Windows Vista In A Nutshell:
Chapter 2, Using Windows Vista

Preston Gralla's new book, from O'Reilly, thoroughly documents every important setting and feature in Windows Vista. Here, as a free excerpt, is the complete second chapter: Using Windows Vista.

This chapter provides a quick overview of the features of the Windows Vista user interface, which should be sufficient to help you become oriented and make the most of the system fairly quickly. Even if you're already familiar with the basic Windows interface, you will learn about the differences between Windows Vista and previous versions, making this chapter worth a read. If you're fairly new to Windows, you should certainly take the time to read this chapter. Concepts that advanced users might consider elementary should prove enlightening. The most important thing is to get a sense of the consistency (or occasionally the lack thereof) in the Windows Vista interface so that you can tackle any new Windows application with ease.

Windows Vista in a Nutshell Windows Vista in a Nutshell

By Preston Gralla
ISBN: 0-596-52707-1
Copyright © 2007 O'Reilly Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O'Reilly Media

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The Desktop

Figure 2-1 Shows the main features of the Windows Vista Desktop. The callouts in the figure highlight some of the special-purpose icons and buttons that may appear on the Desktop.

Figure 2-1. Windows Vista Desktop features

Figure 2-1 shows the main features of the Windows Vista Desktop. The callouts in the figure highlight some of the special-purpose icons and buttons that may appear on the Desktop.

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Like most modern operating systems that use graphical user interfaces or GUIs (such as Mac OS X, Unix, and earlier versions of Windows), Windows Vista uses the metaphor of a Desktop with windows and file folders laid out on it. A program called Windows Explorer (explorer.exe) provides this Desktop metaphor.

Figure 2-1 shows the main features of the Windows Vista Desktop. The callouts in the figure highlight some of the special-purpose icons and buttons that may appear on the Desktop.

Point-and-Click Operations

Windows Vista offers several settings that affect the way the interface responds to mouse clicks. The default setting (the way it works when you first install Windows Vista) will also be familiar to most users, as it is consistent with the way most operating systems work.

Depending on your current settings, however, Windows may respond to mouse clicks differently. See the upcoming "Alternate Behavior" section for differences. Later on, you'll see how to choose between the classic behavior and the alternate behavior.

If you are a new computer user who hasn't used a GUI before, here are some things you need to know:

  • PCs usually come with a two- or three-button mouse, although there are a variety of alternatives, such as touchpads (common on laptops), trackballs, and styluses. Many mice also include a scroll wheel which, as its name implies, you use to scroll through pages and screens.

  • To click an object means to move the pointer to the desired screen object and press and release the left mouse button.

  • Double-click means to click twice in rapid succession with the button on the left. (Clicking twice slowly doesn't accomplish the same thing.)

  • Right-click means to click with the button on the right.

  • If your pointing device has three or more buttons, you should use just the primary buttons on the left and the right, and read the documentation that comes with your pointing device to find out what you can do with the others. (You can often configure the middle button to take over functions such as double-clicking, cut and paste, inserting inflammatory language into emails, and so on.)

Default Behavior
The default setting is consistent with most operating systems, including previous versions of Windows. You can tell whether you have the default style if the captions under the icons on your Desktop are not underlined. The alternate behavior (sometimes called the Web View) is discussed in the next section. Here is how Windows Vista responds to mouse clicks by default:

  • Double-click on any icon on the Desktop to open it. If the icon represents a program, the program is launched (i.e., opened). If the icon represents a datafile, the associated program opens the file. (The associations between files and programs, called file types in Windows, are discussed later in this chapter and in Chapter 4.) If the icon represents a folder (such as Documents), a folder window appears, the contents of which are shown as icons within the window.
  • When you move your mouse over an icon, it is highlighted but not selected. Single-click on an icon to select it. A selected icon remains highlighted. On the Desktop the icon's text turns white, but in a regular folder window it stays black.
  • Single-click on an icon, and then click again (but not so quickly as to suggest a double-click) on the icon's caption to rename it. Type a new caption, and then press the Enter key or simply click elsewhere to confirm the new name. You can also rename by clicking and pressing F2, or by right-clicking and selecting Rename.
  • Right-click (click the right mouse button) on any icon to pop up a menu of other actions that can be performed on the object. The contents of this menu vary depending on which object you click, so it is commonly called the context menu. The context menu for your garden-variety file includes actions such as Open, Delete, Rename, and Create Shortcut. The context menu for the Desktop itself includes actions such as Refresh and New (to create new empty files or folders). Nearly all objects have a Properties entry, which can be especially useful.
  • Click and hold down the left mouse button over an icon while moving the mouse to drag the object. Drag a file icon onto a folder icon or into an open folder window to move the file into the folder. Drag a file icon onto a program icon or an open application window (usually) to open the file in that program. Drag an object into your Recycle Bin to dispose of the object. You also can use dragging to rearrange the icons on your Desktop. More drag-and-drop tips are discussed later in this chapter.
  • By dragging a file with the right mouse button instead of the left, you can choose what happens when the file is dropped. With the release of the button, a small menu will pop up, providing you with a set of options (Move Here, Copy Here, Create Shortcuts Here) to choose from. Although it is less convenient than left-dragging, it does give you more control.
  • Click an icon to select it, and then hold down the Ctrl key while clicking on additional objects--this instructs Windows to remember all your selections so that you can have multiple objects selected simultaneously. This way, for example, you can select a group of files to delete and then drag them all to the Recycle Bin at once.
  • Click an item and then hold down Shift while clicking a second item to select both items and all objects that appear between them. What ends up getting selected depends on the arrangement of items to be selected, so this method is more suitable for folder windows that have their contents arranged in a list format. You can use this method in conjunction with the Ctrl method to accomplish elaborate selections.

