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Windows Desktop, Taskbar, Start menu/screen and Windows/File Explorer

By , logo. Last updated: 2020-10-08

Overview of Desktop, Start menu/screen and Windows/File Explorer in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1 and 10

After logging on to Windows XP, Vista, 7, or 10, Desktop appears. Basically, it looks the same in all versions of Windows from XP to 10.

Windows 8 and 8.1 display the Modern UI/Metro-style Start screen after signing in. Because it fills the whole screen, it is called the Start screen, not the Start menu. Windows 8 Desktop omits the Start button, but moving the mouse pointer to the left bottom of the screen still offers to open the new Start screen. Windows 8.1 brings the button (called "Start tip") back, but this is just a shortcut to the Start screen. You can still get to Desktop quickly in Windows 8 and 8.1 using the Windows Key+D shortcut.

Let's take the good old Windows XP Desktop as an example:
Windows XP Desktop layout

The Desktop area is where your Desktop icons and open programs appear. Here you can open programs and folders by double-clicking on their icons. To minimize all program/app windows and display Desktop, press Windows key+D on your keyboard.

By default, Desktop shows only the Recycle Bin icon. You can drag any program icon from the Start menu there. To add shortcuts to files or folders, right-click an empty area of Desktop, choose New and Shortcut.

Desktop background/wallpaper and Windows theme can be changed by right-clicking or touching and holding an empty area and choosing Properties or Personalize.

The Start button opens the Start menu with pinned items, recently added and/or most used programs, Search box (in Windows Vista, 7 and 10), All Programs or All apps list, and shortcuts to common folders and places. You can press the Windows key to open the Start menu (or Start screen), or you can use the Ctrl+Esc shortcut if there is no Windows Key on some keyboard.

To pin a program or an app to the Start menu or screen, right-click or tap and hold its icon and choose Pin to start (menu).

To remove an item from the most used programs list, right-click it and choose Remove from This List (Windows XP, Vista, and 7), or More, Don't show on this list (Windows 10).

In Windows 8, there is no Start button visible on Taskbar, but if you move the mouse pointer to the bottom left, the colorful Start screen button appears. Clicking it opens the Start screen, right-clicking it opens the Quick Links menu with access to system management tools. The latter is also available in Windows 8/8.1 and 10 using the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+X.
Windows 8, Start screen button appears if you move mouse pointer to left bottom of Desktop. Windows 8, right-clicking Start screen button opens access to management tools.

Windows 8.1 adds Start "tip" with the Windows logo back to the leftmost corner of Taskbar, but it will still open the Start screen, not the classic Start menu. The "tip" will also be displayed outside of the Desktop area (for example, while an app is running) anytime you move the mouse pointer to the lower-left edge of the screen.
By default, the Quick Links menu in Windows 8.1 and in Windows 10 Creators Update and newer has Windows PowerShell shortcuts instead of Command Prompt ones. This can be reverted in Taskbar's Navigation settings (Windows 8.1) or Taskbar settings (Windows 10 Creators Update), but all Command Prompt commands do run in PowerShell, too.
Please note that Shutdown/Power options are back in the menu in Windows 8.1. Yay! Laughing
Windows 10 Creators Update and newer replace the Programs and Features item with newer, Modern UI based Apps and Features entry for managing installed Windows Store apps and desktop programs. Additionally, the Control Panel has been replaced by the Modern UI Settings app.
Windows 8.1, Start tip on Taskbar Windows 8.1, right-clicking Start tip opens access to management tools and Shutdown options. Windows 10 Creators Update, right-clicking Start button opens access to management tools and Shutdown options.

Windows XP, Vista, and 7 Start menu can be personalized by right-clicking the Start button and choosing Properties.
Windows 8 and 8.1 Start screen can be customized only while it is open. Either move your finger or mouse pointer to the lower right side of the screen and choose Settings; or use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+I.
In Windows 10, open the Settings app and navigate to Personalization, Start.

