Sunday, April 30, 2006

Small Screen Livin', part II

In part I I wrote about reasons for giving up large screens and how to make those small screens even smaller by using Large fonts! Well, the next tip will claim some of that space back!

To recap, on a 10" screen the desktop space becomes a scarce resource and you want to manage it properly. The biggest space hog is the Windows Task Bar. As useful as it is it simply consumes too much space on a 10.6" widescreen when Large Fonts are enabled (this makes the Task Bar a few pixels fatter). You can move it around of course. Docking it the left or right edge of the screen sounds like a great way to utilize the widescreen aspect ratio. Unfortunately, I found it consumed too much space in those configurations as well so I set out to find a replacement for the Task Bar! I needed something to provide me with:
  • A list of running applications
  • Access to my frequently used programs (although not essential)
  • Access to certain system tray (system notification area) features
The first likely candidate for replacement was something that worked similar to the way Mac OS Dock functioned. A set of icons docked to the bottom of the window that expanded as you moused over them. There are several implementations of Dock-concept for Windows and I started trying them all, some of which were free utilities.

I started with the free apps, of course! A lot of them did a very good job, I especially liked MobyDock. Others I tried were AquaDock, AveDesk, RocketDock and Y'z Dock. Unfortunately, most of them were meant to be used as program launchers, rather than replacements for task bar. I needed to switch between programs currently running rather than just launch programs. As I said, MobyDock came closest to what I needed but unfortunately it was really unstable. It would work quite well until I put my laptop into Stand By or Hibernate modes. After waking the dock would start acting up.

I finally decided to try the grand-daddy of dock applications on Windows, the ObjectDock. They have a free version called ObjectDock, and another that costs $19.95 called ObjectDock Plus. After trying and playing with the free version (which pretty much did everything I needed) I soon upgraded to ObjectDock Plus, without even thinking about it.

ObjectDock is great - well written, extremely stable and very versatile. I do encounter a problem occasionally where the dock doesn't stay on top and is shown behind other windows but in those rare circumstances I just need to restart the program and the problem is fixed. It's worth noting that my laptop runs non-stop, hibernates a lot and is restarted maybe once every two weeks so any software that tries to replace system components like ObjectDock needs to be extremely stable to work well.

Here is the image of my typical session, the left group of icons are shortcuts and docklets (I only need four), and the right group shows my running applications:


The applications will "bounce" in the dock when asking for your attention (like IM messages arriving in the background), and you are able to right-click on the applications in the dock to access their system menu. You can even drag and drop to re-arrange the order they're displayed in. Mousing over the dock will enlarge the icons and show large name for each application. Unfortunately, you cannot drag and drop from Explorer onto the icons to restore that application's window but I soon got over it.

The four special icons on the left side invoke (in order from left to right) the Programs Start menu list, my personal shortcuts list, battery indicator with much higher resolution than the default Windows four-state battery icon and the toggle that hides/shows the Task bar when I need to access a system tray icon not normally visible here.

ObjectDock is very customizable and versatile to fit pretty much anyone's workflow. In my case it enabled me to get the most out of my small screen and made me even more productive than I was before. I highly recommend it! If you know of other Task bar replacement tools that work well for you I'd love to hear about them.

Part III will bring you even closer to the small-screen-Nirvana...

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