Billed as one of several new Aero Desktop Enhancements in Windows 7, Aero Peek is new to this operating system and is one of many technologies that Microsoft has implemented over the years to combat problems caused by excessive multitasking: If the users opens too many windows on the desktop, it's easy to lose track of those windows and the desktop, the latter of which can contain valuable shortcuts and other icons and, in Windows 7, any number of desktop gadgets.

Aero Peek offers two basic functions. First, it can be used to "peek" behind all of the open windows on your system so you can get a look at the desktop. Second, it can be used to find specific windows that are open but possibly obscured or hidden by other windows. We'll examine both uses here.

Preview Desktop

Previous to Windows 7, various Windows versions included a feature called Show Desktop that was typically exposed by an icon in the Quick Launch toolbar in the taskbar. This Show Desktop functionality worked like a toggle: If you clicked it once, all of the open windows on your system would be minimized and you could access the desktop. Click it again, and all of the windows that were previously opened would be returned to that state.

In Windows 7, Show Desktop has been effectively replaced by Preview Desktop, though you can optionally cause this feature to work like the old Show Desktop if you're so inclined. Instead of a taskbar icon, Preview Desktop is enabled by mousing over a new glass rectangular area that's found in the very lower rightmost of the screen; it's to the right of the system clock in the taskbar.

Secret: This glass panel cannot be moved to another part of the taskbar and it cannot be removed. You can, however, turn off Aero Peek's desktop preview functionality in the Taskbar pane of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window. When you do so, this panel works as Show Desktop did in previous Windows versions.

When you do mouse over this little panel, all of the open windows are hidden and replaced by window outlines as shown here:

This allows you to "peek" at the desktop to see what's there. It's of minimal usefulness for shortcuts and other icons, because once you move the mouse off of this panel, the windows return to view, masking the desktop. But it's very useful if you take advantage of the new desktop-based gadgets in Windows 7. (In Windows Vista, gadgets were typically found in a dedicated Sidebar area, and were usually not hidden by open windows.)

To trigger a true Show Desktop effect, you can click this panel instead of just mousing over it. Doing so causes all open windows to minimize, as they did for the Show Desktop icon for previous Windows versions.

Full-Screen Window Preview

In addition to previewing the desktop, you can also preview any of the open windows on your desktop while temporarily hiding all other open windows. To do so, you need to mouse over the taskbar button for an open application or other window. At this point, a new graphical thumbnail appears, previewing the window in a small glass frame as shown below. (If the application in question has multiple open windows, you will see one thumbnail for each open window.)

To enable the Full-Screen Window Preview function of Aero Peek, mouse over one of these graphical thumbnails. As you do, all of the other open windows on the screen are hidden and replaced with window outlines. This puts the visual emphasis on the selected window, as shown here:

To make the window you're currently previewing the selected window, just click its graphical thumbnail. Or, you can close the window by clicking the small red "X" button on the thumbnail.

Secret: What about opening a new window? With some applications, like Web browsers and word processors, you often need to open a new window. In Windows 7, you can do this in several different ways, though none are obvious. You can right-click the application's taskbar button and select [Name of the application] from the Jump List that appears. You can middle-click the application's taskbar button (if your mouse has such a button). You can use the application's built-in New Window functionality. You can find the application's shortcut in the Start Menu. (There are other methods, but these are the most obvious.)

Final thoughts

Aero Peek is just one of many small new features in Windows 7 that make this OS a delight to use and its implementation is hard to criticize. My only minor concern is that Aero Peek makes it possible to close open windows but not open new windows for already-running applications. But most users are probably familiar with the myriad of ways in which they can accomplish this, so it's unlikely to burden many people. Overall, Aero Peek is a big win for Windows 7: Sometimes the best gifts really do come in small packages. This is a great example.