Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 149 / FEBRUARY 1993 / PAGE S2

How to multitask with Windows. (Software Review) (Compute's Getting Started with Windows Utilities) (Evaluation)
by Dan Gookin

Until recently, few DOS users have been interested in multitasking (the ability of a computer operating system to run more than one program at a time), Who really needs to do that? After all, you have only one monitor, one keyboard, and one head, so how could you run two or three programs at once? Most of us have enough trouble running just one program.

What we've learned with Windows is that running two or three programs at the same time isn't the issue. What's more important is having access to more than one program; being able to quickly switch from one application to another--without losing your place or your chain of thought--is really what multitasking is all about.

The average user may actively run two or three applications on his or her computer. Much time is wasted switching among them. For example, you create a budget in your spreadsheet, then you have to quit that application and start your word processor to write the proposal. Often times you must quit the word processor and return to the spreadsheet, moving back and forth between the two programs several times, before your work is complete. That's a lot of effort when you consider that a computer is supposed to make things easier and save you time. Enter multitasking.

With multitasking you can run both your spreadsheet and word processor, or any number of programs, simultaneously. You still only use one of them at a time. That program is considered to be in the foreground. The other programs, the ones you aren't currently working with, continue to spin in the background. The whole point is that you never need to quit one application and restart another. Everything is working all at once, so that you can navigate by switching from one program or task to another instead of by stopping and starting.

Of course, not every program in the background sits and twiddles its thumbs. That's because thumb twiddling requires processor time. So when they are shoved out of the way, most programs will spend their idle time doing nothing. That leaves more computer muscle available for the program in the foreground, the one you're currently working on. Other programs, those that don't require your immediate attention, may be able to continue working in the background. For example, programs that print, sort lists, massage data, download information, or any application that doesn't require your direct attention, can be switched to the background. Since you're not tied up staring at Printing Page 113 or waiting while downloading a program, you can get more work done on the program in the foreground.

All the marvels of multitasking are lost on most PC users: DOS is completely unable to multitask. It's true that some applications, such as the DOS Shell program, will let you run several programs at a time and switch among them. But the DOS Shell is only a task switcher; the programs you don't see are suspended in time, and there's no way to easily share information between the programs. A better solution is Microsoft Windows, which is the closest thing most PC users have to an integrated multitasking operating system.

Learning to Juggle

Most of Windows' multitasking abilities are overshadowed by its graphical appeal. This is sad because Windows is fully capable of running several applications at once, allowing the applications to share information, and letting you easily switch between them. Even so, the manner in which Windows does this could stand some improvement.

For example, there are three ways to start or launch a program in Windows:

* Find or create an icon for the program and double-click it using the mouse.

* Select Run from the Program Manager or File Manager's File menu, then enter the program's name.

* Locate a program icon and double-click it.

Further problems come when you switch between programs. I've seen Windows users start a program, use it, quit the program, and then start another program. They fail to take advantage of Windows' many methods of task switching, perhaps because there are so many ways to do it:

* Start a new program (task) using one of the three methods described above.

* Press Ctrl+Esc to activate the Task Manager and select another task.

* Double-click the desktop to activate Task Manager and select another task.

* Select Switch To from a control menu to activate the Task Manager and select another task.

These different methods of program launching and task switching lead to a lot of confusion.The basics are there. The Program Manager displays graphical menus of programs to run; the File Manager lets, you select programs, as well as manage files; and the Task Manager allows you to switch among running programs. There's even the Recorder which allows you to create macros to help automate tasks. Still, all this could be made to run better.

There are several interesting third-party solutions that can improve upon Windows' mediocre program launching and task switching. Some, such as Back Menu, are simple pop-up menus for launching and switching. Power-user programs, such as hDC Power-Launch, serve the needs and lusts of users. While still others, such as Metz Task Manager and Icom Simulations' Squeegee, offer humble efficiency for the majority of Windows owners who need something with a bit more muscle than Windows alone has to offer.

