Machines keep getting more and more powerful. As a result, we tend to have lots of things running at the same time. Combine that with Windows itself running lots of things on startup, and that taskbar at the bottom of your screen may be getting pretty crowded.
There’s hope. The taskbar is a surprisingly flexible application. We’ll look at some ways to manage taskbar space and get you a little more room, perhaps even making the taskbar a little more useful as we do so.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Note that while the examples used in this article are from Windows 10, the majority of the steps and concepts apply to most recent versions of Windows.
Locking and unlocking the taskbar
The taskbar can be locked to prevent accidental changes, and by default it often is. We’ll start by making sure it’s unlocked and ready to accept any changes we apply.
Right click on an empty area of the taskbar (or on the clock).
Make sure that “Lock the taskbar” is unchecked. When you’re done making changes, come back and re-lock it so you don’t change things accidentally later on.
The taskbar has three areas:
- On the left: the start button.
- In the center: the taskbar itself, showing all running applications.
- On the right: the “notification area” with the small icons and clock.
It’s the latter two we’ll configure to free up space.
Running applications take taskbar space
Right click on that empty area of the taskbar again, and click on Settings. This brings up a window with a number of useful items.
We’ll start with the “Use small taskbar buttons” item. Click that on, and the icons used for running applications become smaller.
Next, scroll down in the Settings application and look for the “Combine taskbar buttons” setting.
Click on the current setting and you’ll get a list of three options.
The basic idea is that if you run more than one copy of a program – say multiple command prompts, or have multiple documents open in programs like Excel or Word – you can either see each represented separately in the taskbar, or combined into a single button that, when clicked, lets you choose one to work on. Naturally, the single button takes less space. More to my liking, however, is the option “Always, hide labels”. This not only combines multiple copies of any running program, but also removes the text label included in the taskbar button.
This takes up the least amount of space. If you’re unclear on what an icon in the taskbar represents, you can simply hover the mouse pointer over it, and a preview of the application, along with the text that would have been included in the taskbar, is shown.
Small icons, combined if necessary, use the smallest amount of real estate in this portion of the taskbar.
The notification area takes taskbar space
The notification area is divided into three areas, from left to right:
- Hidden status icons, displayed by clicking the “^” or “show hidden icons” icon
- The status icons you see that are always present
- System icons, like the speaker icon, clock, or action center
In the same Settings app we used above, scroll down to find two items under “Notification Area” that allow you to control what will be displayed there.
Click on “Select which icons appear on the taskbar”.
This will present a long list of items which can be displayed in the notification area, each of which you can turn “on” or “off”.
- On: when the program or service associated with the icon is running, the icon is displayed, always.
- Off: when the program or service associated with the icon is running, the icon is hidden, but can be viewed by clicking the “show hidden icons” item.
I find there are many things I rarely need to see, so I leave those set to “off”. On the other hand, there are a handful of icons I do find useful, such as my CPU usage (present when Task Manager is running), my Dropbox and OneDrive synchronization status, and so on. Those I mark “on”. I try to keep the number of icons set to “on” to the minimum I need, simply to save taskbar space.
Click on “Turn system icons on or off” for a similar list for the system icons area.
This lets you control exactly which of the available system icons are displayed on your taskbar. Once again, I tend to maintain a minimal set, but choose whatever makes sense for how you use your computer.
The taskbar itself
You can hide the taskbar completely.
Near the top of the setting page we’ve been using is an option to automatically hide the taskbar.
Turn that on, and the taskbar will slide down and disappear from your screen. To make it reappear, simply move the mouse to the bottom of the screen, and it’ll slide up and reappear for use.
For a long time I went back and forth on this feature, but of late have decided that the taskbar has enough useful information in it that I want it displayed all the time.
Most people don’t realize you can actually make the taskbar take up more room on your screen.
With the taskbar unlocked, as you move the mouse pointer over the top of the taskbar, you’ll see it change to a resize icon.
Click, hold, and drag up, and you’ll make the taskbar twice as high.
The start button will remain relatively unchanged, but the running programs icons, as well as the notification area icons, will now be presented in two rows rather than one.
In fact, you can keep pulling the taskbar up even higher, if you like, but I find that a single row works most of the time, though occasionally two rows can be useful.
And lastly, while I won’t show it here (as it’s covered in other articles), you can click-hold-and-drag the entire taskbar and attach it to either the top, bottom, right or left of your screen. (There’s also an option in the settings app to control this.) Since it’s easy to do this accidentally, I’ll also recommend one last step.
Lock it up when you’re done
I do recommend re-locking the taskbar when you’re done playing with it. Based on the questions I get, it appears it’s actually easy to make unintentional changes – like accidentally moving the taskbar to the side of your screen. Locking the taskbar will prevent those accidents from happening.