  • still faster than ShortPopUp under Vista with server disabled
  • easily use separate configurations in one ini file
  • very little configuration, would "just work" if not for the Vista problem
  • support for special folders, like a task list
  • never displays shortcut arrow overlay on menu items
  • sorting always works
Cons
  • context menu problems for menu items (untested on XP): Properties doesn't work, Delete doesn't give a confirmation, etc.
  • non-shortcut file extension text is always visible ".txt" etc. (if bothersome you can always create shortcuts to work around this in small instances)

ShortPopUp v4.1

Pros
  • highly configurable: display, sorting, etc.
  • easily use separate ini configurations
  • invalid shortcuts display disabled
  • can access Properties, etc. of menu items through context menu
  • easily hide any or all file extension suffixes
  • little bits of humor in the documentation (okay, this doesn't count)
Cons
  • context menu problems for menu items (untested on XP): they can't be escaped/dismissed without a selection, and selections click through to the underlying menu
  • can't hide every shortcut arrow overlay
  • slower than MenuApp
  • requires configuration (default is very bare bones, no icons, etc.)
  • sorting seems to fail in several cases, I have yet to understand why, different sorting configurations don't seem to fix it

When I made my decision between the two some time ago, I believe I chose ShortPopUp, configured to be quite similar to menuApp, because it was more stable. I seem to recall that menuApp would not work at all in some common cases unless I used Vista's compatibility mode—but this slowed it down. However, while compiling this list I deleted menuApp's configuration file and allowed it to be recreated (there was at least one peculiar entry in there), and I also have Windows Aero enabled (having it disabled has given me compatibility problems before). I compared each of my menus with each program, and menuApp's speed is just too appreciated; it is my tool of choice.

Middle click close and rearrange tasks with Taskbar Shuffle

Repositioning my 'Downloads' folder task with Taskbar Shuffle.

Taskbar Shuffle is a fantastic lightweight tool which enables you to rearrange tasks with drag and drop, and most importantly, middle click close. (If you don't already use the middle mouse button to open and close tabs in your web browser, you may want to start.) Taskbar Shuffle also provides the means to rearrange notification area icons via holding down Ctrl.

A small issue or two, which may or may not apply to you

Unfortunately there are some minor problems with these recommendations.

  1. Upper edge taskbar: Many programs attempt to be helpful by positioning themselves at the very top of your screen in an unintelligent manner. If your taskkbar is at the top edge then these windows will be obscured and you'll have to resort to using the keyboard to reposition them (or temporarily repositioning the taskbar). Right click their task in the taskbar, select Move, and press a directional arrow key on your keyboard. The window will now be attached to your mouse and free to reposition. (As Alt+Spacebar opens the same menu for the focused window, I tend to use Alt+Spacebar+M+directional arrow.)

    I'm sure this can in fact be automatically worked around with an AutoHotkey script for instance. Since I have a bit of a love affair with AutoHotkey I don't find this too inconvenient of a solution, and will likely whip up a script when I have time.

  2. RocketDock and UltraMon: Unfortunately the extremely helpful Move window to next monitor hotkey feature of UltraMon (which isn't discussed in this entry) has a very annoying issue with RocketDock, where windows, while technically moved, are minimized to the dock. Neither program is really to blame for this problem.

    I indeed crafted an AutoHotkey script to fix this, but then realized a much simpler solution was to include Ctrl (but not Ctrl+Alt+Shift, see above) in the hotkey, since minimizing a window with Ctrl bypasses RocketDock. So that's an easy fix. However, since this means Ctrl must be held down until the window is minimized, you can't make a mouse binding (or some other automation) which rapidly sends the hotkey and expect it to work. Since I use a mouse binding I may be resurrecting an extremely simplified AutoHotkey script which merely waits for the minimization before releasing Ctrl.

    25 Mar 2008 Fix available. Requires AutoHotkey. Modify the opening lines for your (true) hotkey and UltraMon's, respectfully. It even refocuses window controls beyond UltraMon's ability.