Quick Launch Bar / Quick Launch Toolbar includes buttons to launch favorite programs. You can rearrange the buttons using your mouse - just click and hold on a program button and drag it to a different position.
In Windows Vista, 7, 8/8.1 and 10, you can launch the first five programs or apps here using the Windows Key+<number> shortcut. For example, if Windows Media Player is the third button from the left, open it with Windows Key+3.

To add programs and apps to Quick Launch, either drag its icon from Desktop or Start menu there, or right-click/tap and hold the icon and choose Pin to taskbar. The latter is not available in Windows XP only.

The Taskbar contains buttons/icons of running (currently open) programs/apps. You can bring these to the front or minimize, maximize, and close their windows here. To cycle through all open programs and applications, use the keyboard shortcut Alt+Tab.
Windows Vista and 7 allow using special 3D effects with keyboard shortcut Windows Key+Tab.
In Windows 8 and 8.1, the shortcut cycles through open Windows Store/Modern UI/Metro-style apps only.
In Windows 10, this opens Task View that allows switching between apps and different virtual desktops.

Windows 8 and 8.1 list only running Desktop programs on Taskbar (and Taskbar is not available in Modern apps); Windows 8.1 Update and 10 also display open Windows Store (Modern UI/Metro) applications, plus makes it possible to reveal Taskbar in Modern apps by moving the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen, or by using keyboard shortcut Windows Key+T.
Windows Vista and newer allow cycling through Taskbar applications/icons using the Windows Key+T shortcut.

Right-clicking or touching and holding on an empty space of Taskbar and choosing Properties (Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8/8.1, and the original Windows 10) or Settings (Windows 10 Anniversary Update) allows customizing Taskbar to your likings.

The Notification area (aka System Tray) includes icons of some running programs and important messages. It also includes the current date (in Windows XP) or current time and date (in Windows Vista, 7 and 8/8.1). To customize which program icons are always visible, right-click, or tap and hold date/time in the lower right part of the screen and select Customize Notifications (Windows XP) or Customize notification icons.

Windows Vista and 7 also have Sidebar that holds Desktop Gadgets. You can use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+G to bring Gadgets to the front temporarily. Windows 8 and later deprecate Desktop Gadgets due to numerous security concerns and replace them with Modern UI/Metro-style apps.
Here's a Windows Vista example of Sidebar:
Windows Vista, Sidebar with Desktop Gadgets

As usual, Sidebar and Gadgets can be managed with right-click menus.

Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 have a convenient button on the very right of Taskbar's Notification Area - Show Desktop. Stopping the mouse pointer on it makes all windows transparent and you can see Desktop icons and frames of open windows (this is called Peek at Desktop). Clicking the button minimizes all open windows and displays Desktop. Clicking it again restores open windows.
The latter also be achieved with Windows Key+M and Windows Key+Shift+M keyboard shortcuts.
Windows 7, Show Desktop button in Taskbar Notification Area.

Start menu in Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 10

The Start menu opens after clicking or tapping the Start button in Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 10, or pressing the Windows Key. The menu is somewhat different in Windows XP, Windows Vista/7, and Windows 10.

Windows 10 Start menu

Here are screenshots of the Start menu for the original Windows 10 and Anniversary Update (August 2016).
On tablets, the Start menu might cover the whole screen by default. If you are a huge fan of the Windows 8-style Start screen, you can enable it on any Windows 10 computer by opening Action Center and activating Tablet Mode.
Windows 10, Start menu Windows 10 Anniversary Update, Start menu

The right side of the Start menu in Windows 10 contains pinned apps and programs. These are also called Tiles, and those that can display active content (Weather, Calendar, Mail, etc) are called Live Tiles. You can unpin, group, and resize Tiles; and add new ones.
To rearrange pinned items, drag them with the mouse or your finger. The latter requires a touch-enabled screen.

