How The Scroll Wheel Should Work in Windows

I spend about half of my time on the computer working in Linux and the other half of my time working in Windows. As such, I have picked up a few habits about the way I have my computer set up and the way I use my computer. One of the great features of Linux (also present on Macs, apparently) is the way the scroll wheel on the mouse works. I would love to see this functionality added to Windows.

Within Windows, if you have a window focused and you use the scroll wheel, that action is going to have a single action attached to it. It will almost always (except for a select few programs) scroll the window frame up and down. If you are working within Outlook, whichever frame of the window you are focused in will scroll up and down, no matter where the mouse pointer is located on the screen. That’s all the scroll wheel will do.

However, in Linux, the scroll wheel will do all sorts of things depending on where the mouse pointer is located when you touch the scroll wheel.

  • Switch between windows – If the scroll wheel is on the taskbar, hovered over the window’s entry in the taskbar, the scroll wheel will switch back and forth between the open windows.
  • Switch between workspaces – Linux and Mac computers allow users to set up multiple “workspaces” (also known as desktops). It’s similar to setting up multiple monitors, but you only need a single monitor to make it work. When you are viewing one workspace, all of the other workspaces are hidden. You can then switch between workspaces. Using the scroll wheel while hovering the mouse pointer over the workspace switcher will switch between workspaces.
  • Switch between tabs – If you are using a Web browser that supports “tabs” (as do most modern graphical browsers), you can hover the mouse pointer over the tab area and use the scroll wheel to quickly switch between your open tabs.
  • Scroll vertically – This is the standard behavior of the scroll wheel. You scroll forward with the scroll wheel, and the window’s scroll bar will move up. Scroll backwards with the scroll wheel and the window’s scroll bar will move down. However, one big difference between Linux and Windows is that the scroll wheel will effect whichever of the window’s frames you are hovering. For instance, if you are using Evolution (a Linux program similar to Outlook), you’ll generally have at least two frames within the window that need to scroll up and down. On the left side, you’ll have the list of folders and e-mail accounts you have set up. On the right side, you’ll have the list of messages in the current folder. In many cases, you’ll even have a third frame above or below the message list with a preview of the selected message. Even if you are currently working within the list of messages, if you hover your mouse pointer over the list of folders and use the scroll wheel, the list of folders will move up and down. If you were to do the same thing in Outlook, the list of messages would move up and down instead of the list of folders.
  • Scroll horizontally – If you are using an application that has horizontal scroll bars, you can use the scroll wheel to scroll horizontally, as well. All you need to do is place your mouse pointer in the horizontal scroll bar, and the scroll wheel automatically realizes you want to scroll left and right rather than scrolling up and down.

One more great thing about the way the scroll wheel works in Linux is the fact that a window doesn’t have to have focus in order for the scroll wheel to work within it. Wherever your mouse pointer is pointing, the scroll wheel will effect that area. So, if I have two documents open side-by-side, and I am currently typing in the one on the left; if I place my mouse pointer over the document on the right, the scroll wheel will scroll that document up and down rather than scrolling the left one.

It would be really nice if Windows had these features. I have seen a handful of programs available that implement one or two of these features, but I’ve not seen anything that does it all.

5 Responses

  • Allen

    i am ashamed to admit it but i just learned that if you click the clickwheel on a link, it opens in a new tab – really great tip

    • Yeah, that’s a great tip. The other half of that tip is the fact that, if you middle-click (click the scroll wheel) on an open tab in your browser, it will close that tab.

      Depending on your browser, middle-clicking on a link will either open a new tab and automatically focus on that tab or it will open the new tab in the background (keeping your current tab in focus). With most browsers, if you hold down the shift key when you middle-click on the link, it will do the opposite. For instance, in Chrome, if you middle-click a link, it opens the new tab in the background so you can continue using the tab you were currently using. However, if you want to automatically focus on the new tab when it opens, you can hold the shift key when you middle-click the link.

      • Allen

        hot damn! you are right! we should make a mouse click tips page :) pretty interesting – small bits that save time

  • aspart

    Wow, exactly!!!!

    I hadn’t thought about the horizontal scrolling gesture but other than that and workspace (not applicable), I was hoping all of them to be available for customization.

    Hopefully at Windows 8 ? :)

  • the dsc

    Are there at least “add ons” on windows to achieve these functionalities? Being used to all of them on linux I often see myself naturally and uselessly trying to do the same thing on windows, which sucks. For the task bar I’ve found a program that gives some things like closing windows via middle click (instead of doing nothing or opening a new window, the opposite of linux). But switching between tabs with the mouse wheel is perhaps what I miss the most. Not to mention konqueror, the best file manager ever imagined by man.