The other day, I counted up the windows that were open on my PC: two browsers, an HTML editor, an image editor, two folder windows, nine received e-mails, and one outgoing message. I was lost on my own desktop.
That's when I remembered my favorite window managers for XP and Vista: Alt-Tab Thingy and Switcher, respectively. Both programs put Windows' built-in window manager to shame.
In XP, you can right-click the taskbar to cascade your open windows or tile them horizontally or vertically. Pressing Alt-Tab opens another window showing icons representing your active windows. (Vista replaces the icons with small images of the windows themselves.) Keep pressing Tab to cycle through them and select the one you want to open.
Vista adds a neat new trick: Flip 3D, which lets you scroll through 3D versions of your open windows by using your mouse's scroll wheel or by pressing the Windows key and Tab. Press the Ctrl key in addition to the Windows key and Tab to keep the 3D versions on screen as you Tab through them. Hold the Shift key with the Windows key and Tab to move through the windows in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, when you're cycling through nine e-mails with similar subjects and contents, you need help distinguishing them. You can duplicate Vista's Alt-Tab previews by downloading and installing Alt-Tab Replacement, one of Microsoft's free PowerToys for Windows XP.
A free alternative to Alt-Tab Replacement is Alt-Tab Thingy, which adds the ability to customize the Alt-Tab window itself, among many other features. There's a version of Alt-Tab Thingy for Vista, but on that OS I prefer Bao Nguyen's Switcher.
This free program lets you assign the keyboard shortcut of your choice to view your open windows in one of three layouts. Press the number superimposed on the window to select it. Switcher provides fine-grain control over the appearance and behavior of the previews it shows of your open windows. However, my favorite Switcher feature is the ability to start typing text to open a search box automatically and switch to the window containing the term. Now that's fast.
Switcher also lets you choose to see the desktop as an open window, in the background, or not at all. You can even adjust the duration of selections and transitions. And because you can assign Switcher a different keyboard shortcut, you can have your Alt-Tab view and Switcher, too.