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Is It Safe to Store Files on My Desktop?

Question: Hi, Leo. Since the days of Windows 98, I’ve been keeping a few files and folders on my desktop for quick access. I’m now running Windows 7 and up until recently, I’ve kept five folders with photos and some videos in them and three text files on my desktop. Last week, for no apparent reason, two of the folders emptied themselves of all their contents. Also, one of the folders and two of the text files up and disappeared completely. Fortunately, I was able to recover most of the data. I’m wondering what the problem was. I searched the internet for similar things and found one article that said one should never keep files or folders on one’s desktop. The desktop should be only for shortcuts. I’m wondering about your thoughts on this situation.

We’re actually treading into what I’d call religious territory here. There are definitely some strong opinions on both sides of this issue.

I actually agree with the article that you found. The desktop should be only for shortcuts, not for files.

Personally, I’m not a fan of putting even shortcuts on it.

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How files disappear from the desktop

On your desktop, it’s very easy to accidentally click and drag or otherwise mess up things that are stored there. That’s probably what happened with your files and folders. Something unexpected happened and because they were on your desktop in front of you, you somehow accidentally selected and deleted or moved them.

I can’t say that’s what happened for certain. One of your applications (notably cleanup applications) may have done that, too.

How the desktop works

The desktop is really just like any other folder on your hard drive. It can contain anything: files, programs, subfolders, shortcuts, or other things. But it also has a special property being displayed – a background image and then icons of whatever resides in this special desktop folder.

The desktop was never really intended to be a place where you would put actual data. Instead, you’re expected to put files and folders into places like My Documents and programs into the Programs folder. As that article that you mentioned pointed out, the desktop is just a place where you’re expected to put pointers – shortcuts – to other things on your system stored elsewhere.

In my opinion, shortcuts on the desktop still aren’t all that handy. When you’re working in an application, the desktop is hidden, so it’s difficult to access what’s stored there. If you have shortcuts there, you somehow have to make the desktop visible to get to them.

It’s easier to use the Start menu; it’s also why the disappearance of Start in Windows 8 has caused such a kerfuffle. People rely on Start and actually use it properly.

How people really use the desktop

Unfortunately, because the desktop can contain anything, people use it for everything.

I see people filling up their entire desktop with things that it wasn’t meant to hold. It can slow the computer down a little, and I know it slows the people down as they try to find what’s where on their cluttered desktop. (And heaven forbid that Windows re-arranges the icons on the desktop, which it has been known to do unexpectedly.)

Now that's a clean desktop!What I recommend

I cringe when I see desktops that are covered with icons for shortcuts, documents, programs, and whatever. I realize that some people are just comfortable with that, but for me, it’s way too cluttered.

But it’s not completely a matter of taste. I base my opinion on my 20-plus years of using Windows and understanding how it was (and was not) designed.

My recommendation is simple. Move your documents and data files to your My Documents folder. If you have it as part of your backup strategy, you can also move your files to a Dropbox-linked folder. Whatever you do, you want to move your files off the desktop.

Uninstall and reinstall programs so they end up in your Programs file folder.

If you want to have anything appear on your desktop, create a shortcut.

You can also use the Start menu. Not only can you click the program in the Programs folder that appears here, you can also click Recent Documents or Recent Programs to access the things you use the most frequently.

You can even create you own sub-menus for your favorite or frequently used programs and documents.

Having wall-to-wall icons is not the purpose of the desktop. It can be used for that, but it’s just too fragile of a place to put files and programs, as you’ve unfortunately discovered the hard way.

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10 comments on “Is It Safe to Store Files on My Desktop?”

  1. My Asus laptop came with two desktop.ini files on the desktop. I’m afraid to touch them and am afraid that I might inadvertently delete them. The first, when i open it says: [.ShellClassInfo]
    LocalizedResourceName=@%SystemRoot%\system32\shell32.dll,-21799. The 2nd: [.ShellClassInfo]
    Internet Explorer (64-bit).lnk=@%windir%\System32\ie4uinit.exe,-735
    Spider Solitaire.lnk=@%SystemRoot%\system32\gameux.dll,-10061
    The first has 174 bytes, the 2nd 590 bytes. Should/can I move them?

    • The reason the Desktop has 2 desktop.ini file is because the Desktop is actually a library containing the contents of 2 desktop folders. One is the c:\Users\{UserName}\Desktop\ c:\Users\Public\Desktop\. If you delete the desktop.ini files, Windows will “forget” the folders’ layout settings such as how the icons are sorted etc. but it won’t cause any harm to Windows’ functionality. If you delete desktop.ini another one will soon be recreated by Windows with the default settings.

    • You can, but they’ll probably come back quickly. Having two desktop.ini files on your desktop is typically a side-effect of the (recommended) Windows Explorer setting to NOT hide hidden files and folders.

  2. There’s a program I find particularly helpful if you can’t stand the clutter but can’t bring yourself to follow Leo’s advice. It’s called “Fences” You create these transparent rectangles on your desktop and then drag whatever you want into them. It allows you to group everything by whatever category you choose to name it. I find it very helpful. Plus, if you double clip on the desktop, everything disappears. Tabula rasa! If you doubleclick again it all comes back. It used to be free but now I believe they charge for it.

  3. Speaking of backups… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a new Client say “I don’t know what happened! I backed-up the “My Documents” folder but everything I had on my desktop is gone!” Granted, most backup programs worth their price will capture the desktop contents, but there are a lot of folks doing a lot of custom backups without understanding where their “stuff” is stored… I’m with Leo. A clean desktop is the way to go!

  4. Having files on your desktop does use up more memory (windows treats them a little differently when on desktop)- which does not happen if they are in a folder other than the desktop. This may slow down your system some. Shortcuts – not as much. But if you have desktop shortcuts to devices/locations that are not always connected, and 4 or more are broken because of this, they will sometimes go away (when Windows 7 is doing maintenance). Took a while for this to dawn on me. Kept losing shortcuts because some network drives were not always attached. Drove me crazy until I found the reason – just windows doing what it thinks is best for you.


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