The Windows desktop can be a convenient place to keep frequently-used icons.
However, those icons can reference things in either of two very different ways, and understanding the difference is critical when you’re about to delete one.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
A shortcut to a file allows you to treat a file stored on your computer as if it were somewhere else.
For example, if you have a document in your Downloads folder, you can create a shortcut to it in any other folder on your computer. Double-click on either and you’ll open the document.
I’ve placed a shortcut to the document in the Documents folder. (There are several ways to create a shortcut. In this case, I right-clicked on the file in the Downloads folder, clicked “Copy”, navigated to the Documents folder, right-clicked in an empty area, and clicked on “Paste Shortcut”.) The shortcut effectively says, “I represent this file, but it really lives over there in that other folder.”
Double-clicking on either the shortcut or the actual document will open the document.
Different things happen when you delete shortcuts than when you delete documents.
- Delete the shortcut (in Documents, our example) and the original file remains.
- Delete the original file (in Downloads, above) and the shortcut no longer works.
If you look closely at the icons associated with the file and its shortcut, you’ll notice they’re ever so slightly different.
The icon for the original file:
The icon for the shortcut:
Note that the icon for the shortcut includes a small turned arrow in the corner. Depending on the icon size and context, the arrow might overlay or obscure a portion of the file’s icon.
The desktop is really just a folder
The collection of icons on your computer’s desktop is nothing more than a view of a specific folder: your Desktop folder. Aside from the contents of that folder being displayed as your desktop, there’s nothing terribly unique about it.
Like any folder, it can hold files, or shortcuts to files.
Here’s a portion of a desktop with both:
The two items shown are:
- A PDF document stored on the desktop.
- A shortcut to an image stored elsewhere.
Deleting the icon for the document will delete the document. Deleting the icon for the shortcut will remove only the shortcut and leave the original file in its original location.
This highlights something else important: the word “shortcut” needn’t be displayed in the name. The file labeled “sunset.jpg” is a shortcut, as indicated by the small turned arrow, even though it doesn’t include the word “shortcut” in the name.2
So, what happens when you delete something from your desktop depends on what that something is. If it’s a shortcut to a file — as the desktop was originally intended to contain, and what most setup programs create — then you’ve only deleted the shortcut. If it’s an actual file, you’re deleting the file.
Bonus: folders and shortcuts to folders
One of the ways I like to keep my desktop from getting cluttered is to place as few icons to files as possible on it. But it can still be a handy place to keep shortcuts I access often. One compromise is to use folders.
In the example above, I have two folders on my desktop.
- The folder on the left, “Documents”, is a shortcut to the Documents folder in my user account. Once again, I just right-clicked on the original Documents folder and clicked “Copy”, then right-clicked on my desktop and clicked on “Paste Shortcut”.
- The folder on the right is a sub-folder within the desktop folder. To create it, I right-clicked on the desktop, clicked “New” and then “Folder”, and then gave it the name “Working Documents”.
Double-clicking either opens Windows File Explorer on the desired folder.
Rather than cluttering my desktop with lots of icons, I find folders a convenient way to wrangle the chaos.
Whether you use folders, icons or shortcuts, understanding exactly which is which will help you understand exactly what it is you’re about to delete.