Learn Computers Series: Part 2 – Understanding the Desktop

In this second part of the Learn Computers Series(Part 1 can be found here) we will cover the Desktop Paradigm, or the concepts behind how your computer is organized and how the GUI is designed to allow easy access to your applications and files. If you have ever struggled with understanding the way a computer was organized and how to interact with it, this will be your guide to understanding.

The Basics: Files and Folders

At your computers core, everything is organized into two things, files and folders. A specific folder structure with files that execute code in other files make up your entire operating system, be it Windows, Mac, Linux etc. There are of course some additional details that allow these two items to exist and be executable, however for understanding your PC, you only need to understand these two types of items. If you are wondering about software and applications, they are files too. Applications in Windows usually an exe.  This is a file extension for ‘executable files’.  See? Those applications that launch from exes are just files too. So, everything is really just a file or a folder.

The organization and naming of these files and folders vary between operating systems.  However, rarely would most users ever need to dig that deep into their PC to perform tasks.  The most important thing to understand is where you can save your files and where programs are installed.  You will only need to understand where you can access your folders and files you stored in them.

Note:  Files are referenced with Filepaths, these typically take the following forms:

For files its usually a format like this:

Folders are similar but do not end with the .extension (such as .txt or .docx etc):

However, modern operating systems typically hide the slashes with spaces and use arrows or some other icon.  Being a text tutorial I will use slashes as described above.  Ok, with that out of the way, read on for the basics!

Desktop Ideals:

Looking at any desktop operating system you should be able to see a pattern in how they are organized.  There is generally a form of task bar and usually a folder icon available to allow you to view your folders and files.  In addition to these, the task bar will have a way to locate your installed programs (or sometimes called “program files”, see additional proof that programs are files again!) as well as shortcuts to common folders, such as documents, video, photos and downloads.

These may seem as a strange or unintuitive way to navigate your machine, but the core concepts related back to working with paper files and folders at a physical desk.  After reviewing how these items can be analogous to these real world options you may find yourself more at home using your virtual desk(top).

So before we dissect the desktop, let’s take a look at some of the ones out there.

Windows 7 Desktop Environment

The Windows 7 desktop should look familiar to your. This is the traditional desktop experience that most know. The taskbar houses active applications and frequently used applications. The start menu is your gateway to all your applications and file locations.

Windows 8.x Desktop Environment

Windows 8.1 Desktop
The Windows 8.x desktop. The traditional taskbar is on the bottom and contains application links. The main area being your desktop or working space.  The folder icon opens explorer where you can view all the folders and files in your system.
Windows 8.x Modern screen
In Windows 8.x, the Modern interface is the the section where to find applications. Moving to the bottom of the screen will reveal all applications similar to previous versions of Windows under all programs. It’s exactly like the start menu you probably know, except that it takes up your entire screen.

Linux XFCE Desktop Environment

xubuntu XFCE desktop
The XFCE desktop on xubuntu may look different, but the top bar is just like any other OS. The icon in the left corner opens the application menu like the Windows Start menu, the space between holds open applications and the notification area is on the right.
The application menu in XFCE is very similar to that of Windows.  However you should be able to see some clear differences in how the information is presented.  One difference being no folder locations, but the presence of the File Manager application which opens a file browser to see all your folders and files just like any other graphical desktop.

Mac OS X Desktop

Sorry Mac users, at the time of this writing I do not own a Mac and can’t produce my own screenshots for use.


As you can see each desktop environment, including Windows 8/8.1 is designed similarly. The differences are just in the placement of the icons.  So, let’s break these down into understandable chunks.

Desktop – The desktop is exactly what it describes itself to be.  It is like the top of a physical desk where you can view all the items you are currently working with.  The desktop includes everything you can see on your monitor.

Personal Folder – Think of this as your own filing cabinet or a folder with sub folders within the larger filing cabinet that is your OS(operating system)/Computer.  In this folder you typically have pre-made sub folders to easily organize your files.  These are the Music, Photos, Videos, Documents and Download folders.  By default there are no subfolders and you toss in whatever files fit the main folder description for ease of organization.

Taskbar – Think of this as your current work list.  This shows your current applications you are using as well as any open files you may be using.  As the taskbar defaults to showing applications to run, this section can also be considered as the under the desk tray or container of desk tools that sit on your physical desk.

