Sep 122020

Fences logoI have always thought that the Windows desktop (and the Mac one, as well) could be much better designed

I would really like to be able to do several things with the desktop that we can’t, such as:

  • Group shortcuts according to my own needs (eg by client, or by type, or by importance)
  • Change the size of individual icons according to my needs (eg to reflect their importance)
  • Have text-based menus of options instead of icons (much better for shortcuts to specific documents)
  • Have different background colours and/or images for different parts of the desktop
  • Automatically back up a desktop layout on a regular basis

I don’t know if there is some huge technical reason why this part of Windows and Mac OSX has never had much attention – or maybe it’s just me that thinks this is a glaring omission.

I’ve been on the lookout for a third-party program for a long time now. Every now and again the thought occurs to me to look again and I do another google search. The only program I’ve ever come across that seems to come anywhere near doing what I want (and which actually works) is called Fences. I installed it three months ago and have resisted the temptation to blog about it in case I decided subsequently that it wasn’t up to snuff. However, I think I can now say that Fences is probably going to stay on my computers – even though it only fulfils the first and last items on my wish list.

Desktop showing Fences

Fences is not freeware. We’ve become used to getting so much of our software free that a lot of people won’t pay for anything any more. Fences is free to try for 30 days and then costs £9.99. As far as I am concerned that is a perfectly reasonable price for a solid program that performs what is – for me at least – an important job. I should also mention that it is only available for Windows (7,8, and 10). As far as price goes, I would maintain that most so-called “free” programs are not free: we pay for them in terms of the data they steal from us.

I won’t go into un-necessary detail about how Fences works as this link to Fences takes you to their web page, where they clearly explain what it does. In brief, you create “fences” (or “boxes”) into which you place icons and shortcuts that make sense to you, rather than the somewhat arbitrary way that Windows normally orders them. This means that if you add new shortcuts, they won’t be buried in the middle of all your icons, and your other icons won’t move to accommodate the new icon/shortcut (except for those icons in the “Fence” in which you place the new shortcut). So you might have a fence for important programs, a fence for documents relating to a specific client, a fence with shortcuts to important pdf files, etc.

Settings in Fences

Automatic and manual backups of desktop layouts (called “snapshots”) are also built in. Very handy. And, finally, there is a bonus for people who switch between using a single screen and multiple screens. Those people will know that Windows has the endearing habit of messing up your desktop layout when you plug external monitors in and out if the resolution is different between different monitors. I often (but not by default) use three screens. Fences seamlessly adjusts when I connect and disconnect the external monitors.

Fences has proven rock solid during the 13 or so weeks that I have been using it. It hasn’t misbehaved in any way. The one very very tiny downside is that the machine definitely takes a few seconds longer to boot up and get the desktop sorted out than it used to without Fences – a price I’m prepared to pay.

I live in a small flat and I know that the ONLY way of managing this is to keep it fairly tidy

Windows Desktop - Cluttered

My Windows desktop. It’s getting rather silly

I’m not obsessive or over-fastidious: it’s just that I know that life is more manageable, and easier in the long run, if I try and keep everything more or less in its place. It’s the same with my physical desktop: when I finish work I like nothing but mice and keyboards on it.

This tidiness extends to all my computer filing. PDFs of different subjects all have their place, clients have their own email folders, and so on. I don’t understand people who say things like “where are my keys?” whenever they want to go out. If you always put your keys in the same place when you come in, then you always know where they are when you go out. How simple is that?

So why is it that my Windows desktop has over 100 icons on it and I can never find the shortcuts to things I use every week (if not every day)?

I reckon my computer support clients divide into four groups on this subject:

  • Group 1 contains the people for whom any new shortcut or other type of icon goes straight into the recycle bin unless it’s essential. It’s almost a point of pride not to allow anything new to remain on the desktop.
  • Group 2 is populated by the sensible ones. They have shortcuts to programs they use often and maybe a few shortcuts to data files they use often (Word documents, spreadsheets, PDF files and so on). If they’re really good, there are no actual data files on the desktop – just shortcuts.
  • Group 3 comprises those that have shortcuts to programs, but who also store actual files and actual folders on their desktop (maybe dozens and dozens of them).
  • Group 4 consists of those – like me – who are in danger of losing the plot. By the time we’ve found what we are looking for, we’ve forgotten why we were looking for it.
  • Those in Group 1 don’t need any help. Do it your way. Good for you.
  • Those in Group 2 don’t need any help either. I think that this is probably how Microsoft envisaged us using the desktop. Keep things handy that you need often, but tidy away everything else.
  • The best suggestion I have for those in Group 4 is “get a grip”. I was just about to start cleaning my own desktop when it occurred to me that it would be more fun to blog about it than to actually do it.

