Stop Mac Envy Foreverby Thomas Kunneth
Do you suffer from Mac envy? You're not alone. Apple is justifiably famous for its innovative user interface design, and Mac OS X is particularly fun to use. Let's face it: we love our Windows boxes, but when looking at a Mac desktop we wish Windows XP offered some of its features, too.
In this article I'll focus on Mac OS X-like features that help increase your productivity and add a lot of fun to computing. In a future article, I'll cover how to change the overall look and feel of Windows so that it's more like Aqua, the slick and great-looking visual appearance of Mac OS X.
Switch Between Applications and Windows Like Expose Does
With its Panther release of Mac OS X, Apple introduced Expose, an especially intuitive way to switch between applications and windows. If you press a certain function key, you get neatly arranged previews of all open windows. Another key works similarly but shows only windows belonging to the current application. All of this is particularly useful, as it provides a quick overview of what is happening onscreen.
Windows users have been stuck with the (Shift-)Alt-Tab key combination for switching between windows. An Alt-Tab replacement is part of Microsoft's Power Toys suite and enhances this functionality by presenting a small preview of a window whenever (Shift-)Alt-Tab is pressed. But that's pretty poor stuff compared with the Mac. Several companies offer programs that bring the Expose experience to the Windows desktop. Among them are:
- WinPLOSION ($10, 7-day trial)
- Entbloess ($8, trial version offers some but not all features)
- Exposer for Windows ($7, 30-day trial)
We'll take a closer look at Entbloess. Figure 1 shows how its preview mode organizes your open windows.
Figure 1. All open windows are neatly arranged in preview mode
To switch to a window, you simply click on its preview. Another feature of Entbloess provides similar functionality to Microsoft's Alt-Tab replacement. It's shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The Alt-Tab replacement of Entbloess
One of Expose's features lets you hide all open windows with a single keystroke. We do get this one free, as Windows offers the same functionality. To gain immediate access to the desktop, simply press and hold the Windows key, then press M.
RSS Feeds Built into the Operating System
We continue our search for enhancements with a look into the future. Apple has announced it will integrate RSS feeds into its Safari Web Browser with the release of Mac OS X 10.4, code-named Tiger, which is expected to ship in early 2005. RSS is a widely adopted technology used to present news headlines, community weblog entries, article summaries, and diary-like web entries in news feeds.
Several sophisticated RSS readers are available for Windows; some of them are stand-alone applications, and others integrate themselves into Microsoft Outlook. (See Wei-Meng Lee's Top Three Windows RSS Readers for more details.) But enabling your browser to access RSS feeds has an advantage in that you don't need a separate program to display the feeds. Because feeds are often referenced on web pages (you may have noticed small orange XML or RSS images), it's easy for the browser to detect them and tell you about them. That's what Pluck does--it integrates itself seamlessly into Internet Explorer. Figures 3 and 4 show how you can browse RSS feeds with Pluck.
Figure 3. Pluck showing the news feed of Slashdot
Figure 4. Pluck informing the user about changes in a news feed
Pluck offers several additional features, such as searches, an extra toolbar, and web folders that allow for the sharing of bookmarks. While these are very welcome features, I'd very much appreciate a small version that focuses on RSS feeds only.
Finally, let's look at another eye-catching feature of Mac OS X, the Dock. Several operating systems offer Dock-like functionality, and the Windows Taskbar is a Dock of sorts. Dock's basic idea is that you have a drop zone where you drag files and programs you need frequently. Accessing them is as simple as clicking on the corresponding icon, which remains visible at all times. Additionally, the Dock shows all currently running programs. What stands out in the Mac OS X version is its visual appearance, with lots of nice animations. If you minimize an application window, program output takes place in the Dock. Several programs for Windows deliver a Mac-like Dock experience, including ObjectDock and MobyDock.
Let's have a look first at ObjectDock, a free program by Stardock. Figure 5 shows its main window. As you can see, one program is running, but its main window has been minimized. ObjectDock shows a tiny preview of this window.
Figure 5. The main window of ObjectDock
Another interesting feature of ObjectDock is that it can be extended with plugins. These small programs run inside the ObjectDock main window and provide additional features such as weather forecasts, an email checker, a clock, and a shutdown button. Figure 6 shows a particularly interesting plugin, which displays the notification area of the Windows Taskbar.
Figure 6. A plugin showing the notification area of the Windows Taskbar
Next, let's look at MobyDock, which is also free. Keep in mind that it makes heavy use of DirectX 9, so your hardware should offer graphics acceleration. Figure 7 shows its main window. It can show small thumbnail images of minimized windows, just like Object Dock does.
Figure 7. The MobyDock main window
Though MobyDock has no plugin mechanism, it offers some nice features, including a screen snapshot utility and the ability to control the Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes, shown in Figures 8 and 9.
Figure 8. The screen snapshot utility in MobyDock
Figure 9. MobyDock can be used to control Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes
Just like on the Mac, both programs allow the dragging and dropping of icons to and from the Dock. They even deliver some of the visual feedback of the Mac OS X Dock; for example, the vanishing effect if an icon is removed from the Dock.
Thomas Kunneth is a senior professional at the German authorities, specializing in database systems and application development. He has an MA from Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in computational linguistics and the German language.
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