Easy Application Launching

For blissful simplicity, nothing beats the shareware program, Back Menu (SP Services, P.O. Box 456, Southampton, United Kingdom S09 7XG). Don't let the shareware part turn you off. Unlike other Windows shareware, which tends to be amateurish, haphazard, and overburdened with registration pleas, Back Menu is a competent and highly useful program launcher and task switcher.

Basically, Back Menu is an easy-going pop-up menu tool that won't clog your brain with new commands or clutter your desktop with graphical somersaults. You activate the program by clicking the left mouse button on the desktop. Back Menu's menu appears, stuck on the desktop as though you just pinned it there with the mouse button. Most of the menu items are nested in submenus and can be selected using the mouse, cursor keys, or keyboard.

The menu Back Menu displays is basically a text file you can edit using Windows Notepad or any text editor. The sample menu included with the. program contains about all the information you need.

Some of the commands carry out specific tasks in Back Menu, but they fall short of making up a complete macro language. The commands allow you to display a Windows task list for task switching, include Program Manager groups in the menus, display a pop-up Run command window for command-line input, prompt for parameters when starting an application, unload Back Menu from memory, and exit Windows. (The exit Windows command doesn't display a warning message.)

For task switching, Back Menu displays the task list as a menu item using the special $tasks keyword. Though it doesn't replace the task manager, it does keep all your application-launching and task-switching options in one spot.

Back Menu includes few bonus goodies.The only true extra utility is the Wrun command, which lets you start a Windows application at a DOS prompt while running Windows. This will bring tears of joy to the eyes of frustrated DOS batch-file programmers everywhere.

Other than Wrun, Back Menu offers no file management tools;has no scripting language, scheduling, or desktop management features; and only displays the bare minimum in its System information window. This is consistent with the spirit of a light and friendly program, but makes Back Menu seem less powerful than other program launchers and task switchers. Don't let that discourage you from checking out this program.

Power User's Dream

The final word in Windows program launching and task switching is hDC PowerLauncher (hDC Computer, 6742 185th Avenue NE, Redmond, Washington 98052; 206-885-5550; $99.95). PowerLauncher does it all. Because it is so ambitious, it suffers from the burden of too many gadgets. This may be a turn-off to some users who could be intimidated by the program's formidable features.

PowerLauncher can assume the roles of both Program Manager and task switcher, though it works just fine as a tool unto itself. it starts by displaying the Power Bar at the top of the desktop, overseeing all of Windows. (By itself, the Power Bar could replace the Program Manager.) The control menu on each application window is changed to the red hDC menu, which is augmented with special control menu items as well as the hDC command menu. In a way, PowerLauncher makes each application's control menu your center of operations.

The Power Bar includes buttons that let you control Windows. An input box allows you to type in commands to run programs. Windows users misty-eyed over losing the DOS prompt will appreciate PowerLauncher's augmented file commands. And a command history lets you edit older commands easily. Though PowerLauncher has no file management tools, a button on the Power Bar allows you to pop up the File Manager window. Other buttons let you pop up a System Information window and Virtual Desktop control program, plus additional programs and tools that let you control the desktop, launch special programs, and exit Windows.

You can access still other PowerLauncher functions from the red hDC control menu including Hide, which gets Windows out of the way without iconizing them; icon Maximize, which enlarges a window to just below the Power Bar and above any icons at the bottom of the desktop; and Always in View, which keeps a window visible if you select another part of the virtual desktop (more on that later).

To the right of the control menu is a custom menu that contains PowerLauncher's commands. This is where you create custom menus for launching applications, including commands customized by PowerLauncher's Enhanced Commands. These allow you to launch a program and control various aspects of the application's window, its position, and how it starts. For example, one of the sample commands is Discreet Solitaire, which launches Solitaire and makes it look like a Windows Write program.

You can create custom macros and start them from the menu as well. Unfortunately, you can't include the Program Manager's groups as menu items.

