Windows 11 Feature Focus: Snap Layouts

Posted on June 27, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 11 with 42 Comments

In Windows 11, Microsoft is improving the Snap window management feature yet again with new features. Key among them is Snap Layouts.

A brief history of Snap

Snap is a productivity feature that helps users arrange applications and other windows logically on-screen. The roots of this feature date back literally to the earliest days of Windows, when Microsoft, fearful of an intellectual property lawsuit from Apple, decided not to support arbitrarily-sized floating and overlapping application windows. Instead, windows were full-screen or, when used with other windows, would automatically tile to fill the available space.

Microsoft finally added overlapping window support to Windows with version 2.03—and yes, Apple did sue, for that and other Windows features that it claimed copied the Mac—and for the next decade and a half or more, the ability to cascade and stack open windows were the only notable window management innovations that Microsoft added to the product.

That changed in Windows 7 with the arrival of Aero Snap, a feature that let you drag a window to the left or right edge of the display, where it would “snap” to that edge and occupy 50 percent of the width of the display. You could also drag a window to the top of the display to maximize it, or drag a maximized window down to restore it.

In Windows 8, Microsoft added a mobile apps platform that was initially called Metro and was backed by an online apps store, the Windows Store, similar to those found on mobile platforms like Android and iPhone. Metro-style apps, as they were called, could only run full-screen, an anachronistic limitation on a powerful desktop platform like Windows. And so Microsoft offered a concession, called Snap. With Snap, Windows 8 users could display two Metro apps, or one desktop app and one Metro app, side-by-side on-screen.

As originally implemented, however, Snap was quite limited. One app was considered the primary app, that app would occupy most of the on-screen real estate. The second, secondary, app, meanwhile, could only occupy a tiny, fixed-width sliver of on-screen real estate. And since most Metro-style apps didn’t support being snapped in the latter configuration, the feature was even less useful. A UI called Switcher would appear when you initiated Snap to show you which apps were compatible and could be snapped into that smaller space.

There was one more change in Windows 8. Because of the system’s new focus on touch-first interfaces, Snap could be configured in three ways: Using the mouse, as before; using keyboard shortcuts (like WINKEY + LEFT ARROW and WINKEY + RIGHT ARROW; and via touch-based gestures.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft improved Snap dramatically by allowing even Metro-style apps, which by that time were called Store apps, to snap to one half of the screen and be arbitrarily resized on the fly. (And with large enough screens, one could snap three apps side-by-side.) There was also an Auto Snap feature that allowed individual apps to display two windows side-by-side; the canonical example is the Mail app, where you might display an email message in its own window next to the main app window.

In Windows 10, a new feature called Snap Assist—basically a replacement for Switcher—shows thumbnails of the remaining open windows when you snap a window, making it easier to get up and running with two side-by-side windows. Windows 10 also lets you snap windows to the corners of the screen, where they will occupy about 25 percent of the available on-screen space by default.

In 2019, Microsoft relaunched the PowerToys brand with a new utility called FancyZones that extends the Snap experience to allow for more complex and useful on-screen window layouts. A key part of this utility, incredibly, has been integrated into Windows 11 and is now called Snap Layouts.

Snap Layouts

In Windows 11, Snap works as before but also includes a few enhancements. The first is called Snap Layouts. This feature provides a flyout that displays possible Snap window layouts when you mouse over the Maximize window button of any window, or when you type WINKEY + Z.

The choices you see here will depend on the width of your display. With traditional 16:9, 16:10, and 3:2 displays, you will see four layout choices as shown above. On ultra-wide displays, you will see six layout choices.

To place the current window into position, mouse over one of the layout choices. As you do, the individual windows within each layout will light up, indicating where the current window will be positioned and sized on-screen if chosen.

To choose a location within a layout, simply click the mouse button. The window will be positioned as requested and Snap Assist will appear, providing thumbnails of the other remaining open windows.

If you chose a layout with four or more positions, Snap Assist will help you fill each available space, in turn, with an app window.

The window layouts you create with Snap Layouts can be saved and accessed later using another new Windows feature called Snap Groups. I will look at that next.

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Comments (42)

42 responses to “Windows 11 Feature Focus: Snap Layouts”

  1. PhilipVasta

    I love the Snap ability in Windows, but I've noticed that for some time now it has been buggy. Very often the second window will not properly snap into place, forcing me to try again. This has been on multiple machines.

    • luthair

      Funny I was going to post something similar, I was a constant user of snap on Windows 7 but the Windows 10 implementation is both inferior and frequently broken.