  • Figure 2-2: Selecting multiple files by dragging a ''rubber band''

    Figure 2-2

    Selecting multiple files by dragging a "rubber band"

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    You can also select a group of icons without using the keyboard, as shown in Figure 2-2. Draw an imaginary rubber band around the objects you want to select by clicking and holding on a blank area of the Desktop or folder window and dragging it to an opposite corner. Play around with this feature to see how Windows decides which items are included and which are ignored.

  • Whether you have one icon or many icons selected simultaneously, a single click on another icon or a blank area of the Desktop abandons your selection.

  • If you select multiple items simultaneously, they will all behave like a single unit when dragged. For example, if you select 10 file icons, you can drag them all by just grabbing any one of them.

  • Press Ctrl-A to select everything in the folder (or on the Desktop, if that's where the focus is). This corresponds to Organize → Select All. (See "Windows and Menus," later in this chapter, if you don't know what I mean by the term focus.) See Appendix B for more keyboard shortcuts.

Alternate Behavior

Figure 2-3. Folder options, which specify whether to use a Windows ''classic'' view or instead display previews and filters, whether folders should open in new windows, and whether double-clicking or single-clicking selects items

Figure 2-3

Folder options, which specify whether to use a Windows ''classic'' view or instead display previews and filters, whether folders should open in new windows, and whether double-clicking or single-clicking selects items

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In addition to the default style discussed in the preceding section, Windows also provides a setting that makes the interface work somewhat like a web page. From Windows Explorer's Organize menu, choose Folder and Search Options; if the "Single-click to open an item" option is selected (see Figure 2-3), you're using the settings described here. If you have this setting enabled on your system, clicking and double-clicking will work differently than described in the preceding section, although dragging and right-clicking (as described in the previous section) will remain the same.

Here are the differences between the default and alternate behaviors:

  • The whole concept of double-clicking is abolished. Although double-clicking helps prevent icons from being opened accidentally when you're manipulating them, double-clicking can be confusing or awkward for some new users.
  • To select an item, simply move the mouse over it.
  • To activate (open) an item, click once on it.
  • To rename an item, carefully float the mouse pointer over an icon and press F2, or right-click an icon and select Rename.
  • You can still select multiple items using the Shift and Ctrl keys.
  • Because the default view is, by far, the setting used most frequently, most of the instructions in this book will assume you're using that setting. For example, if you see "Double-click the My Computer icon," and you're using the "Single-click to open" setting, remember that you'll simply be single-clicking the item.

Starting Up Applications

Windows Vista has more ways to launch a program than just about any other operating system:

  • Double-click on a program icon in Explorer, on the Desktop.

  • Double-click on a file associated with an application to launch that application and open the file.

  • Pick the name of a program from the Start menu. (See "Start Menu," in Chapter 3, for details.)

  • Click on a program's icon in the Quick Launch Toolbar to start it. This toolbar can include icons for any programs, although by default, it often has icons only for Internet Explorer, the Desktop (click it to go to the Desktop), Switch Between Windows, and Windows Mail after you set up Windows Mail the first time.

Tip The default icons that appear on the Quick Launch Toolbar often vary from system to system. Computer manufacturers may change what icons appear there or whether Quick Launch even appears at all.

  • Right-click on a file, executable, or application icon and choose Open.

  • Select (highlight) an icon and press the Enter key.
  • Type the filename of a program in the Address Bar, which is displayed above the toolbar in any folder window, in Explorer, in Internet Explorer, or even as part of the Taskbar. You may also have to include the path (the folder and drive names) for some items.
  • Type in the filename of a program from the Start Search box and press Enter. You may also have to include the path (the folder and drive names) for some items.
  • Type in the first few letters or the entire name of a program (not necessarily the filename) in the Start Search box, choose the program you want to run from the list that appears, and press Enter. For example, if you wanted to run Microsoft Word, you could type Word, then select the Microsoft Word icon and press Enter.

Tip If you're looking to open an application in order to run a specific file, you can search for the file using the Start Search box or other Windows search tools. That way, you can open the file and application in one simple step.

  • Open a Command Prompt window and type the name of the program at the prompt. Note that some knowledge of the command prompt, which borrows a lot of syntax and commands from Vista's great-grandfather, the Disk Operating System (DOS), is required--see Chapter 14 for details.
  • Create shortcuts to files or applications. A shortcut is a kind of pointer or link--a small file and associated icon that point to a file or program in another location. You can put these shortcuts on the Desktop, in the Start menu, or anywhere else you find convenient. Double-click on a shortcut to launch the program. To launch programs automatically at startup, just place a shortcut in your Startup folder (C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp).

Some programs are really "in your face." For example, if you install AOL, it often puts an icon on the Desktop, in the Quick Launch Toolbar, and on the All Programs menu, and even shoehorns an icon into the System Tray, which is normally reserved for system status indicators. Other, less obtrusive programs may be more difficult to locate. In fact, you'll probably find several programs mentioned in this book that you never even knew you had!

Windows and Menus

Figure 2-4: The decorations of a standard window: a title bar, title buttons, a menu, and a scrollable client area.

Figure 2-4

The decorations of a standard window: a title bar, title buttons, a menu, and a scrollable client area.

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Any open window contains a frame with a series of standard decorations and tools, as shown in Figure 2-4. To move a window from one place to another, click on the title bar and drag. The exact tools and functions available in any window vary according to the application or tool that launches it. Figure 2-4 shows a folder window, which is perhaps the most complicated window in Windows Vista.

Most types of windows are resizable, meaning that you can stretch them horizontally and vertically to make them smaller or larger. Just grab an edge or a corner and start dragging. There are two shortcuts that come in quite handy: maximize and minimize. If you click the maximize button (the middle button in the cluster in the upper right of most windows), the window will be resized to fill the screen. You can't move or resize maximized windows. If you minimize a window (the leftmost button in the cluster), it is shrunk out of sight and appears only as a button on the Taskbar. Minimizing is handy to get windows out of the way without closing them.

