How Does the Windows 10 Desktop Work?

By Andy Rathbone

The Windows 10 desktop lets you run several apps and programs simultaneously, each living within its own little window. That separation lets you spread several programs across the screen, sharing bits of information among them.

When first installed, Windows starts with the freshly scrubbed, nearly empty desktop shown here. After you’ve been working for a while, your desktop will fill up with icons — little buttons that load your files with a quick double-click. Many people leave their desktops strewn with icons for easy access.

The Windows 10 empty desktop.
The Windows 10 empty desktop.

Other people organize their work: When they finish working on something, they store their files in a folder.

But no matter how you use the desktop, it comes with three main parts:

  • Start button: To launch a program, click the Start button in the desktop’s lower-left corner. When the Start menu appears, click the name or tile for the app or program you want to run.

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    For easy access to your favorite programs, place them on your desktop’s taskbar (described next).

  • Taskbar: Resting lazily along the bottom edge of your screen, the taskbar lists the apps and programs you currently have open, as well as icons for launching a few favored programs. (Point at a program’s icon on the taskbar to see the program’s name or perhaps a thumbnail photo of that program in action.)

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  • Recycle Bin: The desktop’s Recycle Bin, that wastebasket-shaped icon, stores your recently deleted files for easy retrieval. Whew!

PC and laptop owners can start new projects directly from the Windows desktop: Right-click a blank part of the desktop, choose New, and choose the project of your dreams from the pop-up menu, be it loading a favorite program or creating a folder to store new files. (The New menu lists most of your computer’s programs, sparing you a journey back to the Start menu.) In Tablet mode, by contrast, you can start projects only from the Start menu.

Are you befuddled about some desktop object’s reason for being? Timidly rest the pointer over the mysterious doodad, and Windows pops up a little box explaining what that thing is or does. Right-click the object, and the ever-helpful Windows usually tosses up a menu listing nearly everything you can do with that particular object. This trick works on most icons and buttons found on your desktop and its programs.

All the icons on your desktop may suddenly disappear, leaving it completely empty. To bring your work back to life, right-click your empty desktop and choose View from the pop-up menu. Then make sure the Show Desktop Icons menu option has a check mark so everything stays visible. If that doesn’t work, try turning off Tablet mode: Tap the Action Center icon next to the clock in the screen’s bottom-right corner. Then tap the Tablet mode button to toggle it off. (Tablet mode hides everything on the desktop.)