The Desktop and the Taskbar

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When you turn the power button on in your computer, the computer comes to life. For about a minute it does various internal work of its own (such as Power On Self Test or POST) and you may hear a soft tick, tick, tick, tick noise coming from the computer. If you look at your computer at this time, you will see the green light of your computer's hard drive is on and blinking at times. You will also notice that your computer's CD-ROM/DVD drive light and floppy drive light (if you have a floppy drive) are also lit up temporarily, one at a time, and then they go off. Depending on your computer's make and set up, you may also see a few temporary screens showing up on your monitor briefly, and then they vanish - replaced by a screen showing Windows logo. At this time Windows is actually loading in your computer. Eventually, the Windows logo also vanishes, and it is replaced by what is known as the desktop. It is the first screen you see in your computer after Windows is loaded. And it always stays there (sometimes underneath other windows) until you shut down your computer. Rather than trying to describe it in many words, I shall now show you a picture of a typical desktop.

A typical desktop and the taskbar.
A typical desktop and the taskbar.

Your desktop may look a little different. It may have a different color (or it may have a pretty wallpaper). It may also have more or fewer icons which are little pictures of different things. But some of the icons will be common, such as My Computer, My Documents, Internet Explorer, My Briefcase, Recycle Bin etc. Also depending on the version of Windows you are using, the icons (the pictures) may look slightly different. These icons were placed on the desktop by Windows itself when Windows was installed (probably at your computer manufacturer's plant). You should never trash them or your computer's functionality will be hindered. But you can re-arrange them if you wish.

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The other icons on the desktop are generally shortcut buttons of different software that have been installed in your computer. Many shortcuts are automatically created when you (or somebody else) installed the software. Others can be manually created by you. Shortcuts can be of a program (such as Microsoft Excel), or of a folder (such as Our Vacation Pictures), or of a document (such as a file named letter_to_bakery_manager.doc). People create shortcut buttons (icons) on their desktops so that they can open that file, or folder, or program (application) quickly in the future. The shortcuts always have a bent arrow attached to the bottom lefthand corner of their icons for easy identification. Take a look at some of the icons on my desktop.

Some icons on my desktop. Some of these icons represent shortcuts.
A bunch of icons on my desktop. All the icons on
the second, third and fourth columns are shortcuts as
indicated by the short bent arrows attached to them. Can you tell
which shortcuts are for programs and which are for folders?

Shortcuts can be deleted from the desktop anytime you think you do not need them anymore. To trash shortcuts, just drag the shortcut icons to the Recycle Bin. They will vanish from your desktop. Remember, when you are deleting the shortcut of something, only the shortcut is deleted. The original of that something still remains in your computer and you can access it anytime in the usual way. Don't worry, you will learn about the usual way in next section. And you can learn how to create shortcuts here.

Many people's desktop looks very messy because they do not know how to arrange the icons neatly on their desktop. Windows gives various ways to arrange the icons on the desktop. Just right-click (click your right mouse button once) on any empty spot on your desktop. A little menu will appear on the spot. On that menu, place (not click) your mouse pointer on "Arrange Icons". A sub-menu will appear giving you various options of arranging icons (see picture below). Unless you want to arrange your icons in any other way, just click on Auto Arrange. Your desktop icons will be arranged neatly instantaneously.

Arrange icons sub-menu.
Arrange icons sub-menu gives you various
options to arrange your icons on the desktop.

When you choose Auto Arrange or any other option in the above menu, a checkmark appears in front of that option (as shown above). If in future, for any reason you want to arrange an icon in any other way, and drag (dragging means clicking on an item with the left mouse button, then while keeping the mouse button pressed, moving the item to a new location and then releasing the mouse button) that icon to a new location, you will notice that as soon as you release the mouse button, the icon is drawn back to its original location just like a magnet. It wont stay in the new location, until you open that Arrange Icons menu again and remove the checkmark from that menu by clicking on the name of that selection again. Removing the checkmark from anything by clicking on the same item again is often called "unchecking" for the sake of brevity.

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Now let's talk about that all important taskbar that Microsoft introduced in Windows starting from Windows98. This is a big convenience feature that was added to Windows. If you look at the desktop picture above, you will notice that a gray bar runs along the bottom of the desktop. This is the taskbar. Let's take a close look at the taskbar.

Anatomy of the taskbar.
Anatomy of the taskbar.

Let me begin by saying that though the taskbar conventionally runs along the bottom of the desktop, it can actually be dragged to any edge of the desktop! But I wouldn't recommend that, particularly to a raw beginner. Please don't fiddle with it. You will really not gain anything aside from breaking the convention. In an attempt to do that, you might end up losing the taskbar and create unnecessary headache. Just leave it at its conventional position.

