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

By , Last modified: 2014-09-07.

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

After logging on to Windows XP, Vista or 7, Desktop appears. Basically, it looks the same in all versions of Windows from XP to 8.1.

Windows 8 and 8.1 display completely new Modern UI/Metro-style Start screen after signing in. Because it now fills the whole screen, it is called Start screen, not Start menu. Windows 8 Desktop omits Start button, but moving mouse pointer to the left bottom of 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 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

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 windows and display Desktop, press WINDOWS KEY+D on your keyboard.

Start button opens Start menu with recently used programs, Search box (in Windows Vista and 7), All Programs list and shortcuts to common folders and places. You can press WINDOWS KEY to open Start menu (or Start screen), or you can use the CTRL+ESC shortcut if there is no Windows Key on some keyboard.

In Windows 8, there is no Start button visible on Taskbar, but if you move mouse pointer to the bottom left, the Start screen button appears. Clicking it opens Start screen, right-clicking it opens Quick Links menu with access to system management tools. The latter is also available using 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 brings Start "tip" with Windows logo back to the leftmost corner of Taskbar, but it will still open Start screen, not classic Start menu. The "tip" will also be displayed outside of Desktop area (for example, while an app is running) anytime you move mouse pointer to the lower left edge of screen.
By default, Quick Links menu in Windows 8.1 has Windows PowerShell shortcuts instead of Command Prompt ones. This can be reverted in Taskbar's Navigation settings.
Also, note that Shutdown/Power options are back in the menu. Yay! Laughing
Windows 8.1, Start tip on Taskbar Windows 8.1, right-clicking Start tip opens access to management tools and Shutdown options.

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 and 8.1, 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.

Taskbar contains buttons/icons of running (currently open) programs. You can bring programs to front or minimize, maximize and close their windows here. To cycle through all open applications, use 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 latter shortcut cycles through open Modern UI/Metro-style apps only.

Windows 8 and 8.1 list only running Desktop programs on Taskbar (and Taskbar is not available in Modern apps); Windows 8.1 Update also displays open Windows Store (Modern UI/Metro) applications, plus makes it possible to reveal Taskbar in Modern apps by moving mouse pointer to the bottom of screen, or by using keyboard shortcut Windows Key+T.
Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1 also allow cycling through Taskbar applications using the Windows Key+T shortcut.

Notification area (aka System Tray) includes icons of some running programs and important messages. It also includes current date (in Windows XP) or current time and date (in Windows Vista, 7 and 8/8.1).

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

Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 have a convenient button on the very right of Taskbar's Notification Area - Show Desktop. Stopping 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 and 7

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

Here is 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 Start menu.

Below them is a list of most often used programs and link to All Programs. You'll see list of all programs when you hold your mouse over the link for less than a second.

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

Below them are configuration items (Control Panel, etc) and 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.

In Windows Vista and 7, Start menu looks a little different.
In Windows Vista, there are the red Power button (with default action set to Shut down), Lock Computer button and Shutdown/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 Shutdown/Power options buttons.
Windows Vista, Start menu Windows 7, Start menu

But the main difference in Start menus in Windows XP and its younger brothers is that you can (and should) search for programs 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 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.

Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1

Start "menu" now covers the whole screen and has been therefore renamed to 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 size and color. Some app tiles, such as Weather, Mail or News have active content and they scroll latest content changes. These tiles are called Live Tiles.

All tiles can be easily rearranged by dragging with mouse (or with finger on touch screens). A scroll bar is displayed on the bottom of screen if items do not fit in the window. The minus sign button on the right side of scroll bar fits all available items on 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 Ctrl key and scroll 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 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.

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 Start screen and click All apps in App Bar that appears in the lower part of screen, or use keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Tab. Touch screen owners should swipe in from the bottom of 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 Start screen. The same Ctrl+Tab keyboard shortcut works, too.
Windows 8.1 Update (available since April 8th of 2014) adds Power Options and Search buttons to 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 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 Charms bar, move mouse pointer to top right or lower right corner (or use 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 screen to reveal Charms bar.

Windows 8 starts automatic App Search if you start typing while 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).

