Ten free tools to better organize your desktop icons

Studies have found that people with cleaner, tidier desktops live longer. I am joking of course, but ask yourself this: is your desktop too crowded with icons? Do you ever wish for a little bit more room just to fit in a few more files? Are there files and folders doing nothing that were put there weeks ago?

If so, then this post is for you. It will present 10 free tools that can help you better organize your desktop, or at least breathe some new life into it.

Some of these tools will require that you only shuffle your icons around your desktop for a better, more organized layout, while others assume that you move your icons to folders first.

10 ways to organize your desktop

Part one: tools that do you can use without moving your icons off the desktop into folders

  1. Fences: sort your icons within floating containers on the desktop
  2. SE-DesktopConstructor: map out ‘zones’ inside your wallpaper to help organize your icons

Part two: tools that can display your icons on the desktop once they are organized into folders. They also offer some drag and drop interactivity with Windows explorer.

  1. Dexpot: create separate virtual desktops for each category of icons
  2. Nimi Places: display the contents of folders in containers on the desktop
  3. SideSlide: display the contents of folders inside a scrolling window
  4. Stick: display the contents of folders as retractable tabs on the sides of your screen
  5. Launchbar Commander: a floating, cascading menu that can browse your folders
  6. FSL Launcher: tabbed launcher that can be linked to your folders

Part three: tools that can be useful to desktop icon management

  1. DekstopOK: save and restore your desktop icon layouts
  2. Diswy: show and hide desktop icons with a single click

The problem:
a busy, cluttered desktop (see image below).

cluttered desktop screenshot

This is a meant to be a typical desktop containing all manner of icons: files, shortcuts, media files, installers, etc. There is some attempt at organization; the different categories of icons are clustered together in clumps (hitherto referred to as categories), which we also believe is typical for most users.


The solution:

Part one: tools that do you can use without moving your icons off the desktop into folders

1. Fences: sort your icons within floating containers on the desktop

Fences screenshot1

PROS: CONS:
  • Your icons can stay where they are, on the desktop, no need to move them into folders
  • Can auto-organize your icons for you, has container ‘templates’ of sorts
  • Container may display only partial contents; scroll down to see the rest using a scrollbar to the right.
  • Some might argue that Fences is merely prettier-looking clutter.
  • Your icons stay on the desktop, which may be less preferable than actually putting them away somewhere in folders from an organizational point of view.

Overall rating for Fences:  9/10


2. SE-DesktopConstructor: map out ‘zones’ inside your wallpaper to help organize your icons

This program simply modifies the wallpaper image to embed user-defined zones within them, that correspond to where you want your icons to be. Users can edit or change these at any time; the program does not do much more than that.

SE Desktop Constructor

PROS: CONS:
  • Low-tech solution; nothing actually changes on your desktop in terms of the way you work with icons.
  • Simply affirms the way most people work with desktop icons (clumping them together on certain areas of the screen), but gives it a more elegant feel.
  • Can display different wallpapers at intervals. Simply put your wallpaper images in the designated folder (if you don’t want different wallpaper images, just put the one in the folder).
  • Can be strangely labor intensive to set up at first (although it is easy to maintain once the initial setup is done).
  • The ‘Fences’ criticisms also apply: the clutter is still there on the desktop, but more organized, and organizationally it might be better to move icons to folders.

Overall rating for SE-DesktopConstructor: 8/10


Part two: tools that require moving your icons into folders first

We assume that the whole point of keeping icons on the desktop (as opposed to moving them to folders) is to keep them within sight at all times. Thus, if it is possible for a tool to do both (move them into folders AND keep them in sight) then we considered it eligible for mention in this article.

These programs have one thing in common: they must link directly to your Windows folders, which means that any change in the folder is reflected instantly in the program itself. (As opposed to your normal launcher, where individual files or folders are merely added to the launcher).

Once you sort your desktop icons to folders, you can either keep these on the desktop or move them elsewhere, and you can either keep displaying desktop icons or opt to not display them altogether. In the screenshots below we kept the newly created folders on the desktop and opted to not display icons on the desktop at all.