Under certain circumstances, one or two scroll bars might appear along the bottom and far right of a window. These allow you to move the window's view so that you can see all of its contents. This behavior can be counterintuitive for new users because moving the scroll bar in one direction will cause the window's contents to move in the opposite direction. Look at it this way: the scroll bar doesn't move the contents; it moves the viewport. Imagine a very long document with very small type. Moving the scroll bars is like moving a magnifying glass--if you move the glass down the document and look through the magnifier, it looks like the document is moving upward.

Tip If you hover your mouse over a window that has been minimized to the Taskbar, a preview of the window's content will show up as a thumbnail on top of the Taskbar. (Note that this feature is only available on premium systems with the Aero interface enabled.)

Figure 2-5: Switching among windows using Windows Flip.

Figure 2-5

Switching among windows using Windows Flip.

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If multiple windows are open, only one window has the focus. The window with the focus is usually (but not always) the one on top of all the other windows. The Windows Vista Aero Glass interface features transparent edges to windows, so you will be able to see through the edges of the focused window to windows beneath it. It can be difficult in Windows Vista to know which window has focus if several are side by side, because the Aero Glass interface doesn't necessarily make the border and title of the active windows obviously different from the other windows. The window with the focus is the one that responds to keystrokes, although any window will respond to mouse clicks. To give any window the focus, just click on any visible portion of it, and it will pop to the front. Be careful where you click on the intended window, however, as the click may go further than simply activating it (if you click on a button on a window that doesn't have the focus, for example, it will not only activate the window, but press the button as well).

There are three other ways to activate (assign the focus to) a window. You can click on the Taskbar button that corresponds to the window you want to activate, and it will be brought to the front. If it is minimized (shrunk out of sight), it will be brought back (restored) to its original size. Another way is to use a feature called Windows Flip. Hold down the Alt key and press Tab, and you'll see thumbnails of all your open windows. Keep holding down the Alt key and pressing Tab until you highlight the window you want to open, then release the keys, and you'll be sent to that window. Similarly, to use Windows Flip 3D, hold down the Windows logo key and press Tab, and you'll see thumbnails of all your windows in a 3D stack. Scroll through them by continuing to hold the Windows logo key and pressing Tab until you get to the window you want. Figure 2-5 shows Windows Flip in action, and Figure 2-6 shows Windows Flip 3D.

Tip Windows Flip 3D works only if you're using Windows Aero, not the Windows Vista Basic interface. For more information, see Chapter 1.

Figure 2-6: Switching among windows using Windows Flip 3D, which works only if you're using Aero.

Figure 2-6

Switching among windows using Windows Flip 3D, which works only if you're using Aero.

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Just as only one window can have the focus at any given time, only one control (text field, button, checkbox, etc.) can have the focus at any given time. Different controls show focus in different ways: pushbuttons and checkboxes have a dotted rectangle, for instance. A text field (edit box) that has the focus will not be visually distinguished from the rest, but it will be the only one with a blinking text cursor (insertion point). To assign the focus to a different control, just click on it or use the Tab key (use Shift-Tab to go backward).

Often, new and veteran users are confused and frustrated when they try to type into a window and nothing happens--this is caused by nothing more than the wrong window having the focus. (I've seen skilled touch-typists complete an entire sentence without looking, only to realize that they forgot to click first.) Even if the desired window is in front, the wrong control (or even the menu) may have the focus.

Tip If you use the Windows Standard or Windows Classic theme and frequently find yourself mistaking which window has the focus, you can change the colors Windows Vista uses to distinguish the active window by right-clicking the Desktop and choosing Personalize → Window Color and Appearance → Open classic appearance properties for more color options → Advanced → Inactive Title Bar.

You can configure some windows to be "always on top." This means that they will appear on top of other windows, even if they don't have the focus. Floating toolbars, the Taskbar, and some help screens are common examples. If you have two windows that are "always on top," they behave the same as normal windows, because one can cover the other if it is activated, but both will always appear in their own "layer" on top of all the normal windows.

The Desktop is also a special case. Although it can have the focus, it will never appear on top of any other window. To access something on the Desktop, you have two choices: minimize all open windows by holding the Windows logo key and pressing the D key, or press the Show Desktop button on the Quick Launch Toolbar (discussed in Chapter 3) to temporarily hide all running applications. You can also minimize your current window, although in some instances, that only leads you to the next open window you need to minimize, and so on, until you reach the Desktop.

Many windows have a menu bar, commonly containing standard menu items such as File, Edit, View, and Help, as well as application-specific menus. Click on the menu title to drop it down, and then click on an item in the menu to execute it. Any menu item with a small black arrow that points to the right leads to a secondary, cascading menu with more options. Generally, menus drop down and cascading menus open to the right; if there isn't room, Windows pops them up in the opposite direction. If you want to cancel a menu, simply click anywhere outside of the menu bar. See the next section, "Keyboard Accelerators," for details on navigating menus with keys.

Those who are used to previous versions of Windows may be somewhat confused by the absence of menus--which have now been replaced by new toolbars--in Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer. New toolbars take the place of menus in them. However, if you're a fan of the old menus, you can still find them; press the Alt or F10 key and they'll magically appear.

Tip One thing that is often perplexing to new Windows users is the dynamic nature of its menus. For instance, menu items that appear grayed out are temporarily disabled. (For example, some applications won't let you save if you haven't made any changes.) Also common are context-sensitive menus, which actually change based on what you're doing or what is selected.

Each window also has a Control menu hidden behind the upper-left corner of the title bar (the bar at the top of the window that contains the filename). You can open the menu by clicking on the upper-left corner, by pressing Alt-space, or by right-clicking on a button on the Taskbar. The Control menu duplicates the function of the maximize, minimize, and close buttons at the right end of the title bar, as well as the resizing and moving you can do with the mouse. Using this menu lets you move or resize the window without the mouse (see the next section, "Keyboard Accelerators," for details). The command line (which you can get to by typing command at the Search box and pressing Enter to open a Command Prompt window) also has a Control menu, which you can access by right-clicking anywhere in the Command Prompt window. It provides access to the Clipboard for cut, copy, and paste actions, as well as settings for the font size and toolbar (if applicable). However, if you have enabled the Command Prompt's QuickEdit Mode (see Chapter 14), right-clicking will paste the contents of the Clipboard into whatever program happens to be running in the Command Prompt.

