When you look at your Windows desktop, what do you see? A neat and tidy display with a few judiciously picked icons, or a meaningless morass of files, folders, ancient pictures, and Web links that were dumped without logic and continue to steadily march across your computer screen? Stop me if this sounds familiar. Stop me again if the thought has crossed your mind to clean house on a dozen occasions in the last few years, but the prospect of sifting through the refuse has deterred you every time.
Happily, a pretty darn good solution is at hand. It's easy, it's elegant, it's free, and best of all, it works, if only you can bring yourself to use it. Fences 1.0 (for XP, Vista, and Windows 7) is a freeware gem that simply creates silos on your desktop, like the box tool in a drawing program, in which you group together icons. You pick the theme--like Downloads, Programs, and Documents--and the shortcuts that go in them. It's even faster if you choose from a number of suggested layouts when you install Fences for the first time, and let the app sort it out. Any placement you don't like, you can change later on.
Corralling together shortcuts instantly opens up the desktop by giving icons some breathing room and organization. It's the desktop equivalent of The Container Store. And no, it wasn't created by Martha Stewart or Oprah Winfrey, or the plucky Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team. Fences, which hopped out of beta on Tuesday and is available today exclusively from CNET Download.com, comes to us from Stardock, a publisher known for making fancy Windows desktop enhancements--some free, some premium.
Most everything you do in Fences can be controlled through the right-click context menu and the Fences' customizations interface. With the cursor over the fence, right-click to rename, edit, or delete. Right-click on some empty space and drag the cursor to start creating a new fence. Click and drag to move a fence around, or to reshape it. You can also drag and drop the contents from one fence into another, or from a fence to the desktop and back. If you overload a fence, forget about expanding it. Just take advantage of the scroll bar that shows up only when you mouse over the box.
Here's a favorite feature in Fences: temporarily hiding all the fences, and the icons within them, by double-clicking the desktop. Double-clicking again makes them reappear. There's another useful feature that keeps the desktop icons or fences you selected visible even as you hide the others. We've found both features to be handy in the office and at home--business professionals might want to clear all but one fence on a laptop screen before giving a presentation, for example.
Being able to restore the screen to a previous configuration is another beneficial feature. Fences can take a snapshot of the screen's current layout, which you can revert back to. Activating a snapshot won't add or delete icons; it only alters the layout of the fences themselves.
As good as Fences is, there are still some minor changes we'd make. We'd streamline the fence-creation process down from three steps to two. We'd also like to set rules to automatically file downloads, documents, and other items into the appropriate fence. These features may be planned for a premium version that Stardock plans to release in a month or so. In the meantime, Fences 1.0 remains an unfussy piece of practical freeware that should improve almost anyone's desktop experience.