When it debuted on Mac OS X Leopard, Stacks became an immediate hit, a clever and visual organizational tool for keeping groups of related programs, files, or folders easily accessible from the dock. Windows 7 finally gave Microsoft's operating system some visual pop that was also useful for taskbar access and previewing, but it didn't come with a feature like Stacks. Two utilities for Windows aim to address that deficit, and though 7stacks and StandaloneStack are good considering they're teaching Windows a new trick, both have plenty of room to improve.

7stacks' optional grid appearance and faux jump list (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

7stacks ports the stacking feature in a reasonable but not quite perfect manner. The program does an effective job once you've created your stack, but it lacks some of the smoothness that hallmarks its Mac progenitor. A clean design makes creating a stack easy, but what's not clear about the process is that the "Create shortcut on Desktop" button is a necessary step. Once you've created the shortcut, you can drag it onto your unlocked taskbar. Left-click on the stack taskbar icon to expand the stack and access its contents, right-click to get options.

When creating a stack in 7stacks, you can customize the folder you choose to stack including Libraries, use the default folder icon or select your own, and toggle options for exploring the folder, browsing subfolders, hiding file extensions, or displaying image thumbnails. There are three stack view options: vertical, which presents the stack in a column; grid, which arranges the stack into rows and columns; and menu, which makes the stack look like a Windows Explorer right-click context menu. Text for each item can be turned on or off in grid and vertical modes, and both icon size and text size can be adjusted via slider.

7stacks' menu (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

You can't drag and drop items directly into or off of a stack, which means that you can only change what's in a stack from Windows Explorer. The utility could use a hot-key hook to create a new stack, although you can right-click on an already-existing stack to see stack options such as create new stack, edit current stack, and browse as menu. More than that, the process for creating and editing stacks should be smoother than it is, and even on computers with top-shelf hardware, the stacks don't open or close as fast as they should.

Other docking apps have brought stack-style features to Windows, but 7stacks and StandaloneStack focus only on stacking. They're also two of the few that don't require drain resources the way many docks can. StandaloneStack integrates with the Windows 7 taskbar the same way that 7stacks does: first you create a shortcut on your desktop, then you drag it to the taskbar. StandaloneStack is far better at providing instructions for this, though.

It also offer a far more comprehensive range of options, from basics like customizing your icons and changing fonts to showing hidden files and adjusting the dock placement when it opens according to specific X and Y coordinates. Creating a stack is simple. Once you've got a folder that has what you want to stack, you go to the "New Stack" option, give it a name, peg it to the folder location, hit Create Stack, and then hit Create Shortcut to send it to your desktop. From there, you can add it to your taskbar. Customizing icons requires adding images to the StandaloneStack images folder. There are instructions in the program, but it's not as fidgety as it might sound.

StandaloneStack's default stack appearance (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt)

The level of customization offered and telescoping arc of folders and files felt smooth and fit in naturally with Windows 7, but StandaloneStack is not problem-free. Despite changing the stack direction, it only opened up, never down or to the sides. Also, even after disabling caching in the options menu, most of the post-creation changes we made were not reflected in the link. Users who favor the grid option or prefer their taskbars on the bottom of their monitors will get a lot out of this utility, but StandaloneStack's performance needs to improve.

StandaloneStack and 7stacks get points for doing a reasonable job of bring this useful feature to Windows, and they're both compatible with Windows XP and Vista so legacy operating system users won't get left out. Their deficiencies are too glaring to recommend either of them more enthusiastically, unfortunately.