      Regularly when I do try to use snap (across a number of PCs) pressing the window will snap to the opposite side of the screen from the keyboard press (e.g. win+left snaps right).

      Further, the corner snapping (imo useless, but that is subjective) generally made snapping, maximizing and minimizing, both unpredictable and require more keypresses to get windows into the desired state.

  2. MikeCerm

    I think that you're overlooking some of the "notable window management innovations" in Win95. The introduction of the taskbar was a big deal in terms managing what programs were currently running and switching between them. Adding the "close" button to the minimize/maximize buttons on the right hand side was another "innovation" that seems so obvious now that it's hard to believe the first few versions of Windows literally didn't have a close button. Microsoft might have been trying to engineer around an Apple patent, I don't know, but the three-button cluster introduced in Win95 became a standard that Mac OS would copy for OS X.

    • longhorn

      "but the three-button cluster introduced in Win95 became a standard that Mac OS would copy for OS X."

      The problem with the OSX/macOS implementation might be that the close button doesn't actually close the application.

      Snap Layouts seem cool.

      When I read Windows 11 specifications one thing jumps out at me:

      "Alignment to the bottom of the screen is the only location allowed (for the taskbar)."

      This would make the taskbar in Windows 11 more restricted than basically any taskbar/panel/dock in the history of desktop computing. Windows 8 created a huge market for start menus. Windows 11 might do something similar on a smaller scale for taskbars. It's a weird and unnecessary regression.

      • MikeCerm

        Yeah, Apple definitely doesn't always get things right. Beginning at least with Windows 2.0, you could resize a window by grabbing any edge. For as long as Mac had floating windows, you could only resize by grabbing the bottom-right corner, and this "feature" didn't come to Mac OS until 2011, literally 25 years after Windows. In Big Sur, I'm finding app closing behavior is actually inconsistent. There are some apps that "quit" when you close them -- Calculator and System Prefs, for example -- but most do not. There doesn't seem to be any solid logic either, because other basic system apps, e.g., Activity Monitor, keep running until you "quit." Maybe this is how it's always been, and I only noticed because I've been using Mac more regularly since the M1 launch, but it does seem confusing. Maybe it's because you can only run one instance of System Prefs or Calculator at a time... but it's 2021, how is possible that Mac doesn't let you open more than one Calculator at a time?!

    • mattbg

      Agree. In retrospect and in comparison to the length of time it takes to release significant improvements in today's Windows, it's kind of amazing how quickly Windows 95 came together considering it was an entirely new UI and changed so much about DOS and Windows.

      Windows 95 came out less than 2 years after Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

  3. brettscoast

    The snap layout feature is extremely useful in my daily workflow so happy to hear that this will continue and be expanded upon in Windows 11. Thanks for the history snapshot (no pun intended) of snap layout.

  4. navarac

    It is always nice to see a Powertoy or "Garage" item make it to the mainstream.

  5. stevem

    With power toys fancy zone you drag a window whilst holding down shift to drop into position, or drag whilst holding down shift and control to drop over multiple position and the window snaps to them both. Obviously they need to be next to each other to fill both zones.

  6. mattbg

    Regarding "At this time, Snap Layouts doesn’t support keyboard shortcuts on touch-based gestures.": does this mean the snap feature doesn't support keyboard shortcuts at all (WIN+LEFT and WIN+RIGHT don't work anymore) or only that some of the layouts don't have shortcuts?

  7. zakand

    Instead of a minor feature like this, maybe you should write something about the Win11 CPU scandal?

    • MikeCerm

      Paul has expressed his opinion on various podcasts that he doesn't think it's a big issue, that everyone is overreacting, and that anyone with a recent PC won't have a problem. I disagree. Microsoft is going to have another Windows 7 situation, but worse. Virtually every PC that was still functional when Windows 10 was released could be upgraded. Even so, it took almost 3 years for Windows 10 to cross 50% of active users. Windows 11 won't even be an option for at least 50% of users because of hardware requirements, unless they want to throw away a perfectly usable PC. The uptake for Windows 11 is going to be even slower, and I can pretty much guarantee that half of all PCs are still going to be running Windows 10 when the expiration date rolls around. A Sandy Bridge CPU with an SSD and 8GB of RAM is still perfectly usable today, and that will continue to be the case 5 years from now. There's no gotta-have feature in Windows 11 that's going to get people to throw away working hardware just to get it, and Microsoft should not be asking them to.

      • dftf

        Not to mention, Microsoft themselves are still selling the "Surface Studio 2", which starts at £3549 in the UK but due to its CPU has been confirmed as not getting an upgrade to Windows 11. You'd think they'd at-least add some text to the page to warn buyers it will not be eligible. Feels rather fraudulent not to!

