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Working with Tool Windows

As in the previous versions, lots of the Visual Studio tools are provided via tool windows. Tool windows are floating windows that can be docked to the IDE interface and are responsible for a particular task. As a general rule, in the View menu you can find the tool windows provided by Visual Studio 2012. Exceptions to this rule are the Test tool windows and the analysis tool windows that can be invoked from the Test and Analyze menus, respectively, and tool windows specific for debugging, available in the Debug menu (see Chapter 5, “Debugging Visual Basic 2012 Applications”). In this book we utilize several tool windows, and in this chapter you get an overview of the most frequently used ones. In particular, we now focus on Solution Explorer, Error List, Properties, and Output windows. This is because these are the tool windows you will use in each of your projects. Other tool windows will be analyzed when applied to specific topics. To dock a tool window to the desired position in the IDE, just move the window onto the most appropriate arrow in the graphical cross that you see on the IDE and then release. Figure 2.15 represents this situation.

Figure 2.15

Figure 2.15. Docking a floating tool window to the IDE’s interface.

Visual Studio 2012 automatically positions some tool windows in specific places of the IDE, but you can rearrange tool windows as much as you like. We now discuss the previously mentioned tool windows.

The Solution Explorer Window

Solution Explorer is a special tool window that enables managing solutions, projects, and files in the projects or solution. It provides a complete view of which files compose your projects and enables adding or removing files and organizing files into subfolders. Figure 2.16 shows how a WPF project is represented inside Solution Explorer.

Figure 2.16

Figure 2.16. An example of the Solution Explorer tool window.

As you can see, at the root level there is the project. Nested are code files, subfolders containing pictures, data, and documents. You can also get a list of all the references in the project. You use Solution Explorer for adding and managing items in your projects as well as getting a representation of which files constitute the project itself. By default, Solution Explorer shows only the items that compose the project. If you need a complete view of references and auto-generated code files, you need to click the Show All Files button located on the upper-left portion of the window. Solution Explorer has been deeply revisited in Visual Studio 2012 and, if you had a chance of using the Power Tools extension for Visual Studio 2010, you might notice how it retakes most of the features of a tool window called Solution Navigator. Solution Explorer now shows the list of types and members that a code file defines, by expanding the name of a code file. For instance, you can see in Figure 2.16 how the MainWindow.xaml.vb code file defines a class called MainWindow, which exposes a field called _contentLoaded of type Boolean, and two methods, InitializeComponent and System_Windows_Markup_IComponentConnector_Connect. By double-clicking a member you will be automatically redirected to its definition in the code file. The window also shows arguments and their type. This is useful when you have hundreds of files and just need to know which types are defined within a file without searching inside all the others. Also, Solution Explorer has a useful search box in which you can type a search key and the IDE will search for all the items in the solution that contain the specified word(s). Another interesting feature of the new Solution Explorer is that you can discover the following behaviors for members defined in code:

  • Calls that the member makes
  • Members that are calling the selected member
  • Members that are using the selected member

You can simply right-click a member defined inside a code file and then select the desired command. At that point, Solution Explorer will show the list of members that are invoked by, are calling, or are using the selected member. To go back to the full list you simply use the Back button in the toolbar (see Figure 2.16). The new Solution Explorer also provides interaction with Team Foundation Server and the possibility of generating visual representation of the object graph for the selected node. To manage your project’s items, you just need to right-click the project name and select the most appropriate command from the pop-up menu that appears. Figure 2.17 shows this pop-up menu.

Figure 2.17

Figure 2.17. Solution items can be managed in Solution Explorer using the pop-up menu.

As you can see from Figure 2.17, the pop-up menu shows several tasks you can perform on your projects or solutions. You can easily add new items by selecting the Add command; you also can perform tasks against specific files if you right-click items in the solution instead of the project’s name.

