Desktop & Taskbar: All Parts

The Desktop

The large area that is the upper part of the screen is called the Desktop. Sometimes (to keep you confused!) people may use the term Desktop to refer to everything you see on the monitor after Windows has gotten started.

The main purpose of the Desktop is to hold shortcut icons that will help you work efficiently.

The Desktop is really just a folder inside the Windows folder, so it can hold anything that any other folder can hold. It can be decorated with interesting textures or pictures. We'll discuss how later.

Desktop: Default Win7 background Desktop: Arches (Win7)  Desktop: Metal (Win7)

Desktop: Moon (Win7) Desktop: Galaxy (Win7) Desktop: Tulips (Win7)


Taskbar with open applications Taskbar (Win7)
Across the bottom of the screen we see the Taskbar. Normally it is in view all the time. The Taskbar's main job is to show what applications are currently running.

The left end shows the Start button. The middle section of the bar shows a button for each open application. The right end holds the Notification area. Other toolbars, such as Quick Launch, Address, Links, Windows Media Player, may also display on the Taskbar.

Icon: WinXP Icon: Windows Vista In WinXP and Vista, each button in the middle section shows an icon with a label that shows the program and the current document, when there is room to see it! The icons and labels for the tasks adjust in size to fit the space on the Taskbar. So if you have several programs running, you may not see much of each one's taskbar icon, as in the illustration which is sized for this small window.

Windows 7 In Win7 icons not only show up when an application is open, but icons can be pinned to the Taskbar for your frequently used applications. When an application is open, its icon shows a border. To see the name of the document and a thumbnail of it, hover over the icon. If you use an Aero desktop theme, you can hover over the icon to see a thumbnail of each open document.

Icon: WinXP Icon: Windows Vista In WinXP and Windows Vista you may see Taskbar arrows double chevrons or an arrow on the Taskbar when there are too many items to show in the allowed space. When you click the chevrons, a menu list appears or the space will expand to show the hidden items.

Icon: WinXP Icon: Windows Vista In WinXP and in Windows Vista you can choose to group icons from the same program. For example, if you have 7 Word windows open, you will only see 1 button on the Task Bar that shows there are 7 Word windows. Taskbar: Button for a group of buttons Clicking the button's arrow opens a list of the grouped windows.

Task Bar: menu for grouped items

Start Menu

Start menu - cascadingClicking on the Start Menu brings up a list of shortcuts to start your programs. An item with an Right arrow arrow at the right, such as Programs or All Programs, will open another list. There can be several levels of such lists.

Icon: WinXPIcon: Windows VistaIn WinXP and Windows Vista, above the All Programs link is a list of often used programs. Above that is a list of programs that you want to remain in view, no matter how often you actually use them.


Icon: Windows VistaWindows 7In Windows Vista and Win7, the All Programs link works a bit differently. Clicking on All Programs changes the area directly above to show folders and shortcuts in a folder tree display instead of as cascading menus. Double click a folder to see the shortcuts and other folders inside it. At the bottom of the list, the Back arrow will return you to the original list.

Menu: Start (Vista)

Menu: Start | Wordpad (Vista)
Windows Vista - Start menu

after clicking All Programs, and then the Accessories folder to expand it

Icon: WinXPIcon: Windows VistaQuick Launch & Windows 7Pinned Applications

Taskbar with Quick LaunchIcon: WinXPIcon: Windows VistaThe Quick Launch toolbar, next to the Start Menu button, holds shortcuts to your frequently used programs. This is handy because the Taskbar is normally in view all the time. Desktop shortcuts can get hidden by open applications.

This example has shortcuts for Show Desktop (minimizes all open applications), Outlook Express, and Internet Explorer.  These are installed by default.

Add new shortcuts: Drag a shortcut and drop it in the Quick Launch area.

Too many icons to fit: Click the small chevron Chevron for Quick Launch bar  (i.e. double arrow) on the right of the Quick Launch toolbar to show a list of hidden icons.

Taskbar: list of hidden icons in Quick Launch

Resize Quick Launch: Drag the vertical bar at the right of the Quick Launch area. If the bar does not show, then the Taskbar is locked. To unlock it, right click in a blank area of the Taskbar. On the menu that appears, click on Lock the Taskbar to remove the checkmark. The Taskbar unlocks for you to make changes.