Cluttered Desk

Where’s my laptop gone? This is NOT my desk!

Now, finally, to Group 3 – those who store actual files and folders on their desktop. Ever since Windows came out, I have understood that anything that is on the desktop is stored in memory. If you have actual data files on your desktop totalling 500mb then you have almost 500mb less RAM available for programs and other tasks. If I’m right on this, it simply doesn’t make sense to “waste” your RAM in this way. It is far more efficient to create shortcuts to files and just store the shortcuts on the desktop.

You can also create shortcuts to folders such that clicking on the folder shortcut will open a window revealing all the files in that folder. So why store the entire folder and its contents on the desktop?

I’ve been trying to find some definitive proof that precious RAM is wasted by storing files on the desktop. I can’t find any. There’s any number of opinions – agreeing with me, disagreeing with me, and also loads of plain rubbish as well. See this thread, for instance.

You’d think Microsoft could provide the best answer. The nearest I can find to corroborate my opinion that files on the desktop are wasteful of RAM can be found here.

It clearly says on that page:

Don’t store files on the desktop

To improve your computer’s performance and find files more easily, it’s best to store files in the Documents folder rather than on the desktop.

To access files from your desktop, create a desktop shortcut instead.

They then offer a link to show you how to create or delete a shortcut.

Tidy Desk

That’s more like it!

So, I reckon I’m safe in continuing to give the advice that it’s best not to store actual folders and files on the desktop.

As far as the multiplicity of program shortcuts is concerned (and this is what makes up about 90% of the clutter on my own desktop at the moment), my tip is to create a special folder.

In fact, I do keep this one actual folder on the desktop as it will only contain shortcuts (so it will remain small). Into this folder (which I call something obvious like “Rarely used shortcuts”) I drag all those shortcuts from my desktop that don’t need to be there. That way, they are easily accessible if I need them , but not getting in the way in the meantime. If necessary, they can be dragged back out to the desktop later. This tip doesn’t save RAM, but it certainly makes using the desktop a lot easier.

Right, just for once I’m off to practise what I preach…..

Where’s the “Show Desktop” icon gone in Windows 7?

"Show Desktop" icon for XP

“Show Desktop” icon for XP

In Windows XP there was an option on the Start Menu that allowed you to show a desktop icon on the taskbar. Clicking on that icon immediately showed the full desktop without closing the windows that had previously obscured it. Those windows could be accessed by just clicking on their icons in the taskbar. The icon changed in Windows Vista, but it was still there.
"Show Desktop" icon for Vista

“Show Desktop” icon for Vista

However, in Windows 7 it disappeared. Well, actually, it didn’t. Some bright spark at Microsoft decided to (a) move it from the lefthand side of the screen to the right and (b) disguise it as part of the taskbar by turning it into a completely nondescript rectangle. It’s now the area to the right of the clock on the taskbar. On my own desktop it’s the rectangle at the bottom right of this image:

"Show Desktop" icon for Windows 7

“Show Desktop” icon for Windows 7

As well as moving it and disguising it, Microsoft also added the “feature” that if you just hover your mouse over the icon (without actually clicking on it) then it shows you a view of the desktop showing through the outline of any windows you currently have open. Maybe someone, somewhere, has found a use for this “feature”, but every time I show clients how to use the “show desktop” icon, they are a little nonplussed when this “feature” activates just before they click on the icon. I advise them to just ignore it and click the icon to reveal the desktop in the normal way.

Irrespective of the version of Windows, there are other ways of immediately getting back to the desktop. These are:

  • Press the Windows logo key and, while this is down, hit the letter “d”


  • Take your mouse down to the taskbar, right-click, and then left-click on “Show the desktop”

Arranging Windows Side By Side

Windows Logo Key

Windows Logo Key

OK, having whinged a bit about fixing something that wasn’t broken, here’s a feature introduced in Windows 7 that is much more useful. It’s the ability to (reasonably) easily arrange two windows so that each occupies half of the screen. Very useful, for instance, if you need one window open for writing, and another for reading. It’s also very useful when dragging things from one window to another.
Cursor Keys

Cursor Keys

A small tip, here, is that when I’m dragging stuff between windows I always arrange the windows so that the “source window” (where the content starts off) is at the left and the “destination window” is always at the right. I find that sticking to this convention just makes it that bit harder for me to get it the wrong way round during a senior moment.

So, how do you arrange windows side by side?

