Three Shortcuts for Switching Between Open Windows

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If you are like me, you often have a number of applications and files open at the same time. Since I usually want to switch back and forth among the open windows, I need something easier than hunting down each window so I can click on it. Windows 7 with Aero themes does provide thumbnails on the taskbar for easy clicking but often I want a keyboard shortcut. Here are three that work in a variety of systems.

Alt + Tab – (Task switcher) This old standby dating back to Windows 3.1 works in all current Windows versions from XP on up. However, there are some differences in its behavior between XP and Vista/7. For example, the order in which windows are displayed is different. See this MSDN reference for more details on this point. Also, in Vista/7 the exact behavior may vary depending on your hardware and software setup. See this discussion.

In Windows XP or non-Aero Vista/7, Alt+Tab provides a bar displaying  icons for all open windows (and the desktop in Vista/7). Hold down Alt and tap the Tab key to cycle through the icons. Release Alt to bring a selected window to the forefront. In Windows 7 systems with Aero Peek, tapping the Tab key may cycle through the open Windows themselves instead of their icons.

Alt + Esc – Another oldie from way back that still works. It cycles through the icons of open windows on the taskbar. If a window is open and not minimized, displays the window. The taskbar icons of minimized windows are highlighted but the window is not displayed. Hold down the Alt key and tap Esc until the desired window is reached. Then release the Alt key.

Windows key + Tab – (Flip 3D) This was introduced in Windows Vista and continued in Windows 7. It cycles through a 3D stack of open windows plus the desktop. Requires an Aero theme and supporting graphics. Hold down the Windows key and tap Tab until the desired window is displayed. Then release the Windows key.

A variation of Flip 3D is given by the slightly different and lesser known shortcut  Ctrl + Windows key + Tab. This shortcut makes  it possible to cycle through the open windows with the arrow keys or with the mouse scroll button.

In the next tip I will show how to use Flip 3D in Windows 7 using only the mouse.

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This tips section is maintained by Vic Laurie. Vic runs several websites with Windows how-to's and tutorials, including  a computer education website and a site for learning about the command line.

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