Maximize your screen real estate

Get more out of the space available on your display--no matter what size--to increase your view of the Windows desktop, Windows Explorer, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Ribbonized applications.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Computer screens come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all have in common is clutter. Around the edges of any program window--even the Windows desktop itself--you'll see toolbars, sidebars, and other controls that take space away from the area reserved for your actual work.

The simplest way to remove the various information and shortcut bars from view is to press F11, which expands the currently open window to all four screen edges. Return to the standard view by pressing F11 again.

Likewise, the fastest way to enlarge content on the screen is by using Windows' built-in Magnifier utility. To open the program in Windows 7, press the Windows key, type "magnifier," and press Enter. A small Magnifier window opens with the zoom set to 200 percent. It quickly morphs into a transparent magnifying-glass icon that floats on the screen. Click it to reopen the Magnifier and choose the plus or minus buttons to enlarge or shrink the screen.

The default full-screen setting magnifies the entire display. Click the Views drop-down and select either the Lens option to magnify only a portion of the screen, or Docked to split the screen between standard view and a magnified view.

Windows 7 Magnifier utility dialog
Windows' built-in Magnifier utility enlarges the content of any open window and provides three view options: Full screen, Lens, and Docked. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

There are plenty of other ways to make the most of your computer's display area. Here's a look at several for Windows, browsers, and programs using the Ribbon interface.

Push the Windows desktop to the edge(s)
Most Windows users leave the taskbar parked at the bottom of the screen, but most applications are vertically oriented. This can lead to an overworked vertical scrollbar. To slide the taskbar to either the left or right side of the screen, right-click the taskbar and make sure "Lock the taskbar" is unchecked. Then drag the taskbar to the side you prefer, or even to the top of the screen.

Another way to gain a few square inches of screen space is to autohide the taskbar. That way the taskbar comes into view only when you move the mouse to whichever edge of the screen you've placed it on. To enable the taskbar autohide feature, right-click the taskbar and choose Properties. On the Taskbar tab, check "Auto-hide the taskbar." You may also want to check "Use small icons" and select "Always combine, hide labels" on the "Taskbar buttons" drop-down menu.

Windows 7 Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog
Select 'Auto-hide the taskbar' and 'Use small icons' on the Taskbar tab of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog to make more room available for program windows. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

One downside of autohiding the taskbar on the right side of the screen is that it tends to pop into view whenever you attempt to use an open window's vertical scrollbar. Of course, with the taskbar set to autohide, there's not much reason to relocate it from its default location at the bottom of the screen.

Customize Windows Explorer's tooltips
Last August I described how to set Windows 7 to show the active folder in the left pane of Explorer and folder windows. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of options available for customizing Explorer's layout. In Windows 7, click Organize in the top-left corner, choose Layout, and check one or more of the four options: Menu bar, Details pane, Preview pane, and Navigation pane.

Windows 7 gives you seven different folder and file views that you access via the View drop-down menu. You can customize the categories shown in Details view by clicking View > Choose details. You get a handful of other interface options by clicking Tools > Folder Options > View and looking under Advanced Settings. (Alternatively, click Organize > Folder and search Options > View.)

When it comes to screen-space maximization, the pickings in this dialog box are pretty slim. An alternative to customizing Details view is to show more information in the tooltip that displays when you hover the mouse over an item in Explorer. Doing so requires a Registry tweak, so make sure your Registry is backed up before proceeding. Instructions for adding your choice of content to a file's tooltips are available on the Ghacks.net site.

Note that the option to "Show pop-up description for folder and desktop items" must be checked in the Folder Options View dialog. Of course, tooltips drive some Windows users bonkers, so unchecking this item will prevent unwanted informational pop-ups from cluttering your screen.

Hide toolbars in Firefox and Internet Explorer
The most recent versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer are noteworthy for their slimmed-down toolbars--obviously taking a cue from Google's Chrome browser, which has downplayed border creep from the get-go. In addition to pressing F11 to hide all toolbars in Firefox and IE (and every other program), you can press Ctrl-+ (the plus sign) to zoom the page content in or Ctrl-- (the minus sign) to zoom back out. IE also puts a zoom menu at the bottom right of the screen.

You can hide individual toolbars by right-clicking the top of the browser window and unchecking the entries for the toolbars you don't want visible. To toggle the Menu bar in and out of view, press Alt or F10. To do the same for Firefox's status bar at the bottom of the screen, press Ctrl-/ (forward slash).

Customize Quick Access Toolbar drop-down menu
Collapse the Ribbon in Windows 7's version of Paint and other Ribbon-festooned applications by choosing Minimize the Ribbon on the Customize Quick Access Toolbar menu. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Give the Ribbon the boot...temporarily
People either love or hate the Ribbon interface that replaced the toolbars and menus in recent versions of Office apps and various Windows 7 utilities, such as WordPad and Paint. There's no denying the Ribbon is a screen-space hog, but you can put it out of sight by pressing Ctrl-F1. Repeating the shortcut brings the Ribbon back into view.

Alternatively, you can choose the Customize Quick Access Toolbar drop-down menu in the top-left corner of the screen and choose Minimize the Ribbon, or click the up-pointing caret in the upper right corner (next to the Help question mark icon). Another way to hide the Ribbon is to double-click the active tab; double-click it again to restore the Ribbon.

Making all these screen-space tweaks just to get a little more room for your programs' content can be a hassle, but it's cheaper than buying a larger monitor or second display. An added bonus is that having fewer info elements in view to compete for your attention helps you focus on the task at hand. Now if only we could figure out a way to prevent our software from interrupting us with those incessant "update available" pop-ups.