Now take a close look at the above picture. The taskbar actually has several parts as marked with contrasting colors, and each part has a different function or use. The following are the main parts of the taskbar.

1. Start Button: This button resides on the extreme left side of the taskbar. All (actually most) of your computer work begins from this button as indicated by its name. Normally you will open programs from here, open Windows Help files from here, open your computer's Control Panel to adjust any settings from here, if you cannot find anything in your computer you will open Windows Find features from here, and so forth. Everything can be done starting with this button. But as you gain experience, you will discover that often times there are other shorter routes of opening something (such as using the shortcut icons on the desktop or pressing F1 key for opening Windows online Help).

2. Quick Launch Icons: On the right side of the Start Button, you will see some little icons. Windows and Internet Explorer, when installed, automatically puts the icons of some of the very helpful things there. For example, with just one click on its icon, you can launch your Internet Explorer browser, or Outlook Express (for e-mail) from here. Place your mouse pointer on each of these icons for a second or two, and they will tell you who they are. "Show Desktop" icon is a quick way of minimizing all open windows on the desktop at once (with just one click) and revealing the desktop. This can be very handy at times when many open windows on the desktop hides it completely and you are kind of lost. Clean up your desktop by clicking on this "Show Desktop" icon in the Quick Launch section of your taskbar (third icon on the picture above). When I installed America Online, the program automatically placed an icon on my taskbar in the Quick Launch section. You can add other programs there just by dragging their icons in that section.

3. Open Applications: The middle and longest portion of the taskbar remains empty until you launch a program (application). As soon as you open a program in your computer its name appears in this middle part of the taskbar. If you open four or five or six programs simultaneously, each program's name will appear there along with the name of the document you are working on with that program. This, of course, depends on availability of space, and names may be abbreviated to just a few letters. In extreme cases, you may see a double chevron (>>) sign appearing. This means, when you click on that double chevron (double arrow) sign, the other names which could not be accommodated on the taskbar will be revealed.

Knowing to use the taskbar correctly can make using your computer easy. When programs are minimized, they disappear from the desktop and are reduced to a button on the taskbar. To make the program appear on your desktop again, just click on the program's button in the taskbar once. The program will expand and appear on your desktop. Unless all the open programs have been minimized on purpose, you will notice one button on the taskbar always looks recessed. That means the program that is represented by that button is either not minimized or is the active program. (If you have several programs open, only one can be active at a time. To make another one active, just click once anywhere in its window.) You can learn more about active and inactive windows here.

In the picture of the taskbar above, if you look closely you will see that I had only two programs open in my computer when that screenshot was created. One was Microsoft Word, the other one was PhotoImpact. If you look more closely, you will notice the Microsoft Word button is recessed, and the words Document 1 is also written on it. That means, at that moment, Microsoft Word was the active window and I was working on a document (file) called Document 1. In the PhotoImpact button, no document name is given. That means I had just opened that program but had not opened any file in it yet. Relax, things will become clearer by the time you finish these tutorials. They will be completely clear when you finish my other computer tutorials and when you start to do something with your computer.

4. Tray Icons: Next on the taskbar are the tray icons. These icons represent programs that are running silently in the background and will jump into action the moment it becomes necessary. They are like actors in a theater waiting in the wings with their make-up and costumes on, all ready for the action. At the appropriate moment they will enter the stage. Two common program icons you will see in this area are the icons of your anti-virus program and your firewall besides other things. (If you want to know about anti-virus program and personal firewall right now, read about them here and here.) You can right-click on these icons to get a menu from where you can open the programs immediately or you can disable them temporarily. Your audio speakers' icon (picture of a loud speaker) is also always there so that you click on it anytime to open a slider and use it to adjust the volume of sound or to mute the sound all together. As usual, if you hold your mouse pointer steady over any of these icons for a moment or two (the process is called hovering), they will automatically reveal their identities. These tray icons will not be visible when you start Windows in safe mode, because when Windows runs in safe mode these programs are not loaded. If you are a true beginner, you need not know about running Windows in safe mode at this time. But if you are really curious, click here.

5. Clock: On the extreme right side of the taskbar resides the computer clock. The clock is actually a part of the tray icons. But the clock will be there even if you run Windows in safe mode. The good thing is the clock automatically adjusts to Daylight Saving Time if you had told Window when you had set it up your time zone and your country. Also, when you hover your mouse pointer over the clock, it tells you today's day and date. Cool, huh?

Quick Quiz:
The taskbar was introduced in all Windows operating systems by Microsoft starting from which version of Windows?

Answer: Windows98.


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