Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Improving the Clipboard

In this era of 3ghz processors, 1gb memory, and 500gb hard drives, why is the Windows clipboard only capable of holding a single item? Sure, you have fancy multi-level undo and redo in applications like Microsoft Word and Visual Studio. Did you know that the humble Windows textbox supports a surprisingly deep undo/redo queue via the CTRL+Z (undo) and CTRL+Y (redo) keys?

But not the clipboard. It holds exactly one item. Copy another item to the clipboard and your previous clipboard item is irrevocably lost.

The clipboard is a model of simplicity. And that's admirable. But I think it's too simple. Adding a basic FIFO queue of clipboard items wouldn't affect typical usage -- but it would provide much richer functionality for intermediate and advanced users. Here's one such clipboard utility that I use, clcl. This lightweight utility launches when I press the ALT+C key, and presents a straightforward menu of recent clipboard items:

screenshot of CLCL

Of course, CTRL+C and CTRL+V still work as you would expect. I can't even tell you how many times I've been editing code in Visual Studio and accidentally overwritten the code I copied to the clipboard. Now I don't have to worry; I can just press ALT+C and then use the arrow keys or the number to select the clipboard item I want to paste. The clipboard is a heck of a lot more useful to me when I don't have to constantly worry about losing the one item on it. Clcl even persists the clipboard items to disk so they survive a reboot.

I liked clcl's simplicity, but there are dozens of similar clipboard utilities. To me, that's is a sign that better clipboard functionality really should be built into the operating system. Unfortunately, I can't find any reference to clipboard improvements in Vista. It'd be a darn shame if we're stuck with the archaic single item clipboard for another five years.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: