Windows 7 Alt-Tab Order

This has been bugging me for weeks. The absolute random order in which Windows 7 puts your windows when you’re doing heavy alt-tab work between applications. It seems like most of the time it’s exactly opposite of what you want; “This was not my idea!”, it places the last application you worked on at the end of the list, with 20 windows open, this is a problem.

It all seems contrary to the behavior I’ve been used to over the years, so thanks to Google there is way of getting that original behavior back, and no I’m in no mood to research and try to learn the new, better way Windows 7 or what ever version it was introduced in wants me to us, simply for the fact that I gave it a couple months and it only brought me frustration. Thank you Michael (below) for your eloquence in starting the issue and posing the solution!

I’ve been nagged by a similar problem since I first installed Vista RC, and was fortunate enough to finally stumble across a solution today. I’ll summarize both below.


On Windows XP and it’s predecessors (going back to 3.1, if memory serves) I use ALT+TAB to switch back-and-forth between two windows. For example, I often have two cmd.exe windows open – one for writing code (SQL, Python, batch file, etc.) and one for running the code. It’s fast, easy, and by now reflexive, to quickly:

1. Edit code in one window
2. ALT+TAB to the second window
3. Run the new code, and watch it crash
4. ALT+TAB back to the first window and fix the problem
5. Repeat steps 1-4 all day long

I perform this simple workflow hundreds of times per day. I can work for tens-of-minutes at a time without ever taking my hands from the keyboard. I love my mouse, but when I’m coding or writing doc, its substantially more efficient for me to keep my hands on the keyboard and ALT+TAB between a few key windows.

Since moving to Windows Vista and Windows 7, the ALT+TAB behavior has been essentially useless for me, due to the seemingly random order in which windows appear. I’ve read the blog post that Shaon cited, and understand (though disagree with) why the ALT-TAB list works this way now. What I can’t get over, however, is that I can’t simply flip/flop between the two most recent windows, regardless of how the rest of the list is ordered.

So, for the past year or two (whenever it was that Vista RC was released), I’ve always had at least one XP machine available on my desktop. I’ve done all my coding and most of my documentation on an XP computer because ALT+TAB works predictably on that platform. Now, however, I’m getting ready to upgrade my last XP machine to Windows 7 and am dreading having to battle with Windows “helping” me by shuffling around the ALT+TAB list. Hence, my finally putting in the requisite time today to find a real solution.


Fortunately, the solution turns out to be easy. You can restore the XP-style ALT+TAB behavior – even while preserving the cool new Vista/7 Flip3D behavior – by adding the following registry value:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\AltTabSettings = 1

This gives you predictable, reliable ALT+TAB switching like XP, albeit with the loss of the cool looking big ALT+TAB icons that Vista/7 offer. Personally, I can live without the eye candy in order to work more effectively.

I credit and thank the following post for turning me on to this solution:

I hope this helps someone else, too; it made my day.



UPDATE: 3:55 PM 3/29/2010
Make sure to make it a DWORD as seen below:

56 thoughts on “Windows 7 Alt-Tab Order

  1. Anonymous

    Usability went down the drain after Windows XP Professional. Just look at how pitiable Windows 8 has turned into.

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