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Taking Windows to Task

When Microsoft designed Windows 95, it divided its effort between making it a really easy operating system for new users, and adding advanced features that would allow experienced users to become more productive. The Taskbar is the central feature for new users. In fact, the more you use Windows 95 or Windows 98, the more you’ll find the Taskbar is the key to using the system well at any level. Become a Taskbar aficionado, and you’re well on your way to being a Windows 95/98 pro.

Meet the Taskbar

Let’s start from ground level and work up.

What is the Taskbar? It’s the home base for your Windows operations. It houses that all-important Start Button, a not-so important time indicator, and buttons for every program or window you have open. In Windows 98, it also hosts a series of Quick Launch icons, which provide single-click access to programs such as Internet Explorer and e-mail, and a set of toolbars which you can hide or display.

From the Taskbar you can get access to all Windows features and accessories, as well as all the programs you install on your system. You can use the Taskbar to switch between open programs and windows. In addition, the ‘Tray’ at the right-hand end of the Taskbar houses shortcut icons for various utilities and applications – such as a volume control for your soundcard, a Task Scheduler icon, an online indicator and so on.

All this in that unobtrusive strip along the bottom of your screen!

Taskbar, what Taskbar?

For such an important feature, the Taskbar can sometimes be somewhat elusive. You may find your Taskbar is not at the bottom of your screen at all, but at the top or either side. That’s because you can drag the Taskbar to any edge of the screen.

Try it – click with the left mouse button in a vacant space on the Taskbar and, while keeping the mouse button depressed, drag the Taskbar to the top, left or right of your screen. When you release the mouse button, the Taskbar docks itself to the nearest edge of the screen. Drag it back to the bottom of the screen to restore it to its usual spot.

There’s also a feature called Auto Hide, which lets you make the Taskbar invisible most of the time. With Auto Hide active you’ll only see the Taskbar when you move the mouse pointer to the edge of the screen where the Taskbar is situated and let it rest there for a second. This will cause the Taskbar to spring into view.

Now, an invisible Taskbar is nifty because it lets you have more screen acreage for the jobs you’re working on. But in most other ways, it’s a pain. For new users, hiding the Taskbar is an easy way to get lost; and for other users, it slows you down doing those tasks that the Taskbar was designed for.

Displaying a hidden Taskbar

So, if for some reason your computer has been set up with an invisible Taskbar, do yourself a favour and undo it now. How?

  1. Make the Taskbar visible by moving the mouse pointer over it, then click the Start Button.
  2. From the Start Menu, choose the Settings option and then the Taskbar option from the cascading menu that appears. You’ll see a Taskbar Properties dialog box.
  3. In the Taskbar Properties dialog box, click the Auto Hide option to remove the checkmark beside it.
  4. While you’re in the Taskbar Properties dialog box, you may wish to select the Show Small Icons in Start Menu option – this gives you a much narrower and neater Start Menu.
  5. Click OK to close the dialog box.

The unadorned Taskbar

The basic Taskbar is pretty unthreatening. At the left (assuming you have your Taskbar in the usual bottom-of-screen position) is the Start Button. The Start Button, as you’ve probably discovered by now, is the jump off point for just about anything you want to do in Windows 95. Click it, and you get a series of cascading menus which let you run your programs, change Windows settings, find a file, get help, start working with documents you used recently, Run DOS programs (if you ever so desire) and exit from Windows.

If you’re not currently running any programs, to the right of the Start Button you’ll have a long stretch of vacant grey space, until you hit what’s called the ‘tray’, a little section a couple of centimetres long at the right hand end of the Taskbar. This portion of the Taskbar usually displays the time. Let your mouse cursor rest on the time and you’ll also see the date pop up. Double-click the time and you’ll display a dialog box where you can adjust the time and time zone settings on your computer.

The Windows 98 Quick Launch bar

If you’re using Windows 98, your Taskbar will not be quite so uncluttered.

To the right of the Start Button you’ll see a group of icons. These are sitting in what’s called the Quick Launch Bar. By default, you’ll find icons that let you launch Internet Explorer, Outlook Express (e-mail), and the Internet Explorer Channel Viewer with a single click. There’s a fourth icon which lets you hide or show the Desktop. This is useful when you have a bunch of windows open simultaneously and want to get at your Desktop. Just click the Show Desktop icon and the open windows are hidden away; click the icon once more to re-display the windows.

The Tray

While that’s the end of the tour of the basic Taskbar, there’s much much more to the Taskbar than that.

Usually, you’ll find the Tray occupied by several icons, such as a power lead icon if you have power management features on your PC; a loud speaker icon which you can double-click to control the volume on your soundcard; and the Task Scheduler icon, which monitors the health of your hard disk. When you run certain programs, such as Norton Utilities or a communications program, icons for these programs will appear in the Taskbar Tray as well.

The thing to remember is these icons are not just pretty pictures. Sure, they provide a visual indication of what’s running, but they do a whole lot more than that too.

Taskbar tooltips

Rest your mouse pointer over any of the icons in the Tray and you’ll see a ‘tooltip’ indicating what the icon represents. Click or double-click most icons and you’ll pop up a dialog box with controls for certain features. Some icons respond one way to a single click and another way to a double-click, so experiment with both techniques. Right-click some icons and they’ll reward you with a pop-up menu offering shortcuts to all sorts of features.

