Make Windows taskbar work like XP

Up to Windows XP, Microsoft gave us all the options to customize the taskbar so it could work like previous versions of Windows. But Windows 7 removed many choices and forced certain taskbar behaviors. Let’s see how to make Windows taskbar work like XP.

Rant: A huge number of problems with Windows 10 taskbar and also Windows 7 reducing ease of use

Let’s see the problems with the Windows 10 taskbar one by one.

There is no clean separation of pinned apps from running apps any more on the Windows 10 and Windows 7 taskbar. Apps also cannot appear in the order in which they were started.

No separation of pinned apps from running apps increases distance between open apps
No separation of pinned apps from running apps increases distance between open apps

Windows XP introduced taskbar button combining but kept it optional. Windows 7 and later releases like Windows 8, 8.1 and Windows 10 have forced taskbar button grouping for multiple windows belonging to the same app. Unlike button combining, it is not optional or configurable.

The context menu or the window menu for an app which appeared upon right clicking a taskbar button was also superior to the jumplists which now show in Windows 7 and Windows 10. It was better because the close action ❌ was next to where you right clicked (just 1 pixel away) and it had options like Minimize, Resize, Move, Maximize and Restore.

Besides, in XP and earlier, you could invoke the context menu with just a right click of the mouse and no keyboard involved. Now in Windows 10 or Windows 7, Shift + right click is the only option to open this window menu or Alt + Space, both methods involving the keyboard.

The Close button ❌ is also farther away in Windows 10’s jumplists from where you right click. Furthermore, the taskbar promotes pinning in place of this menu. This menu is essential for controlling the app window.

Another problem is that the Windows 10 taskbar also has annoying thumbnails which overlap a maximized window and get in the way, with no easy way to turn them off.

Thumbnails often get in the way and show even for foreground app windows
Thumbnails often get in the way and show even for foreground app windows

Fix the Windows taskbar with a third party app

Thankfully, a fantastic free third party app exists since Windows 7 to fix all the above issues. It’s called 7+ Taskbar Tweaker. The unfortunate part though is Microsoft does not care about giving you these options and with every release of Windows 10, the app must be updated to work with the new version of Explorer.exe, which houses the taskbar. There is a considerable effort involved in keeping this essential app updated and it depends on debug symbols being available for every release of Windows.

The killer app to to make Windows taskbar work like XP - 7+ Taskbar Tweaker
The killer app to make Windows taskbar work like XP – 7+ Taskbar Tweaker

Get it and install it from here. Its developer, RaMMicHaeL, has been very generous and kept the app free for years, supported by donations. However there is no telling when it will stop working if Microsoft decides to change Explorer in a way that the app becomes incompatible or if its developer is indisposed. The app is not open source so it’s at a great risk of breaking because of the way it works and needs updates.

Basic Options in 7+ Taskbar Tweaker

Taskbar items

7+ Taskbar Tweaker comes with a huge number of options. It can install like a standard app so settings are stored in the Registry or run as a portable app so that settings are stored in INI files. A standard installation is better so that if you wish to go back to the default options at any time, you can simply delete its Registry values.

Let’s see the important ones. Once you install it, it will automatically open settings.

Right click and Middle Click

The first setting under the right click section controls whether the good old context menu shows when you right click a taskbar button or the jumplist. If you make it show the standard window menu, the jumplist can still be accessed in 2 ways – either by dragging the taskbar app button towards the center of the screen, with the left mouse click, or by Shift + right click. You can also open it using the keyboard combination, Win + Alt + app number on the taskbar. This fixes the first major problem with the Windows 10 taskbar, present since Windows 7.

Context menu setting to make taskbar work like XP
Restoring the good old context menu while still keeping a way to access jump lists

The second option controls what middle click does, if you have a mouse with a middle click, or a configurable buttons or a Lenovo ThinkPad with middle click button on its touchpad. Middle click by default opens a new instance of an app but a better option is to set it to Close, since many apps can’t even have multiple instances. You can always start a new instance of an app with Shift + left click or from the app’s jumplist.

Close apps with a middle click
Close apps with a middle click

Drag and drop

The third option under the Dropping section controls what happens when you drag a file over an app’s icon on the taskbar. It can be pinned or the file can be opened with that app. Usually without 7+ Taskbar Tweaker, you can open a file by dragging it over an app’s icon to bring its window into focus, and then further dragging the file inside the window and dropping it by releasing the left mouse button.

This is very counter-intuitive so 7+TT’s option is most welcome. Besides, in the past, you have always been able to drag a file over to an app shortcut on the Quick Launch toolbar to open with it. As always, even if you change the setting to Open with, you can pin a file with Shift+ dragging it to the taskbar button.

Configure drag and drop behavior to make taskbar work like XP

Hovering

The fourth option under the Hovering section lets you turn off the annoying thumbnail preview and convert it into a list or a tooltip or do nothing. This is done by 7+TT without any Registry value modifications which is brilliant.

Taskbar1
Thumbnails
Tooltip
Tooltip
Taskbar2

Thumbnails

The next two options under Thumbnails, let you drag thumbnails or even list items to re-order them! Also just like Windows 95 with the Windows Desktop Update and all later versions of Windows, you can minimize an active (focused) window by clicking its thumbnail even if the buttons are grouped.

You can reorder taskbar thumbnails and click a thumbnail or list item to minimize it like XP

Pinned Items

The next option under Pinned Items does exactly what it says, Removes extra gap between pinned items. You can make pinned items open with double click but I don’t see the point. The taskbar has never required a double click to open anything so I leave it unchecked.

