Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Putting files on your desktop isn't a good idea in general. While it can cause a few technical problems, there are certainly more efficient ways to organize your computer.

Recently, I was told that the desktop is great for some things and storing videos isn't one of them. "It can mess things up" is the reason I was given. I've stored videos less than 32 MB and then eventually put a folder to collect those. The folder is now up to 3.8 GB. This isn't a shortcut, but an actual file. I can't say I've noticed any real issues - yet, but why wait? Please, I'm curious: is this true or false?

In this excerpt from Answercast #79, I look at some of the ramifications of storing large files (or any files) on your desktop.

Putting files on your desktop

Ultimately, the bottom line is false. But before we go running down that path... it's a slightly slippery one.

What we have to differentiate between are technical issues, which are actually very few, and personal issues which are probably more prevalent.

A clean computer desktop

My preference is to keep an incredibly clean desktop. My thinking is that the desktop is usually hidden and what I want to access is typically more quickly accessed if I put it on a menu or a sub-menu in the Start menu. So, I actually am an advocate for very clean desktop.

I typically have only two icons on the desktop and I rarely even use those.

The alternate, of course, is that lots of people have these incredibly cluttered desktops with all sorts of things on them. And you know what? Ultimately, that's OK. It doesn't really cause a technical problem per se. What it does do of course is it makes things difficult to find, at least in my experience - and it does actually cause things to get backed up or affected in ways that you're not really expecting. But again it's usually very, very benign.

Desktop is a folder

Ultimately, the thing that most people don't realize is that the desktop is really nothing more than a folder itself.

It's a folder that has this unique property that whatever you put in the folder displays on the screen.

So, if you drop a shortcut on your desktop, then that shortcut is going to show up on your screen. By "dropping it on your desktop," I mean you drop it in the desktop folder if you find it with Windows Explorer.

Having lots of files on the desktop? Like I said... it's personal preference. I find it very cluttered; I find it difficult to use. But the number of files, the types of files, the sizes of files doesn't really matter.

Organizing your computer

The way that things were more or less intended to work is the you would put things (like your documents) in a folder called My Documents.

You'd put your videos in a folder called My Videos perhaps within My Documents (and that's obviously not being displayed on your screen, on your desktop.)

You could put shortcuts on your desktop - which are very small files that act as references to the files located elsewhere on your machine. That also keeps the desktop itself fairly lightweight and displaying more quickly.

But ultimately it's really a matter of personal preference.

Cluttered desktops may be slow

The only technical thing that I think of, for people who have a lot of things on their desktop, is literally the amount of time it takes to display the desktop and display all those icons.

In the worst-case scenario, the operating system has to go through and read every single file that has an icon on the desktop to determine what the icon should be. If you've got lots and lots of icons, lots and lots of things on your desktop, that can take some time.

But ultimately, the short answer is no, it shouldn't be an issue. It's a matter of personal preference. It's not the way that I would do it - but it's up to you.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6141 - December 16, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
Charles
December 17, 2012 3:07 AM

One thing that could possibly cause a slow down is having a lot of large image files (jpgs, gifs, etc.) on the desktop and having Explorer set to view them as thumbnails instead of icons. I know this causes XP to slow to a crawl, and I assume 7 and 8 would be similar.

Bob
December 17, 2012 8:40 AM

The only thing I can think of, is going back to a time when user data was stored within the 'windows' directories. Sinse the OS continually scanned these places, there would be a notable decrease in performance as it had to process more and more data (hense the recommendation at the time to move the user data to a seperate drive letter).
I have no idea if this still rings true. I keep my personal data on removeable storage for other reasons.

John
December 18, 2012 9:53 AM

I also like my desktop clean, but there is one situation when I keep files 'on' the desktop - making presentations. I typically prepare more PowerPoint’s, spreadsheets, .jpg's and videos ready than I will use in a presentation, put them on the desktop. I can then dynamically adjust as needed.
Audiences seem to tolerate launching files from the desktop during a presentation, but chafe at seeing them launched from Explorer, or worse, searched for while they wait.

Dan
December 18, 2012 11:34 AM

At work, I keep all my current project files on my desktop. I have a two monitor system, and keep them all on my left monitor. When I finish project, then I collect all the files and put them away in my closed project file. Sometimes the file might only be a shortcut to the folder the application I am working on puts them. I used to have more on my desktop, but the quick launch toolbar and Pin to Start Menu got rid of that need. My display screens are so big it does seem a waste to not use territory it gives me. I have room for 798 icons on my desktop (not that I would ever do that)

Mary Ann
December 18, 2012 5:41 PM

Do bookmarked sites or articles take up memory or cause the computer to slow down? I'm in the stone age with XP.

snert
December 18, 2012 7:21 PM

I use my desktop as a file directory, of sorts. I can see what I need to use at a glance and access anything with a doubleclick. I have them sorted by jobs - video stuff top center, games down left, this 'n' that centered, malware guardians down right. Cluttered? No, not according to me. It's MY desktop and I'll decorate it as I damned well please. (You should see my physical desk) Each to their own.

Steve Costello
December 19, 2012 6:35 AM

I have a lot of items saved to my desktop.

But, since XP, I hide the desktop, and then use the desktop toolbar.

I know it works the same through Windows 7, but have not used Windows 8, so I don't know if it works the same.

Matthew Ball
December 19, 2012 9:34 AM

I thought desktop files would become part of your "Profile". And the larger your "Profile", the slower the computer would run...I have always just create folders on C (outside of my profile) and then created shortcuts to those folder.

Mark J
December 19, 2012 9:37 AM

@Mary Ann
Bookmarks and shortcuts take up just an insignificant amount of disk space.

TheRube
December 21, 2012 3:51 PM

I have ABSOLUTELY nothing on the desktop. This is so I can admiringly look at my wonderful Background Theme!
I store all of my Stuff in a temporary folder under My Documents; then I redistribute the stuff into other appropriate folders.

I REALLY Hate a Messy Desktop!!!

Thanks for Listening.

TR

Mitch MacKay
December 23, 2012 4:52 AM

I can't see the desktop for the icons. Being a writer I click most of them every day, shuttle those into My Documents when I'm done doing whatever if they're considered contemporary. If permanent headings such as Google Chrome, Windows Live Mail and the like they stay there. As said, it's my party and I'll sigh if I want to.

Jan D
December 25, 2012 4:50 AM

Here is what I do. I prefer my desktop to keep current active projects located, be it word files that need to be finished, something I just downloaded that still needs to be installed or whatever until they can be "relegated" to their respective folders in my profile, e.g. Downloads and the like. On top of this, I located my SkyDrive folder to the same location as my Desktop folder, thereby assuring the most recent changes are immediately reflected online (given an Internet connection obviously). This might even outshine Leo's famous method of overnight backups (sorry Leo :->) since everything is duplicated in the blink of an eye (i.e. the things on my Desktop). And of course, having a lot of documents on your desktop can easily be taken care of by making extra desktop folders.

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