Most options are available by right-clicking or touching and holding. To quickly launch something with elevated (administrative rights), hold down Ctrl and Shift keys and click/tap the program or app.
Windows 10, Start menu, options for a pinned app Windows 10, Start menu, options for a non-pinned desktop program

Windows 10 Creators Update (2017) adds the ability to group Tiles/pinned items for better space management. This is also called Start menu folders. Just click or tap a group/folder to open or close it. Below are examples of a Start menu folders closed and open:
Windows 10 Creators Update, Start menu, group closed. Windows 10 Creators Update, Start menu, group open.

To add an item to a Start menu group/folder, click and hold or touch and hold it and then drag it onto an existing group or another Tile so that the item below does not change its position. This is usually best achieved by dragging the tile onto another from underneath.

To remove an item from a Start menu group/folder, drag it outside of the folder to another position or right-click/touch and hold it and choose Unpin from Start.
Windows 10 Creators Update, Start menu, dragging a Tile onto a group moves it to the group.

On the left side of the Start menu, recently added and most-used apps appear. Depending on your settings, suggested apps might also appear from time to time. You can turn these sections on or off in the Settings app, Personalization, Start.
Items on the most used apps list can have their own Jump Lists - common actions, pinned, and recently opened files. Pin/Unpin icon or a right-click manages the list of recent files.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update then lists all installed apps and programs.
The All apps section is grouped by name, and clicking or touching a large single letter opens a list that can be used for quickly jumping to installed apps and programs starting with the specific letter. For example, click the letter A and then the letter S to find Search, Settings, Store, etc.

In the original Windows 10, the topmost item on the left is your user account - clicking or touching it opens options for locking your device, signing out, and switching between accounts.

The first Windows 10 edition has links to File Explorer (aka Windows Explorer), Settings app, Power options, and All apps on the bottom left.
Windows 10 Anniversary Update puts these items, plus your account options to a bar on the very left. You can expand their names by clicking the hamburger menu (the three horizontal bars) on the top left of the Start menu.
To show or hide common links, including Personal folder, Downloads Folder, etc on your Start menu, go to the Settings app, Personalization, Start and click the Choose which folders appear on Start link.

Since Windows Vista, you can search for installed apps and programs, settings, files, e-mails, etc just by opening the Start menu and starting typing. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+S to open Cortana or keyboard search.
Windows 10, Start menu. Typing finds matching programs, apps, settings, files, e-mails, etc.

Windows Vista and 7 Start menu

In Windows Vista and 7, the Start menu looks almost the same.
In Windows Vista, there are the red Power button (with default action set to Shut down), Lock Computer button, and Power options button (options to restart and turn off your computer, plus hibernate and sleep commands) on the bottom left.
In Windows 7, there are just Shut down and Power options buttons.

Right-clicking helps to remove, pin or unpin items on the Start menu.
In Windows 7, a most used program might have its Jump List - the list of pinned and recently opened files by the program. Again, the right-click menu helps in managing this list.
Windows Vista, Start menu Windows 7, Start menu

You can (and should) search for programs, files, and settings instead of scrolling through the list of All Programs. Just type a few letters of the program's name and click the appropriate result to launch it.
To launch a program with elevated rights, right-click it and select Run As Administrator from the menu. Alternatively, hold down the Shift and Ctrl keys and click the application.
Windows Vista, Start menu, Search box. Type a few letters of a program and click it in the results to launch it. Windows 7, Start menu, Search box. Type a few letters of a program and click it in the results to launch it.

Windows XP Start menu

Here is the Windows XP Start menu.
Windows XP, Start menu

On the top left, there are pinned (most important) programs - default programs for Internet browsing and e-mail. Pinned programs always appear on the top of the Start menu. Right-click an item to pin or unpin it.

Below them is a list of most used programs and the link to All Programs. You'll see the list of all programs when you hold your mouse over the link for less than a second. Right-clicking allows removing unneeded items from this list.

On the right, there is Navigation Pane with common folders (My Documents, etc) and recent documents.

Below them are configuration items, such as Control Panel and Network Connections, plus Help, Search and Run.

On the bottom, there are Log Off and Turn Off Computer buttons. Clicking on the latter one gives an option to restart or turn off your computer, modern laptop and desktop computers also include hibernate and sleep options.

Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1

Start "menu" covers the whole screen and has been therefore renamed to the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1. It has a totally different look (called Modern UI, previously known as Metro) - all items are displayed as tiles of different sizes and colors. Some app tiles, such as Weather, Mail, or News have active content and they scroll the latest content changes. These tiles are called Live Tiles.

All tiles can be easily rearranged by dragging with the mouse (or with a finger on touch screens). A scroll bar is displayed on the bottom of the screen if items do not fit in the window. The minus sign button on the right side of the scroll bar fits all available items on the Start screen by decreasing the size of tiles. You can also use keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+Plus Sign or Ctrl+Minus Sign to zoom the app list in and out. Alternatively, hold down the Ctrl key and scroll the mouse wheel.
To launch a program or an application, click or touch its tile.

Windows 8.1 adds two Tile sizes - very large and very small. Also, newly installed Windows Store (Modern UI/Metro) apps and Desktop programs will not appear on the Start screen anymore - you must open All apps list to see and pin these.
Windows 8, Start screen. Click a tile to launch the program or application.

The Start screen intentionally hides items that people do not use often (links to help files, program folders, etc). To access an alphabetically sorted list of all available program items in Windows 8, right-click on an empty area of the Start screen and click All apps in App Bar that appears in the lower part of the screen, or use keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Tab. Touch screen owners should swipe in from the bottom of the screen to reveal App Bar.
Windows 8, Start screen, App bar. To see all available items, right-click an empty space and click All apps.

Windows 8.1 opens the all apps list by clicking the small arrow down button or just by swiping from the bottom of the Start screen. The same Ctrl+Tab keyboard shortcut works, too.
Windows 8.1 Update (April 2014) adds Power Options and Search buttons to the Start screen. It also notifies about newly installed apps (but not Desktop programs!).
Windows 8.1 Update, Start screen. Click a tile to launch the program or application. Click the down arrow button to see all apps.

Now a list of all available applications appears, sorted and grouped alphabetically.
In Windows 8.1, you can change the sorting to date installed, most used, and category. Note that recently installed apps and programs have the "New" label.
Windows 8, Start screen, All apps, grouped and sorted alphabetically. Windows 8.1 Update, Start screen, All apps, grouped and sorted alphabetically.

If you click the minus sign on the right side of the scroll bar, tiles with letters and folder names appear to provide quick access to a certain group or app folder.
Windows 8, Start screen, All apps and app folders, grouped alphabetically. Click a tile to move to the group.

To open the Charms bar, move the mouse pointer to the top right or lower right corner (or use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+C). Here you can Search for any item (programs, people, files, e-mails, etc), Share to apps that support the feature (for example, Facebook or Mail), Send items to other connected devices (e.g. printers), or change Settings.
Touch screen owners should swipe in from the right edge of the screen to reveal the Charms bar.

Windows 8 starts automatic App Search if you start typing while the Start screen is open.
In Windows 8.1, typing opens Search everywhere.
Windows 8, Start screen, Charms bar. Click search to find any item (programs, files, people, e-mails, etc).

The Search pane looks for items as you type. In Windows 8, there is a list of main categories (Apps, Settings, and Files) on the top right and each one displays the number of matches. Just click the category to open the results. On the bottom right there are apps that are capable of performing the search - for example, click Internet Explorer to search for the entered text on the Internet; or Music to look for matching songs, etc.
To launch a found item, click or touch its tile.

Windows 8.1 displays global search results by default - it searches within your files, your OneDrive/SkyDrive contents, your apps, available actions, and the Internet (using Bing). Note that Windows 8.1 shows first results in Search charm, not on the left side. If no results are selected and you hit the Enter key or click the Search button (magnifying glass), a full-screen Search app opens with results from files, apps, and the Internet.
Windows 8, Start screen, Search pane. Type a part of item you want to find and click its tile in the results. Windows 8.1, Start screen, Search pane. Type a part of item you want to find and click its tile in the results.

