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Cleanup Your Taskbar in Windows

written by: Joli Ballew•edited by: Christian Cawley•updated: 6/16/2009

The Taskbar is that little blue bar that runs across the bottom of your screen on both Windows XP and Windows Vista. You can use it to immediately find out what programs are running, what programs started automatically when you booted Windows, and what programs you have configured to launch quickly. The Taskbar is full of information and, by its very nature, a busy place that tends to get more than a little cluttered, especially the Notification Area (System Tray) and the Quick Launch area.

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    Quick Launch and Notification Area (System Tray)

    The Taskbar contains four main components: In the bottom-left corner, you’ll find the trusty Start button. To the right of the Start button is the Quick Launch toolbar (assuming you have this feature selected), which contains a set of program icons that you can click to quickly launch the programs they represent. The area to the right of the Quick Launch toolbar is the area of the Taskbar that lists the programs currently running on your computer. Finally, the section to the far right is the System Tray (XP) or the Notification Area (Vista). Whatever you call it, this area shows the programs that started when Windows did, and each runs automatically and in the background.

    The Taskbar’s Quick Launch area in Windows XP is configured to display the icons for the programs Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, and it also includes the Show Desktop icon. It’s next to the Start button. In Vista you’ll also see a Switch Between Windows icon, among others you’ve added. [See Image 1]

    The System Tray or Notification Area is located on the far right of the Taskbar. You may see icons for an anti-virus program and network connections, the system clock, and even a little icon for Windows Media Player. [See Image 2] With these items on the Taskbar, they can be accessed easily.

    You can clean up and personalize your Taskbar, including adding or removing icons, adding or removing toolbars, using AutoHide, locking the Taskbar, grouping applications, and configuring Quick Launch, just to name a few. There is a lot that you can do to clean up and personalize the Taskbar, but we’ll start with the System Tray feature first.

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    Lock, AutoHide, and Group

    You can lock the Taskbar so that it cannot be moved or resized, or you can configure it to hide when inactive. You can also configure it to group files opened by the same program in the same area of the taskbar. If you choose to group files, when the Taskbar becomes crowded, the buttons for the same program are collapsed into a single button. To use AutoHide, to lock the Taskbar, or to group items, right-click the Taskbar, choose the Taskbar tab, and select the appropriate boxes.

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    Quick Launch and Notification Area (System Tray)

    The Taskbar contains four main components: In the bottom-left corner, you’ll find the trusty Start button. To the right of the Start button is the Quick Launch toolbar (assuming you have this feature selected), which contains a set of program icons that you can click to quickly launch the programs they represent. The area to the right of the Quick Launch toolbar is the area of the Taskbar that lists the programs currently running on your computer. Finally, the section to the far right is the System Tray (XP) or the Notification Area (Vista). Whatever you call it, this area shows the programs that started when Windows did, and each runs automatically and in the background.

    The Taskbar’s Quick Launch area in Windows XP is configured to display the icons for the programs Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, and it also includes the Show Desktop icon. It’s next to the Start button. In Vista you’ll also see a Switch Between Windows icon, among others you’ve added. [See Image 1]

    The System Tray or Notification Area is located on the far right of the Taskbar. You may see icons for an anti-virus program and network connections, the system clock, and even a little icon for Windows Media Player. [See Image 2] With these items on the Taskbar, they can be accessed easily.

    You can clean up and personalize your Taskbar, including adding or removing icons, adding or removing toolbars, using AutoHide, locking the Taskbar, grouping applications, and configuring Quick Launch, just to name a few. There is a lot that you can do to clean up and personalize the Taskbar, but we’ll start with the System Tray feature first.

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    Remove Program Icons from the System Tray

    Some programs offer a choice so that you can remove their program icons from the Notification Area. To find these options, right-click the program’s icon and choose Properties, Preferences, or any other choice that will allow you to set the program’s configuration. Look around and you might find what you are looking for.

    If you can’t find an option to remove the icon and you see icons for items you don’t need or use (like instant messaging, Napster, RealPlayer, jukebox or other music software, or programs you’ve downloaded but don’t use), you can tell Windows you don’t want those programs to automatically start and you don’t want their icons to appear in the System Tray when you start Windows. Here’s how:

    1. Click Start and then click Run. In the Run dialog box, type msconfig.exe. Click OK.

    2. Click the Startup tab.

    3. Uncheck items that you recognize and don’t want to start automatically. If you are unsure about an item, jot down the path to the program and see if you can figure out what it is by browsing there and starting the program. If that doesn’t work, you can look up the program in question on the Internet.

    4. Click OK and restart your computer.

    5. On reboot, read the information and click OK in the System Configuration Utility dialog box. You’ll notice fewer icons in the System Tray.

    Tip: If you get error messages on startup, find out what program those errors are related to and uncheck that item in the System Configuration utility. You might find that those error messages go away on the next boot up.

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    Hide Inactive Icons

    Now that you’ve decided what items you want, you can choose to hide them when the programs they represent are inactive, always show them, or never show them. With AutoHide, you can hide the icon without getting rid of it completely. This is a great way to unclutter the Taskbar and System Tray without actually having to remove items from it that you’d really like to keep.

    Here are the steps to follow in Windows XP (Vista is similar):

    1. Right-click an empty area of the Taskbar, and choose Properties.

    2. From the Taskbar tab, verify that Hide Inactive Icons is selected, and click Customize.

    3. Under Current Items, click to set the options. The options are Hide When Inactive, Always Show, or Always Hide. Hiding icons will leave them accessible but will hide them in the System Try under an arrow. Selecting Always Show will tell Windows to always show the item and never hide it. Click OK twice. You can access the hidden icons by clicking the arrow.

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    Summary

    Here’s a summary of programs you might want to keep running all the time, and thus keep in the System Tray, and those you might not:

    • If you use an instant messaging program, by all means, keep it in the System Tray; if not, remove it. Consider using the AutoHide feature here.
    • If you use music software and a download site often, keep the software and connection to it in the System Tray. If you tried out the program, didn’t like it, and don’t use it, remove it.
    • If you don’t recognize a program in the System Tray, remove it.
    • Leave items you access regularly in the System Tray, like Power Management on a laptop, anti-virus software, the volume icon, a firewall icon, or network connectivity status. Remove items that don’t need to run all the time, like QuickTime, Napster, or video or music managers.
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    Images

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