Creating and Using a QuickLaunch Sidebar

Some years ago I stumbled upon a Windows desktop U/I element that I've found to be very useful.  In brief, it is an auto-hide toolbar on the desktop, aligned on the left-hand side of the screen. Sidebar to Hold Often-Used Programs, etc.This capability is an integral part of the Windows User Interface (it requires no special add-ons or registry settings, etc.), but it's not at all obvious how to set it up, nor are the advantages obvious until you have used it for while.

Some of these advantages are (partially) available with the standard "Quick Launch" toolbar that is (probably) already part of your Taskbar.  Other advantages are unique to this "Sidebar technique."

Takes up no screen space. Can't be covered by open windows/running applications.
Makes use of the extra width provided by modern wide-screen LCD monitors.
Unlike QuickLaunch, does not "steal" space from the running-programs part of the taskbar.
Quick access to labeled variations of actions that have identical icons.
Provides labeled groupings for often-used programs and documents.
Avoids desktop clutter.
Quick access to items that you want to keep semi-secret (not on desktop, visible to casual passers-by)
Expandable -- no awkward limits on how many items you want to include there.
Easy to set up, add to, and modify.
Does not interfere with your current desktop practices.
These are all minor.  I think that the last one is the main reason users avoid it.
It might pop out by accident (when mouse goes too far left).
It might take a few seconds for Windows to populate it at startup.
Unlike desktop icons, toolbar buttons are not "drop targets."
You are not familiar with it, so you will resist using it for no good reason :-)

How To Set Up your SideBar
There are several ways to do this... I think that it's a testament to the Windows U/I folks that you can stumble around and make this happen a number of different ways, but I'll describe the step-by step for a method that will provide flexibility and expandability.

Initial Prep:


Open your My Documents folder.
Right-click and select New > Folder.
Set the name to MyToolBars


Open MyToolBars and create one or more folders in it.  
The folder names will be displayed in your Sidebar, so these are your groups or categories.  For this example, I've created folders named General, DEV, and Video.Create the Toolbar:


Right-click on an empty part of the Taskbar.
Select Toolbars > New Toolbar...
In the New Toolbar dialog, open up My Documents and then open MyToolBars.
Select General (one of your sidebar groups).
Click OK.Creating a New Desktop Toolbar


Windows will create a new item on your taskbar (near the tray on the right).  Drag that up onto your desktop.


Right-click and drag-to-copy a few icons from your desktop into the toolbar.Float the Toolbar to the Desktop and Add Icons


Now drag that "General" window to the left until it "snaps" into place.Drag to the Left Until It Snap into PlaceSet the Toolbar Properties:


Right-click in the toolbar and select View > Small Icons.
Click on the right edge of the toolbar and drag to set a desired width.
You'll want it wide enough so that the icon labels are mostly readable.
Right-click in the toolbar and select Always on Top.
Add your Sidebar Groups and Populate Them
This is one place where you might go wrong.  At this point, we don't want to add folder icons to the sidebar, we need to add toolbars to it -- toolbars that represent the contents of folders.


Right-click in the Toolbar and
Select Toolbars > New Toolbar...
Drill down and locate the other folders in MyDocuments/MyToolbars from step #2.
Select a folder and OK it.  Repeat for other group folders.
Adjust the sizes of your divisions by dragging the dotted-line drag-handles up or down.


Populate your groups with other items that you use.
It's best to right-click and drag and select "Create shortcuts here."  You need to fill the toolbar with links -- shortcuts to documents, applications, utility programs, and shortcuts to folders.

Finally, right-click in the toolbar and select Auto-Hide.  This is optional:  I personally would never waste good screen real-estate by leaving the sidebar open all of the time, but the current crop of wide screen LCD monitors do have a lot of room, so leave it open if that suits you.
Working with Your Sidebar
Just roll the mouse all of the way to the left and the sidebar pops out.
Click on a toolbar button to launch that program or document, or to have Explorer display that folder (etc.).
To add items...
You may get annoyed that the sidebar "pops down" when you are adding things to it.  You can change the behavior via right-click and uncheck Auto-Hide, but you can also...

      Click on a blank part of the sidebar to "pin" it open temporarily.
Use the Desktop as a "staging area."  
Create shortcuts on the desktop and then drag them to the sidebar.  For instance, click Start > All Programs, and drill down to find an application program icon, then right-click-drag and make a copy of that shortcut on the desktop.  Do this for several icons.  Now "pin" the sidebar open and drag those icons onto it.
You can also populate the toolbar by adding shortcuts to the original template folder (in My Documents/MyToolbars).
Create task-specific tool buttons.
For instance, in my DEV section, I have an icon for two versions of Visual Studio, but I also have several others that open up to a specific project.  Likewise, when working on a particular document for several days or weeks, I create a link to it for my sidebar.  

I have URLs (Internet Shortcuts) in my Internet section just to save the 1/2 of a second it takes to find a certain page in my Favorites.  Rather than opening the Windows Control Panel and searching around, add sidebar buttons that go directly to the ODBC Administrator and the Services applets.  Create shortcuts to folders that are five levels deep -- to avoid that particular drill-down-and-find hassle.
If a section fills up with icon buttons, then Windows adds a little "expando" button to the bottom of the group.  Click that button and it acts as a drop-down menu.  You can let your lesser-used icons sink down into that hidden area "below the fold" and still have quick access.
To remove a subgroup, you can right-click its drag-handle and choose Close Toolbar.  Windows pops up a warning to remind you how to reinstate the toolbar.  You'll need to redo step 3 (create a new toolbar and, in the New Toolbar dialog, locate the original template folder in My Documents/MyToolbars).

All we did was make a desktop toolbar and snap it on the left side of the desktop window and set it's Auto-Hide property.  But we also created some "child toolbars" to make it easier to make groups of related tool buttons.  And we discussed some ways to get the maximum use from this toolbar.

Most of us spend a majority of the day looking at a Windows screen, and we all have our own quirky ways of doing things.  You may find that this QuickLaunch Sidebar technique does not fit your style or perhaps you are happy with the standard QuickLaunch bar, but the functionality exists;  you ought to give it a try.  Something that saves you a few seconds here and a few seconds there can add up to a pile to convenience in the course of a year.

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Comments (6)

Most Valuable Expert 2013

I clicked Yes as well. Who knew M$ had hidden away the most useful stuff?
Author of the Year 2009


I just tried this with Vista.  It can be done,  but the procedure is different.  Step 4 won't work -- toolbars in the Taskbar can't be made to float.

However, you can make a shortcut to a folder In "Documents" and put that on the desktop.  If you then drag that shortcut to the left and drop it right against the edge, it becomes a sidebar.  There seems to be no visual feedback that such is possible, but it works.
Kevin CrossChief Technology Officer
Most Valuable Expert 2011


Thanks, Dan.  Works great.  Followed the remainder of article and now I have multiple sidebar groups.  

Very useful article.
Qlemo"Batchelor", Developer and EE Topic Advisor
Top Expert 2015

Damn, why didn't I write this? :-)
Author of the Year 2009


Update for Windows 7:
Unlike XP and Vista, with Win7, you can't drag a toolbar onto the desktop, so the technique described in the article will not work.

With Win7, the "normal" method is to "pin" items to the taskbar.  But that can take a lot of screen space.    Another technique is to re-create the functionality of the XP QuickLaunch Toolbar, as described here:
    QuickLaunch Toolbar for Windows 7

In particular, see the very cool suggestion added by Member jeffreywsmith in which you make the toolbar parralel to the taskbar.

One other note:
I found a superior Win7 Gadget that works great as a quick-launch tool:
   Launch Control
available here:

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