Why don’t control panel programs and property sheets show up in the taskbar?

Date:June 8, 2005 / year-entry #144
Orig Link:https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/oldnewthing/20050608-36/?p=35393
Comments:    50
Summary:Control panel programs and property sheets don't show up in the taskbar. Why not? As I recall, the explanation was that control panel programs and property sheets aren't applications. They are auxiliary helper windows that assist you with a task, but they aren't a program in their own right. Therefore, they don't get a taskbar...

Control panel programs and property sheets don't show up in the taskbar. Why not?

As I recall, the explanation was that control panel programs and property sheets aren't applications. They are auxiliary helper windows that assist you with a task, but they aren't a program in their own right. Therefore, they don't get a taskbar button.

I've always been kind of suspicious of that explanation, but there it is, make of it what you will. (I don't mind the behavior—putting them in the taskbar just creates clutter—but the explanation I found kind of wanting.)

Comments (50)
  1. Tim Smith says:

    My biggest problem with this "feature" is that I am always losing those bloody property windows behind other windows.

  2. Doug says:

    I view it as an incentive to not keep them open. Control panels and property sheets are not something you should be working in long term. And if they are, you then have a question of why is it in a panel or property sheet….

    Although this is a pain when you have to flick back and forth between the panel and some other program that has the information or needs the info that the panel has.

  3. Memet says:

    My peeve with this feature is that they don’t show up in the task bar, but you can ALT+TAB to them. (not CTRL+TAB, as an "auxiliary window to the shell" would somehow imply)

    To me, what’s visible in the task bar and what’s visible in the ALT+TAB rectangle should always be the same.

    That’s just my opinion.

  4. Pete says:

    It does make sense really. When you save your document in Word, the Save as.. dialog doesn’t appear in the taskbar. Why should other dialogs appear simply because they are implemented as seperate proccesses?

  5. Colin says:

    I think that anything that isn’t modal should show up in the task bar. On the other hand, if an application pops up a message box or a modal window, I don’t think that shows up in the task bar – but you can switch to the application, and there it is. Maybe the problem is that the operating system itself (or more accurately, the Windows Explorer) doesn’t have a clickable entry in the task bar?

  6. ElBiggus says:

    That’s got to be one of the lamest justifications for a design decision that I’ve ever heard. And are non-technical users supposed to intuit this "fact"?

    I can almost hear the tech support call now:

    User: I was following instructions on this website to adjust my screen, but whenever I click on the internet to read the next instruction the window disappears and I can’t get it back.

    Tech Support: Well, sir or madam, they’re auxilliary helper windows, and as such don’t get a taskbar button. If you just…

    U: They’re WHAT? Ancilliary helmet windows? I don’t understand what that means. Speak in simple terms, please.

    TS: It means that, er, well, they’re sort of like the find and replace dialog in Word.

    U: Don’t give me that. I double clicked this picture of a screen to start it, and every other program I do that with gets a button. My computer must be broken, so don’t fob me off with feeble excuses!

    TS: It’s not broken, sir or madam. These are, er, special windows.

    U: Special? Specially broken, certainly. Fix my computer now!

    TS: But it’s not broken. Our programmers decided that…

    U: That’s it, I’m buying a Mac!

    "If it’s in the Alt+Tab list it should be in the taskbar and vice versa" kind of annoys me too, but it does sometimes come in handy. Some programs which you have running more or less constantly (WinAmp, or whatever) don’t really need to be in the taskbar but it’s still handy to be able to Alt+Tab to them.

  7. kbiel says:

    The save as dialog doesn’t appear in the taskbar because it is modal to a window that does. If you focus on another application you can get back to the save as dialog easily by selecting the application which created it. In fact you can’t miss it as you can’t reach anything else in that application until you dismiss the dialog. Compare this to the behavior of property sheets and control panels which can be placed behind any application window, including the window that created it, but have no handle, other then alt-tab, that the user can use to retrieve it. In my opinion, any window that is not modal to another window and does not destroy itself upon losing focus, should appear in the taskbar as well as the alt-tab dialog. This is a bug masquerading as a feature.

  8. Alan De Smet says:

    Pete: The difference between a Control Panel dialog box and the Save As dialog box is that the Save As box is a child of Word itself. The Network Settings or what have you isn’t a child of anything else; no other application claims control over it. I can get to the Save As box by clicking Word’s button.

