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Getting more comfortable with your computer (pt 1):

Working with (small 'w') windows

by Alan Zisman (c) 2017


Italian translation by James Galea

This is part one of a two-part introduction to working with windows, files, folders and drives on laptop and desktop computers. It accompanies a series of workshops given at Vancouver's Brock House. You can find Part 2 here.

Modern laptop and desktop computers all use similar 'user interfaces' - the way the computer shows information to the user and the way the user interacts with the computer. Whether you are using some version of Windows, a Mac, or another alterative, you are working with ideas that were first popularized in the mid-1980s and were refered to then as a 'WIMP' interface: using windows, icons, menus, and a pointer (a mouse or trackpad).

Smartphones and tablets don't use this style of user interface - but what we're doing today will help you feel more comfortable with your laptop or desktop computer. We'll be using Windows 10 in our images - but everything we discuss can be applied to other Windows versions, Macs, etc - differences for Mac-users will be pointed out.

About windows
(and not necessarily just about Windows)

All computers - including mobile devices like smartphones and tablets which are really just very portable computers - use software called an 'operating system' ('OS' for short) that is a basic level of software telling the computer hardware how to work: how to interact with the user, with the wide range of other software programs, and with hardware like printers, keyboards, and more. Apple's Macintosh desktops and laptops run an operating system named Mac OS (formerly Mac OS X). Apple's iPhones and iPads use something called iOS. Most other phones and tablets (from Samsung, LG, Motorola, and many more brands) use an operating system named Android. And the wide variety of laptop and desktop computers (with brands like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer, ASUS and many many more) generally use one or another version of Microsoft Windows. Both Windows (with a capital 'W') and Apple's Mac OS show users information on screen in a rectangle referred to as a window (with a small 'w').

You may have a single window filling pretty much the entire screen - in that case, the window is referred to as being 'maximized'.

You may have several windows open at the same time, each filling just part of the screen; windows may partially cover other windows - as in the image below (on a Windows 10 computer):

Multiple windows

Only one window is 'active' at a time - if you type something, the letters you type appear in the active window, not the one that's running in the background. Your mouse or trackpad pointer, however, can move outside the active window. If you click anywhere in the other window, your computer makes that one 'active' - and displays it in front. Now anything that you type appears in that window. (An alternate way to change active windows is to hold down the alt key on your keyboard and press the tab key - Mac users use the key plus the command key plus the tab key. This lets you cycle between open programs).

Down along the bottom of the screen, there is a row of coloured icons - some of these appear there all the time, as a convenient way to start up frequently-used programs (also called applications or apps). Any program that's running - whether you starting it by clicking on an icon here or not - will also appear down here. On this Windows 10 computer, the two programs that are running are indicated by lines under their icons. (The Mac similarly has a row of icons on the bottom - it indicates running program icons with a little triangle underneath their icon). (Some people have moved the row of icons to the left or right side - and they may have configured their computer so the icons hide except when your mouse is pointing to the bottom or side).

The 3 buttons: Along the top of every program window is the 'title bar' which may include some information about the program. In Windows computers, the 'active' program window's title bar may be coloured while the background one is not (as in the example above). In the top-right corner of a Windows title bar, you'll see three little icons; on a Mac, you'll see three coloured 'gum drop' buttons on the top-left:
Windows buttons
Windows buttons: minimize, maximize, close
Mac buttons
Mac buttons: close, minimize, maximize

Clicking the 'minimize' button takes the program window off-screen, shrinking it down to the icon down on the bottom of the screen. The program is still running, though - your minimized email program is still receiving mail, for instance. And minimized programs will still be using battery power on your laptop.

Clicking the maximize button enlarges the program window to fill up the whole screen (except the row of icons). It will cover up any other windows - though these will still be running even though they're hidden.

Clicking the close button will shut down the program window. If you have an unsaved document, you'll be asked if you want to save it. (A difference between Windows and Macs - usually, clicking the close button will close the program on a Windows computer. On a Mac, it will close the program's window, but often leave the program still running - making it quicker to open next time, but also using computer memory. This confuses many Mac users!)

