Windows 7 Tip of the Week
Personalize the Taskbar

Tip date: June 11, 2010
Tipsters: n/a

With Windows 7, Microsoft is moving to a system where the taskbar, instead of the Start Menu, is used to access your most frequently needed applications. So it's not surprising that the Windows 7 taskbar picks up a number of new features, including a new Aero Glass look-and-feel, taskbar thumbnails, and more. In this week's tip, however, we're going to focus on those changes that will help you customize the taskbar--and the related notification area--to work the way you want. This is particularly important because of the taskbar's new emphasis on program launching in addition to its traditional application and windows management features.

Secret: The new Windows 7 taskbar combines functionality that previously appeared in early versions of the Windows taskbar with that of the Quick Launch toolbar. In Windows Vista and earlier versions of Windows, you could click shortcuts from the Quick Launch toolbar and then manage open applications and other windows from the taskbar. In Windows 7, these functions have simply been combined. So instead of separate places for performing these tasks, you can do it all from a single, more customizable location.

While most Windows users are probably familiar with the stock taskbar, this handy Windows feature can be configured in a number of ways, many of which dramatically change its appearance. This means you can make the taskbar work the way you want it to: You don't have to accept the taskbar as delivered by Microsoft.

There are two major new taskbar customization capabilities included in Windows 7: You can now pin items to the taskbar so that you can access them more quickly. And you can reorder taskbar buttons so that they appear in the order you want, and not in some arbitrary order determined by when windows were opened and closed.

The notification area, found to the right side of the taskbar, just left of the clock, offers similar personalization functionality as well.

Let's take a look.


Pinning items to the taskbar

The Windows 7 taskbar doesn't just contain buttons for running applications and other open windows. In this Windows version, the taskbar can also contained pinned shortcuts for applications, folders, documents, and other items. As you can see in the screenshot below, different types of taskbar buttons look differently. Below, the Explorer button represents a pinned taskbar shortcut, and because no Explorer windows are open, its button appears to float on the taskbar, without any border. The Windows Media Player button, however, has a single rectangular border around it. This means that the Media Player application is active and running. And the Internet Explorer button has a bigger, more 3D border, indicating that there are multiple IE windows and/or tabs open.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
Windows 7 shortcuts are said to be pinned to the taskbar.

By default, Windows 7 pins three buttons to the taskbar for you, IE, Explorer, and Windows Media Player. But you can pin your own items to the taskbar, and you can unpin (remove) the default buttons if you don't want them there.

There are a few ways to pin an item to the taskbar. The most obvious is to access icons in the Start Menu's Most Recently Used (MRU) list or All Programs list, navigate to the shortcut you want, right-click it, and choose Pin to Taskbar from the pop-up menu that appears.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
You can pin Start Menu items to the taskbar.

Secret: If you pin an item from the Start Menu MRU to the taskbar, it will no longer appear in the Start Menu MRU. So if you'd like to also pin this item to the Start Menu, you will have dig deeper into the Start Menu's All Programs list to find it.

You can also drag and drop items onto the taskbar to pin them. The system will alert you that dropping the item will cause it to be pinned.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
You can pin Start Menu items to the taskbar using drag and drop too.

The problem here is that some items can't apparently (or easily) be pinned. Some exceptions include:

You cannot have multiple Explorer buttons. If you leave the default Windows Explorer button pinned to the taskbar, subsequent attempts to pin other Library or folder locations to the taskbar will not work as expected. (That is, they will not be given a separate pinned button, as you may prefer.) Instead, as you drag such an item over, you'll be alerted that the item will be pinned to Windows Explorer. This means that it will appear at the top of the already-pinned Windows Explorer button's Jump List.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
You cannot pin multiple items of the same type to the taskbar, so they appear under a single button's Jump List instead.

Secret: There is a workaround that lets you create multiple Explorer shortcuts. I will document this in a future tip.

Some system items simply cannot be pinned to the taskbar. For example, any attempt at pinning a network connectoid to the taskbar is met with failure. This is also true of individual control panels.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
Some items cannot be pinned to the taskbar at all.

Secret: Because the default drag and drop behavior for the Start Menu is Pin, you need to hold down the SHIFT key when you're dragging and drop to the taskbar in order to open a document or other data file with a non-default application. For example, let's say you want to open a Microsoft Word document (*.docx) with WordPad, a built-in Windows 7 application. You could pin WordPad to the taskbar, and then drag and drop a Word document to that button while holding down the SHIFT key. As you can see below, you'll be notified that this will cause WordPad to open the document.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
To open a document with a non-default pinned application, hold down the SHIFT key.

To unpin an item from the taskbar, right-click its taskbar button and choose Unpin this program from taskbar. You can do this whether any windows are open or not.

Reordering taskbar buttons

You can also reorder taskbar buttons so that they appear in the order you prefer. Doing so is simple: Just grab one of the buttons and drag it left or right.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
You reorder taskbar buttons using drag and drop.

Customizing the notification area

As the name suggests, the notification area is designed for notifications and shouldn't be used as a taskbar replacement although some developers try to use it that way for some reason (some applications inexplicably minimize to the tray rather than to the taskbar as they should). Applications like Microsoft Outlook, which need to alert the user to new instant messages, e-mails, or online contacts, also use the tray, and display small pop-up notification windows nearby. However, in Windows 7, these non-system notification icons are all hidden by default, so notification area won't become cluttered. Of course, this behavior has two bad side effects: Sometimes features you want aren't visible, and you aren't alerted to the fact that some applications are silently running in the background.

You can access hidden notification icons by clicking the Show hidden icons button, a small white arrow to the left of the notification area. When you do so, a small window pops up, showing you the hidden notification icons.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
Hidden notification icons can be accessed via a pop-up window.

If you're not happy with the default notification area layout, you can do something about it. You can remove or enable default notification icons, and choose whether to hide other icons and their notifications. You can also drag and drop notification icon to reorder them, as you do with taskbar buttons.

To select which notification icons are visible, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Properties. In the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window that appears, click the Customize button on the Taskbar tab to display the new Notification Area Icons control panel.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
You can determine how notification icons display using this control panel.

For all system and non-system notification icons, you can choose from three choices:

Show icon and notifications. In this case, the icon appears directly in the notification area and will display any notifications the underlying application displays.

Hide icon and notifications. In this case, the icon will not appear in the notification area and will not display any notifications. You can access these icons by clicking the Show hidden icons button.

Only show notifications. In this case, the icon will not appear in the notification area but the underlying application will still be able to display notifications. Again, you can access these icons by clicking the Show hidden icons button.

In addition to this control, you can also access options that are unique to the built-in system icons by clicking the link titled Turn system icons on or off. When you do, the System Icons control panel appears. This interface lets you control the display of the Clock, Volume, Network, Power, and Action Center icons. (The Power icon choice will be disabled on desktops PCs, however.)

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize the Taskbar
System icons can be independently enabled and disabled as well.

Like taskbar buttons, most notification area icons can be reordered using drag and drop. And this applies to the hidden icons, too: You can drag hidden icons down into the notification area to cause them to be displayed. And you can drag visible notification icons into the hidden area to hide them.

Secret: You cannot change the location of the Clock or the Aero Peek button.