    (In the more extreme case, some full blown applications are nothing more than a dialog box.)

    Like others, thanks to this behavior I occasionally lose some property sheets and dialog boxes. A minor nuisance, but irritating non-the-less. I don’t think the behavior really gains users anything and it will irritate many others.

  9. ac says:

    Ah, but don’t forget the property pages in the device manager, I maybe other MMCs. There you DON’T get the taskbar icon as in all other property pages, but if you want to close the application with the property pages still open (unwittingly perhaps) you get an error that says, please close all property pages before closing the application!

  10. Brian says:

    <blockquote>That’s got to be one of the lamest justifications for a design decision that I’ve ever heard. And are non-technical users supposed to intuit this "fact"?</blockquote>

    You must not get out much. There’s nothing lame about the justification, it’s just a UI rule that you either agree or don’t agree with. Lame is "because that’s the way I did it" or "because I’m lazy". I find it difficult to take seriously people who can’t tone down their rhetoric over trivial subjects.

  11. Well, if they are auxilliary helper windows, perhaps they should be always-on-top. I often find myself with multiple Display control panels, or multiple System control panels, or multiple Properties dialogs open because they get lost behind other windows.

    If they aren’t in the taskbar because they count as non-modal dialog boxes for the shell, then they should follow the other common behaviour of non-modal dialog boxes and stay on top.

  12. D. Philippe says:

    The very fact that some CPL shortcuts do launch windows with taskbar icons (Add/Remove programs, fonts/printers/tasks folders, most 3rd-party items) should be reason enough to make taskbar icons for all programs. Either that, or an applet launched from the control panel should be a modal child.

    I doubt that any users are well served by what is essentially an application that is annoying to try to return to once it’s hidden by another window.

    As an extreme example, these "auxiliary helper windows" effectively vanish with Win+D keyboard shortcut, although they do reappear when an app is activated.

    And on a larger scale, it’s a shame that while monitor resolutions have quadrupled over the last decade these dialog apps are essentially unchanged from Win3.1. The keyboard dialog, for example, takes up less than 15% of my screen space on a 1280×1024 setup (half that if you take into account my 2nd monitor). What a waste!

    The common solution has been to use more property sheets, leading to the foolishness of interfaces that is Tweak UI (13 tabs), or the Nvidia desktop manager (11 tabs). (The average Windows applet has 5 or 6.) A better solution, IMO, would be to use larger dialogs with two or three tabs, or none.

  13. I’m of the opinion that a lot of the things that do show in the taskbar would be better placed in the Control Panel, myself. Only things that need attention should go in the taskbar (IMHO)

  14. Never mind… I was confusing "taskbar" with "system tray"

  15. Somebody says:

    I HOPE you mean all top level non-modal windows.

    The idea is that there should be a way of binding all windows to the foreground from the taskbar. Modal windows can’t be covered by their parent windows, so you can just click the taskbar button for the parent application to bring them to the front. Non-modal dialogs can be covered by their parent window (or other windows). There is no way to bring them forward without minimizing the windows covering them, so they should have a taskbar button. So it doesn’t matter if a window is top-level or not, you should always be able to bring it forward with a single click on a taskbar button.

  16. The point of the taskbar isn’t to look pretty or to be an exclusive club for super-duper programs, it’s to show you what you have open. If the official argument says otherwise, then that’s a huge disconnect with the end user.

  17. josh says:

    This would have made sense in Windows 3.1, where Control Panel and File Manager were actual applications. Now that they’re integrated into the shell, I don’t know… Usually "helper windows" like this come forward when their application is brought into focus. If they’re from the shell, which window do they belong to?

  18. Chris H says:

    Some of them show up:

    – Add or Remove Programs.

    – the stuff under Administrative Tools.

    – stuff that switches to another "folder" view, like Fonts, Network Connections, Scheduled Tasks or Printers And Faxes.

    – Phone and Modem Options pops a "Location Information" properties dialog up that shows in the taskbar.

    – and third-party stuff (Java console, QuickTime), though obviously this isn’t under MS’s control.

    So, basically, some things in Control Panel show up in the taskbar and some don’t, semi-randomly.

