A Beginner’s Guide To the Desktop Folder

The Desktop folder is just a regular folder with the special property of existing over your desktop background as well as in Finder windows. Items on your Desktop are the same items as the ones you see in the Desktop folder in your Home user folder. The Desktop can be useful for quick or frequent access to files and folders, although many prefer to keep the Desktop clean and empty or use it for temporary storage of new files only.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: A Beginner’s Guide To the Desktop Folder.

If you're new to Mac you may have trouble understanding exactly what the desktop is. The word desktop is used to describe several different things. For instance sometimes people use it to describe everything that's on the screen. The entire desktop. The Menu bar, the background, the Dock at the bottom, any icons here.

The desktop is actually a special folder on your Mac and has one very special property. That is that everything that you put into this folder is also shown on the top of your desktop background when there is no Finder window open at all. So here you can see I've got three folders and two files on my desktop. They appear just by themselves over the desktop background.

But, in fact, these are all inside a special folder. So I'm going to create a new Finder window by going to File, New Finder Window in the Finder and I can see on the left, usually under Favorites, there is a link to Desktop. I'll click on Desktop and see those same five items there. I'm looking at the same location in two different ways. One way I'm looking on my desktop on the screen at those files just hanging out by themselves over the desktop background. The other way I'm looking at the Desktop as a folder. It's the same items. These are not duplicates. These are the just the same exact items with different ways to access them.

To better understand let's go into Column View here. I'm actually going to go up one level. Here's my Home folder. My user account is called MacMost and my Home folder has many things in it. It has Documents, has Downloads, Movies, Music, etc. And there's a folder called Desktop. If I look in that folder, I'm looking just like I was before, at those five items in there.

Now just to show you that these are exactly the same five items I'm going to change the name of this file here. Here's test.txt. I'm going to change it to My Test File and I want you to look closely at the icon here that represents that that same file here on the desktop. As soon as I hit Return it will change it there too. These are the same file. Just two different ways of looking at it. So whether I change the file name here, or here, it doesn't make any difference. I'm looking at the same thing.

Now the purpose of the desktop is to make it very easy to access these files. After all everything in my Documents folder is the only way for me to get to that stuff is to actually open a Finder window and go into the Documents folder. But the desktop folder I've got two ways. I can access it in the Finder just normally. Or I have quick access to it here on the desktop which could be handy for dragging and dropping things. Opening files use it all the time and a lot of people like to use it for that. Other people like to keep their desktop completely clean. Maybe use it for a quick temporary place to store something they've just created and then quickly moving it to a proper folder inside the Documents folder where they organize things.

So you can use it anyway you want. I prefer to keep my desktop very clean and rarely every use it so it's ready for any temporary use I may quickly need. Other people have extremely crowded desktops with just about everything they do on the desktop.

Now it's important to note that there are two different ways to setup your desktop. I'm going to look here in System Preferences under iCloud and I see information about my iCloud account including iCloud Drive. I click on Options and you can see I've got this option turned off. This is just a temporary account that I use to demonstrate things. In my main account I have this turned on. Desktop & Documents Folders are stored in iCloud. What that means is everything I stick on my desktop on this Mac will also appear on my desktop on my other Macs. So if you have a desktop Mac, like an iMac, and a laptop, like a MacBook, if you have this option turned on for both and you're using the same Apple ID then the desktop should look the same. You have the same items on your desktop no matter which Mac you're using. You make a change to an item on the desktop on one Mac and it makes a change on the other.

This is the modern preferred way to use the desktop and the documents folder is to have them all linked via iCloud. So if you have that turned on you're going to see the same desktop everywhere. But if you have more than one Mac and you have that turned off or only on for one of the Macs then you'll see different desktops with different contents everywhere. Again it's just a regular folder so it behaves just like a regular folder with just this special feature of having everything visible over your desktop background when no Finder window is present.

Comments: 7 Responses to “A Beginner’s Guide To the Desktop Folder”

    Alan Wharton
    1 year ago

    A useful brief and concise underscore of the relationship between finder and desktop. A useful aid memoire.

    Annemarie Godston
    1 year ago

    So, how do I get the stuff OFF my desktop? I’ve got a bunch of stuff displayed on my desktop. They are also in the folder as you suggested, but HOW do I get them off the Desktop itself? I have them in both places at this point and want to get them off the visible desktop. Help!

    1 year ago

    Annemarie: The important thing to realize is that the files are in “both places” — there is only ONE place. The Desktop folder and the Desktop are two ways of viewing the same place.
    So if you don’t want to see files on the Desktop, then you can’t put them in the Desktop Folder. Instead, move them to your Documents folder. Better still, create folders inside the Documents folder to organize them.

    Larry Mortimer
    1 year ago

    A note on your “Beginners Guides”. Even though I’m a longtime Mac user (since 1980’s) I always find something new or am reminded of some feature I had forgotten about. Thanks!

    William braun
    1 year ago

    I have the desktop and documents on my iMac stored on i Cloud. What will happen when I turn that feature on on my laptop if they have different items on desktop and in the documents folder. Do they merge them all together and both sets of documents on both desktops and documents – I use the same mac ID for both machines.

    1 year ago

    William: Right, it should merge them so all the files are there.

    Dick Franks
    1 year ago

    Let me echo Larry Mortimer’s comment: I’m also longtime Mac user (since 1984) that values your “Beginner’s Guides” where I’m often pleasantly surprised to find something new or reminded of features I’d forgotten.

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