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

To see a context-sensitive menu for an item in Start screen or search results in Windows 8 and 8.1, right-click it. App bar appears on the bottom and you can pin the item to 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 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.

Folders and Windows/File Explorer in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1

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 and 8/8.1.
Windows 8.1 has (My) Computer renamed to This PC.

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

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

Modern UI apps in Windows 8 and 8.1 fill whole screen and do not have these buttons. These apps can be closed using keyboard shortcut Alt+F4 (or Windows Key+Down Arrow Key in Windows 8.1 only), or by moving mouse pointer to the top of screen (the pointer icon becomes a hand) and then dragging the window all the way to the bottom of screen.

In Windows 8.1 Update, Title bar makes its comeback in Modern UI/Metro apps for keyboard and mouse users (devices without touchscreen). Move mouse pointer to the top of screen (but not into corners!) to reveal it. Minimize and Close buttons are available on the very right. You can use the app icon on the left side of its Title bar for more options: if the app is full-screen, you can Split Left or Split Right to see (snap) two or more Modern UI apps on the screen; if the screen is already shared, you can Maximize it.
While two or more apps share the screen, double-clicking on Title bar maximizes or splits the current app. Keyboard shortcut Windows Key+Arrow Down minimizes the app (in Windows 8.1 without Update, it closed instead).
Windows 8.1 Update, Title bar icon for snapped app. You can Minimize, Maximize or Close the Modern UI app. Windows 8.1 Update, Title bar icon for full-screen app. You can Split Left, Split Right, Minimize or Close the Modern UI app.

Menu bar holds all commands that you can use.

Toolbar includes some common commands:

  • Back and Forward buttons move you backwards and forwards in folder browsing history, one step at a time. You can also move back one step at a time by pressing ALT+LEFT ARROW on your keyboard. You can move forward one step at a time by pressing ALT+RIGHT ARROW on your keyboard.
  • Up button takes you one step up in folder tree (hierarchy). For example, if your current open folder is My Pictures that is located under My Documents, then clicking the Up button takes you to My Documents folder.
  • Search button opens or closes 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 Folders pane hides Common tasks pane.
  • Views button allows you to switch between different folder views - icons, list, details, thumbnails, etc.

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 address bar to go to that location. You can also select a location by clicking the down arrow button at the right side of Address bar.

Common tasks pane is present only if Folders pane is not open. It includes common tasks relevant to open 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 F5 key on your keyboard. In Details view you can sort folder contents quickly by clicking on column name (such as Name, Type, Total Size, etc). Sorted column and sorting order are indicated by an small arrowhead to the right of 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 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 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 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 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.

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

Here's how 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 and 8.1, Computer or This PC looks like this. Ribbon replaces all menus and toolbars with Tabs and content-sensitive buttons, drop-downs and check boxes. You can minimize or maximize it using keyboard shortcut Ctrl+F1. There is no Menu bar or Details pane available in Windows 8 and 8.1.
Windows 8, Computer in Windows Explorer

Menu bar is hidden by default in Windows Vista and 7. You can reveal it by pressing ALT key on your keyboard once; in Windows 8 and 8.1 it activates the Ribbon-style toolbar.

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

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 criterias, for example horse author:"linus benedict" size:>10MB NOT kind:(video OR picture).

Toolbar or Ribbon is location-sensitive in Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1 - its buttons change depending what type of folder or file is selected.

There are two common buttons always visible in 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 in the right side of Toolbar.
Windows 7, buttons on the right of Windows Explorer toolbar.

  • Preview pane button opens and closes Preview pane that you can use for viewing photos, videos, document properties, etc. You can also use keyboard shortcut ALT+P for this
  • 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 and 8.1, Ribbon can be activated by pressing 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.

Ribbon is also able to hide or reveal buttons and descriptions according to 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.

Navigation pane displays common folders for quick navigation.

Details pane in Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1 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 date the photo was taken, rating, dimensions, size, etc.
Details pane is like a much improved Status bar (Status bar is still available in Windows Vista and 7, but it has no purpose whatsoever compared to Details pane).

In Windows 8 and 8.1, there are two buttons available on the bottom right of File Explorer window - the left one displays the folder in Details view and the right one displays the folder in Large Thumbnails view.



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Next: Organize open windows in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1
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