Keyboard shortcut Windows Key+Q opens the Search pane and looks for apps in Windows 8 (Search everywhere opens in Windows 8.1), Windows Key+W opens the Search pane and looks for settings, and Windows Key+F opens the Search pane and looks for files.

To see a context-sensitive menu for an item in the Start screen or search results in Windows 8 and 8.1, right-click it. The App bar appears on the bottom and you can pin the item to the Start screen or Taskbar, resize its tile, enable or disable Live Tile for a Modern UI/Metro app, launch Desktop programs with elevated rights (Run as administrator), etc.
On touch screens, flick the item to select it - touch the Tile and drag it down a little.

Windows 8.1 Update displays the App bar on touch-enabled devices only. For traditional mouse and keyboard users, good old pop-up menus appear instead.
Windows 8, Start screen, right-click on an item. A bar on the bottom offers additional actions for the selected tile. Windows 8.1 Update, Start screen, right-click on a tile. For non-touch devices, traditional popup menus appear.

Windows Explorer or File Explorer in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1 and 10

Windows Explorer (the default file and folder browser, renamed to File Explorer since Windows 8) is again a bit different in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8/8.1, and 10.
Windows 8.1 and 10 have (My) Computer renamed to This PC.

In Windows XP, the contents of My Computer look like this:
Windows XP, overview of folder window contents

On the top, there is the Title bar that you can use to bring a folder or program to the front by clicking on it once. Double-clicking on the Title bar maximizes the folder or program window. Double-clicking again restores the window to its previous size. When you click and hold the left mouse button on the Title bar, you can move the window by moving your mouse and then releasing the left mouse button.
Windows 8 and 10 also include Quick Access Toolbar in the Title bar (see the picture later in this article).

To the right of each Title bar there are three buttons:
Windows XP title bar buttons - Minimize, Maximize/Restore and Close.

From the left, they are: Minimize, Maximize/Restore, and Close. Their functions are quite essential, right? Smile

The Menu bar holds all commands that you can use.

The Toolbar includes some common commands:

  • Back and Forward buttons move you backward and forwards in folder browsing history, one step at a time. The little arrowhead pointing down opens the list of recently visited locations. You can also move back one step at a time by pressing the Alt+Left arrow on your keyboard. You can move forward one step at a time by pressing the Alt+Right arrow on your keyboard.
  • The Up button takes you one step up in the folder tree (hierarchy). For example, if your currently open folder is My Pictures that is located under My Documents, then clicking the Up button takes you to the My Documents folder.
  • The Search button opens or closes the Search pane that you can use for finding files and folders.
  • Folders button opens or closes Folders pane with Common Locations, folders tree (hierarchy); network browser, Recycle Bin, and Desktop contents. You can use that pane for quickly opening a folder or location. Please note that the Folders pane hides the Common tasks pane.
  • Views button allows you to switch between different folder views - icons, list, details, thumbnails, etc.

The address bar displays the current folder you are browsing. Here you can type in location name (for example, "c:\documents and settings" or "My Documents") or web address (for example, "") and press Enter on your keyboard or Go button next to the address bar to go to that location. You can also select a location by clicking the down arrow button at the right side of the Address bar.

Common tasks pane in Windows XP is present only if the Folders pane is not open. It includes common tasks relevant to open the folder or selected file type, links to common locations (My Documents, My Computer, etc), and details about open folder or selected file.

Folder contents is a list of what's in the folder. You can quickly refresh/reload the contents by pressing the F5 key on your keyboard. In the Details view you can sort folder contents quickly by clicking on a column name (such as Name, Type, Total Size, etc). Sorted column and sorting order are indicated by a small arrowhead to the right of the column name. If the arrowhead points up, the sorting order is ascending, if it points down, the order is descending. You can toggle sorting order by clicking on the column name.

You can select one item by clicking on it.
If you want to select multiple consecutive items, click on the first item, then press and hold down the Shift key on your keyboard and click on the last item.
If you want to select multiple items that are not consecutive, click on the first item, then press and hold down the Ctrl key and click on other items you want to select.
To select all items in folder contents, press Ctrl+A on your keyboard or open the Edit menu and click Select All.