Restore buttonOn a Windows computer, when a window is maximized, the middle button changes - instead of a single square maximize button, you get an icon showing two overlapping squares - clicking this 'restores' the window so it is no longer covering the whole screen. Instead, it now takes up only part of the screen, so you may have two (or more) overlapping windows - as in the screen image up above.

On a Windows computer, if you point your mouse at one of these three buttons (without clicking), after a few seconds the name of the button pops up.

When program windows are minimized, clicking on their icon (on the bottom) restores them to the way they were when they were minimized.

Moving and resizing windows: When a program window is open and not  maximized - i.e. covering the whole screen, you can change its size and move it around the screen. This is not just a silly thing to do - you may want to adjust window size and position so you can see what's happening in multiple program windows at the same time. Or to move files from one location to another (more of that in Part 2). Or just to watch a YouTube video in a small window while getting real work done in another part of your screen.

You move a window around the screen by pointing your mouse pointer to somewhere on the title bar along the top (but not the three little buttons in the corner!) hold the left button down and drag - the window will follow the mouse pointer until you lift the mouse button. (On a laptop trackpad, I use both index fingers - one to hold down the trackpad button, the other to move the pointer).

Windows 7, 8 and 10 have a feature referred to as windows snap - if you move a window to a left or right edge of the screen it snaps to the edge. Dragging to the top of the screen maximizes the window. Or drag a title bar to any of the four corners to snap the window to that corner. If you have multiple open windows, Snap Assist will help arrange them in the remaining space. (Actual implementation various with the different Windows versions). Some people like this - I find it annoying and turn it off.

To resize a window, move your mouse pointer to the lower-right corner of the window. Again, hold the left button down and drag in or out. The edges of the window will move along with the mouse pointer, making the window smaller or larger. The contents of the window may rearrange themselves to fit this resized window - or may just be cut off with less showing.

Tabs: some programs offer tabs - a way to load multiple pages within a single window and move between them by clicking on the tab. Web browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox include tabs (see Chrome in the image up above) letting you load multiple webpages; spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel can have multiple sheets on different tabs. The Windows 10 File Explorer lets users load tabs to view the contents of multiple drives or folders at once.

Three kinds of clicks: You've got a mouse or a laptop trackpad. Most mice/trackpads on Windows computers have two buttons - most Mac mice/trackpads have only one button. The button(s) may be hidden - nevertheless, if you click where you might expect a button to be, you should find it works! There are three common ways to click.
As an example, I'm going click, double-click, and right-click on the Recycle Bin icon on a Windows 7 computer's Desktop. Here's what we'll see:
Single Click
  • Single-click on the Recycle Bin icon selects (or 'highlights') that icon - note how it has a rectangle around it and a transparent grey box compared to the icon below it (labelled 'My Pictures'). Selecting it indicates that something can happen to it - we could drag it around the Desktop or drag it to another folder. If we wait a few seconds and click on it again, we could change the name - not necessarily recommended.
  • Sometimes, a single click will open a file or folder; usually, though it takes a double-click - clicking twice in quick succession without a pause between the two. Click-click - just like you might read that.
  • Whenever an instruction says 'click' it means a single-click with the left mouse button.
  • Double-clicking on the Recycle Bin 'opens it up'. What that means depends on what sort of file the icon represents - double-clicking the icon for a program (or application) will run the program without loading any documents. Double-clicking the icon for a document or media file will load that file into the program you're using on your computer to edit that sort of file - for instance, double-clicking a file saved by Microsoft Word will open up Microsoft Word and load that document into it.

    Double-clicking a folder's icon will open up the folder, letting you view the contents. The Recycle Bin is a special folder - double-clicking it will open the folder and show the files that you've deleted - in this case, one file.