Keyboard Accelerators

Windows' primary interface is graphical, meaning that you point and click to interact with it. The problem is that repeated clicking can become very cumbersome, especially for repetitive tasks. Luckily, Windows has an extensive array of keyboard accelerators (sometimes called keyboard shortcuts or hot keys), which provide a simple keyboard alternative to almost every feature normally accessible with the mouse. Some of these keyboard accelerators (such as F1 for help, Ctrl-C to copy, and Ctrl-V to paste) date back more than 20 years and are nearly universal, and others are specific to Windows Vista or a given application.

Appendix B gives a complete list of keyboard accelerators. Some of the most important ones are as follows:

Menu navigation

In any window that has a menu, press the Alt key or the F10 key to activate the menu bar, and use the cursor (arrow) keys to move around. Press Enter to activate the currently selected item or Esc to cancel. (Note: use the Alt or F10 key to turn on the menu in Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer.)

You can also activate specific menus with the keyboard. When you press Alt or F10, each menu item will have a single character that is underlined (such as the V in View); when you see this character, it means you can press Alt-V (for example) to go directly to that menu. Once that menu has opened, you can activate any specific item by pressing the corresponding key (such as D for Details); you don't even need to press Alt this time. The abbreviated notation for this is Alt-V+D (which means press Alt and V together, and then press D). You'll notice that it's much faster than using the mouse.

The other way to activate specific menu items is to use the special keyboard shortcuts shown to the right of each menu item (where applicable). For example, open the Edit menu in most windows, and you'll see that Ctrl-Z is a shortcut for Undo, Ctrl-V is a shortcut for Paste, and Ctrl-A is a shortcut for Select All. These are even faster than the navigation hot keys described earlier. Two notes: not all menu items have this type of keyboard shortcut, and these shortcuts work only from within the application that "owns" the menu.

The special case is the Start menu, which you can activate by pressing the Windows logo key (if your keyboard has one) or Ctrl-Esc, regardless of the active window. You can also click the Start button. The Start menu differs from most other menus because you navigate it graphically, although you can also use arrow keys and Return for navigation as well.

Note that once a menu has been activated, you can mix pointer clicks and keystrokes. For example, you could pop up the Start menu by pressing the Windows logo key, and then click on Control Panel.

If there is a conflict and multiple items on a menu have the same accelerator key, pressing the key repeatedly will cycle through the options. You must press Enter when the correct menu item is highlighted to actually make the selection.

Window manipulation without the mouse

The Control menu, described in the preceding section, facilitates the resizing and moving of windows with the keyboard only. Press Alt-Space bar to open the active window's Control menu, and then choose the desired action. If you choose to move the window, the mouse pointer will change to a little four-pointed arrow, which is your cue to use the cursor (arrow) keys to do the actual moving. Likewise, selecting Resize will allow you to stretch any window edge using the cursor keys. In either case, press Enter when you're happy with the result, or press Esc to cancel the operation. If a window can't be resized or minimized, for example, those menu items will not be present. Note that Control menus work just like normal menus, so you could press Alt-Space bar+M to begin moving a window.


In most applications, Ctrl-X will cut a selected item to an invisible storage area called the Clipboard, Ctrl-C will copy it to the Clipboard, and Ctrl-V will paste it into a new location. Using the Delete key will simply erase the selection (or delete the file). There is a single, system-wide Clipboard that all applications share. This Clipboard lets you copy something from a document in one program and paste it into another document in another program. You can paste the same data repeatedly until new data replaces it on the Clipboard. See Chapter 3 for more information.

Tip Although you probably think of cut-and-paste operations as something you do with selected text or graphics in an application, you can use the same keys for file operations. For example, select a file on the Desktop and press Ctrl-X. Then move to another folder and press Ctrl-V, and Windows will move the file to the new location just as though you dragged and dropped it.


In Windows Vista, when you simultaneously press the Ctrl, Alt, and Delete keys, you activate a screen that lets you lock the computer, switch users, log off, change a password, or start the Task Manager, which, among other things, allows you to close crashed applications. You can also click Cancel to go back to what you were doing previously. In Windows XP, pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete would immediately run the Task Manager.

Alt-Tab and Alt-Esc

Both of these key combinations switch between open windows, albeit in different ways. Alt-Tab runs Windows Flip, which shows thumbnails of all open windows--hold Alt and press Tab repeatedly to move the selection. Alt-Esc has no window; instead, it simply sends the active window to the bottom of the pile and activates the next one in the row. Note that Alt-Tab also includes minimized windows, but Alt-Esc does not. If there's only one open window, Alt-Esc has no effect, although Alt-Tab will show two thumbnails--the open window and the Desktop. Also, neither method activates the Start menu (Ctrl-Esc).

Tab and arrow keys

Within a window, Tab will move the focus from one control to the next; use Shift-Tab to move backward. A control may be a text field, a drop-down list, a pushbutton, or any number of other controls. For example, in a folder window, Tab will cycle between the major components of the window: the Favorite Links, file display area, Search box, folder list, and so on. Use arrow keys in these areas to make a new selection without moving the focus. Sometimes a dialog box will have one or more regions, indicated by a rectangular box within the dialog box. The arrow keys will cycle through buttons or fields only within the current regions. Tab will cross region boundaries and cycle through all the buttons or fields in the dialog box. In addition, some dialog boxes let you cycle through controls with Tab.

If there's only one control, such as in a simple folder window, Tab has no effect. In some applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, Tab is assigned to a different function (such as indenting).