You also can create toolbox menus, which are composed of various icon buttons that attach themselves to the control menu and are always visible. PowerLauncher calls this the Power Toolbox, and it can be quite effective. For example, you can create a Toolbox for each application. This is equivalent to bringing in your own custom button bar for that program. Common commands and mouse. movements are attached to the buttons using the hDC Micro Apps, Power Keyboard, and Power Mouse, which also are responsible for PowerLauncher's scripting and macros.

PowerLauncher's task list shows you all the programs currently running in Windows, including hidden programs (which you shouldn't mess with anyway, so I don't know why they're listed). You can switch to any task easily, or end a task by Shift-clicking it. There's also a scheduling tool for launching tasks or scripts at various times, including after idle time or a period of inactivity.

Finally, the Virtual Desktop is a tool that increases your workspace by creating multiple desktops. By default, the Virtual Desktop creates a desktop area equivalent to nine computer screens. You can drag windows into any screen, then switch the view to show you only that desktop. The end result is like viewing a large document through a small window. The Virtual Desktop gives you much more room to play in without having to shrink the text down to munchkin font or forcing you to buy a larger monitor.

There's much more to hDC PowerLauncher, too. Power users will love the array of features and total control PowerLauncher provides. Others might be overwhelmed. But if you're aching to drive a high-performance program launcher and task switcher, you'll appreciate the gizmos and gadgets PowerLauncher gives you to play with.

Middle Manager

Next on our list is Metz Task Manager (Metz Software, P.O. Box 6699, Bellevue, Washington 98008-0699; 206-641-4525; $49.95). Since it replaces Windows Task Manager, it's always conveniently available. Double-click on the desktop, up pops Metz! Press Ctrl+Esc, say hello to Metz! Select Switch To from an application's control menu, there's Metz again! As you can see, Metz is more than a simple Task Manager replacement. it offers program launching, menuing scheduling, and a few other surprises, all without intruding into the overall feel of Windows.

Metz nudges its way into Windows in just two areas. The first is as a handy yet powerful replacement for Windows' Task Manager. Even without a degree in computer science, you can use Metz by selecting a task from its scrollable list. Unlike the Task Manager, Metz also displays icons by each description. Switching to another task is as easy as a double-click. You also can kill tasks, just as you can with the Task Manager, but this is where the similarity ends and the fun begins.

Metz takes the arrangement of your desktop far more seriously than Windows' Task Manager. Under Metz, you have total control over your windows and icons--even when launching a program. Big, bold buttons on the Metz task-managing window control everything. There's even a customizable launch pad from which you can start hew applications right on the main window, though that's not the limit of Metz's menuing abilities.

As a menu system, Metz allows you to create multi-level customized menus for starting applications. The menus appear under the Launch menu item in the Metz Task Manager's main window, so the programs can be launched from anywhere just by activating the task manager. Or, if you prefer, you can assign hot keys to the menu items. The hot keys also apply to programs on the launch pad.

Incidentally, the Launch menu is the second way Metz intrudes in Windows. The Launch menu appears in Windows File Manager. This gives you yet another place from which to start applications.

If you tire of pressing buttons or selecting programs from a menu, you also can use a command-line prompt for running programs. A convenient history is kept at the ready for reissuing common commands.

Metz also includes a few add-on utilities. There's a system information window, various file management tools and manipulation windows, and a screen saver. You can use the Metz Scheduler utility to automatically launch programs at predetermined times or on a regular schedule. You can even have the program display handy pop-up messages, such as the ever popular "Stop playing Solitaire and return to work."

I found myself growing more and more fond of the Metz Task Manager the more I used it. The program is well planned and does everything you'd expect from a task manager, such as launching programs and controlling tasks and the desktop. But the program's personal appeal is that it doesn't horn in oh Windows' own turf, altering your desktop or presenting you with a bucket full of new commands and gizmos to memorize. Metz is unobtrusive and handy, and it performs its jobs with quiet excellence.

