Windows 7 Feature Focus: Desktop, Taskbar and Start Menu


From a distance, the Windows 7 GUI resembles its predecessor, Windows Vista. However, the closer you look, the more you'll see that Windows 7's take on the GUI is a big improvement, adding more power, more customization, and better ways to open frequently-used programs and files. Keep reading to learn how you can tap into the power of the Windows 7 desktop, Taskbar, and Start menu.

Getting the Most out of Gadgets

Windows 7, like Windows Vista, includes a useful library of desktop gadgets, from customizable clocks to an RSS feed aggregator and a mini-Windows Media Player. However, Windows 7 no longer keeps desktop gadgets cooped up on one edge of your display: it sets them free. Here's how to place a gadget (we'll use the Clock in this example) wherever you want with the display options you need.

1. Right-click an empty spot on your desktop and select Gadgets.

2. Double-click the Clock gadget.

3. Click Close to close Gadgets.

4. By default, the gadget appears in the upper right-hand corner of your primary display. Click and drag the gadget to the preferred location.

5. To choose options, click the wrench.

6. Use the arrow buttons to select from different display options.

7. Customize the gadget by entering settings as prompted.

8. Click OK when finished.

9. Right-click the gadget and select whether the gadget should always be on top and what opacity it should be. In this example, I've selected Always on Top and 60% opacity .

10. In this example, I configured the clock to display eBay time (US Pacific time zone), and I've dragged it near the top of the browser window.

Follow this same basic procedure to place and customize your preferred gadgets. You can place gadgets on either the primary or any additional displays you use.

Click the Get More Gadgets Online link shown in Steps 2 and 3 to see an assortment of additional gadgets you can download. To choose from over 3000 gadgets, click the Get More Desktop Gadgets link on the Personalize Your PC browser window that appears first.

Pinning Power

"Pinning" (the ability to keep shortcuts to programs and files on a list as long as you want them there) has reached new heights in Windows 7. You can pin programs to the newly-remodeled taskbar as well as the Start menu. And, with a little chicanery, you can use "pinning power" to make frequently-used files easy to find in both places from the new Jump List display of current and recent files.

If you've already opened a program, you're more than halfway to pinning it to the taskbar or the Start menu. To pin the program to the taskbar, right-click its taskbar icon and select Pin This Program to Taskbar .

To pin a program to the Start menu, right-click the program icon from either pane of the Start menu and select Pin to Start Menu . You can also pin the program to the Taskbar from this menu:

Pinning Power for Files

You can also use "pinning power" to make access to frequently-used files easier. Windows 7 supports the Jump List, which is a list of recently-opened files maintained by some programs. To see if you can pin the file to the program that hosts it, start the program and open the file, then close it. Then, right-click the program icon in the taskbar and see if the file is listed under Recent in the Jump List. If it is, move your mouse over the data file listing and click the push-pin icon.

The file is now pinned to the program's jump list

From the Taskbar, you can open the file by right-clicking on the program icon and selecting the file from the Pinned menu. Because the file has been pinned to the program's jump list, it will stay on the list no matter how many other files you have opened (and closed).

Pinned data files are also easy to open from the Start menu's left pane. Open the Start menu. Click the right pointer to display the program's jump list.

Click the right pointer to view a jump list of recent and pinned data files. If you need to pin a data file to the program, highlight the file and click the push pin icon. To open either a pinned or recent file, click the file.

Using Live Thumbnails

Because taskbar icons can represent both currently-running programs and pinned programs, there are two ways to tell which icons represent currently-running programs:

  • Currently-running programs are highlighted

When you hover your mouse over an icon, live thumbnails of each program window are displayed. If a program has two or more windows open, you will see a live thumbnail of each open window:

To see a full-size preview of a program window, hover your mouse over its thumbnail.

To open the program window, double-click its thumbnail.

Unpinning Programs and Files

To unpin a program from the Taskbar, right-click the program icon and select Unpin This Program from Taskbar:

To unpin a program from the Start menu, right-click the program icon and select Unpin from Start Menu:

To unpin a file from a program's Jump List, click the inserted push-pin icon.

Changing Start Menu and Taskbar Settings

As with previous Windows versions, Windows 7 provides many options for customizing the Start menu and Taskbar. To get started, right-click the Start button and select Properties. Click Customize (arrow) on the Start Menu tab to change its default settings:

The Start Menu tab's combination of checkboxes and radio buttons enables you to create your own combination of fast access to frequently-used features while hiding features you don't use very often.

In this example, I changed Control Panel to a menu and added Homegroup, Downloads, Recorded TV, Administrative Tools, and Run to the user's menu:

If you don't like these changes, click the Use Default Settings (previous figure) button to reset the Start menu.

Customizing the Taskbar

Click the Taskbar tab to customize taskbar location (1), icon size (2), locking (3), and auto-hiding (4).

By default, Windows 7 always combines taskbar icons and hides labels, relying on live thumbnails to show you the details. If you prefer a more Windows XP-style look, select Combine when Taskbar is Full or Never Combine (click Apply, then OK to use new settings).

Customizing Notification Icons

Notification Icons often seem to have a mind of their own. In earlier versions of Windows, you could sometimes enable or disable icons through a management interface provided by the program's developer. However, in Windows 7, you can now manage all notification icons. To get started, click Taskbar tab's Customize button. You can now decide to show icon and notifications, show notifications only, or hide both icon and notification on an individual basis:

Click the Turn System Icons On or Off link (highlighted) to select whether to display system icons such as Clock, Volume, Power, Network, and Action Center:

As with Start menu customizations, you have an escape hatch if your changes are not improvements. Click the Restore Default Icon Behaviors link (arrow) to reset notification area icons to their defaults.

Creating Widescreen Wallpaper

In a previous Windows 7 Feature Focus article on Displays and Projectors , we told you how to configure multiple displays and how to select your favorite wallpaper or wallpapers as part of a theme. But, what if you want to have a single wallpaper image that fits across multiple displays?

First, you must determine the total size of your desktop (horizontally and vertically): add up the width (in pixels) of your displays and use the largest height setting from the displays. For example, if you have two 1440 x 900 displays, your wallpaper needs to be 2880x900 (1440+1440).

Second, create your wallpaper from a single photo or a montage. If you have displays with different vertical sizes (in pixels), see our own Will Smith's article on creating multiple-display wallpaper.

Third, crop your wallpaper (if necessary) to the size you determined earlier.

Fourth, open the Personalization menu and select Change Desktop Background. Browse to your wallpaper file and select it. Choose Fill as the position type:

Click Save Changes. Save it as part of a new theme.

When you return to your desktop, you should now see your wallpaper across all of your displays.


Windows 7 offers plenty of desktop, start menu, task bar, and wallpaper customization options to help you work (and play) more efficiently than ever before.

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