  • Note that if you click two times more slowly you'll have the option to rename the file or folder. Some people have trouble double-clicking quickly enough!
  • Right-clicking on the Recycle Bin pops up a menu, a so called pop-up or context menu. It's a list of things that can be done specific to the item that's been right-clicked. Many items might have context menus that include 'open', 'create shortcut', and 'rename'. Only the Recycle Bin's context menu will have an option to 'Empty Recycle Bin'. (The 'Properties' option gives more information about the item that's been right-clicked).
  • Mac users don't have right mouse or trackpad buttons in most cases - they can view context menus by holding the Control-key on their keyboard and clicking their single button - Control-clicking.
  • You can even right-click on an empty space on your Windows or Mac Desktop and get a context menu of actions appropriate to the Desktop - making a new folder on the Desktop, for instance, or changing the picture on the Desktop (the 'wallpaper).
We'll be using right-click a lot!

Some standard vocabulary:
We've already used a few standard computer terms. We've referred to windows on screen and about operating systems - the basic software that defines how whole classes of computers look and work: Microsoft Windows, Apple's Mac OS on laptops and desktops. Andoid and iOS on smartphones and tablets. Software variously referred to as 'applications', 'programs' or 'apps' (three synonyms) are the wide range of programs that run on these operating systems, letting us get work done, play games, or letting the computer do some task in the background. Some programs are already on your computer (or phone or tablet) when you first get it, you may choose to add others. Web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, etc), word processors (Microsoft Word), email programs, computer games, utilities like antivirus programs are all examples of programs.

Other terms to know:

The Desktop - what you see on screen behind any open program windows or filling the screen if no program windows are open is the computer's Desktop. It may be displaying a wallpaper image - a stock image that came with Microsoft Windows or the Mac OS or from your computer's manufacturer. You can change the wallpaper for an image of your choice - choosing from a set that came with your computer or one of your photos or whatever.

On the Desktop there may (or may not) be a few or many icons - small images that represent something. In general, double-clicking an icon will make something happen - if it's an icon representing a program, the program will start running. If it's an icon representing a document file - an image, a music file, a word processing document (etc) - that document will be loaded into the appropriate program to display (and optionally edit) that document.

You may have one or more standard icons that are features of the operating system. Windows users may have an icon for the Recycle Bin - a place to store things that you want to remove from your computer. If you drag an icon from a location such as the Desktop and drop it onto the Recycling Bin, it appears to be gone from the Desktop. It is not actually removed from your computer, however. You can double-click on the Recycle Bin to open it up, displaying its contents in a window. You can drag it out of that window to another location, like the Desktop.

To actually remove the contents of the Recycling Bin - freeing up space on your computer's drive - right-click on the Recycle Bin, and choose Empty Recycle Bin from the pop-up menu.

In general, I'm a fan of a tidy Desktop, with few icons. It's a handy location for items you're working on right now. But it's easy for other stuff to pile up on the Desktop, making it hard to find anything. In Part 2 of this workshop, we'll find places to put things away.

Down along the bottom of the screen (in most cases), there is a row of icons. On Windows computers, this is named the Taskbar and extends the whole width of the screen. On Macs, a similar feature covers the centre portion of the bottom and is named the Dock. In both cases, it includes icons that can be used to start up commonly used programs along with icons for any programs that happen to be running right now.

(Note - the Windows Taskbar and Mac Dock can both be moved to the side instead of the bottom. And both can be set to 'auto-hide' so they're only visible if the mouse points to where they ought to be.)

In the left-corner of the Windows Taskbar, you'll find the Start Menu - click on this to get a list of all installed programs, a way to start up programs that don't have icons on the Taskbar or the Desktop. (Macs don't have an equivalent). On the right end of the Windows Taskbar, there are a set of small icons for a variety of functions: Wi-Fi, battery, date/time, and more. Mac users will find similar icons in the top-right corner of their screen, on the Mac Menu Bar.