Common Controls

Many application and system windows use a common set of controls in addition to the ubiquitous title bar, menu bar, Control menu, and scroll bars. This section describes a few of these common controls.

Figure 2-7: Common controls in Windows applications and dialogs.

Figure 2-7

Common controls in Windows applications and dialogs.

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Figure 2-7 shows some of the common controls in Control Panel → Appearance and Personalization → Change screen saver, and some other dialog boxes.

Some of these controls include:

(1) Tabbed dialogs

You can group settings into separate tabbed dialog pages. For example, right-click the Taskbar and choose Properties. Click on any tab to bring that page to the front.

(2) Input boxes

Type text or numbers into these boxes to change their values--for example, to change the date or time.

(3) Radio buttons

You use radio buttons for mutually exclusive settings. Clicking on one causes any other that has been pressed to pop up, just like on an old car radio. The button with the dot in the middle is the one that has been selected. Sometimes you'll see more than one group of buttons, with a separate outline around each group. In this case, you can select one radio button from each group.

(4) Button

Click this to get to another menu that offers another set of options to customize.

(5) Grayed-out (inactive) controls

Any control that is grayed out is disabled because the underlying operation is not currently available. In the dialog box shown in Figure 2-7, the Classic Start menu radio button hasn't been selected, so you cannot customize its features.

(6) Button with User Account Control

Among Windows Vista's new security features is User Account Control (UAC), which protects certain system settings from being changed accidentally or by someone with malicious intent. When you see this icon on a button, it means that it is protected by UAC. When you click it, you'll have to type in an administrator password to proceed (if you're not logged in as a user with administrator privileges), or else you'll get a warning and you'll have to click a button to confirm that you want to proceed with your operation.

(7) Checkboxes

Checkboxes are generally used for on/off settings. A checkmark means the setting is on; an empty box means it's off. Click on the box to turn the labeled setting on or off.

(8) Counters

You can either select the number and type in a new value or click on the up or down arrow to increase or decrease the value.

(9) The default button

When a set of buttons is displayed, the default button (the one that will be activated by pressing the Enter key) is brighter than the other buttons. You can move the focus to another button by hovering your mouse over it, typing the underlined accelerator character in a button or field label, or pressing the Tab or arrow key.

In many dialog boxes, the default button is hardcoded--it will always be the same. For example, the OK button is commonly hardcoded to be the default button. To see this in action, right-click on the Taskbar and select Properties. The Taskbar Options tab has the OK button hardcoded as the default. Regardless of which button is the default, pressing Esc always has the same effect as clicking the Cancel button: it cancels the dialog box.

(10) Sliders

Move the slider to change the setting. In this instance, as you move the slider from Low to High (or vice versa), the text beneath the slider changes to show you precise information about each setting along the way.

(11) Drop-down lists

Anytime you see a downward-pointing arrow next to a text field, click on the arrow to drop down a list of other values. Sometimes a drop-down list contains a history of previous entries you've typed into a text entry field. Pressing the first letter will often jump to that place in the list, as long as the list has the focus. The down arrow (or F4) will also drop down the currently selected list. The arrow keys will scroll through the stored entries, even if the list is not already dropped down. Microsoft sometimes calls these lists Look In Lists.

(12) OK, Cancel, Apply

Most dialogs will have at least an OK and a Cancel button. Some also have Apply. The difference is that OK accepts the settings and quits the dialog, and Apply accepts the changes but doesn't quit. (This is useful in a dialog with multiple tabs so that you can apply changes before moving to the next tab.) Cancel quits without making any changes. If you click Cancel after clicking Apply, your changes will probably already have been applied and will not revert to their original settings. But don't be surprised if some applications respond differently. Microsoft has never been clear with application developers about the expected behavior of these buttons.

For more information on these various user interface features, see -->Chapter 3.

Files, Folders, and Disks

Files are the basic unit of long-term storage on a computer. Files are organized into folders, which are stored on disks. (In DOS, Unix, and earlier versions of Windows, folders were more often referred to as directories, but both terms are still used.) This section reviews fundamental filesystem concepts, including file-and disk-naming conventions and file types.

Disk Names
Like every version of Windows that preceded it, Windows Vista retains the basic DOS disk-naming conventions. Drives are differentiated by a single letter of the alphabet followed by a colon:


Represents the first "floppy" (usually 3.5-inch) disk drive on the system


Represents the second floppy disk drive, if present


Represents the first hard disk drive or the first partition of the first hard disk drive


Often represents a DVD-ROM or CD-ROM drive, but can represent an additional hard disk drive or other removable drive

E: through Z:

Represent additional hard disk drives, DVD-ROM or CD-ROM drives, Universal Serial Bus (USB) flash drives, removable cartridges such as ZIP or Jaz drives, or mapped network drives

By default, drive letters are assigned consecutively, but it's possible to change the drive letters for most drives so that you can have a drive N: without having a drive M:. (See Chapter 4 for details.)

Folders, which contain files, are stored hierarchically on a disk and can be nested to any arbitrary level.

The filesystem on any disk begins with the root (top-level) directory, represented as a backslash. Thus, C:\ represents the root directory on the C: drive. Each additional nested directory is simply listed after its "parent," with backslashes used to separate each one. C:\Windows\System\Color means that the Color folder is in the System folder in the Windows folder on the C: drive. Thus, you can express a path to any given folder as a single string of folder names.

A path can be absolute (always starting with a drive letter) or relative (referenced with respect to the current directory). The concept of a current directory is somewhat obsolete in Windows Vista, as it was in Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP, with the exception of commands issued from the command prompt. Each Command Prompt window has an active folder associated with it, to which each command is directed. For example, if the current directory is C:\windows, and you type DIR (the directory listing command), you would get a listing of the files in that folder. If you then type CD cursors, the current directory would become C:\windows\cursors.

The fact that the entire absolute path was not needed after the CD command is an example of the use of a relative path.

