Windows XP can't keep its windows straight!
June 21, 2007 8:42 PM   Subscribe

Bizarre Windows XP behavior: when switching between applications, sometimes more than one window will pop to the foreground. Huh?

This is easiest to explain by way of an example. Say I've got Azureus, Firefox, Thunderbird, Winamp and Explorer open, and Firefox has focused and is maximized. If I switch to another application, say Winamp, the expected behavior is that the Winamp window appears on top of the Firefox window.

What often happens, however, is the Winamp window PLUS another application window both get raised above the Firefox window. As a result I'll get, say, Winamp on top of Azureus on top of Firefox. This odd behavior occurs regardless of what application I'm switching to or switching from, and the second window that gets raised to the foreground is also random (so in the above example, it could just as easily be switching from Thunderbird to Firefox, and bringing Winamp to the foreground as well). It is hard to reliably reproduce this behavior, and there seems to be no common cause.

This behavior seems to be specifically XP-based; Windows 2000 always acted predictably when it came to window management. Because of the nature of the problem it's really hard to Google, so I haven't even found any indication that this sort of thing happens to anyone else. Having only recently switched to XP from 2000, this has become my number one pet peeve about XP. It especially makes it hard to, say, read code documentation in a browser window and write code in a text editor at the same time—often I'll switch to the text editor, only to find Thunderbird or Azureus or Explorer now blocking the browser window for no apparent reason. Help!
posted by chrominance to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
I get the same thing with Firefox (version, running on XP SP2). I've only noticed it happen when switching from Firefox, and it's always another Firefox window that comes up. I've definitely never seen it with any other programs, though, so who knows if this is actually the same bug.

Does it ever happen when Firefox isn't open at all? I've kind of been assuming that Firefox is doing something subtly wrong with window classes, etc. and screwing up the task switcher. But I have no proof.
posted by equalpants at 9:32 PM on June 21, 2007

Whoops, forgot: I haven't tried this myself, but maybe you might want to try a replacement task switcher? There are a lot of Alt-Tab replacements that do fancy things like show previews of the application windows (Microsoft's is here); maybe one of them will be smart enough to fix this.
posted by equalpants at 9:37 PM on June 21, 2007

It's not just Alt-Tabbing that does it, but also clicking on the taskbar. Actually I usually use the taskbar to switch apps so I'm only somewhat certain the same behavior happens when I use Alt-Tab.

Firefox is open so often on this system that I don't recall if the same behavior happens when Firefox is closed, but I'll try leaving it closed for a bit to see what happens.
posted by chrominance at 10:04 PM on June 21, 2007

Closing Firefox (and Thunderbird, just in case) didn't seem to have any effect. What seemed to help was un-maximizing a bunch of windows; the multiple-foregrounding behavior seemed to stop until I opened another program, at which point the seemingly random behavior started up again. I don't know if un-maximizing windows really did anything or if it just seemed like it did something. Pinning down a cause continues to be frustrating.
posted by chrominance at 10:16 PM on June 21, 2007

Weird. I'll bet we've got different bugs, then--I always keep everything maximized.
posted by equalpants at 10:26 PM on June 21, 2007

Have you tried the Microsoft alt-tab powertoy replacement? I nearly always install this by default, and haven't seen any weirdness like you're describing.

Also, the TweakUI powertoy? Try some of the desktop settings there (stop windows from stealing focus, group related windows, etc.) - can't hurt, I suppose.

Barring that, you probably have some issue specific to your system and your install. My laptop for example nearly always throws an explorer crash on reboot, unless I remember to shut off Bluetooth as it is loading... you can have the exact same hardware, the same software installed, and you'll get different bugs on both systems. That's the fun of Windows.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:00 AM on June 22, 2007

Are you running any applications that are set to "Always on Top" ?

I have experienced some weird issues like this when a chat window or media player had this option set.
posted by utsutsu at 7:09 AM on June 22, 2007

TweakUI = installed. Focus stealing is already off, and I turned off window grouping as soon as I installed XP. Just installed the Alt-Tab replacement and it seems to have no effect (though the previews are nifty!), but I haven't restarted the system yet so maybe that'll clear out whatever.

I do have applications set to Always On Top (namely Media Player Classic and various TV applications—GBPVR and Hauppauge's WinTV) but none of them are running at the moment and it still happens. I've had them open previously during this session; again, I haven't rebooted to find out what happens before I open any AOT apps.
posted by chrominance at 11:39 AM on June 22, 2007

I've experienced the same thing. I run many apps at the same time, usually Outlook with 2-10 open emails, 2-10 IE6 windows, VLC, 2-10 Explorer Windows, and 1-5 office apps. I use the Alt-Tab Task Switcher Powertoy for Windows XP. If I click my "Show Desktop" button on the taskbar, then alt-tab to any application, my Outlook Inbox always displays, regardless of the app I am switching to, although it does display under the app I have alt-tab'd to.
posted by tdischino at 12:48 PM on June 22, 2007

This is caused by how Windows does off-screen compositing. I am not sure what changed between 2000 and XP that causes this particular instance, but the basic gist of what's happening is that when you minimize an application, it doesn't actually minimize it, it moves it to -39000,-39000 (or something along those lines, the exact figure escapes me) which is obviously off screen. Think of all of your minimized applications as basically being in a stack a yard away from your monitor. What you're seeing is one of two things: either you're running out of video processing resources and you're having re-draw problems, or, what I would imagine to be the problem here, non-standard UI toolkits, which both Azureus and Firefox use, are screwing up and also causing re-draw errors. When you see Winamp popping up with Azureus behind it, you're seeing remnants of Azureus's UI toolkit doing a bad job of rendering itself in the background.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:41 PM on June 25, 2007

As an aside, I didn't mean "non-standard" in a derogatory sense. I should've said non-native.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:43 PM on June 25, 2007

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