Fun with Squeegee

A squeegee is the handheld wiper that's used to clean windows. Squeegee (Icom Simulations, 648 South Wheeling Road, Wheeling, Illinois .60090; 708-520-4400; $79.95) presents itself as a subtle yet powerful program launching and menu tool, though you'll still heed a towel sprayed with cleaner to wipe off your monitor.

Unlike hDC PowerLauncher, Squeegee isn't a replacement for Program Manager. And unlike Metz Task Manager, Squeegee isn't a Task Manager replacement either, though it does present a menu of currently running applications and will let you move among them (though you can't delete a task).

Squeegee does share a similarity with PowerLauncher--it attaches a common menu to all your applications. Unlike PowerLauncher, however, Squeegee's icon appears to the right of the control menu and doesn't alter the control menu or its contents. This is entirely optional; Squeegee also can be activated by clicking the mouse on the desktop and pressing. the Alt key. In fact, various mouse buttons can be assigned to pop-up different parts of Squeegee.By default, an Alt+Click left-mouse button brings up Squeegee's menu on the desktop; Alt+Click right-mouse button pops up the task list; and if you have a middle mouse button, Alt+Click middle brings Up the options menu for configuring Squeegee.

The Squeegee menu contains options for configuring the program, selecting tasks, and choosing applications. Squeegee automatically imports Program Manager groups and sets up menu items for them. You can create additional menu items and assign hot keys to other applications. One interesting aspect of Squeegee is its ability to put more than just an application or filename on a menu. While Squeegee lacks a scripting language (so you can't put macros on the menu), you can put such interesting items as a subdirectory or project on a menu.

A subdirectory menu is simply a directory somewhere on your hard drive. When you select that menu item, a submenu appears listing all the programs you can run in that directory. For example, you could put your DOS subdirectory on a Squeegee menu to have access to all of DOS'S external commands. Or you could put a Utility or Bin directory on the Squeegee menu to instantly run any program in that directory. I find this feature ingenious.

Project menus are a great way to get work done under Windows. instead of putting a single program or data file on a menu, Squeegee lets you attach multiple files and programs to a single menu item--essentially, everything you work on to create a project.

Another marvelous improvement upon Windows is Squeegee's file association. Unlike the standard Windows file association, where data files ending with similar extensions are linked to a single application, a Squeegee file association allows you to link multiple applications with common file extensions. For example, you could associate files with a DOC extension with Word for Windows, Word-Perfect, Notepad, or Windows Write. When you double-click on a file with a DOC extension, Squeegee brings up a dialog box asking you to select your preferred application for the task.

For file management, Squeegee comes with a Quick Filer utility. It's a simple tool, reminiscent of early XTree. Quick Filer lets you copy, move rename, delete, and find file;, as well as control directories. It's nothing fancy, yet it's always available from the Squeegee menu.

Overall, Squeegee does the program-launching job quite well. The Squeegee icon on the title bar provides convenient access to a useful menu system, allowing you to quickly start another application or hop between applications with ease. All that aside, the things that make Squeegee stand out are its directory and project menu, items. The project menus in particular will prove a true boon to productivity.


I found something to like about each of these task-switching-and program-launching utilities.

If all you need is a simple menu system, a common place where you can launch new applications and switch between running programs, Back Menu makes an excellent choice. Those who need a peashooter-simple Windows menu have found it in Back Menu.

To satiate the hunger of the Windows power user, hDC PowerLauncher serves up a wicked main course--with dessert. The program bristles with features; its creators thought of everything. The only drawback is its complexity, which may make it too frightening for many novices, casual users, or Windows purists.

The Metz Task Manager isn't as intrusive as PowerLauncher; It's a humble, yet power-packed utility, suited to the user who needs flexible program launching and task switching but doesn't want to sacrifice the overall look and feel of Windows.

If you're tired of wading through the desktop to find an application icon via Program, Manager, Squeegee is what you need. The program is short on bells and whistles, yet is long on convenience. Of the four programs, Squeegee may be the best choice for the average Windows user.