  • Make one window the “current” window by clicking in its “title bar” (the coloured bar at the top of the window).
  • Depress the “Windows” key and, while this is down, tap either the “cursor left” or “cursor right” key.
  • Depending on which cursor key you tapped, the window (now occupying half of the screen) will be either down the left or right side of the screen.
  • Repeating the key-tapping combination will move the window to the other side of the screen.
  • Repeating it again will put the window back into the size and position it occupied before you started playing with this (except that if you had previously had the window “maximised” it will now be “restored down”).
  • Now just click onto the other window (that you want on the other side of the screen) and repeat the same procedure.

I found that it’s worth practising this a bit and committing it to memory as I often feel “better organised” in what I’m doing if I have two windows neatly set up side by side.

You might wonder if there’s any easy method – or software – available so that you can immediately and automatically re-arrange a set of windows in a way that you like. As far as I know, there isn’t. I’ve looked before but never found anything. To my mind, this is one of those extraordinary omissions in Windows. You really would have thought that someone at Microsoft would have noticed some time over the last 20 years or so that it’s really annoying having to repeat the same actions time and again to get the windows back to where you want them every time you want a particular arrangement.

Do you have to hunt down your programs before you can open them? Maybe you scour the “all programs” option of the Start Menu. Maybe you minimise the window that you are working on and then work through the confusion of shortcuts on your desktop. You might even hunt through the hard drive using Windows Explorer.

Key with wingsWell, for programs that you use often, it’s worth knowing that there is is a quicker way of launching programs than any of these. You can assign a key combination that will immediately launch your program. Whatever you happen to be doing, the program assigned to your special key combination will immediately open if it wasn’t already open, or come to the fore if it was already lurking around somewhere.

Creating the keyboard shortcut for this is a two-stage process. First of all we need a desktop shortcut (if one doesn’t exist already), and then we need to change a “property” of that shortcut so that typing the assigned key combination will launch the program (or bring it to the fore if it is already open).

Stage 1 – create a shortcut (if one does not already exist)

Find your program in the usual way, but don’t launch it:

  • If your program is “pinned” to the Start Menu (ie it appears in the list of available programs as soon as you click on the Start button) then left-click on the program name and drag it to the desktop. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the Start menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by opening the Start Menu and then clicking on “all programs”, then find your program in the usual way but instead of left-clicking on it (which would open the program) right-click on it instead. Then left-click on the option that says “send to” and left-click on the option that says “Desktop (create shortcut)”. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the “all programs” menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by using Windows Explorer, then locate it in the usual way but right-click on it rather then double-clicking on it. Then left-click on the option that says “create shortcut”. If it tells you the shortcut will appear on the desktop then that’s fine but it may create the shortcut in the same folder as the program. If it does that, you can then either drag it to the desktop or “cut” it (using Ctrl x) and “paste” it (using Ctrl v) onto the desktop. Alternatively, you can leave it where it is and add the keyboard shortcut from there (see below).

Stage 2 – create the shortcut key combination

  • Right-click on the shortcut.
  • Left-click on the option at the bottom of the list called “Properties”.
  • Left-click on the tab across the top that says “Shortcut”.

About halfway down the list of options you’ll see something that looks like this:

Assigning a shortcut key

If you click on the area next to “shortcut key” (that currently says “None”) and then type any printable character (it doesn’t have to be a letter or a number), you will see that the area is then filled with “Ctrl + Alt + ” and the character you typed. Click on “OK” and that’s it. Wherever you are, typing the key combination of the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the character you added will immediately launch your program. It’s best to depress the Ctrl and Alt keys first and then tap on the third key.

Note that when you were assigning the shortcut key there was an option below that said “Run: Normal window”. If you click on the triangle at the right of this, you can choose to ensure that your program always starts in a normal window, or maximised, or minimised.

Windows 7 Start button and search box

Windows 7 Start button and search box

If you have Windows 7 there’s another method of launching any program more quickly than hunting for it – and you don’t have to assign a key to a shortcut. Instead, just click on the start button and then type the first few characters of the program name into the search box (see fig 2).

Windows will show you a list of files that are relevant. After entering just a few characters you will see the program you want listed in the start box, so just left-click on the program. It took me a long time using Windows 7 to start to appreciate how good this search box now is. Suppose, for instance, you want to change how your mouse is working. Just start typing “mouse” (without the quotes) into the search box and up comes the program to change how the mouse works. Want to change the date in your computer? Just type “date” in the search box and then click on the “Date and Time” option that is offered. There’s no need to train clients any more in how to find “administrative tools” in the Control Panel in order to find the defragmenting option – just start typing “defrag” in the search box. When I’m delivering computer training to clients who are either new to computers or just new to Windows 7 I try to remember to emphasise how good this search box is. It repays the effort of remembering to use it until it becomes second nature.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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