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Click right on with RISC OS

By Martin Hansen. Published: 22nd Mar 2008, 11:59:51 | Permalink | Printable

Martin Hansen runs through a few useful desktop tricks you may not be aware of

When asked what they most like about RISC OS, many enthusiasts are likely to mention the fluid, slick and intuitive manner with which user and computer interact. In other words, the graphical user interface, or the GUI as the geeks would have us call it. With RISC OS, the GUI encourages all applications to work in a similar way, and to have the same feel. Faced with new RISC OS software, a user already has a good idea of how to drive it and explore.

Drag-and-drop between easily resizable windows has long been a key assistant in making the whole RISC OS experience gel together. It is difficult to properly impress upon users of even the most up-to-date versions of Windows just how clunky and clumsy their GUI is, in comparison.

As a person forced to use Microsoft Windows applications at work, I have noted progress being made towards settling upon a more consistent approach across that platform's main applications over the years. Sadly, the standard settled upon remains less than it could be and certainly still far less than what Acorn got right, with RISC OS 3, almost twenty years ago.

It's the GUI that allows RISC OS users to still claim for that they have the productive operating system.

New old tricks
I suspect that many RISC OS users, myself included, have never sat down with a manual and systematically taught themselves how to use all of the GUI features of RISC OS. It's intuitive to use, we like to believe, and therefore there is no need.

Recently, however, I realised that there are many aspects to the user interface that I have managed to remain ignorant of, even though I use it a couple of hours every day. Having tumbled upon one non-obvious feature, which I shall describe shortly, I sat down with Acorn's Style Guide manual and discovered a few more. Then, with some systematic exploration, a few more still.

I'm no beginner to these things. It occurred to me that other users might appreciate my passing on my growing collection of tricks when using the RISC OS GUI.

The polite iconbar
One particularly useful trick that I discovered by accident many years ago concerns how to quickly and temporarily access the iconbar when the bit of it that you require is covered by an application's window. Simply drag the mouse pointer down and off the bottom of the screen and hold it there. A second later the iconbar pops into the foreground and will stay there while the mouse remains inside it. You all knew that one, right?

The disappearing and reappearing filer window
It's easy to overuse the left-hand 'select' mouse button on the RISC OS three-button mouse, but don't forget that the right-hand 'adjust' button often does something similar but usefully different. For example, a double-click on a directory with either button opens the directory window. With select the window containing the parent directory remains open. With adjust it closes. If you've never tried doing that before, try it out now. It's a neat way of stopping the desktop becoming cluttered with several open windows that are not required other than to pass through.

Of course, this rather begs the question, how does one get back to the parent directory? The answer is to click on the filer window's close icon not with select - which will just close the window - but instead with adjust. Magic.

The persistent menu
Another useful situation in which adjust is more appropriate than select is when you're choosing items from a menu. For example, suppose you're using Draw and you open a menu to set up the style for the text. Navigate through the menu tree, for example, Style => Font name => Homerton => Bold, and pick the font weight with adjust. The entire menu tree will stay on screen. One can now slide left back across the tree to, say, Font size, and then right again to choose the required size. It's so much slicker than reopening the menus and sub-menus from scratch again and again, which is what would happen if you used the select button. Much less mouse movement and thought equals greater productivity.

A screenshot of the RISC OS desktop
Navigating menus... click for larger

The foolhardy desktop
The relative ease with which a RISC OS machine, with BBC BASIC built in, allows users to write simple multitasking desktop programs inevitably results in a fair number of machine crashes when things go wrong. However, before reaching for the Ctrl-Break reset combination, it's worth pressing F12 and, even if you cannot see any image or only rubbish on screen, type in the word desktop and press the return key twice. Often, the system recovers and continues soldiering on.

The icon of our pinboard
Now, it is time to reveal a feature of the GUI that I did not know about. I've saved it to the end of this article in the hope that, by now, I have revealed something that you, the reader, did not know about, and this should hopefully lessen the chorus of "I can't believe you didn't know that". Here it is: on any window, clicking select on the window close icon while holding down the Shift key iconises the window onto the pinboard - or in other words, hides the window and places a little icon on the pinboard in its place. You can bring the window back by double-clicking on the window's icon on the pinboard.