Windows 7Taskbar - Pinned applications (Win7)
In Win 7
the Taskbar does not show a Quick Launch area, by default. You can add it, but you can pin icons for your frequently used programs directly on the Taskbar. When the application is open, the icon gains a border and is highlighted. If multiple windows of the application are open, the icon Icon for open application with multiple windows (Win7) shows edges for up to 3 documents.

To pin a document or application to the Taskbar, drag its icon from the Start menu or Desktop or Computer window to the Taskbar. A popup tip says "Pin to Taskbar".  Release the mouse and it's done!

To unpin, right click on the icon in the Taskbar and click on "Unpin this program from taskbar". Simple!

Open Application

Each open application will have an button on the Taskbar like the one shown here for MS Word 2007.

Icon: WinXPIcon: Windows VistaTaskbar with an open application
The size of the button depends on how much space there is for all of the buttons.  If there is room, you will see the name of the document that is open in Word.  Word has been minimized so all we can see is its button on the taskbar. When an application is maximized, its window takes up all the space above the taskbar.

Windows 7Taskbar buttons for open, pinned, multiple windows (Win7)

In Windows 7, all open applications have an icon button.

Thumbnails for open applications (Win7)

Aero: If you are using an Aero desktop theme, when your mouse hovers over an icon like the Word icon above, a popup thumbnail appears for each open document for that application. Otherwise you see a list of open documents for that program.

Pinned icon Icon for application pinned to Taskbar.

Icon for open application on Taskbar Icon gains a border when a document is open in the application.

Icon for multiple open document (Win7)Icon gains multiple edges, like a stack of icons up to 3, when several documents are open in the application.

Notification Area


Notification area (Win7)
The notification area, or tray, at the far right of the Taskbar is used to show icons for programs that are awake and hanging around in the background, like the clock, anti-virus, and scheduling programs. Such an icon lets you know for sure that the program is ready to do its thing when it is needed. Some icons mean that there is something for you to do, like view a new email message or download/install a new update.

For example, in the screenshot above (with the dark background), the first icon at the left shows that the Carbonite backup software is paused. The envelope icon means that there is a new message in Windows Live Mail. The green checkmark means that Dropbox has finished synchronizing files. The white bars show the current strength of the wireless network connection. The white speaker icon has 3 curves, meaning that the loudness is set to greater than 60%.

Document Icons

icon for document
Files can actually be stored as part of the Desktop. This icon represents a Word document rather than a shortcut to the application. There is no arrow at the bottom left like there is for a shortcut.

WarningDeleting this icon will delete the actual document.

Icon: ProblemProblem: In some situations Windows may not add an arrow for all shortcuts. So it is harder to know for sure whether an icon represents a shortcut or an actual document.

Solution: Before deleting an icon from the Desktop, right click on it and choose Properties. If the dialog that appears shows the Shortcut tab, then the icon represents a shortcut and not the document itself. You can delete the icon safely.

Dialog: Properties

Shortcuts Icons

Icons for shortcuts to applications and documents Shortcut icons (Vista)

A shortcut points to the file that runs a program, like MS Word, or to a document, like the web page Astronomy Picture of the Day. A shortcut can be placed wherever you want to put it - on the Desktop, in a folder, in the Quick Launch area.

A shortcut may have a small arrow Shortcut arrow at the bottom left of the icon.

Windows does not always put an arrow on the icon for a shortcut, as in the illustration above for Word 2007!

WarningFor programs, don't move the actual file that starts a program to the Desktop or another folder. The program won't start!

WarningBefore you delete an icon on the desktop, be SURE it is a shortcut rather than the file itself! Don't try to delete the icons for parts of your computer like My Computer or Network Places . (Surely you wouldn't be that silly!)

Desktop Icons

  Desktop Icons (WinXP)  Desktop Icons (Vista) Desktop icons (Win7)

Desktop icons from WinXP, Windows Vista, Win7

Some icons lead you to important parts of the computer. A number of others of this type may show on your desktop, depending on what has been installed.  

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