Overlapping Windows vs. Tabbed Documents

Access gives you two options for displaying forms and report objects: windows or tabs. Read on for the advantages of each and which one I prefer.

Overlapping Windows vs. Tabbed Documents

Which is better, Overlapping Windows or Tabbed Documents?

Prior to Access 2007, your only choice was to use Overlapping Windows, where each form or report opens in a separate window within the Access application.  By default, these windows can be resized, maximized, minimized, shown side-by-side, etc.

Access 2007 added support for Tabbed Documents, where every form and report occupies all of the available space in the Access "canvas."  To navigate among the open forms and reports, users click on horizontal tabs that run across the top of the application.  The user interface is similar to that of modern web browsers.

This is a database-level setting and it cannot be changed without closing and reopening the frontend database.

To change the setting, go to File > Options > Current Database.

Let's look at the advantages of each approach.

Advantages of Overlapping Windows

  • Users can see multiple forms/reports on-screen at once
  • You can control where windows appear relative to one another
  • You don't have to design every form to look good full screen

Advantages of Tabbed Documents

  • Familiar "browser-like" user interface
  • Easier for users to switch among many open forms/reports
  • Fewer design decisions to make (since layout options are limited)
  • No need to worry about how and where forms/reports are saved while in Design View

I'm Team Overlapping Windows

Every single Access application I've ever written uses overlapping windows.

I Hate the Disadvantages of Tabbed Documents

Occasionally, I will try writing an application using Tabbed Documents.  

I inevitably give up after a short time.  I find the limitations too restrictive.  I like the flexibility of showing multiple forms on-screen at once.  I never make it far into a project using Tabbed Documents before I run up against a wall for which there is no workaround.

I Have Workarounds for the Disadvantages of Overlapping Windows

I employ several tools to work around the disadvantages of overlapping windows:

  • My KeepFormOnCanvas function automatically moves forms to prevent Access from shrinking them if the main Access window is small
  • My FillAccessWindow function helps avoid the "cascading maximize" behavior
  • I avoid overlapping by using DoCmd.MoveSize to open parent-child forms relative to each other on-screen
  • For some applications, I write a "Cleanup" routine that runs prior to each release that–among other things–will open certain forms in design view, DoCmd.MoveSize them into specific positions on-screen, then save and close them

Reader Poll

Let me know which side you're on (and why) in the comments below:

  • Team Overlapping Windows OR
  • Team Tabbed Documents

Referenced articles

Get Back Here, Form!
What happens if the user resizes their Access window so that our form can’t open in its entirety? KeepFormOnCanvas() to the rescue!
Fun with Form Windows
Using my FillAccessWindow function to resize Form and Report objects relative to the amount of available space on the Access canvas.
Avoid the Cascading Maximize
Prevent a full screen report from forcing the calling form to be maximized with this clever workaround.

External references

Show or hide object tabs
Select tabs to move between tables, forms, reports, queries in single-document view. You can hide or show tabs and overlapping windows by using the Access Options dialog box

All original code samples by Mike Wolfe are licensed under CC BY 4.0