Once you get past the initial unfamiliarity, you’ll find the new taskbar has a lot to offer.

Microsoft has given the taskbar a complete makeover. If you’re an old hand with Windows, you’ll need to invest some time in getting acquainted with the new layout. At first, you may not like all you see, but it’s worth persisting with 7’s new ways: over time, the new taskbar’s flexibility and simplicity are decidedly seductive.

Traversing the taskbar

If you let your eyes travel from left to right along the taskbar, you’ll see:

  • The Start button. Click it to open the Start menu, which houses links to all your installed programs; access to your computer’s settings in the Control Panel; shortcuts to important locations, such as the main libraries; the help documentation; and a search box.
  • Program icons. The program icons replace both the old Quick Launch bar and the old-style program buttons. Click any program icon to launch that program; hover the mouse pointer over an icon to see thumbnails of windows open within that program; right-click an icon to view the program’s jump list. Running programs are indicated by a subtly highlighted box around the icon; if you open more than one window in an application, the icon is layered. This takes some getting used to, but over time, you’ll probably come to appreciate the compactness and efficiency of the new design. If you want to change the order of the program icons, simply click and drag them into a new location. To newly pin a program to the taskbar, click Start -> All Programs and locate the program in the list, then right-click it and select ‘Pin to taskbar’ from the context-menu. To unpin a program from the taskbar, right-click it and select ‘Unpin this program from the taskbar’ from the context menu.
  • The notification area. This houses icons for programs that run in the background and provide services that only occasionally require your attention, plus the time and date display. Windows 7 adds an overflow zone to the notification area, accessed by clicking the small up-arrow at the left-hand end of the area. You can keep the notification area uncluttered by dragging icons onto the up-arrow and then into the overflow zone; and drag your most-used icons out of the overflow zone onto the visible notification area. This is a big improvement over the old notification area. You can also click the time and date to view a calendar or change your date settings.
  • Desktop peek. The old ‘Show Desktop’ icon which used to take up space in the Quick Launch bar has been replaced by the subtler and more useful Aero Peek. This takes the form of a translucent button at the right end of the taskbar. Hover your mouse pointer over it and all open windows will turn transparent, so you can see the desktop. Click the button and the windows will disappear completely allowing you to perform a desktop task; click the button once more to have them reappear. You can also activate the peek function with the keyboard by pressing Winkey+Space.

A vertical taskbar works well on small PCs such as netbooks.

Dragging files

The Windows 7 taskbar is a very pliable object. For example, dragging a file onto the taskbar can have a variety of different results depending on exactly how you perform this task:

  • Scenario 1: If you drag a file directly onto an empty spot on the taskbar and release it, Windows will pin the file to the default program associated with its filetype. If that program is not yet pinned to the taskbar, it will pin the program and add the file you dropped to the program’s jump list. For example, if you have JPG images set to open in Windows Live Photo Gallery by default and you drag a file called daisy.jpg onto the taskbar, Windows will pin Live Photo Gallery to the taskbar if it’s not already there and add daisy.jpg to its jump list.
  • Scenario 2: If you drag a file onto an application icon on the taskbar and that application is not currently running, Windows will pin the file to the application’s jump list. For example, say you have Paint Shop Pro pinned to the taskbar but the program is not currently open. If you drag daisy.jpg onto the Paint Shop Pro icon, the file will be pinned to Paint Shop Pro’s jump list.
  • Scenario 3: If you drag a file onto the icon of a currently-running application, hold it there until the app’s window pops open in the foreground and drag the file into that window, the file will open in the application. In this case, you must make sure you drag directly onto the app’s icon: if you don’t, the icon will scooch on over to the side to let you drop the item directly onto the taskbar (resulting in scenario 1 above).

Pin favourite folders

If you have favorite folders you access frequently, pin them to the Explorer icon in the taskbar by right-clicking-and-dragging the folder’s icon onto the taskbar. The folder will appear at the top of Explorer’s jumplist, which you can view by right-clicking its taskbar icon.

Taskbar on the side

These days, most screens are appreciably wider than they are high, and yet most of us keep our taskbar firmly ensconced across the bottom of the screen. That taskbar strip occupies a sizeable fraction of the vertical space available, especially if you’re working on a tiddly netbook. If you like, you can maximize the advantages of having a wide screen by moving the taskbar to the left edge of the screen. To do so:

  1. Right-click in an empty spot on the taskbar and select ‘Lock the taskbar’ from the context menu.
  2. Click-and-drag the taskbar to the left-hand edge of the screen.
  3. Right-click and select ‘Lock the taskbar’ again.

You’ll find that Microsoft has gone to considerable trouble to make a side-docked taskbar as good looking and efficiently functioning as a bottom-docked one in Windows 7. It may take you a few days to get used to the side-docked taskbar, but the payoff in usable screen real estate is worth it.

Multiple instances
If you open a program and then want to run a second instance of that program, simply Shift+click the program’s icon in the taskbar. If you have a three-button mouse, you can click with the middle button to achieve the same thing.

Right-click the Start button and select Properties to configure the settings for the Start menu and taskbar.

Resurrect Quick Launch, if you must

When you first start using Windows 7, you may pine for the old Quick Launch bar, which disappeared in the taskbar makeover. It’s worth persevering with the new order, which proves to be far more flexible and just as efficient once you’ve overcome any initial frustrations. However, if you really must have the Quick Launch bar back, here’s how to revive it:

  1. Right-click the taskbar and select Toolbars -> New Toolbar.
  2. In the Folder box, type:

%userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch>

and click Select Folder.

  1. Right-click the taskbar and click ‘Lock the taskbar’. The Quick Launch bar will appear to the left of the notification area.
  2. Right-click an empty spot on the Quick Launch bar and deselect Show Text and Show Title.
  3. Drag the handle at the left of the Quick Launch bar to move it to your desired position, and use the drag handles to resize it.

Taskbar thumbnails

Windows 7’s all-icon taskbar may look a little uninformative at first glance, but float the mouse pointer over the icons and up pops a thumbnail view of each of your open documents. Internet Explorer 8 extends this feature by displaying an individual thumbnail for each tab you have opened in the browser. Hover your pointer over one of the thumbnails to view the window containing that document; click to bring that document to the foreground so you can work on it; click the little close box that appears on the preview to close the document.

Thumbnail view is able to display more than a dozen thumbnails side by side. If you’re a heavy user and open even more documents in a program or tabs within IE, the thumbnail view automatically collapses into list view.

If you’d prefer to have a more descriptive taskbar, it’s a simple matter to display labels beside your taskbar icons. To do so:

  1. Right-click the taskbar and select Properties from the context menu.
  2. Click the Taskbar tab of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box.
  3. From the Taskbar Buttons drop-down menu select either ‘Combine when taskbar is full’ or ‘Never combine’.
  4. To save space, you may wish to tick ‘Use small icons’.
  5. Click OK.