  19. Security Center is a Control Panel program and it has a taskbar entry.

    Maurits: That’s why it’s called the "taskbar notification area", not the "system tray": http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2003/09/10/54831.aspx

  20. Martin says:

    The button for these applets could be within the button for Control Panel on the taskbar, as button within a button solution. Or when you click on the Control Panel button, a popup menu could come up with the dialog box title as an item to allow you to get to it that way.

  21. Tempus says:

    I sometimes think the only reason I remember the CTRL-ESC keyboard shortcut is because I end up using it all too often to find ‘lost’ or ‘hidden’ windows. The two most common offenders are control-panel applets, and child windows of installer programs.. (ever get stuck wondering ‘why won’t this damm install finish’ only to discover that there’s a dialog from the installer, waiting for your input (such as a username/pw for a service login) sitting BEHIND the installer window?

  22. Mike Weiss says:


    While I’m SURE there is a set of windows styles that would allow a non-modal dialog to be covered by it’s Parent… that IS NOT normal behavior.

    Examples: Word 2002’s "Find and Replace" dialog is this way (as well as IE’s, Excel’s). Excel 2002’s "Function Arguments" window. All the docking tool windows of Visual Studio 2003(as well as Photoshop’s tool windows as well). The issue is when an application (in this case the Windows Explorer shell) creates a floating non-modal dialog with the Desktop as the Parent (NULL parent handle or something I guess).

  23. Frog InDesign says:

    Newsflash: users don’t know what an application is. They only see windows.

    This is exactly why Mac OS X is so revered. Seriously, if you guys can’t figure out basic human interface consistency with all those billions, somebody should be fired. Haven’t you read the Design of Everday Things? Tog on Interface? The original Apple Human Interface Guidelines?

    Is OS X perfect? No. A big, fat no. But the amount of crap that Windows users put up with never ceases to amaze. You’d be laughed off the platform if you tried that sort of thing on the Mac.

  24. David Walker says:

    Don’t start that "taskbar notification area"/"System Tray" thing again. Many divisions within Microsoft call it the system tray, so don’t be surprised if users call it the system tray also — even if that’s not its official name.

    The first Google hit that shows up searching for Microsoft and system tray is a KB article that calls it the system tray in the article title: KB article 128129.

    Another reference is here:

    "Microsoft Time Zone conveniently runs in the system tray and allows you to easily view the date and time in various locations around the world." Timezone.msi, from late 2004, at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?displaylang=en&FamilyID=bff59fcf-3148-40b8-a286-fe7274f6e4d8.

    Another: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/download/bppowertoys.aspx says "Right-click the tray control icon in the system tray and click Options, …"

    If Microsoft calls it the wrong thing, good luck getting users to call it the right thing.

  25. Somebody says:

    Mike Weiss:

    You’re right. IE’s non-modal find dialog box never gets covered by its parent. Clicking on the taskbar button for IE also brings the find dialog to the front. I don’t know about Word 2002, but in Word 2003 the find and replace dialog does get covered by the parent window and it has no taskbar button. However when I click on the taskbar button for the Word document the find dialog gets brought to the front too. Weird.

    Frog InDesign:

    You sound like you need to take a break from computers. Go outside and get some fresh air.

  26. jeffdav says:

    The question is, how does one create a top-level window that appears in the ALT+TAB switcher but not in the taskbar?

    (I did this once for the Docked-to-Desktop side bar in MSN Explorer.)

  27. Dominic Self says:

    The Display panel can alter your theme, change your desktop background, your screensaver, your resolution, the details of all your small UI details and more. The Fonts folder gives you a list of fonts, yet it gets a taskbar slot. :)

    I hate this behaviour, I really do. But thanks for the info.

    (Oh, and I’ve never seen a ‘average user’ use Alt+Tab – ever!)

  28. D. Philippe says:

    Mike: You might be interested in ActiveWords, a program that lets you use your keyboard in Windows as a kind of contextual command line. I heard about it the other day and I’m testing it out right now.

  29. Mat Hall says:

    ‘Lame is "because that’s the way I did it" or "because I’m lazy".’