A special type of relative path is made up of one or more dots. The names . and .. refer to the current directory and the parent of that directory, respectively (C:\windows is the parent folder of C:\windows\cursors, for example). Type CD .. while in C:\windows, and the current directory becomes simply C:\. Use of additional dots (such as ...) in some previous versions of Windows is not supported in Windows XP or Vista. The graphical equivalent of .. is the yellow folder icon with the curved arrow, found in common file dialogs.

The left pane (Navigation Pane) in Windows Explorer (by default) contains a hierarchical tree-structured view of the filesystem. The tree structure makes it easier to navigate through all the folders on your system because it provides a graphical overview of the structure. See Chapter 3 for more information on the tree and Chapter 4 for more information on the Windows Explorer application.

Paths to Network Resources
You can refer to files on any shared network via a Universal Naming Convention (UNC) pathname, which is very similar to a path (described in the preceding section). The first element of a UNC pathname is the name of the computer or device that contains the file, prefixed by a double backslash. The second element is the device's share name. What follows is the string of folders leading to the target folder or file.

For example, the UNC path \\shoebox\o\hemp\adriana.txt refers to a file named adriana.txt, located in the hemp folder, located on drive O:, located on a computer named shoebox.

For more information on UNC pathnames and sharing resources on a network, see Chapter 7.

Short Names and Long Names
DOS and Windows 3.1, the Microsoft operating systems that preceded Windows 95 and Windows NT, only supported filenames with a maximum of eight characters, plus a three-character file type extension (e.g., myfile.txt). The maximum length of any path was 80 characters (see "Pathnames," earlier in this chapter, for more information on paths). Legal characters included any combination of letters and numbers, extended ASCII characters with values greater than 127, and the following punctuation characters:

$ % ^ ' ` - _ @ ~ ! ( ) # &

Spaces were not allowed.

Windows Vista supports long filenames (up to 260 characters), which can include spaces as well as these punctuation characters:

$ % ^ ' ` - _ @ ~ ! ( ) # & + , ; = [ ] .

For example, a file could be named Picture of my Niece.jpg and could be located in a folder named Family Photos. Furthermore, extensions are no longer limited to three characters; for example, .html is perfectly valid (and distinctly different from .htm). For more information on file types and extensions, see the discussions in the next section and in Appendix D.

The maximum length of any path in Windows Vista depends on the filesystem you're using (NTFS, FAT32, etc.).

File Types and Extensions
Most files have a filename extension, the (usually three) letters that appear after the last dot in any file's name. Here are some common file extensions:

An Excel spreadsheet

A text file (to be opened with Notepad)

A HyperText Markup Language (HTML) file, commonly known as a web page

A JPEG image file, used to store photos

Tip Windows Vista includes a new document format, called XML Paper Specification (XPS), which uses the .xps extension. It is designed so that anyone can view the document, including its fonts, layout, graphics, and so on, even if he doesn't have the application that created it. In that way, it's much like the Adobe Acrobat .pdf format. Only those who have Vista or an XPS viewer will be able to view the document.

Although each of these files holds very different types of data, the only way Windows differentiates them is by their filename extensions. How Windows is able to determine a given file's type is important for several reasons, especially because it is the basis for the associations that link documents with the applications that created them. For example, when you double-click on a file named donkey.html, Windows looks up the extension in the Registry (see Chapter 13) and then, by default, opens the file in your web browser. Rename the file to donkey.jpg, and the association changes as well.

The lesson here is that filename extensions are not a reliable guide to a file's type, despite how heavily Windows Vista relies on them. What can make it even more frustrating is that, by default, known filename extensions are hidden by Windows Vista, but unfamiliar extensions are shown. Rename (an unassociated extension) to donkey.txt, and the extension simply disappears in Windows Explorer. Or, try to differentiate donkey.txt from donkey.doc when the extensions are hidden. To instruct Windows to show all extensions, go to Control Panel → Appearance and Personalization → Folder Options → View, and turn off the "Hide file extensions for known file types" option.

To see all of the configured file extensions on your system, go to Start → Default Programs → Associate a file type or protocol with a program. You'll see a list of all your file types, along with the programs with which they are associated. To change the default program for any file type, highlight the file type, click "Change program," and then select the new program with which the file should be associated.

Figure 2-8: The updated Windows Explorer

Figure 2-8

The updated Windows Explorer

view the image gallery
Using Windows Explorer
Click on a folder icon in Windows Explorer, and you'll see the contents of the folder. Look at the Preview Pane (it's on by default, but if it has been turned off for some reason, turn it on via Organize → Layout) for the number of items in the folder.

Windows Explorer has received a major makeover with Windows Vista, and although the basic function is the same (navigating through your hard disk, viewing and using files, etc.), the layout and features have changed. (For a detailed look at Windows Explorer, see Chapter 4.) Figure 2-8 shows the major features of Windows Explorer.

Figure 2-8. The updated Windows Explorer

You can turn panes on and off by choosing Organize → Layout, and selecting or deselecting the panes you want.

There's another major change to Windows Explorer with Windows Vista--the menus have vanished. To make them appear for a single task, press the Alt key. To keep them on permanently, choose Organize → Folder and Search Options → Layout → View, and check the box next to Always show menus.

Figure 2-9: Sort folder listings by clicking on column headers, or change column widths by dragging boundaries between the headers.

Figure 2-9

Sort folder listings by clicking on column headers, or change column widths by dragging boundaries between the headers.

view the image gallery
Depending on your settings, the files in the folder may be displayed in any of seven different ways: Tiles, Details, List, Small Icons, Medium Icons, Large Icons, and Extra Large Icons. In the Details view, each file is represented by a small icon, and several rows of information are displayed about each file, such as date created, date modified, size, and so on. In the List view, the files are displayed in a single long list. Small Icons, Medium Icons, Large Icons, and Extra Large Icons do exactly what they say: display each file as an icon representation, in whatever size you've chosen. (See Figure 2-9.) Different files will have different icon behaviors. With graphics files, for example, the icons are actual thumbnails of the graphic. But Word files display only the Word icon, not the actual content of the file itself. The Tiles view is a kind of combination of the List and Icon views--it displays the files as tiled icons, without columns of details but with basic information about the file next to each tile, including the name, type, and size of the file.