Remove extra gap between pinned items to make it compact like XP
Remove extra gap between pinned items to make it compact

Grouping and combining

Grouping by App ID

The next column contains the important options of 7+ TT to make Windows taskbar work like XP. You can finally ungroup all app windows by selecting Don’t group under Grouping. They become freely draggable, even windows from the same app, e.g. multiple web browser windows.

Checking Don’t group pinned items will let you configure whether the apps that you have pinned but aren’t open are cleanly separated from running apps. This is important because you may need to switch frequently between only open (running) apps and having them close together reduces the distance the mouse have to travel – an important concept in ease of use that Microsoft threw out with Windows 7.

App windows are no longer grouped forcibly to make Windows taskbar work like XP
App windows are no longer grouped forcibly and can be in the order in which they were opened.

Combining and De-combining

The options for Combining override Windows’ defaults and let fully control grouped buttons. There are fancy options further below to decombine the active group or on mouse hover and even show and hide labels on the fly. But I have been vocal about how combining and grouping buttons reduces productivity as it introduces more clicks and more mouse travel. It is best to never combine or group app windows.

Decombine on the fly with mouseover
Decombine on the fly with mouseover

The next option under Left click on combined item controls what the Registry value LastActiveClick does but without touching the Registry.

This setting is similar to LastActiveClick Registry option
This setting is similar to LastActiveClick Registry option

Other taskbar options

Scrolling Mouse wheel on the taskbar

Coming to the third column, there are options to cycle between taskbar buttons with the mouse wheel and even smartly skip minimized windows. These are not particularly useful since the cycling will be sequential. You can just directly switch between apps on the taskbar with a left click instead.

You can also minimize and restore an app with the wheel – something you can also do without 7+TT by just left clicking on the app’s taskbar button. However, 7+ Taskbar Tweaker goes further in making the mouse wheel useful – a special advanced option also allows you to use the mouse scroll wheel up/down to maximize and restore down a window! This is extremely useful.

The options to control volume are nifty but require you to position your mouse accurately over the taskbar or notification area. When enabled, middle clicking the Volume icon will toggle Mute status.

Mouse Wheel Options when you scroll on the Taskbar

Clicks in empty space of the taskbar

The next two options of 7+ Taskbar Tweaker are most useful. You can double click on an empty space of the taskbar to do various things: Show Desktop, open Alt+Tab view, Task Manager, Taskbar Inspector, Toggle mute, Toggle Taskbar auto-hide, open Task View, or the Start menu. From this list, the most useful option in my opinion is the Taskbar Inspector.

Clicks in empty area of the taskbar
Reserving empty space on the taskbar and configuring click actions is most productive

The same options as above exist also for Middle click on empty space.

Taskbar Inspector

This is a remarkable feature of 7+ Taskbar Tweaker that not only shows all open apps as a list but lets you select multiple app window buttons from the Taskbar Inspector pane to close them all at once, or minimize, maximize, restore, tile, cascade in bulk. It is resizeable so you can drag it vertically to make it show as many open apps as you have on the taskbar.

Taskbar Inspector is a power user tool to make Windows taskbar work like XP
Taskbar Inspector is a power user tool to make Windows taskbar work like XP

For those of you who don’t know, this used to be possible with the taskbar in Windows Vista and earlier by holding down the Ctrl key and selecting taskbar buttons like you can do today with Google Chrome tabs. But Microsoft removed yet another feature in Windows 7 and Windows 10.

Taskbar Inspector can change the App ID that Windows assigns to each app

Taskbar Inspector basically gives you the ultimate control over the Taskbar’s grouping, combining and labels on a per-button basis. Windows assigns App IDs to each app on the taskbar and that’s how it determines which buttons to group. Taskbar Inspector can change this app ID, and after two or more app window buttons are under a common ID, you can set them to always get grouped together without affecting the rest of the app buttons on your taskbar!

Taskbar Inspector gives the ultimate control over the Taskbar's grouping, combining and labels.

Furthermore, you can selectively show or hide labels only for specific apps under the selected app ID, always or never group and combine them, or always group only pinned items. This is all very impressive.

Hiding or showing taskbar items

The last four options let you hide the Start button, hide the Show Desktop button, display seconds on the tray clock and reserve empty space on the taskbar. Hiding the Show Desktop button makes the Action Center the new hot corner for the bottom right which you may find very useful if you don’t use the Show Desktop feature at all! 😀

I find the last option Reserve empty space on taskbar particularly invaluable as my Windows taskbar often gets cluttered with many windows open despite not pinning anything. This is because I run a huge number of programs in my notification area (status area or system tray). By reserving empty space, I can always right click there or middle click.

Hiding taskbar items and reserving space
Reserve space to click when the taskbar is cluttered

Program options

At the bottom where the program’s features to control the Windows taskbar end, the app has its own Settings button where you can configure whether it automatically runs at system startup, automatically checks for updates, downloads and installs automatically, and whether you need the tray icon.

The app's own options
The program’s own options

That concludes the basic options in 7+ Taskbar Tweaker, which change the Windows 10 taskbar behavior to make it work like it used it. It’s a real shame that Microsoft does not care about providing these invaluable options. But at least they have allowed 7+ Taskbar Tweaker to exist as an app and fix these problems to make the Windows taskbar work like XP.


But we are still not done with all of 7+ Taskbar Tweaker’s options. 7+ Taskbar Tweaker’s Advanced options are reserved for another article. 😀

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