Many applications include a custom icon to display on the pinboard when a window is iconised, including, from now on, my own. In the example below, ic_magic, is the new iconise-to-the-pinboard sprite in the !Sprites22 file for one of my programs.

A screenshot of the RISC OS desktop
Iconise windows... click for larger

OK, having got my shameful admission out of the way, here is a question to finish on. What happens if you click adjust on a filer window close icon while holding down the Shift key?

If you can't work it out, close all windows except one that is not a root directory viewer and try it out. I've never subscribed to the sentiment that you can't teach old dogs new tricks, so if you have a nifty and elegant GUI trick, you're welcome to post it below.


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Couple of additions: Hold Adjust on either scroll bar to get 2D scrolling. Adjust on title bar to move a window without popping it forward; similarly, adjust on maximise and resize icons.

 is a RISC OS Userchrist on 22/3/08 12:55PM
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In reply

Well the hold adjust on either scroll bar is a new one to me and seems really useful


 is a RISC OS Userbluenose on 22/3/08 1:29PM
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Nice tips, but as Martin already mentioned, most of these are probably familiar to the active RISC OS user. Though still worthwhile to put in an article!

Of course I've also got one to add; Hold down Shift, then click the Menu button on an Iconised window icon... Et voila, the window's menu without the window itself being open.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 22/3/08 1:55PM
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A few of the more obscure ones:

Shift-double click with the Select button on the icon of an open directory in the Filer, and it closes that directory and all subdirs etc. Use the Adjust button instead and it closes the window you clicked in too.

Ctrl-Alt click on the close icon of any window and it'll close all windows (Tip: do not do this to check your memory whilst actually composing this post in a NS window!).

Ctrl-Alt click on the iconise button of any window will similarly cause all windows to be iconised.

 is a RISC OS Useradrianl on 22/3/08 9:50PM
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A good article, thanks Martin. It's this sort of article that makes Drobe a useful and interesting site to regularly visit.

 is a RISC OS Usertduell on 22/3/08 10:02PM
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adrianl: (Tip: do not do this to check your memory whilst actually composing this post in a NS window!)


 is a RISC OS UserRichardHallas on 23/3/08 9:22AM
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I'm slightly amazed at the existence of RISC OS users who don't know all of this already. One thing that nobody has mentioned yet is that in RISC OS 5 and 6, you can ADJUST-click on the 'back' tool icon of a window in order to bring it to the front. I find that one really useful! (I think it originated in Director, and I am surprised that Acorn did not think of it themselves.)

 is a RISC OS Userthesnark on 23/3/08 7:59PM
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thesnark: That behaviour was first invented by BackIcon (the application), I believe. I've found it immensely useful for years. It first appeared 'officially' in an early release of RISC OS 5 (but not the very first release).

I think you can also hold down Shift with Select/Adjust to step the window through the stack (unless that's a BackIcon-only refinement; I forget).

 is a RISC OS UserRichardHallas on 23/3/08 8:35PM
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re: Ctrl-Alt click on the close icon of any window and it'll close all windows This was introduced in 4.02 i.e. it is not in 3.70

I do remember discovering the "Shift-double click with the Select button on a directory icon, closes al sub dirs' but then couldn't remember the keyboard/icon/button required, thanks for the reminder. Interestingly the directory being clicked on must be open but lower directories do not need to be open for all even lower ones to be closed!

 is a RISC OS UserCJE on 25/3/08 12:56PM
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In reply to Adrianl: "Shift-double click with the Select button on the icon of an open directory in the Filer, and it closes that directory and all subdirs etc."

Now that one really is useful to me (and anybody else who uses !MoreDesk) I run !MoreDesk with 7 screens, using each screen for a different set of tasks. Very often I need to access a directory opened on one screen from a differernt one. The problem is in finding it!

Until now I have had to either search through all the screens, or navigate menus - Fetch > filer...

