by Allen Wyatt
(last updated March 14, 2016)
You already know that Windows can run more than one program at a time. Most programs that you start are displayed within a program Window. As you work with the program windows, only one of those windows is active at a time; it is the one that responds to your input or actions in some way.
You've also probably noticed that if you have multiple program windows open on your screen, the windows can overlap each other. Usually the active window appears in front of or on top of any other windows that may be visible. You'll also notice that the title bar of the active window is "highlighted" so you can easily tell it apart from the inactive windows.
Even though only one program window is active at a time, all of the programs open on your system are running, either doing some type of processing or waiting for you to make them active and work with them. As you do so, you'll want to switch from one program window to another, sometimes quite often.
Switching between program windows is easy—the normal way to do it is to simply use the mouse. Move the mouse pointer over some portion of a program's window, click once, and that program's window is made active. Also, the previously active program window is made inactive. (Remember: Only one program window can be active at a time.) The only exception to this is if a program window is requiring some sort of input from you, normally displayed in a dialog box. Often you won't be able to switch to a different program window until you resolve whatever pressing issue the program is requiring of you.
Another way to switch between program windows is to use the taskbar. Each program window you open (and also, many times, document windows used by your programs) ends up as an item on your taskbar. All you need to do is hover the mouse pointer over the item on the task bar and click on whichever task (program) you want to make active. Windows obliges, expands the window or brings it to the forefront, and you can start to work with it.
A third way to switch between program windows is to use the Alt+Tab shortcut key. Press it once and you'll see, front and center on the screen, icons for each of your open program windows. These icons roughly correlate to the tasks displayed on the taskbar. As you hold down the Alt key you can repeatedly press Tab until the program you want is selected. Release the keys, and the program window is made active so you can work with it.
Finally, a fourth way to switch between program windows is to use Flip 3D. (Flip 3D is available only if you are using Windows 7.) If you are using an Aero desktop theme, you can hold down the Windows key on the keyboard and start pressing the Tab key. This is similar to using Alt+Tab, except that program icons aren't displayed—small versions of the program windows are displayed as a "stack" that you can flip through. (You flip through them by continuing to press the Tab key.) When you see the program window for the program you want to use, release the keys and that window is made active.
This tip (6166) applies to Windows 7, 8, and 10.
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