Using The Taskbar

If you think of your computers hard disk as a filing cabinet where all your programs and documents (files) are stored, then you can think of your Windows desktop as being like your real "wooden" desktop. Only the things you're working with right now are on your Windows desktop, as well as your real desktop. (Not counting all the miscellaneous clutter you haven't gotten around to putting away, of course).

At any given time, you might have several programs, folders, and documents open on your desktop. The short name for "anything that's currently open on your desktop" is task. That is, we can refer to each open item on your desktop -- no matter what that item is, as a "task", short for "task-in-progress". The Windows taskbar, which is roughly centered across the bottom of your screen, as in Figure 1. 

Figure 1

When you have lots of program windows open, they pile up on your Windows desktop, just like sheets of paper can pile up on your real desktop. You can use the taskbar to sort of "shuffle things around", so you're in control of what is, and isn't visible at the moment. Here are some things you can do with the taskbar along those lines:

Collapsible Taskbar Buttons

As you open more and more items on your screen, all of the taskbar buttons need to shrink a bit to make room for the new button. If you open lots of items with the same program, those "many" taskbar buttons might eventually collapse into a single taskbar button that shows a number. 

For example, suppose you open a bunch of folders from the Start menu (My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, My Computer). If the taskbar gets too crowded, the taskbar buttons for those folders may collapse into a single button labeled 4 Windows Explorer. The 4 stands for "four open folders". Windows Explorer is the name of the program that lets you navigate around in, and view the contents of, all folders on your computer.

Tip: Don't confuse Windows Explorer with Internet Explorer. Windows Explorer is the program that lets you explore things "inside" your own computer. Windows Explorer opens automatically whenever you open any folder. Internet Explorer lets you explore things "outside" your computer -- namely things on the Internet.

When you click on a taskbar button that represents multiple open items on your desktop, a little menu pops up, as in Figure 2. To bring one of those items to the top of the stack of junk on your desktop, just click its name in the menu. Or, if the item is already on the top of the stack, clicking its name will minimize the item to put it into hiding for the time being.

Figure 2

As you close items on the desktop, making more room for taskbar buttons, a collapsed button may suddenly uncollapse, breaking out into separate buttons again. Don't let that bother you -- it's normal. It's just Windows using the available space wisely.

Tip: At any time, you can neatly stack all your open program windows like sheets of paper. To do so, right-click the current time in the lower right corner of you screen and click on Cascade Windows in the menu that appears.

Setting Taskbar Options

Like everything else in Windows XP, you can customize the taskbar to your liking. To do so, right-click the Start button and choose Properties. In the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box that opens, click on the Taskbar tab. The options shown in Figure 3 appear. Your options are summarized below:

Figure 3

You'll find articles on the Quick Launch toolbar and Notification area after you finish this article and click Back to return to the precious page.

Moving and Sizing the Taskbar

Windows XP is very flexible. You can size, color, and position anything to your liking. But you can only move and size things on the taskbar when the taskbar is unlocked. In addition to the option shown back in Figure 3, you can quickly lock, or unlock the taskbar at any time by right-clicking the current time in the lower right corner of your screen and choosing Lock the Taskbar from the shortcut menu that appears. You can tell when the taskbar is unlocked, because sizing handles are invisible, and Lock the Taskbar on the shortcut menu isn't checked, as in Figure 4.

Figure 4

When the taskbar is locked, the sizing handles aren't visible, and the Lock the Taskbar option on the shortcut menu is selected (checked), as in Figure 5.

Figure 5

It's best to keep the taskbar locked when you're not intentionally trying to move or size it. That way, you won't accidentally move or size the taskbar while you're whipping around the screen with the mouse pointer. But just so you know, when the taskbar is unlocked, you can change its height as follows:

  1. Move the mouse pointer to the thin bar that appears along the top strip of the taskbar, until the mouse pointer turns to a two-headed arrow.

  2. Hold down the left mouse button and drag that top edge up or down until the taskbar is the width you want, then release the mouse button.

Tip: If the taskbar seems "stuck" between double-height, and no height, drag one of the dotted vertical sizing handles up to the row above it. Then drag the top edge of the taskbar down a notch.

To move the entire unlocked taskbar to another edge of the screen, move the mouse pointer to some empty spot on the taskbar (not on a button or icon). Then hold down the left mouse button, drag the taskbar to any edge of the screen, and release the mouse button. Figure 6 shows examples of sizing and moving an unlocked taskbar.

Alan Simpson