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Absolute Beginners III: Icons and shortcuts

In the first tutorial in this series, we explored a typical Windows Desktop and gained an overall picture of the function of each of the Desktop components. This time, weíre going to explore some features of the Desktop in detail and do some redecorating to make the Desktop a more efficient place.

Take a look at the Desktop in Figure 1. Itís similar to the one in the previous tutorial Ė a newly installed Windows Me Desktop. If youíre using a different version of Windows or if the person who set up your computer made their own changes, your Desktop will look somewhat different, but youíll see plenty of similarities. This, letís face it, is a boring desktop, without even the advantage of being highly utilitarian.

Windows Me

Figure 1. A standard Windows Me Desktop

Whatís wrong with it? Try these points for starters:

Thatís all fixable. One of the delightful things about Windows is that you can tailor most aspects of it to suit your own desires. Weíre going to steer clear of some of the more exotic things you can do to liven up your Desktop and instead focus on two goals:

  1. Making the Desktop as easy to use as possible.

  2. Adding a little individuality to the Desktop.

Iím going to limit my coverage to Windows 98 and Windows Me. Most of the techniques Iíll discuss are equally applicable to Windows 95, but as we get into more advanced system fiddling that wonít necessarily be the case.

Icon placement

Letís start with a cosmetic but very important change by rearranging the icons. Itís simple to do and in the process youíll get to practice your mouse technique and learn about a great time-saving feature called shortcuts.

An aside about the mouse

If your mousing technique isnít solid, I recommend you spend some time practicing before you go messing with your computer. In particular, you should practice double-clicking (two clicks of the left mouse button in rapid succession, without moving the mouse in the slightest between clicks) so you can do it correctly each time. A good way to practice double-clicking is to double-click the My Computer icon on your Desktop. This opens a window titled My Computer (you can see the windowís title in the colored strip across its top). Once itís open, close it by clicking the Close button (the little X in the top-right corner of the window). Repeat this over and over until you can do it faultlessly. Make sure you use the left mouse button and that your hand doesnít move between clicks.

I know Iím harping on mouse technique a lot; thatís because poor mousing technique is the cause of more problems and confusion for beginners than almost anything else. So spend the time now to get it right. If you need some reminders about technique and mousing terminology, take a look at the tutorial on basic mousing techniques.

Organizing your icons

Enough mousing around. Letís get down to work.

Start by right-clicking in an empty spot on the Desktop. A drop-down menu will appear. Select Arrange Icons to display a sub-menu. In the sub-menu, make sure there is no tick beside the Auto Arrange option. If there is a tick, select the Auto Arrange option to remove the tick.

Disabling the Auto Arrange feature

Once youíve done that, take a look at the icons in Figure 1 once more. The purpose of Desktop icons is to give you quick access to programs, documents and important functions. This task can be made easier by organizing your icons into logical groups. For starters, move the Recycle Bin to its own space, away from other icons. The Recycle Bin is where you dump unwanted items; it makes sense to get it away from a crowded area, so you donít accidentally delete something you wish to keep. I stick mine in the lower-right corner of the screen.

To move the Recycle Bin, drag-and-drop it to its new location. Remember, you drag-and-drop an item by pointing to it with the mouse pointer, depressing the left mouse button and, while keeping it depressed, moving the mouse pointer to a new location. Once there, you release the mouse button.

Now move your other icons to more useful positions. For instance, you may want to group all folders and files in one section of the Desktop, put shortcuts to programs in another section, and leave special items such as My Computer, My Network Places (known as Network Neighborhood in Windows 98) and any other system items you may have in their own corner. The only thing to watch out for when moving icons is to make sure you donít cover one icon with another. Not only can you lose an icon that way, but you can also accidentally delete an icon or run a program by dropping an icon in the wrong place. So make sure you move those icons to a bit of vacant Desktop real estate.†

Now take a look at Figure 2. It shows a different Desktop, with the icons organized quite differently. Youíll see special system items in the top left; shortcuts to programs beneath the system icons; shortcuts to drives down the right side; the Recycle Bin in the lower right; and folder and file icons along the top center. That leaves a fair-sized space in the center to open a program window and still be able to see and get at all the Desktop icons.