 

3. Dexpot: create separate virtual desktops, each with it’s own collection of icons

If your icons are crowding out a single desktop, why not use many? Dexpot is a free virtual desktop app that supports multiple desktops, and is the only one as far as I know to support organizing icons into separate desktops, rather than just windows and applications.

Dexpot Screenshot1

Dexpot creates a new folder for each new virtual desktop you create (‘Desktop 2’, ‘Desktop 3’, etc, which it places in C:\Users\*username* by default). Thus all you need to do is sort your icons into the new folders to move them to the respective desktops (there is another way to do it from within the Dexpot interface; right click tray icon/desktop windows/icon tab, but it is very cumbersome).

SendToSendTo exampleIt is also possible to add the different desktops to the ‘send to’ context menu in Windows using a program like SendToSendTo or Send To Toys (see screenshot to the right),  note that you would need to use ‘shift’ in conjunction with the send to entry to move your files across folders.

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes.
  • Links to folders: yes, any change in the folder is reflected instantly in the virtual desktop and vice versa.
  • Can move icons from one desktop to another: yes, by moving from one desktop folder to another, or via the send to menu as illustrated above.
PROS: CONS:
  • A ‘thinking out of the box solution that can work really well.
  • Why it is not easier to move icons from one desktop to another is a mystery to me. Tweaking the ‘Send To’ menu as mentioned above can work, but it would have been preferable if Dexpot itself installed context menu or ‘Send To’ entries to move items across desktops.

Overall rating for Dexpot: 9/10


4. Nimi Places: display the contents of folders in containers on the desktop

Once you move your icons into folders that make sense to you, you can display the contents of these folders on the desktop at all times much in the same way as ‘Fences’ above.

Nimi Places Screenshot

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes, if you want to organize your icons into different containers.
  • Links to folders: yes, any change in the folder is reflected instantly in the Nimi places containers and vice versa.
  • Can move icons from one container to another: No, but interestingly you can cut and paste from one container to another.
  • Can move icons from the desktop to the container: No, but cut and paste works.
  • Can move icons from the container to the desktop: No, but cut and paste works.
PROS: CONS:
  • A good solution if you like the ‘Fences’ look but like to sort your icons into folders
  • Has good options for icons sizes and display styles (including a dock-style container). You can also download lots of additional themes.
  • No drag and drop support for items from one container to another or the desktop, although strangely enough copying and pasting works, which can provide a solution of sorts.
  • The program feels unfinished; NEVER use  the right click context menus on folders as it strangely actually MOVES your folders into the Nimi Folders folder (as opposed to creating a desktop container for you). Also, hovering on folders inside the Nimi Places window displays an annoying tooltip bar chart that strangely cannot be switched off.

Overall rating for Nimi Places: 7/10


5. SideSlide: display the contents of folders inside a scrolling window

SideSlide Screenshot 3

SideSlide offers a sliding interface that appears when you mouse over the top edge of your screen and can house RSS feeds, shortcuts, and all sorts of objects. For the purposes of desktop organization, we removed all objects, moved the desktop icons into folders on the hard drive, and than link to those folders within SideSlide.

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes, if you want to organize your icons into different containers.
  • Links to folders: yes, but any change in the folder is only reflected in the SideSlide container if you refresh it manually.
  • Can move icons from one container to another: No, dragging and dropping COPIES items from one folder/container to another. Cutting and pasting is not an option.
  • Can move icons from the desktop to the container: No, dragging and dropping COPIES items from the desktop to the container (and the folder it is linked to). Cutting and pasting doesn’t work either.
  • Can move icons from the container to the desktop: Yes.
PROS: CONS:
  • Very original concept, a ‘desktop’ delivered on demand when you mouse over the top side of your screen.
  • Dragging and dropping icons across different containers and the desktop is strange and unintuitive.
  • Need to keep refreshing the containers to be sure they reflect your folders accurately.
  • Right click on icons does NOT display the Windows explorer context menu
  • Is prone to the occasional error that crashes the program.