      • Greg Green

        Since we had the big pc buying surge during covid I suspect people are even less likely to upgrade their ‘inadequate’ purchases. After all many of these laptops or desktops are only a year or two old.

    • navarac

      Paul has covered this elsewhere, and there ARE other things in 11 to consider.

      • navarac

        Cannot edit! - by "covered this" I refer to CPU issues.

      • Alastair Cooper

        He's talked about the TPM, not about the CPU.

        There is some logic to the TPM requirements whereas the CPU requirements seem to be artificial.

    • jordan_meyer

      Agreed. My 5 year old surface pro 4 with TPM 2.0 can't run windows 11 for an arbitrary reason. My guess is that the android app emulation is garbage and they're making up for it by forcing "modern" cpus that have additional instructions or better virtualization support to make it usable. Just let us upgrade and tell us what features we can't have if our CPU is "too old"

      • koaltech

        I have the Dev build installed on my Surface Pro 4 right now...and I'm typing this on my Surface Book using Windows 11 that is also "supposed" to not be able to run it...*shrug*

      • jimchamplin

        This. I understand that there's a financial aspect to it and they're trying to help partners sell hardware, but I don't like the idea that PCs may become like phones with a baked-in "expiration date" for the OS.

        • dftf

          "... I don't like the idea that PCs may become like phones with a baked-in "expiration date" for the OS"

          In Windows 10 the policy was that you would be supported "for the lifetime of that device", which was always vague to me. In practice, I can only recall support ever dropping for some Intel Atom Clover-Trail CPUs, which got stuck on Version 1607 (with "security-only" updates until Jan 2023).

          Though yes, with Windows 11 it does feel Microsoft are being too-aggressive. It's fine to ask for UEFI only, TPM 2.0 and Secure Boot on new devices. As Paul says, occasionally Microsoft do need to push the PC industry forwards. But also expecting them for all existing devices seems silly -- especially given they've already said when you run Windows 11 inside a Virtual Machine, it ignores most of these hardware requirements. So you have the mad situation of a device not being able to run W11 natively, yet a user could run it inside of Windows 10 in a VM solution!

        • Alastair Cooper

          So charge for the software upgrade. I don't see a problem with that.

          What I do see an issue with is contributing to the waste of perfectly good hardware.

  8. clowg

    How does this feature work with multiple monitors?

    • Paul Thurrott

      Seamlessly. Snap works fine with multiple displays today in Windows 10. You can just keep holding down WINKEY and hit LEFT (or RIGHT) ARROW repeatedly to move a window to whatever display and back.

      • stevem

        You can also Shift+Win+(Left / Right) Arrow to jump monitors as well.

        • Paul Thurrott

          Yep. I wasn't intending to write "everything you can do with Snap," just cover this one new feature.
      • accessjunky

        I've had to use this keyboard shortcut when controlling users PCs over a Zoom call when they have shared the wrong window :-) It's easier than trying to get them to drag the app over sometimes!

  9. jdawgnoonan

    Snap is one of my favorite features in Windows and I am happy to see the improvements. I really miss snap when I use my wife's Mac.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I'm not sure if I could find this now, but I've used a third-party utility on the Mac to emulate Snap.

      • bettyblue

        “Better Snap Tool” is what I use in the Mac. $2.99 I think. Really powerful in terms of options.

    • lwetzel

      I thought they had in Catalina a half screen snap. Could be wrong and I can't check myself so buyer beware.

      • jdawgnoonan

        With their split screen feature you have to long press the maximize (or whatever they call it) button. But you can't just throw the windows where you want them like in Windows.

    • bkkcanuck

      It is funny, I had to turn off snap since it was driving me nuts whenever I moved a window near the top of the screen it would go full screen... If I want full screen I will hit the full screen icon on a window.

    • dftf

      On macOS is there not "an app for that"?

  10. lwetzel

    Paul you nailed the history of snap. Most people think it is new but it goes back to the beginning. So glad you pointed that out. Of course, took them a while to make improvements.

  11. Username

    Dell Display Manager is free (with a Dell monitor); and, it works excellently with Windows Snap.

  12. brothernod

    When I snap an explorer window, I really wish it offered me the opportunity to open a new explorer window. It would save me so many clicks.

    Regardless I’m sure excited for this productivity enhancement.

  13. VMax

    Sorry if this is a dumb question, but what's the difference between the top two layouts? They both look like an identical 50:50 vertical split. Am I missing something obvious?

  14. lvthunder

    Why do you get the pop-out on some apps, but not all of them?