Windows Basics – Icons vs Shortcuts

To be able to use your computer more effectively, you should be familiar with as many of its features as you can.

This tutorial covers the basics of icons and shortcuts and is a continuation of the tutorial, Windows Basics – The Taskbar.

Icons are small pictures that are used to represent a program or a file and are used all throughout Windows, including the Desktop and Taskbar. They make it easier to find the program or file and open it. Also, an icon next to a file usually tells us what program is used to open that file, which also tells us what kind of file it is. For example, a Word document will have an icon for Microsoft Word next to the name – or above it.

Word Icon-Caption

This means that the file is associated with Word and when you double-click on it, Windows will open Word, then open the file in Word for you to view and edit.

Shortcuts are also icons, but the difference is that a shortcut isn’t an actual file; it is a pointer to a file – a shortcut to it. The way to tell them apart is that a shortcut will have a small arrow in the bottom left corner when it is displayed on the desktop and in Windows Explorer. But just to confuse things, it will not have an arrow when it’s on the Start Menu or Taskbar. You can safely assume that they are shortcuts as no files are stored in these places.

All Shortcuts-Caption


Shortcuts are handy because without them, we would have to know exactly where the main file was just to open a program. For example, you could have an icon for Microsoft Word 2010 on your desktop where it’s easy to find, or you could open Windows Explorer, go to your C: drive, double-click on Program Files, double-click on Microsoft Office, double-click on Office14, and finally double-click on Winword.exe. Which method would you prefer?

The other thing you need to know is that because the icon is only a shortcut, you can delete it without actually deleting the file itself. This is important if you want your computer and your programs to still run smoothly.


Now that you have a better understanding of this important feature of Windows and most other operating systems, you might want to look at some of the other tutorials here at


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