Take a look at a Windows 10 Desktop (left) and Mac Desktop (right):

Windows 10 Desktop
Mac desktop

Types of programs -

Whenever you're getting anything done on your computer, you're running a program (also referred to as an application or 'app'). A program is a piece of software that has been written to get input from the user (you!) and provide it to the computer so that the computer can display what you want on screen. Be aware of the names of programs that you frequently use - if you're having problems that's one of the first things you'll be asked. Some programs may come already installed on your computer; some come bundled with Microsoft Windows (or Apple's Mac OS), others are added by the manufacturer (whether you want them or not!). You may choose to add others - and to 'uninstall' programs that are currently installed on your computer. Some categories of programs - and some examples of these sorts of programs:

Look at some program windows -

All of these programs work in similar ways; get familiar with one and you will find you're partly familiar with another. All run in windows - taking up part of the screen or 'full-screen' (also referred to as 'maximized'). Either way, the top of the program window is referred to as the Title Bar - it used to display the name of the program in earlier Windows versions. The minimize/maximize/close buttons are in the right-hand corner of the Title Bar (in Windows; in the left-hand corner on a Mac). If a program window is not maximized, you can move it around the screen by dragging the Title Bar.

Below the Title Bar, web browsers and some other programs may show tabs - allowing you to have more than one web site or document or what-have-you open at the same time - switch between web sites (etc) by clicking on the tab you want to view. (Note that many programs do not use tabs). Depending on the program, below this you may see an Address Bar (on web browsers, for instance) along with a toolbar with icons for commonly performed tasks - many programs will have an option letting you add or remove icons to let you choose what to view.

There may be a Menu Bar with the names of groups of commonly-used functions for the program. A File menu will include options like Open, Save, Print. An Edit menu will include options like Cut, Copy and Paste. (We'll look at these in detail in Part 2 of this workshop). In all cases, click on a menu name and that menu's list of options will drop down. Click on an option name to carry out that option. Click somewhere else or press the Esc (Escape) key to close the menu. Windows programs will each have an individual menu bar (if they have one at all!) Mac programs put the menu bar at the top of the screen. The menus and options will change to reflect whichever program is active (in front) at any instant. If a menu item is 'greyed-out' it means it isn't available right now... Often, the Edit/Copy or Paste command will be grey, for instance (see below).

More recently many programs have been doing away with menus. Recent versions of web browsers - Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge - use an icon on the right-side of the toolbar (in Chrome, for instance, it's 3 vertical dots). Click on the icon and a single menu drops down. Many Microsoft programs - including recent Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook) and some built-in Windows 10 features like the File Explorer and Paint - have replaced menus with what Microsoft calls 'Ribbons' - broad sets of icons for various options. As with menus, you click on a name (like File or View). Instead of a text menu dropping down, the icons on the ribbon change to show a different set of tools.

Here is the Title Bar and the Computer Ribbon from the Windows 10 File Explorer:

File Explorer ribbon

If you click the word
View, the Ribbon changes to indicate different ways that you can view files and folders in this program:

View ribbon

(We'll be looking at the Windows File Explorer in more detail in Part 2 of this workshop).

Dialog boxes -

When you click on a menu option or a ribbon icon, sometimes something immediately happens. When you click on the Large Icon icon in the View ribbon (above), you immediately see the files in the window below (not pictured) displayed as large icons, for instance.

If you click on Open in a File menu, however, the computer needs more information - it needs to know what file you want to open. Similarly, if you start typing a document in your word processor program and then click on Save (in a File menu or on a ribbon, depending on what word processor program you're using) the computer will want to know what you want to name your document and where on the computer's drive you want to save it. (Whenever you see an option with three dots after it in a menu that means you can expect to see a dialog box)

When the computer needs information from you to carry out a task, it displays a dialog box - a request for more information. Typically, you type some information or click on one of a set of choices. When you're done, there may be a button labelled OK (or Save or Open depending on the dialog box). Click it, and the computer will carry out your request.

