The Form Designer

The Form Designer

Another Delphi window you'll interact with often is the Form Designer, a visual tool for placing components on forms. In the Form Designer, you can select a component directly with the mouse; you can also use the Object Inspector or the Object TreeView, which is handy when a control is behind another one or is very small. If one control covers another completely, you can use the Esc key to select the parent control of the current one. You can press Esc one or more times to select the form, or press and hold Shift while you click the selected component. Doing so will deselect the current component and select the form by default.

There are two alternatives to using the mouse to set the position of a component. You can either set values for the Left and Top properties, or you can use the arrow keys while holding down Ctrl. Using arrow keys is particularly useful for fine-tuning an element's position (when the Snap To Grid option is active), as is holding down Alt while using the mouse to move the control. If you press Ctrl+Shift along with an arrow key, the component will move only at grid intervals.

By pressing the arrow keys while you hold down Shift, you can fine-tune the size of a component. Again, you can also do so with the mouse and the Alt key.

To align multiple components or make them the same size, you can select them and set the Top, Left, Width, or Height property for all of them at the same time. To select several components, click them with the mouse while holding down the Shift key; or, if all the components fall into a rectangular area, drag the mouse to "draw" a rectangle surrounding them. To select child controls (say, the buttons inside a panel), drag the mouse within the panel while holding down the Ctrl key—otherwise, you move the panel. When you've selected multiple components, you can also set their relative position using the Alignment dialog box (with the Align command of the form's shortcut menu) or the Alignment Palette (accessible through the View ® Alignment Palette menu command).

When you've finished designing a form, you can use the Lock Controls command of the Edit menu to avoid accidentally changing the position of a component. This command is particularly helpful, because Undo operations on forms are limited (you can only Undelete), but the setting is not persistent.

Among its other features, the Form Designer offers several Tooltip hints:

  • As you move the pointer over a component, the hint shows you the name and type of the component. Since version 6, Delphi offers extended hints, with details about the control's position, size, tab order, and more. This is an addition to the Show Component Captions environment setting, which I keep active.

  • As you resize a control, the hint shows the current size (the Width and Height properties). Of course, this feature is available only for controls, not for nonvisual components (which are indicated in the Form Designer by icons).

  • As you move a component, the hint indicates the current position (the Left and Top properties).

Finally, you can save DFM (Delphi Form Module) files in the old binary resource format, instead of the plain text format, which is the default. You can toggle this option for an individual form with the Form Designer's shortcut menu, or you can set a default value for newly created forms in the Designer page of the Environment Options dialog box. In the same page, you can also specify whether the secondary forms of a program will be automatically created at startup, a decision you can always reverse for each individual form (using the Forms page of the Project Options dialog box).

Having DFM files stored as text lets you operate more effectively with version-control systems. Programmers won't get a real advantage from this feature, because you could already open the binary DFM files in the Delphi editor with a specific command from the designer's shortcut menu. Version-control systems, on the other hand, need to store the textual version of the DFM files to be able to compare them and capture the differences between two versions of the same file.

In any case, if you use DFM files as text, Delphi will still convert them into a binary resource format before including them in the executable file of your programs. DFMs are linked into your executable in binary format to reduce the executable size (although they are not really compressed) and to improve run-time performance (they can be loaded more quickly).


Text DFM files are more portable between versions of Delphi than their binary version. Although an older version of Delphi might not accept a new property of a control in a DFM created by a newer version of Delphi, the older Delphis will still be able to read the rest of the text DFM file. If the newer version of Delphi adds a new data type, though, older Delphis will be unable to read the newer Delphi's binary DFMs at all. Even if this doesn't sound likely, remember that 64-bit operating systems are just around the corner. When in doubt, save in text DFM format. Also note that all versions of Delphi support text DFMs, using the command-line tool Convert in the bin directory. Finally, keep in mind that the CLX library uses the XFM extension instead of the DFM extension, both in Delphi and Kylix.

The Object Inspector

To see and change properties of components placed on a form (or another designer) at design time, you use the Object Inspector. Compared to the early versions of Delphi the Object Inspector has a number of new features. The latest, introduced in Delphi 7, is the use of a bold font to highlight properties that have a value different from the default.

Another important change (introduced in Delphi 6) is the ability of the Object Inspector to expand component references in place. Properties referring to other components are displayed in a different color and can be expanded by selecting the + symbol on the left, as is the case with an internal subcomponent. You can then modify the properties of that other component without having to select it. Here you can see a connected component (a pop-up menu) expanded in the Object Inspector while working on another component (a list box):

This interface-expansion feature also supports subcomponents, as demonstrated by the new LabeledEdit control. A related feature of the Object Inspector lets you select the component referenced by a property. To do this, double-click the property value with the left mouse button while pressing the Ctrl key. For example, if you have a MainMenu component in a form and you are looking at the properties of the form in the Object Inspector, you can select the MainMenu component by moving to the Menu property of the form and Ctrl+double-clicking the value of this property. Doing so selects the main menu indicated as the value of the property in the Object Inspector.