Overall rating for SideSlide: 6/10


6. Stick: display the contents of folders as retractable tabs on the sides of your screen

Stick can add tabs to the side of your screen that can display RSS feeds and notes and provide other functions. For our purposes here we are only using the program’s ability to link tabs to folders.

Stick Screenshot3

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes, if you want to organize your icons into different containers.
  • Links to folders: yes, any change in the folder is reflected instantly in the Nimi places containers and vice versa.
  • Can move icons from one container to another: Yes
  • Can move icons from the desktop to the container: Yes.
  • Can move icons from the container to the desktop: Yes.
PROS: CONS:
  • A novel idea that keep your icons out of sight and produce them quickly on demand.
  • You can move icons from one tab to another or from Windows explorer by dragging and dropping.
  • Has some nice display options (any of the sides of the screen), hotkey options, etc.
  • Can sometimes ‘forget’ which tabs are connected to which folders. In this case, right click ‘Explorer properties’ and make sure that the correct path is entered in the ‘URL/Folder’ field.
  • The project is no longer supported by the developers, which is sad.

Overall rating for Stick: 8/10


7. Launchbar Commander: a floating, cascading menu that can browse your folders

If you opt to move your desktop icons to a folder and want a quick way to navigate their contents visually via floating, cascading menus, Launchbar commander is for you.

LaunchBar Commander Screenshot3

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes, if you want to organize your icons into different categories.
  • Links to folders: yes, any change in the folder is reflected instantly in the Launchbar Commander menus..
  • Can move icons from one container to another: No.
  • Can move icons from the desktop to the floating menu icons: No.
  • Can move icons from the floating menu to the desktop: No.
PROS: CONS:
  • Has some good options customizing and tweaking the floating launcher’s look and feel (docking behavior, etc).

 

  • Cannot keep your icons from different categories displayed at all times (which is what you would have if they were on the desktop).
  • Dragging and dropping icons across different folders and/or the desktop is not possible within the program itself.
  • Navigating the settings is quite cumbersome, at least at first.

Overall rating for Launchbar Commander: 6/10


8. FSL Launcher: tabbed launcher that can be linked to your folders

Linking this launcher to your folders is not built into the program but is possible via the use of symbolic links (which is a feature of Windows that enables a folder to be in more than one place at the same time). I used a freeware called ‘Link Shell Extension’ to create symbolic link clones of my four folders in the launcher’s groups (in C:\Users\*username*\FSL\Launcher\Shortcuts).

FSL Launcher Screenshot3

  • Requires moving your icons into folders: yes, if you want to organize your icons into different containers. You also need to create symbolic links clones as mentioned above.
  • Links to folders: yes, any change in the folder is reflected in the FSL launcher tab; however, you will need to either refresh the tab or leave it and return again to see the change.
  • Can move icons from one tab to another: No. Moving an item copies a shortcut to it to the other tab.
  • Can move icons from the desktop to the tab: No, it makes copies of them if run as Administrator.
  • Can move icons from the tab to the desktop: No, it makes copies of them.
PROS: CONS:
  • If you must have a tabbed launcher that links to folders, this could provide an adequate solution.
  • Drag and drop operations across tabs and Windows explorer are lacking.
  • Missing icons: objects in the launcher are frequently displayed as blank icons. Selecting the objects makes the objects appear, but it is not really a good solution.

Overall rating for FSL Launcher : 6/10 (the app was simply not designed to be used in this way, unfortunately).


Part three: tools that can be useful to desktop icon management

The tools below can help you quickly manage your icons, although they do not offer any new ways of displaying and/or working with them.

 

9. DekstopOK: save and restore your desktop icon layouts


So you’ve got tons of icons on your desktop which keep arranged ‘just so’, in patterns that you are used to or that make sense to you, but then something happens and your icons are all messed up (say, an unexpected change in resolution brought about by a game or program, a remote desktop session that might scramble icons, or whatever).

Wouldn’t it be great if you could save your icon layouts and restore them at will? Wouldn’t it be great if you could have an icon layout(s) associated with each screen resolution? Wouldn’t it be great if a program could auto save your icon layouts periodically in case of an unexpected event? Yes it would, and that program is called DestkopOK, works great, and has a light footrprint to boot.