Here's a Print dialog box from a Mac - the Windows equivalent will be similar - it needs to know which printer I want to use, how many copies I want to make, which pages to print, etc:

Print dialog box

The File Open dialog box will be similar on all your programs - similarly, all your programs will use similar File/Save dialog boxes, similar File/Print dialog boxes, etc.... get familiar with the dialog box in one program and you will be comfortable with that dialog box in other programs as well.

Note: When a dialog box is open and waiting for input from you, you generally can't do anything else in that program window. If you opened the dialog box by mistake, click the Cancel button or press the Esc key

The Clipboard - Cut/Copy/Paste

The computer lets you take text, images, and more from one place in a program window and put it into another place - in the same program window or even in another program window. You can do this right away or later (with some limitations). We refer to the way this works with a metaphor: The Clipboard, suggesting that it's similar to taking a piece of notepaper, putting it in a physical clipboard, and keeping it to use it in some other way.

(There is no physical 'clipboard' inside the computer, however - this is just a metaphor to help make humans more comfortable with the computer).

This can be very useful - after typing a document using a word processor, you may want to edit it, and move a sentence or paragraph to a different location. You may want to get the name and address from one piece of correspondance, and copy it into a new letter without having to retype it (and possibly make a mistake). You may want to take an image from a web page and use it as part of an email message you are sending someone.

To do this, there are a couple of steps:
There are more than one way to do each of these steps. For instance, to select text,  you can click your mouse at the beginning of the text, then hold the mouse (left) button down and drag over the text you want to select. Lift the mouse button at the end. You should see a light colour highlighting the selected text.

Alternatively, click at the beginning of the text, hold the shift-key down and click at the end - you should the text selected between your first click and your shift-click.

In many word processing programs, double-clicking on a word selects that word, triple-clicking on a line selects the entire line.

Often, clicking on an image will select the image. Note that there may be a menu command (in the Edit menu or on a ribbon) to Select All - which selects an entire document - all the text, all the images.

Be careful when text or an image is selected - if you press the spacebar (or other key) with something selected in a word processing program, for instance, your selection may be replaced with what you just typed. Oops! If that happens, look for an option labelled Undo right away. Don't save your file!)

Once you've selected your desired text or image, decide whether you want to cut or copy it. (You may not have a choice - you can't remove text or images from a website published online, for instance... but you can copy it to use in a word processor or an email message or a Facebook post).

Again, there are several ways to cut or copy - look for a menu command (in the Edit menu) or on a ribbon. Click Cut or Copy and it will happen - with no dialog box. If you pick Cut, you'll see your selection disappear, but if you pick Copy, you won't see anything change. The computer's Clipboard is invisible.

Alternatively, with something selected, pressing the Control key plus the letter C will copy the selection to the clipboard (Command + C  on a Mac), while Control + X (Command + X on a Mac) will cut the selection, removing it and storing it in the clipboard.

Finally - and the way I suggest you learn - if you right-click on the selected text or image, a menu will pop up - with Cut and Copy among its options. Left-click on your choice.

Similarly for the final step - go to your desired location, whether in the same document, a different document using the same program, or even a document in totally different program and paste. Click in the desired location... with something cut or copied to the clipboard, you'll see a Paste command in the Edit menu or ribbon.Or press Control+VCommand+V on a Mac). Or right-click and then (left) click on Paste from the pop-up menu.

(By the way - Control+Z or Command+Z are the keyboard shortcuts for Undo (for Windows and Mac respectively).

You don't have to paste immediately after you cut or copy - the clipboard will hold your selection waiting for you. Note two things, however:
Coming up in Part 2: working with files and folders and drives. Getting more familiar with these computer basics will help you keep your digital workspace tidy and organized, creating a way to store your documents, photos, and more that reflects the way you live and work. This will help you save files in a way that will let you find them again when you want them. From there, you can more easily copy photos and other files from your camera or phone to your computer, from your computer to a flash drive, and more.