Now it is possible to close the "mislaid" directory wherever it is and open it again on the current screen.

 is a RISC OS UserJohnR on 25/3/08 10:33PM
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Its interesting to see other GUIs still trying and failing to solve the same problems that RISC OS excels at. Take for example using scrollbar buttons, RISC OS allows you to scroll in the direction of the button with the left mouse button, and to reverse scroll using the right button without having to use the mouse. I noticed on some but not all scrollbars on my EEE PC that there was an up button at the top, but both a down and an another up button at the bottom. That makes it easier to switch scrolling directions, but still involves moving the mouse, so isn't as elegant as RISC OS, looks rather messy, and reduces the size of the bar area (can be important with only a 800x480 screen).

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 26/3/08 9:07AM
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Agreed. The first time I saw those mutant scroll buttons, I thought it was a dreadful bodge. Maybe one day I'll get round to writing a patch for KDE to do decent scrollbar handling.

 is a RISC OS Userdavidb on 26/3/08 1:24PM
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It's equally interesting to see RISC OS still burdening the user with issues long resolved in other OS's. I remember trying out other GUI's some years ago and sometimes really being astounded by the simplicity and practicality of certain features.

The belief that RISC OS still has one of the most cleverly designed GUI's around, shouldn't mean it can ignore some useful features from the others. I feel most GUI designers can still learn a great deal from RISC OS, but certainly also the other way around.

Taking a good long look at other GUI's, one will inevitably encounter UI functions quite useful and definitely worth considering for RISC OS.

One particularly simple, but eminently useful feature of Mac OS X, is the 'Hide' functionality. It allows an application to temporarily hide all its windows, so it's still running but doesn't have its windows obscuring other stuff. However, it can also be used to hide the windows of all the other applications. Meaning you'll only have the windows on the desktop of the current active application.

So essentially, it's a tool to clear up the desktop when swamped with windows. Like quitting an app, it can be accessed directly from the Dock, so it's available at all times. It would be quite easy and consistent to add this feature to the application menu and the Iconbar in RISC OS.

Another related, though definitely more advanced, feature is Exposé. While probably more tricky to implement in RISC OS, it's wonderfully useful in all kinds of situations. For a description, take a look at [link]é_%28Mac_OS_X%29

There are other similarly useful features in other desktop environments, very much worth implementing in RISC OS. Some of these can really complement the existing GUI in RISC OS, adding choice and comfort to the user. For more information about the GUI and different implementations, check out [link]

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 26/3/08 3:20PM
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hEgelia: whilst interesting in themselves, there isn't really any list of useful facilities that could be added to the RISCOS GUI on either of those two wikipedia pages.

I have to use doze a lot at work, so I have got into the hang of using some of the keyboard shortcuts. To my mind, this is one of the biggest features missing from the GUI at the moment.

 is a RISC OS UserDS1 on 27/3/08 1:13PM
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If you have to open lots of directories (or run/open lots of files) simultaneously, drag the selection onto a blank section of the iconbar. To drag multiple selections, clear/save the Pinboard, drag sub-selections onto it, then select the whole of the Pinboard and drag that to the iconbar.

Enhancements and Borrowings:

It would be nice to drag a selection of bits on the desktop (Pinboard stuff & windows) into a "Desktop Window", and can be resized, pulled in/out of other desktop windows, as a kind of virtual desktop. There are many more exotic virtual desktops, so I'm sure this is possible.

It also be nice to be able to snap/justify a selection of windows or all windows into columns/rows/tiles, which can be very helpful with two !Zap windows for Diffing files when you have to step through them and the differences are too complex 'n' subtle for an automated comparison. I can do this manually, but it's so much fiddling around.

There is an existing wedge to allow windows to be resized from any corner/side, a' la doze, and another that allows directory viewers to be gain focus, thus allowing keyboard shortcuts, but this has strange bugs which crash the machine & mess with the config on 3.11.

