Chapter 6 - Navigating the desktop

As we discussed in the previous chapter, computers run a main program called the operating system, and it runs the show. Modern operating systems such as Windows and newer MacOS versions offer users a graphical environment in which to work.

One 75-year-old woman I talked to from Tampa, Fla., learned computing in the late 1980s when operating a computer was more akin to programming. Instead of just clicking on the start menu and choosing the word icon, she'd have to learn commands such as "RUN WORD.EXE."

"When I got my first computer, the programs were only in DOS," she says. "I had to learn a combination of keyboard strokes to enable anything to come on the screen."

She took a course at a local college and learned what she needed, but having to remember countless functions in such programs as WordPerfect slowed her down. She was ecstatic when operating systems went graphic and she could spend her time doing what she enjoyed instead of memorizing keystrokes.

"When Windows 3.1 came out, I was in 'Seventh Heaven,' " she says. "No more typed commands just point to the screen with your mouse and voila!"

The desktop

The central meeting point of the operating system is the desktop, which appears on your screen after boot-up.

The OS decorates your desktop with tiny pictures called icons, which represent programs, files or folders. Although we can add, move and remove icons from the desktop, Windows and Mac computers start with a group of standard icons explained in Figure 6a.

If you have access to a computer, you might want to read this chapter while sitting in front of it so you can follow along.


Windows (In Windows XP, only the Recycle Bin icon is placed automatically on the desktop. My Computer, My Documents, My Network Places and Internet Explorer can be found on XP's expanded Start Menu.)

  • My Computer: Opening this icon allows us to browse around our computer and look at the contents of our hard drive, floppy disk, CD-ROM, printers and system settings.
  • My Documents: This opens a folder on our hard drive where we can store our word processing files, images and other document files.
  • Recycle Bin: This is where we put files we want to get rid of. The files stay in here until we empty the recycle bin. In other words, once we throw them out, we still can dig through the trash and get them back until the garbage man arrives.
  • My Network Places: (Called Network Neighborhood in older versions) This icon is important if you use your computer to connect to the Internet or other computers in your home or office. If you're not connecting to other users, you really don't have to worry about this - but it does have to stay here.
  • Internet Explorer: This is Microsoft's Web browser software that comes with Windows, and we'll talk about it in "Chapter 22: Browsing the Web." You might also see an icon for Outlook or Outlook Express, which are Microsoft's e-mail programs.


  • Macintosh HD: This is your hard drive, where you can store your files and install your programs.
  • Trash: Like the Windows recycle bin, the Mac trash is where you put files you no longer want. They'll remain in there until you empty the trash and put it out to the curb.
  • Other drives: If you pop a floppy disk, ZIP disk or CD-ROM into its drive, an icon for that disk will appear on the desktop. The way to eject the disk is to drag that disk's icon to the trash. (Don't worry. You won't be wiping out the files.)

Although desktops start out looking the same, installing new programs and saving files directly to the desktop will soon give yours a look of its own. And like the top of your desk at home, you can keep it neat and tidy or messy and cluttered, depending on your lifestyle.

OK, that's enough admiring of our desktops. It's time to do our stretches and move around a bit, and the key to moving around the operating system is the mouse.

When we roll the mouse, we're actually guiding a little icon around the screen called the cursor or pointer. The cursor typically looks like an arrow, but it does change shapes periodically depending on the situation. (See Figure 6b)

The cursor is one of the best methods for our computer to tell us what it's up to. If the computer is busy loading a large file into our word processor, we'll see the hourglass. That tells us not to click or double click anything until it's done. (It'll just ignore us if we do.)

By the way, your cursor might appear a bit fancier if you or someone else who has been using your computer has chosen a "desktop theme." Desktop themes change your cursors, sounds and background images to fit a particular subject, such as sports, jungle or the '60s. We'll cover customizing the look of our desktop in "Chapter 9: Make it your own."

Mastering the mouse

Most of us with even minimal typing experience will have no problem adjusting to a computer keyboard, but learning how to use a mouse is one of the more difficult challenges facing new computer users.

  • Arrow: The computer is ready for your clicks and double clicks.
  • Hourglass: The computer is busy. Please wait until the arrow returns. Up-and-down arrow: A window is ready for you to horizontally resize it. Left-and-right arrow: A window is ready for you to vertically resize it. Diagonal two-sided arrow: A window is ready for you to resize it both horizontally and vertically.
  • Four-sided arrow: A window is ready for you to move it somewhere.
  • Arrow with hourglass: Your computer is working on something, but you can still work in the meantime.
  • Arrow with question mark: Clicking here will offer some help (we hope!). Vertical line: You're working with text and can click to set the insert point here.
  • Hand with finger pointing: You're pointing to a link that will take you someplace.

While the old typewriter offers us a frame of reference for the keyboard, a mouse is a strange electro-rodent without a retro equivalent. We introduced some mouse basics in "Chapter 3," but let's review.

The click: The click is the simplest of mouse functions. It's a single tap of the mouse button, and it selects or highlights what we're pointing to. (As we mentioned earlier, that's the left mouse button for Windows folks. We'll get to the right click in "Chapter 7: Files and Folders.")

