Take control of your taskbar

Don't be a slave to a chaotic taskbar that drives you crazy. Here are three programs you can use to regain control of what your programs do once they're open.

Windows taskbars are notorious for being unfriendly, chaotic, and occasionally unresponsive. They also have poor social skills, but I'm not here to pass judgment. Instead, I'm going to show you three great freeware ways to lasso that unruly taskbar of yours and tame it right down, with Taskbar Shuffle, RocketDock, and Launchy.

First up is Taskbar Shuffle. This simple freeware application has two functions, but it does them exceedingly well. It allows you to drag-and-drop programs on your taskbar for quick reorganization, and it extends the feature to the system tray when you hold down the Control key and then drag-and-drop.

Taskbar Shuffle only has one big feature, but it comes with a lot of options for it.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

The Options menu feels lean, except that for what's essentially a one-trick program it's got quite a robust set of choices. You can set it to launch at startup, to show a splash screen at startup so you don't forget it's running, and the system tray icon is optional. You can also have it automatically group similar program icons together under one umbrella button, or set it to group similar apps live side-by-side but never hidden.

Users can also use Taskbar Shuffle to set a middle-click close program feature for the mouse, and even the system tray function key, default to Control, can be altered to one of five others. If you decide not to go with a taskbar replacement, Taskbar Shuffle can work wonders for anybody stressed about the chaotic placement of minimized programs in both Windows XP and Vista.

We've written about our next two options before, RocketDock and Launchy. RocketDock is a Mac-style program dock and launcher for Windows 2000 and newer. Possessed of both a smooth installation and icon transition, it also has an unobtrusive footprint. Unlike the basic taskbar, it's also a customizers playground.

RocketDock lends some Mac style and grace to a Windows program launcher.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

It can live on any side of your monitor, you can set it to always be on top, on bottom, autohide, or be ever-present. It comes with more than 20 skins, and fonts and colors are fully customizable, as is the icon order and the icon used: users are not tied to the program's actual icon. RocketDock's publisher is also growing a community around the program, getting users to share more icons, widgets, and skins.

One drawback of the program is that the main settings menu is not where you go to add in and configure these extras. Instead, they're accessible from a secondary settings menu available only by right-clicking on the dock itself. It's frustrating, but not a major problem, and hopefully can be addressed in future updates.

CCleaner lets users avoid docks and taskbars altogether.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Launchy is great for users who love their keyboards and want to abandon the taskbar and dock experience entirely. It lets you open nearly any program, file, folder, or Web site on your system with just a few keystrokes. Launchy is called from the background with a hot-key combo, and a small, skinnable box pops up.

Enter the first few letters of a file or program, and Launchy automatically displays the rest of the name. You simply press Enter to open or launch it. If the displayed name isn't the item you want, a few seconds later the tool displays a drop-down list with other likely candidates from which you can choose. In our tests, we were easily able to configure the tool to choose from multiple directories among our system's other users' folders. Besides files, folders, and apps, Launchy also displayed Web site names from our default browser's Favorites file.

Got a favorite way to tame your taskbar? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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