You can easily find Solution Explorer by pressing Ctrl+Alt+L if it is not available yet in the IDE. The enhancements that Visual Studio 2012 brings to Solution Explorer make this tool window a very important productivity tool, rather than a simple project browser.

The Error List Window

The Error List tool window can show a list of all messages, including warnings and information, which are generated by Visual Studio during the development of your applications. Figure 2.18 shows the Error List tool window.

Figure 2.18

Figure 2.18. The Error List tool window.

Typically the Error List window can show three kinds of messages:

  • Error messages
  • Warning messages
  • Information messages

Error messages are related to errors that prevent your application from running—for example, if your code cannot compile successfully. This can include any kind of problems that Visual Studio or the background compiler encounter during the development process, such as attempting to use an object that has not been declared, corrupted auto-generated Windows Presentation Foundation files that must be edited in the Visual Studio designer, or corrupted Visual Studio files in situations that throw error messages you can see in the Error List. Another kind of message is a warning. Warnings are related to situations that will not necessarily prevent your code from being successfully compiled or your application from running; in such cases warnings can be simply ignored. It’s good practice to try to solve the problems that caused these messages to be shown. For example, running the Code Analysis tool will throw warnings on code that is not compliant with Microsoft guidelines for writing code. This means that the application will probably work, but something in your code should be improved. In both error and warning messages, you can be redirected to the code that caused the message by double-clicking the message itself. You can also get some help about the message by right-clicking it and then selecting the Show Error Help command from the pop-up menu, or simply by pressing F1. Information messages are just to inform you about something. Usually information messages can be ignored with regard to the code, although they could be useful for understanding what the IDE wants to tell us. By default, the Error List shows the three kinds of messages together, but you could also choose to view only some of them—for example, error messages excluded and so on. To filter the Error List results, click the tab related to the kind of message you do not want to be shown. For instance, click the Messages tab if you want information messages to be excluded by the errors list. To include back information messages, click the same tab again. The Errors List can also be easily invoked by pressing Ctrl+\, Ctrl+E.

The Properties Window

In the .NET development, everything has properties, which are the characteristics of a particular item. Classes can have properties; files can have properties; and so on. For example, the filename is a property of a file. You often need to set properties for your code, for .NET objects you use in your code, and for your files. To make things easier, Visual Studio provides a tool window named Properties window, which is a graphical tool for setting items’ properties. Figure 2.19 represents the Properties window showing properties for a button in Windows Presentation Foundation.

Figure 2.19

Figure 2.19. The Properties window.

We could define the Properties window’s structure as a two-column table, in which the left column specifies the property and the right column gets or sets the value for the property. Although you often need to set properties in code, the Properties window provides a graphical way to perform this assignment and can be particularly useful when designing the user interface or when you need to specify how a file must be packaged into the executable assembly. The Properties window can be easily invoked by pressing F4.

The Output Window

Visual Studio often recurs to external tools for performing some actions. For example, when compiling your projects, Visual Studio invokes the Visual Basic command-line compiler, so the IDE captures the output of the tools it utilizes and redirects the output to the Output window. The Output window’s purpose is to show results of actions that Visual Studio has to perform or that you require to be performed by Visual Studio. So, when you compile your projects, the Output window shows the results of the build process. Figure 2.20 shows the Output window containing the results of the build process of a Visual Basic project.

Figure 2.20

Figure 2.20. The Output window showing results of a build process.

The Output window is also interactive. To continue with the example of compiling a program, if the compiler throws any errors, these are shown in the Output window. You can click the Go to Next Message or Go to Previous Message button to navigate error messages. After you do this, the current error message is highlighted. Each time you move to another error message, you will be redirected to the code that caused the error. The Output window can capture the output not only of the compiler, but also of other tools Visual Studio needs to use, such as the debugger. By the way, you can get a list of the available outputs by clicking the Show Output From combo box. After this first look to the main tool windows, we can begin examining another important feature of the Visual Studio IDE for Visual Basic: the My Project window.

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