The double click: The double click consists of two quick taps of the mouse button (again, that's the left mouse button for Windows users) and it launches whatever we're pointing to.

If you find the double click difficult, you're not alone; most new computer users have trouble mastering it. Often, the difficulty stems from people trying to click so fast that they wind up moving the mouse between the two clicks. The key is to avoid getting nervous and keep the mouse still. If you're still having trouble, you might have to adjust the speed (see "Chapter 10: Accessibility").

An alternative way to achieve the double click is to click the mouse button once, than hit ENTER on the keyboard.

  • Start button: Clicking on this button pops up a menu, which allows you to start other programs using your mouse. You can also reach the Start menu by hitting the key with the Microsoft Windows logo on your keyboard. (Windows users with older keyboards can hold down the CTRL key and hit ESC.
  • Quick launch bar: You'll usually find this area just to the right of the Start button on computers running Windows versions beginning with 98 (as well as Windows 95 versions with Internet Explorer 5 installed). The collection of small icons is designed to let us start commonly used programs with a single click.
  • Active program area: This is where Windows tell us what programs we're currently using. Each one gets its own button, and we can use this area to easily switch between applications.
  • System tray: This is the area to the far right of the taskbar with a digital clock and a volume control icon (provided your computer has a sound card). You might also find other icons for programs that need to stay running all the time, such as your video settings or virus scanner. Software companies love to clutter up our System Tray with their icons.
  • Note: Although the Windows Taskbar typically sits at the bottom of the screen, it actually can be moved to the top, left or right as well. Just click on an empty part of the taskbar and drag and drop it to its new location.

Click and drag: When someone tells you to click and drag something, they want you to point to it, click and hold down the (left) mouse button. Then, drag it somewhere and release the mouse button.

Drag and drop: A close cousin to the click and drag is the drag and drop, which involves clicking on something, holding down the (left) mouse button, dragging it to its new location and releasing. It's essentially the same move as the click and drag, except it involves moving something to a new location.

So what's the best way to master the mouse? Solitaire. In fact, that's why they threw in the free game with Windows. Playing Solitaire is the perfect way to practice all the various mouse functions we'll discuss below. You click to reveal cards, drag and drop them onto the proper piles and perhaps have a little fun along the way.

To launch Solitaire, click on the Start button, highlight Programs, then Accessories, then Games and click on Solitaire.

THE MAC MENU BAR (Figure 6d)
  • Apple: This drop-down menu features a wealth of settings and commands that we'll discuss in later chapters.
  • Menu items: The menu area, just to the right of the Apple, will always feature the commands File, Edit, View, Special and Help. When you're running another program, you'll see additional command specific to the program.
  • Clock: Tells you the time of day.
  • Application menu: The pull-down menu just to the right of the clock tells you all the programs you're currently running.

Mac users don't get a free game, but there is a mouse tutorial to help you practice your skills. Click on Help, select Tutorial and choose Mouse Skills.

Other desktop characteristics

Despite the similarity between these two operating systems' desktops, their looks divert a bit when it comes to the Windows taskbar and the Mac menu bar. Let's identify their components in figures 6c and 6d.

Launching programs

If you click on the Macintosh's Apple button or the Windows Start button, you'll see a list of items appear out of the blue. This is called a drop-down menu (even though the Windows menu really drops up!).

If you continue moving our mouse over the menu items and roll over an item with a small triangle pointing right, it will reveal another sub-menu. These are called cascading menus, meaning one menu can lead to another, which can lead to another, etc.

The Start and Apple menus are the easiest way we can find programs you want to run. You can keep moving our mouse around until you find the item you want, and then click on that icon to run the program. Note that in these menus, you only have to click the icon, not double click it.

By the way, if you accidentally click outside the menu while you're scrolling, it will disappear and you'll have to start over by clicking the Apple or Start button again.

Windows programs can also be run using the Run box, although it's much easier to find a program on the Start Menu. Click the Start button and click Run. A dialog box appears, allowing you to type the name of the file you'd like to run (such as winword for Microsoft word). To use this, you'll need to know the exact name of the file so Windows can search for it. An easier way is to click the Browse button and move around your hard drive to find the target file.

The Windows XP Start Menu

For its release of Windows XP, Microsoft made some drastic changes to the Start Menu. Sure it's now more colorful, but it's also taken on a new role as the center of the Windows world.

The My Computer, My Documents, My Network Places (Network Neighborhood's new name) have moved into the upper right corner of the Start Menu. Those icons have been joined by a few new ones - My Pictures and My Music - which as you might have guessed are folders to store your photos and sound files. Also, the Programs category of the old Start Menu has been renamed All Programs in XP.

Windows XP also allows multiple users to log on to the same computer with different desktops, screen preferences and colors. The XP Start Menu shows who's logged on in its top left corner.

Window dressing

Let's look at the concept on which both the Windows and Macintosh operating systems were based: the window.

In the computer world, a window is a rectangular, framed region on the screen that represents an open program or folder. Although some of the buttons are a bit different, the majority of functions are common to both operating systems. (See figure 6e.)