All this in a few centimetres of space – that’s elegance in design indeed!

Windows multitasking

Now, the Taskbar Tray is pretty nifty; but it’s the portion of the Taskbar that initially appears as nothing but a blank grey strip that really turns the Taskbar into the most effective tool in Windows 95 and Windows 98.

You see, one of the things Windows has over its predecessor, DOS, is that it’s a ‘multitasking’ operating system. That means you can run your word processor, connect to the Internet, open up a project management package, create e-mail and play an audio CD all at the same time.

Well, your computer can do these things all at the same time. You – as the limited machine that you are – can probably only handle a couple of tasks simultaneously. But the ability to have all these processes running at the same time means you can quickly jump to whatever activity needs your attention, without having to close the program you’re working in, load up another, and find the document or file you need to work with. Just load them all up at once and then choose between the smorgasbord of open programs and windows.

Multitasking control

Of course, if you tried to have all these programs occupying the same small screen at once, you’d never be able to see anything. So Windows lets you minimise a program or window so that it tucks itself away as nothing more than a button on the Taskbar, freeing up screen space for your current task. (To minimise a program or window, click the underscore icon, third from the right in the top right corner of any open window.) When you decide you want to switch tasks, you just look for the appropriate button in the Taskbar, click it once with the left mouse button, and that program will spring open on your desktop.

This is a great way to work. Go on, try it!

  1. Click the Start Button, choose Programs and select a program from the cascading menu. You might like to try this with some of the Windows accessories (under the Accessories option on the Programs Menu). When you open the program notice how a button appears for it in the Taskbar.
  2. Once you have one program open, click the Start Button again and open another. And another. And another. Note how a button appears each time.
  3. If the first program you opened is now obscured by other windows, click its button in the Taskbar to have it spring to the top of the Desktop (this is often referred to as ‘operating in the foreground’, while the other programs are ‘in the background’). If you want, use the minimise button to tuck windows down into the Taskbar completely; or you can merely let the foreground task cover the others.

This is an enormous step forward from Windows 3.1, where it was easy as anything to lose track of programs you had open, and to not even realise other programs were running. And, of course, it’s way beyond the capabilities of DOS, which, as a single-tasking operating system, only allowed you to have one program open at any one time.

Handling multiple windows

Sometimes you’ll want to have more than one window visible at once on your Desktop. For example, you might want to have a budget spreadsheet sitting in one window while you write up some notes or a report on it in your word processor in another window.

To view both documents at once, you could resize and reshape the program windows so they fit together on the screen. (You do this by placing the mouse pointer on any edge or corner of a window until it turns into a double-headed arrow and then clicking and dragging that part of the window frame.)

A neater trick is to minimise any windows you’re not currently using, and then click with the right mouse button on the time in the Tray or on any vacant grey space in the Taskbar. This will pop up a menu that includes options such as Tile WindowsVertically and Tile Horizontally.

This ‘tiling’ refers to your windows – tiling vertically will position open windows neatly side by side; tiling horizontally will position them one above the other. You can also cascade the windows so they’re one in front of each other, but I’ve never seen the point of this technique.

Check out the pop-up menu for some other useful window manipulation options. You’ll find a ‘Properties’ option, which gives you a shortcut to adjusting Taskbar settings (such as the Auto-Hide feature we encountered earlier). And, if you’re using Windows 98, you’ll see a Toolbars option.

Windows 98 Toolbars

Windows 98 has four built-in toolbars. The Quick Launch bar, as mentioned above, is usually displayed. In addition, you’ll find:

You can also create your own temporary toolbars. Each toolbar you create will display the contents of a folder. So, if you’d like quick access to all your favourite shortcuts, for instance, you could create a folder, copy all your shortcuts there, and then create a new toolbar pointing to that folder. (You’re also supposed to be able to create toolbars from Web addresses, but this doesn’t work in the beta version of Windows 98.)

Organising Win 98 toolbars

When you first display any of these toolbars, they lodge themselves in the Taskbar. To avoid Taskbar overload, you can click-and-drag any of these toolbars to another location on your Desktop, and then resize them by dragging the edges of the toolbar. Watch it! If you drag a toolbar too close to the edge of the screen, it will spring into a different shape and try to lodge itself there. Just drag it away from the edge to restore it.

If you’d like the toolbar to stay on top of any open windows, right click it and choose Always On Top from the pop-up menu.

You can close a toolbar either by clicking its close box (the X in the right-hand corner, visible when the toolbar is ‘floating’ on the Desktop), or by right-clicking the time in the Taskbar, choosing Toolbars, and deselecting the appropriate toolbar.

Once you close a toolbar you’ve created, it’s gone for good. In order to get it back, you’ll need to recreate it.

Play!

The more familiar you become with the Taskbar, the more efficiently you’ll use Windows 95 or Windows 98. Get used to looking at what’s lurking down there. Move your mouse pointer over the icons and buttons slowly. Try double-clicking and right-clicking. Explore, play!

Because once you become accustomed to the Taskbar, much of the confusion you may feel as a beginner using Windows 95/Windows 98 will evaporate and you’ll be well on the way to becoming a multitasking wizard.

  


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