    It helps no-one, and irritates everyone — all the comments here so far have been along the lines of "it’s stupid and inconsistent", so justifying the design decision on the basis of a vague and pointless technical distinction that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny is lame whichever way you cut it. Sometimes you’ve got to call a spade a spade…

  30. I assume the same reasoning applies to explorer "properties" dialogs. Unfortunately the end result usability is rather poor. In both cases, the "child" windows are relatively small but non-modal and very easily get obscured by the application that launched them (either explorer or the control panel). The only way to access them is by either re-launching from parent app or minimizing all obstructing windows, neither of which is ideal.

    I think either putting them into the taskbar or offering a way to bring them back via the taskbar icon of the parent app would have been a better choice.

    I know these posts are for historical purposes only but if this comment can find a team to which this might be relevant today, that would be great, what with longhorn on the horizon. :-)

  31. fred says:

    Raymond this Control Panel behavior is most annoying. Is there any way to make them act like normal windows?

    Please make sure you fix it in Longhorn.

  32. Somebody says:

    I disagree with the whole ‘they are a dialog and not an application’ argument. Like the other poster, I always loose the dialog behind other windows. Especially when I’m entering data (such as machine names and IPs) that I just copied from another window. I think Windows should automatically show *all* non-modal dialog boxes on the taskbar.

  33. Mike Weiss says:

    In reply to Pete’s comment about these windows being the same as a Save dialog in Word:

    I disagree, the Save dialog is a *child window* of Word which itself is a *top level* window (that is in the task bar). A control panel dialog is also a *top level* window (but NOT in the task bar?!). Not the same IMOHO.

    In reply to "Somebody" requesting all non modal dialogs being in the task bar:

    I HOPE you mean all top level non-modal windows. I think that could be OK most cases. This should go for property windows that explorer creates as well as the control panel screens.

    Another idea would be to make these windows non-modal children of whatever window brought then up, usually an explorer window (which the control panel is one). So the parents would be in the task bar. Focus switching to the parent brings these guys forward. If there is no applicable parent then make them children of the desktop, and not appear in the taskbar (which is what I assume happens now).

  34. asdf says:

    Raymond: can you pass this off to the shell team as a feature request: Put a little pushpin icon in the upper-left corner of the titlebar so we can click on them to enable/disable always on top. I’m not suggesting this for all windows (though that would be great) but only for these kinds of property sheets that aren’t a child window of some app window that can get lost. This will solve the problem of it being lost and the solution doesn’t involve create a taskbar button for it (they should be in the always on top state by default).

  35. Its not that tough to add a Control Panel applet to the taskbar though. Just create a shortcut and instead of pointing it at the program just call the Shell extension. For example if you wanted to launch the Display applet and bring up the settings it would be:

    %windir%system32rundll32.exe shell32.dll,Control_RunDLL desk.cpl,,3

    Ideally it shouldn’t be that tough to have some sort of navigation tool that can go to the property sheets respectively but really you can just scroll the programs menu and go through the start button, it doesn’t take that much longer.

  36. Mike says:

    As bad a design as this might be, at least we can be greatful we still/again *can* Alt+Tab to dialogs.

    Anyone remember when MS screwed that one up, so you no longer could even get to a dialog using Alt+Tab? IIRC it took several servicepacks (!) until they fixed that.

    But I think that’s just a symptom of Microsoft no longer paying as much attention to details (as would be prudent, and as they did a decade ago) anymore. At least not in the UI behaviour and usability department. It seems to me to nowadays be more of a show-off of whistles and bells and to get UI’s looking as childish as possible (I haven’t yet decided if Bob or XP holds the #1 position) while removing all usable features of previous versions (notably keyboard handling).

    I have a list as long as an arm of what usable UI behaviour they have basically destroyed over the years. XP is IMO the low water mark, and this is one of the reasons I’ll never touch it. I expect Longhorn to be even worse…

  37. Craig Ringer says:

    I tend to agree with many of the others here. This has always bothered me – a lot. When I’m not swearing and cursing while hunting some control panel window I’ve lost behind something else because I had to look something up, that is.

    This behaviour breaks the expectation the user has that a window will be in the taskbar. If it’s a dialog, then fine, it’s "owned" by another window and there’s no need for it to be in the taskbar; it’ll show up when the user goes back to the app it’s related to. Control panel windows and property sheets can float freely and get lost, because they are independent windows (at least in window management terms) – but don’t show up in the taskbar.

