The Evolution of Windows’ Snipping Tool

In an ever-evolving technology landscape something that has remained a need for many people regardless of platform is a reliable screenshot tool. My primary computing environment has been, and still is Windows. For a long time, the screenshot story on Windows was pretty poor. My first time really diving into Mac OS back in the early 2000s and was very pleasantly surprised that my Macbook did a much better job of capturing screens than my old XP machine. I’m not super familiar with how this is done on the various Linux desktop distros, but I would imagine the capabilities were similar, even back then almost 20 years ago.

Thankfully things were about to improve in the Windows ecosystem too, and the story has a bit of an unlikely hero. The much maligned Windows Vista would provide a great new feature – the Snipping Tool.

So let’s cast our minds back to “the old days” of Windows XP and the earlier 16 bit versions of Windows. This is the era where the tools were so bad they live on as a disturbing sense memory in so many minds to this day. The old screenshot method was a blunt hammer, lacking nuance and offering virtually no real options for image manipulation. It was simple to use, by pressing the otherwise useless “PrtScr” key that existed on most PC keyboards. That would cause a bitmap image of the current screen to be placed on the Windows clipboard where it could be pasted into something like Microsoft Paint if you wanted to save the image, or something like Microsoft Word to be cropped for a document. But since most applications couldn’t accept the image data directly, for most people those were your only options.

With the launch of Windows Vista in 2007 Microsoft decided it was time to fix this long-standing deficiency in Windows’ tooling and bring this essential feature into the 21st century, and thus, the Snipping Tool was born. (Side note — yes, the Snipping Tool was previously available as a PowerToy in Windows XP / Tablet edition a few years before, but Vista was its first mainstream release). The Snipping Tool was designed to replace the old print screen command, which often required users to fumble with Microsoft Paint or other applications to deal with massive bitmaps.

The two main features of the snipping tool hadn’t been previously available. The first was that screenshots were saved to disk as an image file automatically. It also defaulted to PNG files rather than the bulkier and far less useful BMP files. If you don’t need the files clogging up your disk, you can set them to only go to the clipboard and just save from the Snipping Tool UI as needed. But the arguably more critical feature was that you could now freeze the screen and draw a box of any arbitrary size around whatever portion of the screen you wish to capture – be it a window, a line of text, an entire screen, or even spanning across multiple displays. This newfound flexibility made capturing and sharing screen content infinitely easier.

Another valuable addition in later versions of windows was the Snip & Sketch tool, a small desktop image manipulation program that enabled users to make quick and easy modifications to captured images. With a small pop-up in the corner of your screen, you could access this tool and enhance your screenshots before sharing them. The captured content was readily available in the clipboard, making it easy to paste into various applications, from messaging tools like Discord and Slack to email programs and document editors. This was originally designed to be part of the Windows 10 ‘Ink Workspace‘, but was useful in other scenarios too. Snip & Sketch was to have superseded the Snipping Tool, but Microsoft left it in place as a non-default option in Windows 10.

For me this is just a built-in part of my workflow. The new keyboard shortcut Windows Key + Shift + S now trigger the crosshairs to allows me to select what part of the screen I want to capture. This was then saved to disk and also put in the clipboard and saved to disk. I can then paste that capture into pretty much any application I want. Very rarely I’ll use the Snipping Tool UI to mark up the image with some arrows or something, but for the most part I just use them as-is for documentation, in chat conversations in Discord, a reference image in an email, or to demonstrate something to a colleague in Slack. It’s fast, and for the most part it’s completely seamless.

Finally, while not really a screenshot capability, the tool also allows for the capture of video in any arbitrary portion of the screen. I’ve most often used this when showing people how to perform a particular task, or where some menu option might be buried on a website.

Most recently Windows 11 has renamed Snip & Sketch to Snipping Tool completing the circle and sealing the fate of the original Vista-era screenshot application. The current version shares most of its features with the earlier versions, mostly having been updated for the more modern cross-platform Windows UI frameworks. Its nice to see something actually get retired and shut down once the new tool arrives, not leaving the legacy version to languish well past its useful lifetime.

The Snipping Tool has come a long way in its journey to become an essential part of the Windows ecosystem. It has made capturing and sharing screen content easier, more efficient, and kept the Windows experience consistent with the majority of other operating systems that have good screen capture capabilities.