There was some kind of proposal in Visa doze to have previews in MsWord and other applications, so you could see previews of part of the document with various effects applied, eg different font or font effects, so as to make a decision more quickly. Since the only direct experience I have of Visa is a shop demo (which crashed), I do not know how widely this has been implemented. However, it is alive and well on RO with !Variations. Perhaps more RO applications could join the party on this.

doze Ribbons only seem to fix issues only occurring on doze, and are of limited use here, or does someone else know different?

 is a RISC OS UserAnon on 9/1/09 12:14PM
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I have (finally) found what the any-corner resizing application is called. It's "!Resizer" (duh), by Nick Jarman, available from the "Utils - Desktop/Misc (36)" page of the Arcade BBS: [link] Direct download link: [link]

Abridged from Wikipedia:

Exposé allows a user to quickly locate an open window, or to hide all windows and show the desktop without the need to click through many windows to find a specific target.

Exposé includes three separate features for organising windows:

- "All windows" feature shows all windows, shrinking their appearance so they all fit on a single screen.

- "Application windows" is the same, but only for the currently active application. The windows shrink less because there are fewer windows. This set of windows can be cycled through with TAB.

- "Desktop" moves all windows off-screen, with just the edges of the windows visible on one side of the screen.

The article goes' on to discuss various key/hotkey/mouse/screen combinations used to activate the feature, most of which not used by mainstream applications and not intrusive, eg pushing the mouse against screen corners. Could be used in RO by pushing against screen top, as left/right used in virtual desktop and bottom in alternative to f12.

Windoze Vista has Windows Flip 3D, whereby all open windows can be animation-viewed in a manner similar to alt-tab application switching (or shift-f2 (on !Zap only as yet(?)) on RO).

In conclusion, Exposé is a grouping of windows, a viewing mechanism for window thumbnails (at various sizes), and a desktop/pinboard access mechanism.

The description implies MacOS has an concept of hidden windows, although how comparable this is with iconised windows is unclear, particularly as iconised objects appear on the desktop and hidden ones do not... As, er, explained by hEgelia (above). This clarification appeals to me: Often I open multiple windows in !Zap so I can search all of them for a summary list of substrings (f4, ctrl-A), and I don't need all those (hundreds of) windows open at the same time, even if they do tidily confine themselves to one region of the screen!

This generalises as grouping and cycling mechanisms. MacOS currently limits the grouping to active applications; it would be nice to have the option to do this or any set of applications / any set of windows, possibly with overlapping and named sets allowed, maybe dragging windows between groups.

Quite a variety types of grouping mechanisms are possible, only as subset on any current platform of course! New ones need to be thought of, eg the "Desktop Window" idea from my earlier post. There is an existing application, albeit pinboard-only, that allows much of this, called !StickBoard, by Sergio Monesi.

Additional desktop access mechanisms need to avoid the alt-ctrl-select-f11 excess combinations, maybe by adding an additional icon the window furniture, or more functions to the iconise icon. A good example is dragging the resize icon resizes a window; a bad one shift-alt copies text (which I like BTW) & confines mouse region when patch used.

Effective & quick intuitive workflow is something to be careful about with the user-interface to new desktop paradigms, not least because "mousecuts" are being used up rapidly.

- * -

Browsing through Wikipedia, some widgets seem to be missing from core RO support, although they could be user-programmed relatively easily.

The Virtual Desktop is unknown on the PC, and MacOS lags behind with its "Spaces", only having the most basic screen-switching support.

The MacOS Automator looks interesting. It allows inter-application desktop macros. To some extent this is replicated in !Keystroke (which I have yet to fully master). It would be nice to extend this to drag-and-drop, so you could automatically wait for one application to finish processing a multiple selection, then pass it on to another. Since pipes are already taken, and ditto hyperpipes, I propose calling these "superduperpipes".

Then there is Windoze' rather bizarre "fold-and-drop" concept, to reach covered-up objects, essentially an alternative transparency.

There are interesting things happening where web applications and website functionality move closer together, such as Google Earth being mistaken by one of my friends for "a pretty impressive website", when, of course, it isn't a website at all, and flickr's interactive feedback uploader. Not all of these are difficult to program, as illustrated by the buttons in dialogue boxes that invoke web pages and email programs, present on virtually all platforms now.

 is a RISC OS UserAnon on 26/3/09 1:01PM
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