Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated December 17, 2018)
One of the key elements of controlling Windows is understanding how to use the taskbar. The taskbar is actually made up of several different sections, and the rightmost of these sections is known as the Notification Area. (You'll sometimes see this area called the System Tray, which is what it was called in earlier versions of Windows. These days, Microsoft prefers the term Notification Area. Who knows why!)
The Notification Area consists of small icons that each represent a program or service that is running in the background. (This is an important point—the icons represent already running, active programs.) For example, you may see an icon there for your sound system or for an anti-virus program you have running. You can get an idea of what an icon represents by simply moving the mouse pointer over the icon and leaving it there for a short time. Windows then helpfully displays information about the program, and perhaps some actions you can take with it. You can also see actions (depending on the icon or program) by right-clicking the icon to display a Context menu.
The icons shown in the Notification Area will vary from system to system. The reason for this is simple: Each system will have different programs installed and different services activated. It is also possible for there to be more icons in the Notification Area than what can be easily displayed. If this is the case, look for an upward-pointing arrow at the left side of the Notification Area. If it is there and you click it, then you'll see the other available icons appear and you can select them, as desired.
Since the icons in the Notification Area represent running programs, those programs may have the need to periodically communicate with you. If that is the case, you may see small notifications appear over the communicating icon, or you may see what looks like message boxes appear. Mostly these messages are to notify you of something happening (thus the term Notification Area), and you can often take note and ignore the messages. (Many messages are only displayed for a short time and then they go away.)
It should go without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that since the Notification Area is at the right side of the taskbar, it is also at the bottom of the desktop. This is a no-brainer in Windows 7, but Windows 8 saw the introduction of the Start screen. On Windows 8 you can only see the Notification Area if you first display the desktop; it isn't visible when viewing the Start screen. This isn't an issue with later versions of Windows since when the Start screen is displayed it doesn't cover up all of the desktop.
This tip (12432) applies to Windows 7, 8, and 10.
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