  • Title bar: This is the strip at the top of the window with a small icon and a name.
  • Menu bar: This area below the title bar shows standard commands. Toolbar: Often found under the menu bar, this area features small icons that offer additional commands.
  • Vertical scroll area: This is the area on the right side of the window with an up arrow, a down arrow and an "elevator" in between.
  • Horizontal scroll area: This is the area on the bottom of the window with a left arrow, a right arrow and an "elevator" in between.
  • Minimize: The first of three boxes in the upper left (the one with an underline) is used to shrink a window down to the Windows taskbar.
  • Restore/maximize: The second of those three boxes, which has two appearances. If it shows two overlapping boxes, clicking it will restore the window from maximized to its previous size. If it shows one larger box, clicking it will maximize the size of the window to full screen.
  • Close: The third button, the one with the X, is used to close the window.


  • Title bar: This is the strip at the top of the window with a small icon and a name. Vertical scroll area: This is the area on the right side of the window with an up arrow, a down arrow and an "elevator" in between.
  • Horizontal scroll area: This is the area on the bottom of the window with a left arrow, a right arrow and an "elevator" in between.
  • Close: The box in the upper right corner is used to close the window. Zoom: The first of the two boxes in the upper left (which looks like a square within a square) is the zoom box. Clicking it increases the size of the window so you can see all of its icons.
  • Collapse: The second box (with a line in a square) rolls the window up like a window shade so you only see the title bar. If you click it again, it will bring it back to the size it was before.

Let's starting playing around with the controls.

Opening a window: The easiest way to open a window is to double click its icon. For this example, we'll use an icon that's already on our desktop. If you're using Windows, double click on My Computer, which will open a window showing your disk drives and other computer settings. If you're on a Mac, double click the Macintosh HD folder, which will show the contents of your hard drive.

Closing a window: In Windows, you can close a window by clicking on the x box in the upper right. On a Mac, click the box in the upper left. After you've closed the window, re-open it (double-click the icon again) so we can try some other stuff. In Windows, you can also close a window using the keyboard but holding down the ALT key and hitting F4.

Moving a window: Here's our first good use of the click-and-drag or drag-and-drop. Click on the title bar and hold the mouse button down. Now, when you move the cursor, the window will move with you. When you let go, it'll be in its new position.

Resizing a window: If you move your cursor over the right edge of the window, you'll notice it will change to a left-right arrow. When it does, click, hold and drag the window edge to the left or right. This changes the size of the window.

To make the window taller or shorter, move the cursor to the bottom edge of window until the up-down arrow appears. Click, hold and drag. To adjust both the horizontal and vertical size of a window, hover your mouse over the lower right corner until the diagonal double arrow appears and click, hold and drag.

This technique takes a little practice, and the key is watching the cursor. Don't try moving it until you get the double arrow.

Opening the window all the way

In Windows, clicking on the middle box in the upper right corner does two things. If it's showing a single large box, it will maximize the window to full screen. If it's showing two smaller overlapping boxes, it will restore the window to its previous size and position.

On the Mac, click the zoom icon, which is the first of the two boxes in the upper left. It's the one that has a square within a square.) That will increase the size of the window so you can see all of its icons.

Shrinking a window

To get a window out of the way in Windows, click on minimize, which is the first of three boxes in the upper left (the one with an underline). This shrinks the window to a small button and sends it down to the Windows taskbar. To get it back, click on the minimized window on the taskbar and it will return to its position.

You can shrink up a Mac window by clicking on the window's collapse icon (the second box with a line in a square). That rolls up the window like a window shade so you only see the title bar. If you click it again, it will bring it back to the size it was before.

Scrolling through the contents of a window

However large we size a window, we won't always be able to see all its contents at one time. The savior is the scroll bar. If you see the up-down or left-right scroll bars, that indicates that there is more of the window to see.

The best analogy for the scroll bar is an elevator. Let's look at the vertical scroll bar. (If you don't see it, resize your window so it's too small to show all the contents.)

Clicking on the up button sends us toward the top, while clicking on the down button sends us toward the bottom. The elevator is the box in the middle that goes up and down. You can move up and down by repeatedly clicking on the arrow, or you can click on the arrow and hold the mouse button down to continue scrolling.

There are two other methods for scrolling through the contents of a window. If you click and hold the elevator and move it to up and down, you can get the window to display exactly the area you want. And if you click empty shafts above and below the elevator, it will move the contents up and down a page respectively.

By the way, if the contents of the window are too wide, the left-right scroll bar works in the exact same manner.

Navigating by keyboard

There are also some keyboard buttons that you'll find quite useful, especially when editing word processor documents.

In most word processors, hitting the Home key puts the cursor at the beginning of a line, while End sends you to the end of a line. Holding down the CTRL key while hitting Home takes you to the top of a document, while CTRL-End sends you to the bottom.

Page Up moves you toward the top of a document one page at a time, while Page Down scrolls you down page by page.

Although the four arrow keys do not move the mouse pointer, you can use them to move around a text cursor or the highlighted item in a folder or on the desktop.

NEXT - Chapter 7 - Files and Folders