If you're looking at a folder full of images, any of the icon views will be most useful. The Tiles view is worthwhile if you want to see small icons in addition to basic file information.

If you want to see previews of the actual content of your files, you can turn on the Preview Pane. It appears on the right and shows a thumbnail of the current file you've highlighted. The Preview Pane works in any view. To turn it on, select Organize → Layout → Preview Pane. The icon next to the Preview Pane on the menu will become highlighted in blue, and the pane turns on. To turn it off, select Organize → Layout → Preview Pane, and the highlight around the icon will vanish, as will the pane.

You can change the columns displayed in the Details view. Right-click on any column, and from the list that appears select the file types you want displayed. In addition, you can change the sort order and display of any column by hovering your mouse over the column until a down arrow appears, then clicking the down arrow. You'll be presented with ways in which you can sort and display that column.

In certain instances you can also turn on a Search Pane, which will appear just above the toolbar. The pane works in concert with the Search Bar. Type in a search term, and the Search Pane lets you easily filter your search results by file type--such as Email, Pictures, and so on--by clicking on the appropriate button. To turn the Search Pane on, select Organize → Layout → Search Pane. The Search Pane icon will be highlighted in blue on the menu, and the pane turns on. To turn it off, select Organize → Layout → Search Pane, and the highlight will vanish, as will the pane. However, the Search Pane is only available this way in a few folders, such as Desktop and Computer. If you choose Organize → Layout in other folders, the Search Pane option will not be available. However, in any folder, if you type any text into the Search box, you can make the Search Pane appear by choosing Organize → Layout → Search Pane. But when you delete the text from the Search box, you won't have the option of turning on the Search Pane, except in a few select folders, such as Desktop and Computer.

Windows Vista will remember the view setting for each folder by default and will display it the same way the next time the folder is opened. (If a long time passes before you open a folder again, though, Windows will forget its settings.) You can turn this setting off by selecting Organize → Folder Options → View, unchecking the box next to "Remember each folder's view settings," and then clicking OK.

The Explorer Toolbar, like toolbars in most applications, provides quick access to some of the more frequently used features. The toolbar is context-sensitive; that is, it changes according to the content of the folder that you're viewing.

The Address Bar does more than just display your current folder; you also use it for navigation. Either move down the "bread crumb" trail that is displayed there, or else type the path to a folder and press Enter, and the folder's contents will be shown in the current window. This is often faster than navigating with the folder tree or using several consecutive folder windows. See Chapter 3 for details on using the Address Bar.

Although each new folder window you open will appear with Microsoft's default settings, it's possible to modify those defaults. Start by configuring a folder according to your preferences: choose the icon size, the sort order, and so on. Then, go to Organize → Folder Options → View, and click Apply to Folders. The setting will then be used for each new single folder window that is opened.

When you open a new folder, it opens in your existing Windows Explorer window. You can, however, have folders open in new windows instead. Choose Organize → Folder Options → General, select "Open each folder in its own window," and click OK.

Keyboard Accelerators in Folder Windows
Some keyboard accelerators are especially useful in Explorer and folder windows. You can use these in addition to the various keys described in "Point-and-Click Operations," earlier in this chapter.

  • Hold the Alt key while double-clicking on a file or folder to view the Properties window for that object.
  • Hover your mouse cursor over a file or folder to see basic information about the object, such as size, date modified, and so on.
  • Hold the Shift key while double-clicking on a folder to open an Explorer window (with the tree view) at that location. (Be careful when using this because Shift is also used to select multiple files. The best way is to select the file first.)
  • Press Backspace in an open folder to go to the parent (containing) folder.
  • Hold Alt while pressing the left cursor key to navigate to the previously viewed folder. Note that this is not necessarily the parent folder, but rather the last folder opened in Explorer. You can also hold Alt while pressing the right cursor key to move in the opposite direction (i.e., forward); this is similar to the Back and Next buttons in Internet Explorer, respectively. Windows Explorer also has Back and Next buttons.
  • Hold the Shift key while clicking on the close button (the x in the upper-right corner of the window on the menu bar) to close all open folders that were used to get to that folder. (This, of course, makes sense only in the single-folder view and with the "Open each folder in its own window" option turned on.)
  • Press Ctrl-A to quickly select all contents of a folder--both files and folders.
  • In Explorer or any single-folder window, press a letter key to quickly jump to the first file or folder starting with that letter. Continue typing to jump further. For example, pressing the N key in your \Windows folder will jump to nap. Press N again to jump to the next object that starts with N. Or, press N and then quickly press O to skip through the Ns and jump to notepad.exe. If there's enough of a delay between the N and the O keys, Explorer will forget about the N, and you'll jump to the first entry that starts with O.

Advanced Drag-and-Drop Techniques
Some of the basics of drag-and-drop are discussed in "Point-and-Click Operations," earlier in this chapter, but you can use some advanced techniques to have more control when you're dragging and dropping items. Naturally, it's important to be able to anticipate what will happen when you drag and drop an item before you actually do the dropping. The problem is that drag-and-drop is handled differently in various situations, so sometimes you'll need to modify your behavior to achieve the desired result. Here are the rules that Windows follows when determining how dropped files are handled:

  • If you drag an object from one place to another on the same physical drive (c:\docs to c:\files), the object is moved.

