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If you want really quick access to launch a frequently used application without putting extra icons on your desktop, you can add that application to the context menu for the desktop with a simple registry hack. Here’s how to do it.

Naturally, we’ve also covered the opposite scenario — how to clean up your messy Windows context menu, which is an equally useful read if you’ve got a bunch of items you want to remove from the menu.

This technique will work in Windows Vista, 7, 8, 10, or 11. We don’t have an XP computer to test it on, but we’re guessing it doesn’t work there.

Note: This method works for Windows 11, but changes to the right-click menu mean you need to click “Show More Options” to see the app you added—unless you restore the old context menus on Windows 11.

Adding Applications to the Desktop Context Menu

For today’s lesson, we’ll show you how to add Notepad to the menu, but you could add any applications you want instead. The first thing you’ll want to do is open up regedit.exe through the Start Menu search or run box, and then browse down to the following key:

HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Directory\Background\shell

RegEdit view of the Shell key, plus the subkeys.

The screen should look similar to this one if you are in the right place.

Next, you’ll want to create a new key underneath the shell key, the name of which is exactly what is going to show up on the desktop menu. Right-click on the “shell” key, and then choose New > Key from the menu.

Give the new key the name that you want to show up on the desktop context menu. For this example we’ll be using Notepad.

Name the new key "Notepad."

If you want to assign an “Alt” key to this menu entry for quicker access, you can change the “(Default)” value on the right and put an & character in front of the key you want to use. For instance, if you wanted to be able to just use the N key to launch Notepad once the desktop context menu pops up, you can do this:

Change the value of "Default" key to "&Notepad"

Next you’ll need to create the command key that will actually hold the command used to launch the application. Right-click on the new Notepad key, and then choose New Key from the menu.

Give this key the name “command” in lowercase.

Name the new sub-key "command"

To complete this step you’ll need the full path to the application that you want to launch. You can use Shift + Right-Click to get the Copy as Path menu item to find this more quickly.

Note: Of course, for Notepad you wouldn’t need the full path, since Notepad is on the system PATH, but this is just an example.

Now click on “command” on the left side, and then double-click on the (Default) key in the right side to edit the string value.

Paste in the full path to the executable that you got from the “Copy as Path” step above, or you can put in the full path yourself if you’d like.

Once it’s done, it should look like this:

The value of the "default" has been set to Notepad's path.

And right-clicking on the desktop will produce the new menu item… naturally, using this menu item should launch Notepad.

You can add as many applications to the desktop context menu as you’d like, just repeat the steps again with a new menu item name.

Profile Photo for Lowell Heddings Lowell Heddings
Lowell is the founder and CEO of How-To Geek. He’s been running the show since creating the site back in 2006. Over the last decade, Lowell has personally written more than 1000 articles which have been viewed by over 250 million people. Prior to starting How-To Geek, Lowell spent 15 years working in IT doing consulting, cybersecurity, database management, and programming work.
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Profile Photo for Nick Lewis Nick Lewis
Nick Lewis is a staff writer for How-To Geek. He has been using computers for 20 years --- tinkering with everything from the UI to the Windows registry to device firmware. Before How-To Geek, he used Python and C++ as a freelance programmer. In college, Nick made extensive use of Fortran while pursuing a physics degree.
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