How To Unclutter and Tweak Your Taskbar

As the only part of Windows that's visible onscreen all the time, the taskbar is a very important and useful component. The trouble is, it can get cluttered pretty quickly. Follow this guide to ditch the clutter and tweak the Taskbar to meet your needs.
Published: Jan 17, 2008
Author: Jordan Running
Related OS: XP / Vista

You probably use it every day, but might not even know it has a name. The bar that runs along the bottom of the screen in Windows is the taskbar, and it has a number of invaluable functions. However, after using you computer for a few months you might notice your taskbar getting more cluttered and less usable. Fortunately, taskbar clutter is easy to overcome, and I'll show you how.

Anatomy of the taskbar

The default taskbar in Windows XP and Windows Vista has five main components.

The taskbar

From left to right, they are:

  1. Start button: The quickest way to access many of Windows' features, including installed programs, the Control Panel, and the Shut Down menu.
  2. Quick Launch: An area with several icons to quickly launch commonly-used programs.
  3. Task switcher: Shows a button for each running program, allowing you to switch quickly between windows.
  4. Notification area: Also called the system tray, contains icons that shows you the status of and gives you access to certain features and programs.
  5. The clock: Shows the time and, in Windows Vista, reveals a mini-calendar when clicked.

There are slight variations between Windows XP and Vista, but for the most part all of these components work the same between versions. Depending on what programs installed, your taskbar might have additional components, and we'll begin by getting those under control.

Mastering your toolbars

Windows refers to these extra components--which can include media player controls, search boxes, battery indicators, links, and more--as well as the Quick Launch area, as Toolbars, and they're easy to customize. In order to show or hide certain toolbars, just right-click on a blank area on the Taskbar, or on the Start menu, select the Toolbars sub-menu, and check or uncheck the components you want to show or hide. Any change you make can easily be undone, so feel free to play around.

Unlock the TaskbarMany of these components can be moved around and resized as well. In order to do that, you'll have to make sure the taskbar is "unlocked," which is as simple as right-clicking on a blank area or the Start menu and un-checking "Lock the Taskbar." When the taskbar is unlocked you'll see "grippers," which look like little bumps or thin bars, depending on your Windows theme, appear next to the Quick Launch and other toolbars. These grippers can be clicked and dragged to resize toolbars to your liking. If you drag them far enough, you can actually rearrange the entire center area of your taskbar. To hide the grippers again, just check "Lock the Taskbar" again with the right-click menu.

Customizing the Quick Launch toolbar

Often when you install programs they give you the option of adding a Quick Launch icon. This is one of the main sources of clutter, and I recommend against it, unless you're sure you'll be using the program frequently--you can always add it later by dragging its icon onto the Quick Launch area. If you have more than a couple Quick Launch icons, chances are not all of them will be shown by default due to lack of space; instead, a little arrow will be shown, which will reveal the hidden icons. The Quick Launch area can be resized by unlocking the taskbar and dragging the grippers as described above, but let's start by just clearing out the unwanted icons.

In order to remove a Quick Launch icon, just right-click on it and select Delete. Don't worry, this won't delete the associated program--just the icon. You can always add the icon again later by dragging it from the Start menu to the Quick Launch toolbar. You can also rearrange the Quick Launch icons by drag-and-drop. I suggest deleting any icon you don't use several times a week, and then resizing the Quick Launch area so only the most-used icons are shown, and the rest are hidden in the little arrow menu, but you should play with it until you find the arrangment that suits you.

Uncluttering the Notification Area

To the left of the clock is the notification area, often called the system tray or just the tray. It's a useful feature but also one frequently abused by software developers--many developers think their program needs an icon in the notification area, but almost as many are wrong. Often even a new computer's tray is filled with icons the first time it's powered on, and after a few months of use installed programs have clogged it. Happily, Windows XP and Vista have a feature that attempts to hide tray icons that are seldom used. This feature is useful--most of the icons are hidden but you can reveal them again by clicking on the little left-pointing arrow--but not entirely predictable. To use it, right-click on a blank area of the taskbar or the Start button and choose Properties. In Windows XP the notification area options are on the Taskbar tab, the first tab you'll see in the Properties dialog. In Windows Vista you'll have to click on the Notification Area tab to show them. What you'll see is a checkbox that says "Hide inactive icons." Checking it will, in theory, tell Windows to hide icons that you rarely use and that rarely do anything. The problem is, Windows doesn't have a reliable way to tell which icons are "active" or not. If Windows' own selections aren't suitable to you, click on the Customize... button. In the dialog that appears you'll be able to make icons of your choosing always be shown, others always hidden, and leave others up to Windows' discretion. When you want to see those icons that have been hidden, just click on the left-pointing arrow next to the notification area.

Remove iconUnfortunately this feature, though useful, is utterly unreliable. Windows has a pronounced tendency to "forget" your preferences after awhile, or in some cases immediately. But we're not out of options yet. Many programs that put icons in the notificion area also have their own options for turning their icons off. Each program does it different, though, so you may have to do some digging. It may be as simple as right-clicking on the offending icon and un-checking a "Show tray icon" (or similar) option; others may require you to open the program's main Options or Preferences dialog and hunt down the option there. And others may give you no such choice.

One final note: On the Notification Area, Windows vista also throws in checkboxes specifically for turning on and off the Volume, Network, and Battery icons, as well as the clock itself. These preferences tend not to be "forgotten" as much as the options described above.

Tweaking your taskbar's size and position

Now that you've cleared out a little clutter, I'd like to show you a few taskbar options you might not know about. For this you'll have to unlock your taskbar again but right-clicking on a blank area and un-checking the "Lock the Taskbar" option. You'll know it's unlocked when you see the "grippers" as described above. Once unlocked your taskbar can be moved or expanded. Let's start with the latter (all of these changes can easily be undone, so feel free to play around). To expand your taskbar, just grab its upper edge and drag up, just like you do when resizing a window. You can make the taskbar two, three, or more times its normal height.

Wide taskbar

Side taskbarThough not everyone likes a thick taskbar, it does have the advantage of more room for Quick Launch icons and task switcher buttons. And when your taskbar is more than one row tall, the clock area will show not only the time but also the date and day of the week. Next, if you don't like the taskbar on the bottom of the screen, you can move it to the top or even make it a vertical bar on the left or right side of the screen. To move it, just click on a blank area and drag it to the edge of your choosing. When the taskbar is on the side of the screen you can make it wider or narrower by clicking and dragging its edge. A side taskbar has room for many, many windows, but unfortunately their names will be truncated unless you make it pretty wide. It's worth experimenting a bit to see the trade-offs and figure out what works best for you.

And finally, one last tweak. If you think the taskbar takes up too much space and you don't want it on the screen when you're not using it, you can set it to "auto-hide." Just right click on a blank area and choose Properties, and on the Taskbar tab of the Properties dialog check the "Auto-hide the taskbar" box. This will make the taskbar disappear from view, but pop back up immediately when you move your mouse to the edge of the screen. I don't use this because I like to be able to see the clock and open windows at a glance, but many people I know love this feature.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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