Be More Productive with the Windows 7 Taskbar

Understanding the Windows 7 taskbar

As of January 2020, Microsoft is no longer supporting Windows 7. We recommend upgrading to Windows 10 to continue receiving security updates and technical support.

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The Windows 7 Taskbar

The Windows 7 Taskbar
The Windows 7 Taskbar.

The Windows 7 taskbar is one of the most fundamental changes from Windows Vista. The Windows 7 taskbar -- that strip across the bottom of the desktop screen with all the icons and other stuff -- is an important tool to understand; knowing how to use it will help you get the most out of Windows 7. Here's what you need to know.

What is the Taskbar? The Windows 7 Taskbar is essentially a shortcut to frequently used programs and a navigation aide to your desktop. On the left side of the Taskbar is the Start button, which is similar to the button in all Windows operating systems (OS) going back to Windows 95: it has links and menus to everything else on your computer.​

To the right of the Start button is space for icons you can "pin", for easy access to frequently-used programs. To learn how to pin, go through this step-by-step tutorial on pinning.

But that's not all you can do with those program shortcuts; we're going to dig a little deeper here. First, notice from the image above that three of the icons have a box around them, while the two on the right do not. The box means that those programs are active; that is, they are currently open on your desktop. An icon without a box means that program hasn't been opened yet; it's available with a single left-click, however.

Those icons are simple to move around; just left-click on the icon, keep holding the mouse button down, move the icon to where you want it, and release.

In addition, each of these programs, whether open or not, has a Jump List available. Click on the link for more information about Jump Lists and how to use them.

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Group Multiple Instances of Taskbar Icons

The Internet Explorer icon, showing multiple open instances.
The Internet Explorer icon, showing multiple open instances.

Another neat aspect of the Windows 7 Taskbar icons is the ability to group multiple running instances of a program under one icon, eliminating clutter. For example, look at the blue Internet Explorer (IE) icon shown above.

If you look closely, you can see what look like a number of open windows hiding behind the icon. That's an indication that there are multiple IE windows open.

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Thumbnail Views in the Windows 7 Taskbar

Hovering over a Taskbar icon brings up a thumbnail view of multiple instances of that application.
Hovering over a Taskbar icon brings up a thumbnail view of multiple instances of that application.

By hovering your mouse button over the icon (in this case, the blue Internet Explorer icon from the previous page), you'll get a thumbnail view of each open window.

Hover over each thumbnail to get a full-size preview of the open window; to go to that window, simply left-click on it, and the window will be ready for you to work on. This is another time-saver.

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Changing Windows 7 Taskbar Properties

Here's where you change Windows 7 Taskbar properties.
Here's where you change Windows 7 Taskbar properties.

If you're the adventurous type, you can customize the Taskbar by hiding it, making it bigger or smaller, or doing other things to it. To get to the customization window, right-click an open area of the Taskbar and left-click the Properties title. This will bring up the menu shown above. Here are some of the most-common customizations you can do:

  • Lock it. When Lock the taskbar is checked, no one can make changes to its size or placement on the desktop. Most people leave it like this, but you won't be endangering your computer if you uncheck it.
  • Auto-hide. If you check this box, it will hide the Taskbar, so that you can't see it. This will create more room on your desktop, but at the expense of the convenience of having quick access to programs.
  • Use small icons. Again, a space-saving option. This will shrink the Taskbar and icons, freeing up more space but still allowing you Taskbar functionality. This is a good option on small screens like laptops or netbooks where space is at a premium.
  • Move the Taskbar. The drop-down menu Taskbar location on screen: allows you to move the Taskbar to the top, or either side, of your desktop. Again, most people are used to seeing it at the bottom and leave it there, but you may have your own reasons for wanting to move it. Remember that if you've locked the Taskbar, you won't be able to move it.
  • Taskbar buttons. Here you can change the appearance of the icons in the Taskbar. You can turn off combining icons, meaning that if you have three Microsoft Word documents open, for example, each document will appear as its own icon in the Taskbar, rather than two hiding behind a single Word icon. This makes it easier to see everything, but the tradeoff is often a long string of icons strewn across your Taskbar. Labels also describe icons -- it will identify each open program, rather than just showing the icon picture. I prefer the Always combine, hide labels option here because I like a clean desktop, but it's totally up to you how you want it.

Take your time and get to know the Taskbar. You'll find your computing time being a lot more productive if you do.