Your computer's dashboard is that small row of icons located along the bottom of the screen--at least that's where it's located on most PCs. Windows' taskbar shows you at a glance which applications are open and which programs are running in the background (represented by the icons in your system tray just to the left of the clock, though it's not an exhaustive list).
If you have your Quick Launch toolbar active, you also see shortcuts to open various apps, show the desktop, or perform other operations with a single click. Your taskbar's skills go far beyond simply lining up your shortcuts, however.
To customize your taskbar, you must first unlock it: right-click a blank area of the taskbar and make sure Lock the Taskbar is unchecked. Now you can resize or move the Quick Launch area, the system tray, and other elements residing there. To add an item, right-click the taskbar again, choose Toolbars, and select one of the elements listed.
For example, I like to keep my desktop free of shortcut icons, but I still want fast access to items I store there. By placing my desktop in the taskbar, I can open items by choosing them off the menu that appears when I click the double chevrons. I save space by dragging the Desktop toolbar to the right until only the word "Desktop" and the double chevrons are visible.
Instant browser access via the taskbar
Perhaps my favorite Vista innovation (there's a phrase you don't hear everyday) is the search box on the OS's Start menu. Simply press the Windows key and start typing to find a file, a program, or even a Web site.
This feature obviates the need for a separate Address bar at the bottom of your screen, but if you'd like this function in XP or earlier Windows versions, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Toolbars > Address. Drag it to the left or right to make the text box the right size. Now when you want fast access to a site, simply type the URL in the address box and press Enter to open the site in your default browser.
Should you find that your taskbar is getting crowded, just hover the mouse over the top edge until the double-arrow icon appears and drag up. To place the taskbar on either side or the top of the screen, click and hold a blank area of the taskbar and drag it to your desired location.
To make more screen space available to your application windows, set the taskbar to disappear when you're not using it. To do so, right-click the Start button, choose Properties, click the Taskbar tab, check "Auto-hide the taskbar," and click OK. Now your taskbar will appear only when you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen (or wherever you placed the taskbar).
You can also save some room by selecting to group similar taskbar buttons, which combines multiple open windows of the same app rather than placing a separate shortcut for each instance in the taskbar.
Freeware to enhance your taskbar
To get even more functionality out of your taskbar, try using one of the many free utilities designed for this purpose. Jessica Dolcourt recommends XNeat Windows Manager, which lets you set certain taskbar windows to appear on top at all times or rearrange the order of windows on the fly. Three other great taskbar utilities are Launchy, Taskbar Shuffle, and RocketDock, which Seth Rosenblatt described in a Download Blog post from last January.
Tomorrow: supercharge Firefox with the Chickenfoot scripting add-on.