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When I fast came across Windows 7 taskbar combined with "quick start" toolbar, I thought it's an ugly idea. But today I noticed that I tend to move my applications into the system tray anyway - as an example, take a music player - I usually click on the tray icon, switch the current track and click on the tray icon again to hide the window - on my KDE I could even configure it so that it doesn't pollute my taskbar during this operation, which is quite convenient. I also noticed I do the same thing with other applications - for example the mail client and IM.

If I was to tell what's the difference between the taskbar and system tray, I'd say that system tray is used for long-term applications that generally work in the background and signal their state via their system tray icon, as opposed to the classic taskbar, which uses the window title for this purpose (which isn't really true anymore in Windows 7).

So, here's my question - is there any valid reason to split the traditional toolbar at the bottom of the screen into quick start, taskbar and system tray? With Windows 7 basically removing the quick start bar, would merging the taskbar and system tray the next valid step?

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4 Answers

System "tray" is a place for system notifications. Though some applications may notify you (on new email or new instant message) and you can click on this notification to quickly respond to it (read, answer), it is definitely not the place where you should look for application to start a new task (for example, to compose new email). Even Windows guides warn developers from putting non-notifying icons to systray. Unrelated icons can distract user from events that really need his attention.

So, there are reasons for this logical division.

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Interesting, thanks! I never thought of the tray this way actually, because non-notification icons are prevalent in my case. –  d33tah Sep 9 '13 at 13:18
    
Its a bit more than just notifications: the system tray is also where you'd tend to look to turn OFF, or alter the operation, of software which has allowed itself to start on start up. –  PhillipW Sep 9 '13 at 15:57
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Well, the task bar is for windows that the user has opened, where as the system tray is system controlled. The placement of icons for user programs in the system tray is an apparition. They were never meant to be there but the affordance of a place for icons rather than task buttons is undeniable. Merging them would damage them both as it would destroy their unique features.

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Two Answers, and both are "Yes"

To the question of whether or not there's a valid reason to split the bottom bar into a quick-start, taskbar, and system tray, two answers emerge.

  • In the Win7, the "highlight / dropshadow" visual clue is used to discern which item is currently in focus. When windows over over one another, not only do they appear on top - but they visually have "higher depth". All open applications also have a similar scheme on the quick-start/taskbar area. Open items have a glossed highlight and shadow, appearing "raised" compared to quick-start items, which are flat.

"But why is this important?

Quick-start icons are available for launching convenience - however, OS advances have started to minimize the difference between a program being open and a program being inactive. Launch times for most programs are minimal, which helps to change how we think of programs: from a program being almost open to open.

  • The System Icon Area can be populated with programs, but for the most part, contain system-wide processes. Anti-virus, WiFi/connectivity, volume, monitor settings, and things of this nature. They're kept here with smaller icons in a collapsed state because we generally interact with these less often than we interact with other programs on the computer.

"But why is this important?

By keeping these settings more or less always in focus, we keep important information up-front at all times yet still out of the way. Warnings and status updates are kept here so there's never a guess as to "Where I can go to see these updates.


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Wow, that's a complicated answer. Why do you duplicate the answer below the line? Also, please make sure you emphasize text so that your answer becomes easier to read, like this it just adds noise. –  Koen Lageveen Sep 9 '13 at 19:19
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The quickstart and taskbar icons used to do separate things. The quickstart icons would launch applications while the taskbar would allow access to applications that were already running.

Developments in operating systems have diminished the difference between applications that are or aren't running. Both could take up space in memory. Running applications don't necessarily take up resources (and you'll have plenty resources anyway). Start up times have also diminished, making the difference between accessing a running application to perform an action and starting a new application for that action almost negligible.

If this is true, why should users even care if an application is running or not? Why should you have to click a different icon to be able to Google something, depending on whether your browser is already running or not? In mimicking OSX, Windows moved to having a single icon for accessing applications right there on the taskbar. Removing any need for a separate quicklauncher.

The system tray is something else entirely. While traditionally mis-used by plenty of applications to hide in when minified (or to stay running after being closed... Spotify I'm looking at you!), or running in the background, it's intended to hold icons that provide information on the system state. Is your sound on? Is wi-fi connected? Applications can plug into the system tray to provide similar information: is my virus-scanner up to date and is Dropbox synced? Applications can also use it to provide warnings about their state.

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