To learn more about managing items with Windows/File Explorer, see the Work with files and folders in Windows tutorial.

The status bar shows a summary of folder items or selected items, such as count or total size. When you are in a menu, the status bar shows a quick description of the selected command.

Here's how the Computer folder looks in Windows Vista. In Windows 7 it looks almost exactly the same, just colors and some Toolbar commands are different.
Windows Vista, overview of folder window contents

In Windows 8/8.1 and 10, Computer or This PC looks like this. Ribbon replaces all menus and toolbars with Tabs and content-sensitive buttons, drop-downs, and checkboxes. You can minimize or maximize Ribbon using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+F1. There is no Menu bar or Details pane available in Windows 8 and newer.

In Windows 10, File Explorer opens the Quick Access view by default. It displays the user's most-used folders and files. To change this, open the View tab in Ribbon, click or touch Options and select This PC from the Open File Explorer to dropdown.
Windows 8, Computer in Windows Explorer

The menu bar is hidden by default in Windows Vista and 7. You can reveal it by pressing the Alt key on your keyboard once; in Windows 8 and newer, it activates the Ribbon-style toolbar.

To the right of the Address bar, there is a Refresh button that you can use to reload folder contents. You can also press the F5 key on your keyboard for the refresh function.

The search box is a location-sensitive Windows Search box for finding files and folders quickly. You can type in a part of a file or folder name, for example, win finds windows, Edwin, a_winter_tale.mp3, etc. You can also search by file type (type:jpg or kind:video), file properties (created:<30/06/09 or author:linus) and any combination of search criteria, for example, horse author:"linus benedict" size:>10MB NOT kind:(video OR picture).

The Toolbar or Ribbon is location-sensitive in Windows Vista and later - its buttons change depending on what type of folder or file is selected.

There are two common buttons always visible on the left side of Toolbar in Windows Vista:

  • Organize button includes file and folder management items, such as cut, copy, paste, and layout options such as hiding or showing Menu Bar, Search Pane, Details Pane, etc.
  • Views button allows you to switch between different folder views - icons, list, details, thumbnails, etc. You can use Ctrl+mousewheel for this, too.

In Windows 7, there are always three buttons visible on the right side of the Toolbar.
Windows 7, buttons on the right of Windows Explorer toolbar.

  • The Preview pane button opens and closes the Preview pane that you can use for viewing photos, videos, document properties, etc. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Alt+P for this
  • The Help button opens Windows Help and Support Center, a place for finding information and answers to your Windows-related questions. Pressing Windows key+F1 on your keyboard does the same.

In Windows 8/8.1 and 10, Ribbon can be activated by pressing the Alt key once. It then displays letters that run commands or open different Tabs.
Windows 8, File Explorer. Ribbon activated using Alt key. Displayed letters can be used to access different Tabs and commands.

The ribbon is also able to hide or reveal buttons and descriptions according to the window size. Below are examples of Ribbon at its minimum and maximum size. Buttons have arrowheads pointing down if Ribbon is not able to display all possible options - clicking an arrowhead displays all commands available in the group.
Windows 8, File Explorer. Ribbon at its minimum size; clicking the arrowheads reveal all available commands. Windows 8, File Explorer. Ribbon at its maximum size.

The navigation pane displays common folders for quick navigation.

Details pane in Windows Vista and newer shows properties of selected items or properties related to currently open folder. For example, when you click on a local disk in Computer, you will see the disk's size, free space, and other properties. Clicking on a photo will display the date the photo was taken, rating, dimensions, size, etc.
Details pane is like a much-improved Status bar (the Status bar is still available in Windows Vista and 7, but it has no purpose whatsoever compared to the Details pane).

In Windows 8 and later, there are two buttons available on the bottom right of the File Explorer window - the left one displays the folder in Details view and the right one displays the folder in Large Thumbnails view.


Ctrl+F searches in the contents

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