Basic Windows concepts – parts of a window

In this article, I will explain the basic Windows concepts of parts of a window and why certain things are designed the way they are, since the blockbuster release of Windows 95. While you may already know these basic Windows concepts or fundamentals of operation, Microsoft themselves have been changing or redesigning certain things for little to no improvement in ease of use or usability. So it’s time to revisit the basics.

The Windows operating system is so named because everything you can do on your PC appears inside rectangular frames, which resemble a window.

Anatomy of a window

Title bar

A standard window in Microsoft Windows has a title bar at the top where the name appears. It also contains caption buttons in the top right corner, and sometimes a small icon (symbol) in the top left corner.

Title Bar and Caption Buttons
Title bar showing the name of the window and caption buttons (Minimize, Maximize, Close)

Caption buttons (window management buttons)

The 3 captions buttons from left to right are Minimize (➖), Maximize/Restore down (🔲) and Close (❌). Some windows may only have a Close button as they are restricted from being minimized or maximized.

Borders

Every window has a border and some windows can be resized by dragging the border. Whether or not you can resize it can be found out by taking the mouse to any of the four edges. If the mouse cursor turns into a double headed arrow, this indicates it is resizable.

Window border
Notepad being resized from its window border

Window menu

Right clicking the top left corner of a window shows a menu to move, resize, minimize or maximize/restore down. In some apps, double left clicking this top corner closes the window. You can also show this menu by pressing Alt + Space keys together on the keyboard.

Window menu
Window menu

Window states

A window can have other states besides minimized, maximized and non-maximized. It can be minimized to the notification area (also referred to as the status area or the system tray). It can also be completely hidden.

Window states
Window states as seen in a shortcut’s Properties

Overlapping or side by side windows

At a time, you can open multiple windows from different apps and files, resize them, move them around, cascade them overlapping each other in any order you want or snap them side-by-side. For certain apps, it is also possible to open multiple windows of that same app.

Overlapping (cascading)
Overlapping (cascaded) windows

Active and inactive windows

A windows can be active (focused) i.e. in the foreground. Or it can be inactive (not focused) i.e. in the background. But it is not necessary for multiple windows to overlap to become inactive.

If two windows are next to each other without overlapping, still, only one window at a time can be the active one or the focused one. When you click on the taskbar or the Start button, no window is active and the focus moves to the taskbar. Inactive windows cannot receive keyboard input, that is, they cannot be operated with the keyboard until they are activated (focus brought back to them).

You can however interact directly using the mouse or touchscreen with certain controls in inactive windows without making them active. This varies from app to app. Certain app windows or controls need to be activated to receive mouse input.

Active and inactive side by side windows
Two windows snapped side-by-side. The active (focused) window has a colored title bar. The inactive one has a faded title bar.

Active (focused) windows in Windows 10 are represented on the taskbar in a slightly different background color. You can improve and fix this with StartIsBack++ so that the active button looks like it is actually pressed down.

Title bar coloring

An active window can be represented by a colored title bar, while an inactive one shows a faded title bar color. The caption buttons also appear faded out in inactive windows. This only applies to standard windows. App developers are free to make changes to their program’s windows. By default, Windows 10 is notorious for making both active and inactive window title bars white – the first version of Windows to do so. Certain apps like the Opera web browser also have a hardcoded grey title bar for both active and inactive window states, making it difficult to differentiate if its browser window has focus.

Controls

The user interface elements inside windows (various buttons, menus, toolbars, tabs, checkboxes, radio buttons, toggle switches, sliders, dropdowns, hyperlinks, scroll bar, status bar, progress bar) are there for the user to interact with or purely informational so as to indicate various states. They are called controls or widgets. These controls can be operated with the mouse, keyboard, touchscreen, digital pen/stylus or some of them by speech.

Dialog showing various controls
Dialog showing various controls

Windows is an extremely complex operating system that has evolved for several decades with too many concepts to be explained in one article but these are the basic ones a novice user needs to know about the parts of a window.

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