Here are some other recent changes of the Object Inspector:

  • The list at the top of the Object Inspector shows the type of the object and allows you to choose a component. You might remove this list to save some space, considering that you can select components in the Object TreeView (by default placed on the top of the Object Inspector window).

  • The properties that reference an object are now a different color and may be expanded without changing the selection.

  • You can optionally view read-only properties in the Object Inspector. Of course, they are grayed out.

  • The Object Inspector has a Properties dialog box, which allows you to customize the colors of the various types of properties and the overall behavior of this window.

  • Since Delphi 5, the drop-down list for a property can include graphical elements. This feature is used for properties such as Color and Cursor, and is particularly useful for the ImageIndex property of components connected to an ImageList.


Interface properties can now be configured at design time using the Object Inspector. This functionality uses the Interfaced Component Reference model introduced in Kylix/Delphi 6, where components can implement and hold references to interfaces as long as the interfaces are implemented by components. Interfaced Component References work like plain old component references, but interface properties can be bound to any component that implements the necessary interface. Unlike component properties, interface properties are not limited to a specific component type (a class or its derived classes). When you click the drop-down list in the Object Inspector editor for an interface property, all components on the current form (and linked forms) that implement the interface are shown.

Property Categories

Delphi includes the idea of property categories, activated by the Arrange option of the Object Inspector's shortcut menu. If you set this option, properties are arranged by group rather than listed alphabetically, with each property possibly appearing in multiple groups. Categories have the benefit of reducing the complexity of the Object Inspector. You can use the View submenu from the shortcut menu to hide properties of given categories, regardless of the way they are displayed (that is, even if you prefer the traditional arrangement by name, you can still hide the properties of some categories). Although property categories have been available since Delphi 5, programmers rarely use them.

The Object TreeView

Delphi 5 introduced a TreeView for data modules, in which you could see the relations among nonvisual components, such as datasets, fields, actions, and so on. Delphi 6 extended the idea by providing an Object TreeView for every designer, including plain forms. The Object TreeView is placed by default above the Object Inspector.

The Object TreeView shows all the components and objects on the form in a tree representing their relations. The most obvious is the parent/child relation: If you place a panel on a form, a button inside the panel, and a button outside the panel, the tree will show one button under the form and the other under the panel:

Notice that the TreeView is synchronized with the Object Inspector and Form Designer. So, as you select an item and change the focus in any one of these three tools, the focus changes in the other two tools.

Besides parent/child, the Object TreeView shows other relations, such as owner/owned, component/subobject, and collection/item, plus various specific relations, including dataset/ connection and data source/dataset relations. Here, you can see an example of the structure of a menu in the tree:

At times, the TreeView also displays "dummy" nodes, which do not correspond to an actual object but do correspond to a predefined object. As an example of this behavior, drop a Table component (from the BDE page); you'll see two grayed icons for the session and the alias. Technically, the Object TreeView uses gray icons for components that do not have design-time persistence. They are real components (at design time and at run time), but because they are default objects that are constructed at run time and have no persistent data that can be edited at design time, the Data Module Designer does not allow you to edit their properties. If you drop a Table on the form, you'll also see items that have next to them a red question mark enclosed in a yellow circle. This symbol indicates partially undefined items.

The Object TreeView supports multiple types of dragging:

  • You can select a component from the palette (by clicking it, not dragging it), move the mouse over the tree, and click a component to drop it there. This technique allows you to drop a component in the proper container (form, panel, and others) regardless of the fact that its surface might be totally covered by other components—something that prevents you from dropping the component in the designer without first rearranging those components.

  • You can drag components within the TreeView—for example, moving a component from one container to another. With the Form Designer, you can do so only with cut-and-paste techniques. Moving instead of cutting provides the advantage that any connections among components are not lost, as happens when you delete the component during the cut operation.

  • You can drag components from the TreeView to the Diagram view, as you'll see later.

Right-clicking any element of the TreeView displays a shortcut menu similar to the component menu you get when the component is in a form (and in both cases, the shortcut menu may include items related to the custom component editors). You can even delete items from the tree. The TreeView also doubles as a collection editor, as you can see here for the Columns property of a ListView control. In this case, you can not only rearrange and delete items, but also add new items to the collection.


You can print the contents of the Object TreeView for documentation purposes. Simply select the window and use the File ® Print command (there is no Print command on the shortcut menu).

Part I: Foundations