Applications within the taskbar – Applications can be thought of as your tools on your desk. Such as a stapler, scissors, tape, pens, pencils, erasers, etc. These are used for doing most physical desk tasks just as your applications let you get your digital tasks done.

Clock within the taskbar- This is similar to your wall clock and calendar combined.  It shows the date and time.  Depending on your OS and applications it may even show your appointments and to do lists.  However usually it functions only as a basic clock and blank calendar.

Gadgets/Widgets/Apps/etc – Although many are regular programs there are many small programs that bring physical desk work to the digital world.  These include calendar apps, sticky notes, notepads and alarm clocks/timers.

Other Standard Features

Within the desktop paradigm there are a few other standard features that should help you use your digital workspace.  The first being an application or area that displays all the PC’s settings.  The name varies by OS and with Linux even by desktop environment (or main applications that provide the desktop experience to your graphical based OS.).  In Windows this is the Control Panel and in Windows 8.0 and newer, the PC Settings app.  These programs allow you to manage your machine from adding users to uninstalling (removing) applications (tools).  This does not have a real analogy to the real world unless you think of it as acting out your will.  The settings section allow you to customize your workspace to what you need or how you like to work.

Use of external storage is another shared trait.  Inserting a CD/DVD or USB hard drive/flash drive into your computer will have it pop up showing its available for use as well as adding icons in locations to allow easy access.  These storage devices all work just as your standard personal folder and you can create folders and sub folders that are stored on the drive itself.  Think of these as a briefcase that can move files from workspace to workspace that can contain folders and subfolders organizing what you need.

See, your digital workspace is similar to any other workspace that you have encountered. If you use any new or different OS you should be able to keep yourself oriented with what you are looking at.  So what about navigating around and organizing and using files and folders?

Creating & Moving Files/Folders

Applications are your main source of creating files.  They will save files to your folders wherever you tell them to.  Each application may have it’s own file format and( unless its something more universal like an image or text document) will usually require the same application on another machine for it to be usable on it.  So, files can almost manage themselves as long as you know where you are putting them.  So how can you organize the files you create?

To best keep track of your files, you will want to create folders and subfolders (if needed) to organize your files.  To best explain the process, let’s use an example of saving a photo from your phone or camera.  In this case it would make the most sense to place it in the predefined user Photo folder.  As you will most likely have a number of these and need to find them quickly you can then create a subfolder through the folder viewer’s menu or if allowed by the OS(operating system), right clicking in the folder and selecting create->new folder.  You can name folders anything you want, but will want to avoid renaming anything that is built into your PC.  So if you didn’t make it, you should not rename it or delete the file. So, after creating and naming the folder it’s ready to use.  You can click and drag them to move them into other folders as well.  Copy, paste and delete options should all be available by right-clicking(or Mac equivalent) to allow you to move them around.

Ok, so now you have a new folder in your Photos folder, but what to name it? It is important to keep names descriptive but also short.  The files placed within the folders should also pertain to the folders name.  This will allow you to find files without having to know the exact location because you can go to PhotosVacationsBeach_2014 to easily find the photos of a beach vacation taken in 2014.  Depending on your files you may have a different structure such as PhotosVacationsBeach which then have multiple folders if you make repeat trips (2014 2013 etc).  Both folder examples as valid and it’s really a matter of preference on how you want to organize everything.

I personally try to organize my folders and files to reduce duplication.  For example if you routinely go someplace and take photos, starting out with a year folder and then location folder would create multiple location folders with each being under a different date.  To reduce duplication it would be best to do PhotosLocationDate so you can easily find the pictures from your trip in a specific year or time.  This isn’t required and is really a matter of preference on how you best understand how to find your own files.  The only thing you need to do is pick an organizational style and stick to it so you always know how to find any file.

Summing It Up

So, all items in your desktop experience is a file or a folder.  The collection and organization of these differ between Windows, Mac and Linux, but work similarly. All desktop environments provide a workspace, a form of taskbar to show open applications and programs and a menu to allow you to access your files and folders.  With these files and folders, there are basic structures built in to help you organize your files and with a few clicks you can create additional folders to keep yourself organized.

This was a rather lengthy post and very difficult to write for one who has used computers for years.  So, if you have any questions or are confused by any of this information, please let me know in the comments or contact form and I will do my best to ensure everything is as clear as possible.

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