    I especially love this when it’s a window that really should be modal and have a given parent, but doesn’t. You have to find the "lost" window and close it to bring the app/dialog you opened it from back to life. Fun stuff.

    If I had to pick one usability bug in Windows that I’d really love to see fixed, this is it. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not always on top, or modal and owned by another ordinary window, it should be in the taskbar.

  38. JamesW says:

    This is one of my major annoyances with the Windows GUI. I hate losing control panel dialogs behind other apps and not having an obvious way to find them. ALT-TAB is non-obvious, to me at least, as if they don’t appear in the task bar why should I expect them to appear in the ALT-TAB list?


    ‘putting them in the taskbar just creates clutter’ – putting anything in the taskbar creates clutter. IMHO control panels are a minor worry as I am unlikely to keep them open for that long so the space will be reclaimed soon enough. I do keep them open long enough to lose them though.

    @Richard Threlkeld

    ‘Its not that tough to add a Control Panel applet to the taskbar though.


    %windir%system32rundll32.exe shell32.dll,Control_RunDLL desk.cpl,,3

    Isn’t stuff like this why Linux isn’t taking over the desktop? Yes, it isn’t rocket science but you can’t seriously claim this is for the average user.


    TS: But it’s not broken. Our programmers decided that…

    U: That’s it, I’m buying a Mac!

    Amen! The current control panel behaviour is annoying and this thread shows that I am not alone in thinking this. The ropey explanation sounds to me like one of those excuses devs give for inertia (they’re not apps but auxillary helper windows indeed!). Shell team: please innovate an Expose knock off for Longhorn ;)

  39. Dominic Self says:

    @Richard Threlkeld

    Your hack didn’t work for me anyway – it opened up the Display applet but still no taskbar button.

    Please – Longhorn GUI team – feel the pain on these comments and do something..!

  40. Chris Becke says:

    As a power user myself, I find the distinction silly, and lost control panel applets annoying.

    As someone who has to explain to his grandfather (over the phone) why the window we were working with is not on the taskbar and we need to use alt-tab to try and find it, I find the explanation somewhat more than merely wanting.

    A public flogging for whomsoever is responsible for perpetuating this ridiculous concept is in order.

  41. Frederik Slijkerman says:

    The irony is that someone at Microsoft has actually gone through a lot of trouble to ensure that the control panel applets didn’t show up in the task bar. It would have been less work to just let them have the default behavior.

  42. Gumby says:

    I am curious why we no longer refer to Control Panel Icons as applets.

    Is it because they have grown past the applet description? Also when did this happen?

    Anyone know the reasons?

  43. Gumby says:

    Please ignore my previous post I was confused about the definition of applet.

    I just looked it up, an applet is still an application and Raymond clearly states Control programs and property sheets are not applications

  44. As we saw earlier, http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2003/12/26/45979.aspx control panel programs aren’t standalone applications. They are hosted. (So I really shouldn’t have called them "programs" either. "Plug-ins" perhaps is the closest match.)

    The word "applet" has been co-opted by Java. Using it in any other context tends to create confusion.

  45. Michael J. says:

    "If it’s in the Alt+Tab list it should be in the taskbar and vice versa"


    "Some programs which you have running more or less constantly (WinAmp, or whatever) don’t really need to be in the taskbar but it’s still handy to be able to Alt+Tab to them."

    I don’t agree. If it open, let it have a button. Otherwise, minimize it to tray… er, to notification area, and then it would not have a button.

    BTW, there are tools which allow to minimize any top window to notification area, and remove that window from both taskbar and Alt+Tab list. Great stuff. I use the one called WatchCat. It minimizes window to notification area with right click on minimize button. Microsoft should make this feature standard.

  46. KJK::Hyperion says:

    Am I the only one who remembers control panel dialogs did use to be real dialogs, i.e. owned by a main window? and modal, at it?

  47. AndyB says:

    [I]these dialog apps are essentially unchanged from Win3.1. The keyboard dialog, for example, takes up less than 15% of my screen space on a 1280×1024 setup[/i]

    lol. I love it, especially as the only dialog that should be changed is the Display Settings one.. you know, the one that is (almost) just too big to show the OK and Cancel buttons when your display is back in 640×480 mode… and you know the only time you’ll ever use 640×480 don’t you… :)

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