  • If you drag an object from one physical drive to another physical or network drive (c:\docs to d:\files), the object is copied, resulting in two identical files on your system.
  • If you drag an object from one physical or network drive to another and then back to the first drive, but in a different folder (c:\docs to d:\files to c:\stuff), you'll end up with three copies of the object.
  • If you drag an application executable (an EXE file), the same rules apply to it that apply to other objects, except that if you drag it into any portion of your Start menu or into any subfolder of your Start Menu folder, Windows will create a shortcut to the file. Dragging other file types (documents, script files, or other shortcuts) to the Start menu will simply move or copy them there, according to the preceding rules.
  • If you drag a system object (such as an item in the My Computer window or the Control Panel) anywhere, a shortcut to the item is created. This, of course, is a consequence of the fact that these objects aren't actually files and can't be duplicated or removed from their original locations.
  • If you drag system icons or items that appear within system folders, such as Documents, Internet Explorer, or the Recycle Bin, any number of things can happen, depending on the specific capabilities of the object. For example, if you drag a recently deleted file from the Recycle Bin, it will always be moved, because making a copy of, or a shortcut to, a deleted file makes no sense.

If you have trouble remembering these rules, or if you run into a confusing situation, you can always fall back on the information Windows provides you while you're dragging, in the form of the mouse cursor. A blue right-pointing arrow appears next to the pointer when copying, and a curved arrow appears when creating a shortcut. If you see no symbol, the object will be moved. This visual feedback is very important; it can eliminate a lot of mistakes if you pay attention to it.

Here's how to control what happens when you drag and drop an item:

  • To copy an object in any situation, hold the Ctrl key while dragging. Of course, this won't work for system objects such as Control Panel items--a shortcut will be created regardless. Using the Ctrl key in this way will also work when dragging a file from one part of a folder to another part of the same folder, which is an easy way to duplicate a file or folder.
  • To move an object in any situation, hold the Shift key while dragging. This also won't work for system objects such as Control Panel items--a shortcut will be created regardless.
  • To create a shortcut to an object in any situation, hold the Ctrl and Shift keys simultaneously while dragging. If you try to make a shortcut that points to another shortcut, the shortcut will simply be copied (duplicated).
  • To choose what happens to dragged files each time without having to press any keys, drag your files with the right mouse button, and a special menu will appear when the files are dropped. This context menu is especially helpful because it will display only options appropriate to the type of object you're dragging and the place where you've dropped it.

The Command Line

Many people who are new to computers will never have heard of the command line, also known as the command prompt, and sometimes (but incorrectly) called the DOS prompt. (DOS was the operating system used by most PCs before Windows became ubiquitous. The command line in DOS was the only way to start programs and manage files, and the command prompt in Windows borrows many of the command names from DOS but with vastly improved capabilities.) Users of older PCs may remember the command line, but they may be under the impression that it's purely a thing of the past. Advanced users, on the other hand--whether they remember the old days of the DOS command line or not--have probably learned the advantages of the command-line interface, even when using Windows Vista on a day-to-day basis.

You can perform many tasks faster by typing one or more commands into the Command Prompt window. In addition, some of the programs in Windows Vista are command-line-based tools, and you can run them from the command prompt as well as from the GUI. For full documentation on the command line and the Command Prompt application, see Chapter 14.

At the command prompt, you can get help on the available command-line options by typing:

commandname /?

You can see a list of all built-in command-line utilities by typing help and pressing Return.

When you run some command-line programs, such as openfiles, which displays all currently open files, you may get an error message similar to this: ERROR: Logged-on user does not have administrative privilege. You may get this message even if you are using an administrator account. There is a workaround: type cmd at the Start Search box on the Start menu (don't press Enter), right-click the "cmd" entry that appears at the top of the search results, and then choose Run as Administrator. You'll now be able to run any command-line program, such as openfiles, that gives you that error message.

Here are a few examples that show how you can use the command line as an alternative to the GUI:

  • To create a folder called sample in the root directory of your hard disk and then copy all the files from another folder into the new folder, for example, it can be quicker and easier to type:

    C:\>mkdir \sample
    C:\>copy d:\stuff\*.* \sample

    than to open Windows Explorer, navigate to your d:\stuff folder, select all the files, click File → Copy (or Ctrl-C), navigate to the new location, click New → Folder, type the folder name, open the new folder, and then click Edit → Paste (or Ctrl-V) to copy in the files. That's a heck of a sentence, and a heck of a lot of steps for what you can accomplish with the two simple commands shown here.
  • Once you learn the actual filename of a program rather than its Start menu shortcut name, it can be quicker to start it from the Run prompt or the Address Bar than it is to navigate the Start menu hierarchy. Which is really easier? Clicking your way through these menus:

    Start → Programs → Accessories → System Tools → Character Map

    or typing:


    into the Start menu's Search box or Explorer's Address Bar and pressing the Enter key? Typing a command is much faster than carefully dragging the mouse through cascading menus, where an unintentional slip of the mouse can get you somewhere entirely different from what you planned.

  • Finally, many useful programs don't appear on any menu in the Start menu. Once you know what you're doing, you can put shortcuts to such programs in the Start menu or on the Desktop--but once you know what you're doing, you might also find it easier to just type the program name.

Online Help

Many windows have some degree of online documentation in the form of a Help system that you can access by clicking the small question mark icon in the upper-righthand portion of the screen. The help is context-sensitive and will be relevant to the window from which you've accessed it.

In addition, you can press F1 at almost any time to display help. In some situations, pressing F1 will display only a tiny yellow message (known as a tool tip) with a brief description of the item with the focus; at other times, F1 will launch an online index of help topics. Sometimes F1 will have no effect whatsoever.

Furthermore, if you hold the pointer over many screen objects (such as a window's toolbar), a tool tip may appear. A tool tip may display nothing more than the name of the object to which you're pointing, but in other cases, it may provide additional information. For example, placing the pointer on the system clock pops up the date. You can turn tool tips off in the Windows interface by going to Control Panel → Appearance and Personalization → Folder Options → View and turning off the option "Show pop-up description for folder and Desktop items." Note that this won't necessarily turn off tool tips in other applications--only Explorer.

Shutting Down

You shouldn't just turn off the power to a Windows Vista machine, because it caches a lot of data in memory and needs to write it out before shutting down.

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