Icon Placement

Figure 2. A Desktop organized along functional lines.

You donít have to organize your Desktop in this way, but it pays to have a logical and tidy Desktop scheme when youíre learning how to use your PC. Choose something that suits you.


Iíve been tossing around the term shortcuts so itís about time you became acquainted with this handy Windows feature. A shortcut is a quick way to start a program or open a file or folder without having to search for its exact location on your computer.

If you take a careful look at Figures 1 and 2 youíll see some of the icons have tiny black arrows in their bottom-left corner. The black arrow indicates the icon is a shortcut. Each shortcut points to the location of a file, folder, drive or program.

To create a shortcut:

  1. Open the folder which contains the item to which you want to create a shortcut.

  2. Locate the item in the folder and right-drag-and-drop (thatís using the right mouse button) the item onto a vacant spot on the Desktop. A pop-up menu will appear asking what you want to do. Choose Create Shortcut Here.

Creating drive shortcuts

Letís try a practical example by creating shortcuts to your CD-ROM and floppy drives Ė shortcuts that will come in handy when you want to explore the contents of a CD or copy a file to a floppy. Create the floppy shortcut first:

  1. Double-click My Computer to open it. If the My Computer window obscures the Desktop, resize it by moving the mouse pointer to the very edge of the bottom-right corner and, when the mouse cursor changes shape to a double-headed arrow, click-and-drag the window diagonally up towards the left.†

  2. Right-drag-and-drop the floppy drive icon to your Desktop.†

  3. Select Create Shortcut Here from the pop-up menu.

Follow the same procedure to create a shortcut to your CD-ROM drive.

Creating a drive shortcut by right-dragging-and -dropping

Now, whenever you want to copy a file onto a floppy disk, you can simply drag the file from its location on your hard disk onto the floppy disk shortcut youíve created on the Desktop (make sure to place a floppy disk in the drive first, of course). And, if you place a disc in the CD drive and it fails to AutoPlay (that is, load automatically), you can double-click its shortcut on the Desktop to open it and load it manually.

Shortcut properties

Itís important to distinguish between shortcuts and the objects to which they point: They are not the same thing. For instance, you can make multiple shortcuts to the same file (perhaps one shortcut on your Desktop, another in a folder you often use). Creating a shortcut to the file doesnít copy the file, so you donít waste your hard disk space.

You can delete a shortcut and the file or program it points to remains on your computer. However, if you delete the file or program itself, not only will it be gone for good but any existing shortcuts to that object will no longer work.

You can rename a shortcut without affecting the file, too. This means you can give your shortcuts highly descriptive names. To rename a shortcut, right-click it and choose Rename from the pop-up menu, then type in the new name and press Enter. You can test your shortcuts by putting a disk in the drive and then double-clicking the shortcut to display the diskís contents.

Windows Explorer shortcut

To finish up, weíre going to make one final shortcut, this time to a program instead of a drive. Weíll create this shortcut a little differently, because thereís already a shortcut to it on your Start Menu (all the items on the Start Menu are shortcuts, although they donít sport the usual black-arrow shortcut symbol). So, in effect, weíll be making a copy of a shortcut.

Weíre going to create a shortcut to Windows Explorer, a program that lets you explore the contents of your computer. Itís a very handy program, so weíre going to put a shortcut to it on the Desktop. Hereís how:

  1. Click the Start button and select Programs. (If youíre using Windows Me, go one step further and select Accessories.)

  2. Youíll see Windows Explorer listed in the menu. Right-drag-and-drop the Windows Explorer icon onto an empty spot on your Desktop.

  3. From the pop-up menu choose Create Shortcut Here.

Thatís it. You can now run Windows Explorer by double-clicking the shortcut on your Desktop.

Next time, weíll take Desktop customization a step further and add some individual touches to the Desktop. In the meantime, you can learn more about shortcuts, customizing your Desktop and Windows Explorer by selecting Help from the Start Menu. Use the Index or Search/Find to locate specific topics.

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