Monday, April 5, 2010

So long, and thanks for all the glass

When I first installed Windows 7 after nearly a decade of using XP, I decided I'd not customize it. I'd just leave the settings at their default values and see what the wise men at Microsoft had decided for me. After all, there are thousands of hours of usability testing behind those decisions, so it seemed a good idea to give them a chance.

Now, half a year later, I've gotten used to most of Windows 7. Although I've tweaked the occasional thing here and there (show me the damn file extensions already!), I think most of it is pretty reasonable. But there's one thing I just can't get used to: the Aero theme.

It's not that it's semi-transparent. It's not that it fades and zooms and zips and zaps. It's just the minor little thing that I can't see the difference anymore between active and inactive windows.

When you activate a window, the title bar and borders become a little bit darker, the shadow becomes a little bit blacker, and the close button changes its colour from glassy to red. You can see the changes happen while you're switching focus, but telling the difference at a glance from a static image is hard. And because the title bar is transparent, the colour depends on the things behind it, making it even harder. There's just no single, consistent look for active and inactive title bars. I kept having to look at the close button to tell which window was active.

The subtle difference between an inactive and active title bar in Windows Aero

So what am I to do? Am I to magically know which window is active? When I've just clicked it, or when I'm typing into it, sure, I'll know. But being the Alt+Tab guy that I am, I shift focus without clicking all the time, and not always to the correct window right away. And what if some unexpected window suddenly pops up that might have stolen my focus, like an auto-updater? How can I tell if I can continue typing, or that I'd better yank my hands away from the keyboard in case I inadvertedly activate the Launch Nukes button?

Unfortunately, there is no way to change the look. The wise men at Microsoft have decided that a “theme” will be nothing more than a single colour for the glass, along with a set of wallpapers. There's no way to select different colours for active and inactive windows, like there is for the “classic” themes. There's also no way to install a clearer Aero theme without resorting to commercial third-party software like WindowBlinds.

So in the end, after my millionth focus fuckup, I switched back to the classic Windows 2000 lookalike theme. Blue versus gray seems like a distinction my eyes can handle.

Why do I have to sacrifice good looks to gain usability? Why can't Microsoft just make them get along?

1 comment:

Johan Ingvast said...

Very well formulated. I have exactly the same problem. Only, I feel I have to do the switch after one day.