I’ve reviewed a number of these ‘icon layout saving’ apps over the years, and this one is my favorite (even as some others offer a saving via right-click context menu entry feature, which I like.)


10. Diswy: show and hide desktop icons with a single click

If you want a decluttered desktop in a single click, or if you are planning to use many of the tools mentioned above, you will appreciate the ability to hide and show desktop icons quickly (without having to right click and check/uncheck ‘show desktop icons’).

Diswy can be placed in the taskbar and does a great job. You could also check out a similar program called HideDesktopIcons if you like. (Also note that Fences, if you are using it, does this by double clicking on the desktop).


That’s it for this installment of tools.  Note that I did not feature any Mac-like Docs or circular docks because I wanted the programs not just to display icons, but to (a) offer some sort of drag and drop interactivity, and (b) be able to display many of the containers at once (although I know that both Launchbar Commander and FSL Launcher do not necessarily meet all of these criteria).

[Thanks go to Alla K for creating the screenshots above.]

Do you use a free tool that can help manage, display or keep desktop icons organized that wasn’t mentioned above? Let us know in the comments section below.


 
 
 
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Nov 17, 2011
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  • LucasDT

    Fences also does what Diswy. By double-clicking on an empty space in the desktop, all but specified fences will dissapear until another double click in the “clean” desktop.
    I think is the greates tool ever for organizing the desktop and keeping it usable.
    A must have app.

  • Ellisgl

    +1 for Fences. I do wish they were folders – would make it simpler to find things the old way.

  • http://awesomewallpapers.wordpress.com Ben

    I use a combination of Fences Pro and Object Dock Plus(with some docklets. Here’s the result of my organization: http://i55.tinypic.com/2ywg2fp.png

  • http://www.donationcoder.com mouser

    Hi Samer,

    Excellent article. I just want to clear up a few things about my LaunchBar Commander program.

    LaunchBar Commander is probably best categorized as a Dock system — and so may not be the best choice for people who really want to keep their desktop full of icons. Mostly you would use it as a DOCK on one side of your screen (or hidden and set to autoshow), and then turn off all desktop icons, for the cleanest desktop — rather than having LBC float undocked on your screen.

    As you mention, LBC has some flexible ways to list and filter the contents of folders. If you are looking for a program to keep your desktop full of icons, LBC is not going to be for you. But if you’re interested in a docked bar that has very strong features for listing folder contents under menus, LBC may be a good choice.

  • AWH

    Fences! I’ve been using this for several years. Works great!

  • GraveDigger27

    Even Fences has it’s limits – while it’s a great program for organizing your desktop with the size of today’s hard drives it’s easy to install more applications than the program can easily handle. I use the “Pro” version of the program and without it I doubt I could maintain a decent desktop. I used to use RocketDock as a launcher but the Windows 7 taskbar is a good alternative if you prefer to “pin” a few key applications to the desktop. I double click on the desktop to hide most of my “fences” except for one I call “Desktop Essentials” where I keep my icons for the Computer, Control Panel, Recycle Bin and My Documents folder. That way I can have a “clean desktop” whenever I want and go to specific “fences” to find the apps I need.

    Also the paid for version will automatically sort the fences as you’ve previously configured – the free version requires manual sorting…

  • http://www.greggdeselms.com Gregg DesElms

    I know it’s just a dumb little app that few have even heard about, and even fewer take seriously…

    …but Alentum Software’s freeware “Advanced Launcher” is remarkably potent as a tool for getting icons off the desktop and into a nice menuing system.

    I used to use it as a means of accessing programs, and then I used Code Sector’s “Direct Folder” to accees folders…

    …and then I realized that by creating shortcuts to folders, and putting them into Advanced Launcher, I could do it all with this one tool. I, personally, “dock” its little toolbar right above the start button, and set it to “always on top.” Works like a charm.

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

  • japp

    I’m using Coolbarz:
    http://www.bryntyounce.com/coolbarz.htm

    Works like a charm fading in. Drop your icons onto it.

