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Customizing the Windows 7 Taskbar

You know the Windows taskbar; it’s that little strip of real estate at the bottom of the Windows desktop. Well, the taskbar looks a little different in Windows 7, and it has a lot more functionality. It’s still the taskbar, but it’s not quite the same taskbar you used to use in previous versions of Windows. You can become much more productive with Windows 7 by personalizing the operating system’s taskbar. In this article, Michael Miller, author of Windows 7 Your Way: Speed Up and Customize Windows, shows you how to customize the Windows 7 taskbar — your way.
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You know the Windows taskbar; it’s that little strip of real estate at the bottom of the Windows desktop. Well, the taskbar looks a little different in Windows 7, and it has a lot more functionality. It’s still the taskbar, but it’s not quite the same taskbar you used to use in previous versions of Windows.

In Windows Vista, Windows XP, and older versions of the operating system, the taskbar existed primarily to help you switch from one open application or document to another. Every open application or document had its own button on the taskbar, but if nothing was open, the taskbar was empty.

The Windows 7 taskbar still provides program switching, but it does a whole lot more. What’s new in Windows 7 is the capability of the taskbar to display buttons not just for open apps and documents, but also for your favorite applications—even when they’re not running. In this regard, the taskbar becomes a one-click area to access both your favorite apps and your open apps. Configure it properly, and you may never open the Windows Start menu again!

Moving the Taskbar

Let’s start with a simple customization. You’re probably used to seeing the taskbar at the bottom of the desktop, because that’s where Windows installs it by default and where the majority of users leave it. In fact, I’d wager that most users don’t know that the taskbar can be moved to any side of the screen.

This is particular useful when you’re using a widescreen monitor—which most of us do, these days. Instead of taking up valuable real estate at the bottom of your screen, you can move the taskbar to the left or right sides, where you probably have more room. It’s a neat little trick that better fits a widescreen desktop, and one I particularly like.

How do you move the taskbar? It’s really easy. Just right-click on any open area of the taskbar and select Properties from the pop-up menu. When the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box appears, select the Taskbar tab. Pull down the Taskbar Location on Screen list and select the desired location: Bottom, Left, Right, or Top, then click OK. That’s all there is to it.

By the way, if you position the taskbar at the top of the screen, the Start menu pulls down instead of popping up. If you position the taskbar at the left side of the screen, the Start menu opens to the right. If you position the taskbar at the right side of the screen, the Start menu opens to the left. This might take a little getting used to, but it’s worth it.

Hiding the Taskbar

Want to free up even more screen real estate? Then hide the taskbar when you’re not using it.

Windows offers an “auto hide” mode for the taskbar. In this mode, the taskbar is hidden until you move your cursor to the bottom of the screen—which then causes the taskbar to slide back up into view. (Or, if you’ve moved your taskbar to another side, when you move your cursor to that side of the screen.)

To auto hide the taskbar, right-click on any empty area of the taskbar and select Properties from the pop-up menu. When the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box appears, select the Taskbar tab. Check the Auto-Hide the Taskbar option, then click OK. (Uncheck this option to return to the standard always-visible taskbar.)

Adding Items to the Taskbar

What’s on your taskbar? The smart way to configure your taskbar is to populate it with buttons for your most-used applications and documents. That’s right, you can dock just about any application or document to your taskbar; launching a docked app is as easy as clicking that app’s button on the taskbar.

How do you add new buttons to the taskbar? Start by opening the Start menu or Windows Explorer, then locate the application or document you want to add to the taskbar. Right-click that item and select Pin to Taskbar from the pop-up menu. (Even easier, you can drag the icon for any item from Windows Explorer onto the taskbar, which automatically pins it there.) A button for that item now appears on the taskbar, mission accomplished.

Rearranging Taskbar Buttons

In previous versions of the Windows taskbar, you had no control over the order of taskbar buttons. The order of buttons was determined by the order in which the applications were opened.

With Windows 7, however, you have total control over the order of taskbar buttons—which is important when you’re docking your favorite applications. All you have to do is use your mouse to drag and drop a taskbar button into the position you want, and there it stays. That makes for a more consistent—and easier-to-use—taskbar.

Changing the Way Taskbar Buttons are Displayed

By default, Windows combines multiple documents from a single application into a single button on the taskbar; it also hides the labels for each button. This can be a little confusing, especially if you’re used to seeing multiple buttons for multiple documents from a single application.

You can, however, change the way that Windows handles its taskbar buttons. Here are your options:

  • Always combine, hide labels. This is the default mode.
  • Combine when taskbar is full. This mode displays separate buttons for each open document unless the taskbar fills up with too many buttons; in that instance, it combines multiple documents from a single application into a single button.
  • Never combine. In this mode, Windows always displays separate buttons for each open document. Know, however, that this option can quickly fill up the taskbar.

How do you make these changes? Right-click on any open area in the taskbar and select Properties. When the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box appears, select the Taskbar tab. Pull down the Taskbar Buttons list and make a new choice, then click OK.

Resizing the Taskbar

Even today’s big-screen monitors are only so big. If you add a lot of items to the Windows taskbar, you may fill it up. (Windows then displays a right-arrow at the end of the toolbar, so that you can access the rest of the taskbar buttons.)

Fortunately, you can resize the taskbar to display two, three, or more rows of buttons. All you have to do is right-click on any open area of the taskbar and uncheck the Lock the Taskbar option. Use your mouse to grab the top edge of the taskbar, then drag it upwards. When you're done resizing the taskbar, right-click on the taskbar again and re-check the Lock the Taskbar option.

You can also change the size of the buttons on the taskbar—and thus the taskbar itself. By default, Windows uses what it calls "large icons;" you can easily shrink the size of the toolbar by switching to "small icons." Go to the Taskbar tab in the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box and check the Use Small Icons option. Uncheck this option to return to the default "large icons" view.

Changing the Taskbar Color

The color and transparency of the taskbar is determined by the color scheme you select for Windows. That is, your taskbar will be the same color and transparency as all the windows you open on your desktop.

To change the color of the taskbar, then, you have to change Windows 7’s color scheme. Right-click on any open area of the desktop and select Personalize from the pop-up menu. When the Personalization window appears, click Window Color. When the Window Color and Appearance window appears, click the color scheme you want. If you want to choose a custom color, click the Show Color Mixer button then fine-tune the selected hue, saturation, and brightness.

While you’re in Window Color and Appearance window, you can also change the taskbar’s transparency. To make the taskbar and onscreen windows more transparent, move the Transparency slider to the left. To make them appear more solid, move the slider to the right.

When you’re done making all these changes, click the Save Changes button.

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