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Visual Studio
VS 2003+

Using MDI Layout in Visual Studio

The tabbed document layout in Visual Studio is ideal when switching between code and design windows. However, when using displays with very high resolution, much of the available space can be wasted and the number of visible documents is limited.

Multiple Document Interfaces

Classic applications, including earlier versions of Visual Studio, often used a multiple document interface (MDI) layout. MDI layouts use a single, parent window for the main application. Many child windows can be created within the main area with one window per open document. In the case of Visual Studio, a document is any code file or designer.

The default layout for Visual Studio is to use a tabbed layout. This provides a limited MDI experience, allowing multiple windows to be opened but only one to be visible at any time. The tabs at the top of the screen can be used to switch between windows. This arrangement is beneficial for low-resolution displays because very little screen space is used by the decorations around the documents.

When using large displays with high resolutions, there is ample room for many code and design windows to be displayed together. Unfortunately, in this situation the tabbed layout can become restrictive. A layout that some developers prefer is the true MDI experience, where each code and design window can be independently moved and resized within the development environment. This is particularly useful when, for example, you wish to view and edit a form's design and underlying code simultaneously.

Visual Studio Configuration

The settings that change between the tabbed and MDI layouts are controlled from the standard Visual Studio options menu. This is also available for the Visual Studio Express Editions such as Microsoft C# Express or Visual Basic Express. To view the options dialog box, select Tools, Options from the menus.

Show All Settings Mode

In some Visual Studio editions the standard options dialog box may be set to view a limited number of settings. If so, you will see only a small number of items within the tree structure. To show all of the settings for Visual Studio, tick the Show all Settings checkbox at the bottom-left of the dialog. The advanced settings will appear.

MDI Environment Option

Once all of the settings are visible, ensure that you have the "General" option beneath "Environment" selected in the tree structure. Two radio buttons will be displayed to allow the window layout to be changed. In Visual Studio 2003 these will be labelled "Tabbed documents" and "MDI environment". For Visual Studio 2005 and 2008, the MDI option is labelled "Multiple documents". By selecting the MDI option and clicking OK, the alternative layout is applied.

Once using the MDI layout, the document windows can be moved and resized independently. To quickly switch between windows press CTRL and Tab together. You can also use the options in the Window menu to arrange the windows within the development environment.

Visual Studio MDI Environment Setting

22 April 2008