  • kwacky1

    I right click on my desktop, select View, deselect Show desktop icons.

    Job done ;)

  • TA

    Does Fences allow you to minimize an individual fence, and just have the title bar show?

    That would be a great way to eliminate the clutter and just keep visible what you want.

    Thanks, Samer, for the great article!

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  • Toni

    I was looking for the right program to organize my desktop, and now I still don’t know what to choose! :-) Thanks for the great article, I think I am going to try Fences.

    • Samer

      @ Toni. I actually gave each program a score. Here’s the ranking

      Fences: 9/10
      Dexpot: 9/10 *
      SE-DesktopConstructor: 8/10
      Stick: 8/10 *

      Nimi Places: 7/10 *
      SideSlide: 6/10 *
      Launchbar Commander: 6/10 *
      FSL Launcher : 6/10 *

      I would consider the top 4 scoring apps and forget the others.
      The entries with a star (*) in front of them require that you sort your icons onto folders as step #1, while Fences and SE-DesktopConstructor let you work with your icons on the desktop itself.

      Hope that helps.

  • Samer

    @ TA: I don’t think Fences offers this type of ‘roll up’ capability. I agree that it would be a great feature. It does do something close: you could double click on the desktop and hide certain containers but not others, I believe, as Gravedigger mentioned above.

    @ japp, @ Greg DesElms: I will look into the apps you guys mentioned for possible reviews.

    @ Mouser: you points are well taken. Launchbar Commander does something different from other apps mentioned here.

    @ Ben: thanks for sharing your desktop screenshot.

  • Trevor

    I have recently switched to using an application launcher to help get myself more organized (currently using Launchy). Ok, so it is not exactly a “desktop organizer” but it does achieve the same effect. I am able to get rid of all of the applications on my desktop and have a nice, clean set up. One quick keystroke and I have access to every single application on my computer.

  • Remy

    I pinned a folder to my taskbar, and placed all my commonly used shortcuts inside. Problem solved.

    • Samer

      @ Trevor, Remy: thanks for your input. However, this article is not about organizing app shortcuts as such, but rather organizing files that many people leave on their desktop mostly to keep them in mind and not forget about them.

      My desktop has screenshots of reviews I am working on, Excel files, bits of code in text files that I am working with, many many folders and many many program installers that I am thinking about installing and testing. These are mostly transient items that are not the kind of thing that you would actively manage with a launcher.

      Which is why this article was conceived.

  • saikat

    Thanks for the article. Is there any portable version of first two applications. I would like to try them out without installing .

    • Samer

      @ saikat: there’s a portable version of SE-DesktopIcons, but not Fences.

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  • Saikat

    Thanks Samer!

  • thunder7

    I have always just used Folders in my doc’s.
    Not the greatest no but until we find that great app that actually takes care of everything with no con’s then it’s folder’s in my documents for me.

    Hey Mouser how are you Buddy.

  • nige

    Another very useful launcher with tree notes also…
    8Start
    http://www.8start.com/index.htm

    I find it excellent. You can have large icons, small icons with labels, categories and groups within categories.

    • AngryAussie

      This software is rubbish, it has no help , no uninstall feature, didnt appear in my programs list either ! I had to find the folder it was installed in then run uninstall from there … AND it only half uninstalled ! DO NOT USE THIS PACKAGE …!!

    • H.

      I used 8start years ago and loved it. It really kept everything in place and was non-intrusive. I didn’t care for the tree notes feature when that was introduced though. When I moved on to Windows 7, I didn’t need it anymore as it was fast enough to launch a program via the Start menu – my Start menu in Windows XP used to be very slow. So I no longer use it, and I don’t know if it is now as “rubbish” as AngryAussie mentioned, but I want throw in my kudos for how great it used to be.

  • amikkwe

    I use Gizmo toolbar, it allows for multiple toolbars, has a pretty small footprint, and also has other abilities as well such as it is able to mount multiple virtual drives. It recognizes both folders and files, webpages, and apps as well. It has numerous skins and customizations. I would be lost without it. I have tried numerous docks, and other types of desktop customization tools and I like this one by far the best.

