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Windows XP: productivity gimmicks for non-natives

April 21st, 2008 makii

Having not used MS Windows for a long time at home, except maybe for gaming, which I don’t do really often these days, I don’t know pretty much about the tricks and tweaks of this really pretty operating system since version 2000. Finally at my job here I’m forced to use it again, despite there is absolutely no reason for it, as nobody uses office documents anyway. All the documentation stuff is kept in our confluence wiki and nowadays Lotus Notes works pretty well on Linux.But now, being assimilated, I had to work with what I have. So let’s see how it’s going.

Sloppy Focus

Besides a proper shell interface the most important thing I miss in Windows is a working sloppy focus. I just love it! Someone, I don’t know who, told me there might be some sloppy focus utility in these PowerToys, but they pop the windows selected on top of the stack after a timeout, so I’m hardly gonna like it. So, unfortunately, I had to go somewhere else and found a pretty good working sloppy focus utility named True X-Mouse gizmo which not only offers a sloppy focus as on all *nix/Linux desktops, but also the nice “copy-on-select/paste-on-middle-mouse-button” feature what would have been the next on the list. The licensing terms are funny though:

Usage is free, but only those who have sent a postcard(*) are entitled for support:-) Postcards with a view over your home-town or other local sight signed with encouraging words and your E-mail address are to be sent to<snip>name and address of the author</snip>(*) Employees of Chalmers University of Technology don’t have to send a postcard.    

Multiple Desktops

Having used several of these utilities at the beginning of my former job some six years ago, when I had not switched to Linux there, I tried out the first three I found and ended up with VirtuaWin. It offers a pretty customizable interface so you can hook up the screen switch onto the keys you’re used from your favorite operating system, or you may click on the tray icon next to the clock. It’s even pluggable so you can add features like the cool desktop name which fades out you might know from WindowMaker.Licensing is GPLv2.


 As mentioned above there also is no proper terminal on Windows. Sure, there’s this “cmd.exe” or whatever it’s called these days, but It doesn’t work for me: rudimentary tab completion, slow rendering of outputs, and this ugly windows command syntax. So the next logical step is to get Cygwin for Windows, which by default offers a ported native bash environment inside such a “cmd” terminal. This leaves the ugly handling of this window, including cranky buffer configuration, resize issues and the IMO very slow renderning of text output, e.g. when tailing a logfile which writes hundreds of lines in just a view seconds. How nice a simple xterm  would be…So just install it. Cygwin offers you to install a X server, namely XFree86, out of the box. The only issue here is it’s not pretty straight-forward to configure, I had a hard time to get it up and running as such, as the Cygwin guys have done lot’s of customizing here.Maybe take a look at the X live cd, they package the Cygwin X environment onto an autorun-cd for Windows: push in, click “start x” and you have a full-fledged X server running on windows with native xterm and all the basic utilities you need (at least I need) in my day-to-day work. It also offers an “install to hard drive” option, but this doesn’t work pretty well either. Unfortunately I haven’t taken notes for a walk-through, maybe in the future…WHEN you have it, finally, up and running, you basically have two options how to configure your X-Server: 

  1.  Start the X server as a “window” with a window manager of your choice (blackbox included).
  2. Start the X server with a special window manager which integrates your X windows into the windows environment, so all X windows are just decorated as usual Windows windows and integrated into your desktop seamlessly.

I decided for the latter option, for the sake to only have one environment, even if I don’t like it. Works pretty neat, having finally a xterm running screen running nice utilities I never wanna miss like tail, grep, ssh or find. OK, it’s not perfect, but hey, it’s usable… 

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