Are you looking for a quality app launcher that doesn’t cost anything? You actually only need to look to your Windows machine. Today we show you a little-known feature in Windows that provides you with a super powered application launcher.

If you’ve ever searched the shareware sites for an application launcher (a small program used to start other programs), then you will have noticed that there are hundreds out there.  Some of them even cost money.  Which one should you pay for, download, install, configure and use?  Perhaps none of them!  There’s a little-known feature in all recent versions of Windows that can serve as a fully featured application launcher — not just for programs, but also for files, folders, playlists — anything at all!

Quick Launch menu functioning as an application launcher 

You may have noticed after installing one too many programs on your system that your Quick Launch bar (the icons next to your Start button) “overflows”, by hiding the extra icons behind a little arrow:


Most power-users see this as an annoyance, and quickly remove the unnecessary icons, or widen the Quick Launch bar to make all the icons visible.  But one man’s annoyance is another man’s can’t-live-without feature:  This “overflow” area can be utilized, by filling it with the icons (shortcuts to programs, files, folders, etc) of your choice.  You can even add sub-folders, customize icons and add separator lines. 

Also, unlike most application launchers out there, you can right-click on any item and get a complete context-menu for easy customization of any item.

This system works in Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, although it will only work in Windows 7 if you revert to the old-style taskbar and enable the Quick Launch bar.

Possible Uses

From the screenshot above, you can see some of the potential uses for this feature.  Aside from the various individual programs shown, there’s also:

  • A sub-folder for hundreds of playlists (shortcuts to M3U or PLS files), which (in this case) are further arranged into sub-sub-folders
  • A sub-folder for links to online radio stations
  • A sub-folder for shortcuts to RDP files (Windows Remote Desktop) or VNC files — each of which represents a connection to view/control another computer
  • A sub-folder for shortcuts to the various virtual machines on your system
  • A sub-folder for often-used documents (Word docs, spreadsheets, etc)
  • A shortcut to the Quick Launch folder itself, where all these links and sub-folders are stored

Other useful ideas include:

  • Links to often-used folders — on the local machine or around the network

It works on workstations and servers:

How to Set it Up

If you haven’t enabled the Quick Launch bar, you should do that first.

Next, you need to open the Quick Launch folder — the folder that contains the icons (shortcuts) that appear in the Quick Launch bar.  This can be done by clicking the Start button and typing shell:quick launch (XP users should first click the Start button then click the Run option), and then pressing Enter:

Open the Quick Launch folder

The Quick Launch folder should open, showing the default set of icons that Windows loads in there:

The Quick Launch Folder

From here, it’s pretty easy.  Simply create shortcuts in this folder for any program, file or folder you need in your new application launcher.  You can create shortcuts to just about anything (drives, control panel applets, network shares, etc), and you can organize them into sub-folders if you wish (each sub-folder appears in the Quick Launch bar as a sub-menu).

Always a useful addition to this folder is a shortcut to the Quick Launch folder itself.  This may sound oddly recursive, but it’s actually very useful to have a shortcut to the Quick Launch folder on the Quick Launch bar, so that you can easily add new icons, delete icons, or reorganize them (although most of these functions can be performed by right-clicking any icon, or by dragging and dropping).  To add an icon for the Quick Launch folder, locate the Quick Launch folder in the right pane of your Explorer window, then right-drag the folder (click and drag with the right mouse button) into the right pane of the Explorer window:

Add a shortcut to the Quick Launch folder to the Quick Launch folder

When you release the mouse button, choose Create shortcuts here from the menu that pops up.  You may wish to rename the resulting shortcut.

Create Separator Lines

Some application launcher programs come with the ability to create separator lines, for breaking large groups of icons into smaller functional groups.  Windows has no such feature built in, but with a little creativity we can create some decent imitation ones:

Those separator lines are simply Windows shortcuts that have been renamed to “——————“.  Create one at any time by right-clicking in the Quick Launch folder and selecting New/Shortcut.  It doesn’t really matter what we type into the location of the shortcut (because we’re never going to click on it), but it should be something that exists on the Windows computer.  You can type notepad if you like:

Create shortcut - step 1

Secret tip:  Given that no-one is ever going to click on this separator line, you may wish to make it a shortcut to some secret document (or folder) that you don’t want anyone else to ever discover.  Only you will know that the innocent-looking separator line is really a shortcut to your plans for world-domination!

After you click Next, you will be prompted to enter a name for the shortcut.  Type in —————– (it doesn’t matter how many “-” characters you type):

Create shortcut - step 2

Tip:  If you need multiple separator lines, you’ll need to create each one with a different number of “-” characters.

After you click Finish, your separator line shortcut is created:

The line shortcut - before

The only thing left to do with the separator line is to remove the blue Notepad icon.  We do this by changing the shortcut’s icon to a blank icon.  First, right-click on the separator line and choose Properties.  The shortcut properties box appears:

Line shortcut properties

Click the Change Icon… button.  The Change Icon box appears:

The file in which we need to look for icons is %SystemRoot%\system32\SHELL32.dll  This is a special file that contains many, many icons for use with Windows shortcuts.  Any time you need to change the icon on a Windows folder or shortcut and are looking for a decent selection of icons, check this file first!

Enter this filename into the field at the top and press Enter.  The lower box will fill with icons:

A blank icon can be found in the 13th column, 2nd row.  Highlight that icon and click OK.  Your separator line shortcut now appears to have no icon at all:

The line shortcut - after


After you’ve added all the icons (shortcuts), separator lines and sub-folders you want, the only thing remaining is to organize them into the correct order in your Quick Launch bar.

This is easier than it sounds.  All you need to do is pick up each icon with the mouse and drag it up or down to its correct location (being careful not to drop it on top of another icon):

If an icon appears in the main part of the Quick Launch bar (next to the Start Button) which you need to move into the “overflow” menu, this is actually tricky to achieve.  It turns out to be easier to drag the icons out of the “overflow” menu that don’t belong there, and drop them on the main part of the Quick Launch bar.

Note that reorganizing the icons within the Quick Launch folder (when the folder window is open) has no effect on their position in the Quick Launch bar or menu.

That’s it!

And remember, the more time you spend getting your often-used programs, files and folders into your new application launcher, the more time you’ll save in future hunting around your system for them.

And don’t forget the two preliminary steps for the Windows 7 users out there:

Make the Windows 7 Taskbar Work More Like Windows XP or Vista

Add the Quick Launch Bar to the Taskbar in Windows 7