  • http://best-lyrics.net/ Anand

    I use fences and Nimi places….thanks samer for sharing other free tools to organize desktop icons.

  • David Anowu

    I have just enjoyed myself, by gaining knowledge about these ten free tools. Thanks for this article.Please could you direct me to a website where i could download the dexpot software for free, because i kind of have interest in it.

  • http://fyi-penang.blogspot.com el

    Really good article. tx.

  • Kaycee

    Met someone with Win 7. Desktop was completely free & right-clicking on start button had 2 options; start menu OR desktop. I don’t know what he was using (and can’t reach him) but that’s really what I had hoped to find here!

  • Sadia Yamin

    “Fences” is the best app.I am currently using that and its really awesome.It can organizes your desktop very easily.In other words,your desktop will become clean and clear and more organized :). You can easily download that from the link here- http://www.mevvy.com/articles/the-15-best-tools-apps-for-windows-part-1/#.URDrXvJsuJ0 .You can get other essential apps for your windows pc also

  • bruno

    Fences 2.0 is no more freeware. It is free to try for 30 days only :-(
    Version 1.0 is still accessible for free by searching on google.

  • RetiredEngineer

    I use a simple Desktop icon organizer which displays the full filename of each icon in List View. I like this feature. The name is “Deskview”, and the URL is http://jimcofer.com/personal/2007/07/05/download-deskview/.
    I wish you had a way to post screenshots, as a picture is always better than plain text.

  • Paul Naudé

    Dexpot is an excellent concept and would have worked brilliantly but they have added too much functionality, to the point where the basics are broken. I spent quite some time figuring out the settings and working through the quick start manual and forum just to find that certain settings are ignored (or possibly overwritten by some of the other complex stuff I did not get to. E.g.: You can specify to which desktop to switch when opening a program. I have made sure it is set to open where I open it from and yet, after switching focus to another desktop and back, my application switches to the other desktop (ignoring my settings).
    I think they should have stopped at the basics of having the ability to have different desktops with different shortcuts and open programs there.
    I also found numerous desktop icons not registered by Dexpot, which I then had to manually move between the desktop folders – which I didn’t mind but it took a while to get to that solution.

  • Satti Charvak

    Fences is not Free Now and as such can be excluded from the list. Undoubtedly though it is the best software in the given bunch of 10 Aps.

    • hatbrox

      version 1.0 is still free and readily available from many websites.

  • Jippe van Dunné

    Very nice list of useful applications. Thank you!

    For al people out there that are still looking for a nice wallpaper, be sure to check out wallbase.cc Absolutely the best wallpaper-database at the moment. Also very userfriendly and a nice interface.

    Jippe

  • Scorpius

    Users of Windows 7 might find this desktop gadget extremely useful. I know I can’t live without it now! It’s highly customizable, and I love it. http://www.kinesys.co.nz/download.aspx?filenm=launchcontrol_1.6.gadget

    • Scorpius

      The only issue I’ve had with it to date, is that a very tiny group of shortcut icons would skew the icon grid in the launcher when you tried (unsuccessfully) to drag them onto it. I found a fix for that though, and that is to hold ctrl when you drop these shortcuts. :)

  • Niki

    I used to use fences but after got a laptop, I went to download fences to find that it now costs 9.99. It’s outrageous.

    • hatbrox

      It is indeed. But I still like Fences, so I just use the previous version (which existed in both free and paid version) in version 1.01xx, which works perfectly in windows 7, 8, 2012 in 32 and 64bits.
      There are many websites that still offer version 1 for download.

  • Programmer313

    Hey umm just wondering could u perhaps make a theme like they do on
    android phones but to stick it to your computer for an example a galactic theme with a live galactic
    wallpaper and stuff and make it all live galactic wallpaper with a space
    ship that pasts by with the audio of that space ship past by … can u ?
    or no ? idk if they already created such thing but if they did can u perhaps tell me
    that will be cool , thanks

  • Mark Greenway

    Have to agree on the fences comments, I was quite disappointed when it stopped being freeware. It’s still the best option for tidying up our desktop in my opinion though.