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Switching between open applications

To work efficiently while studying online you need to be able to access more than one application at a time – your browser and your word processor, for instance. This article explains some of the ways to do this if you use a Mac or a PC. Mobile devices are less easy to manipulate.

Windows

If you have the luxury of two monitors (screens), or even one large monitor, you’ll be able to see the window of two applications and can click in the appropriate window to switch between them.

But if you only have a small monitor you can use a keyboard command to save time. If you hold down the Alt key and tap the Tab key you'll go to the last window you had open. So you can Alt-Tab from your browser to your word processor and Alt-Tab your way back. It’s so efficient that many people use it even if they can see the windows they need because the hand doesn’t have to leave the keyboard and find the mouse or track pad.

Picture of Windows keyboard with Alt and Tab keys highlighted

If you tap Tab twice while holding down Alt you go back to the application before last, and so on. As you hold down Alt after the first Tab you’ll be offered the icons of all your open windows and you can choose where you want to go either by repeatedly tapping Tab or by clicking on the image of the window you want to open.

Windows 8 Alt-Tab display

A similar effect can be achieved in Windows 7 by holding down the Window key (it has a picture of a window, is located next to the Alt key and abbreviated as Win) and pressing Tab. This moves the windows of all your open applications into a single display like this

Windows 7 Win-Tab display

This is called the Flip 3D view. It gives a much larger depiction of each window and suits some people better. If you keep pressing Win-Tab the front window flips to the back giving you a clear view of the second window, and so on. When you expose the window you want, let go of Alt and that window becomes your active window.

In Windows 8 the same Win-Tab command displays your recently active apps at the left of the screen. Confusingly, however, this omits so-called desktop apps which are those that pre-date Windows 8 such as Word and Excel, so its usefulness is limited.

If you like using keyboard shortcuts you can find more in the official guide to Windows 7 shortcuts, and Windows 8 shortcuts.

Mac

On a Mac the same Alt-Tab command steps you through your applications rather than every window that’s open. You get a display of the icons of all the open applications and can step between them, pressing Alt-Tab or click with your mouse on the icon you need.

Once you’re back in the required application you can step through each open window in that application by typing Alt-` (the grave accent character) as illustrated below.

Apple keyboard with Alt, Tab and Grave accent keys highlighted

You can use two other techniques in Mac OS X: Mission Control and Spaces. Mission Control shows you all your open windows at once press F3 to access it.

The Mac Mission Control screen

Click on any of the open windows to make it the active one.

Spaces lets you build alternate desktops that you populate with different applications. You could, for instance, have a space dedicated to your web browser and your word processor that you’d use for taking notes on your module website. When you want to use something else – email, perhaps – you don’t have to disturb the way your browser and word processor windows are set up, you simply flip to a different Space where your email app lives. The effect is very similar to having multiple monitors, without the expense. You can move between Spaces by pressing Ctrl-Right Arrow or Ctrl-Left Arrow.

You set up the Spaces in Mission Control and can access them there (you can see them at the top of the Mission Control screen above). To make a new one, hover your cursor near the top right corner of the screen and a new Space pops out. Drag it to the position you want it to occupy. If you set up each Space with a different wallpaper picture you can quickly identify which one’s which. Apple explains it all on its support site.

See list of keyboard shortcuts on Apple's support site.

Tablets

If you’re using a tablet you’ll have to use a different app switching method.

On an iPad you tap the Home button twice and select the app you want from those that are running. An alternative gesture is to slide the tips of four fingers towards the top of the screen.

On an Android tablet you press the Recent Apps button or, on some machines, press and hold the Home button.

You can’t do anything to extend a tablet’s screen, but you can add a physical keyboard using a wireless Bluetooth connection to your tablet. They can make a big difference to your typing speed and stamina.