How do I change the size of my desktop icons?

Occasionally, somebody asks how to change the size of the desktop icons, not because they want to change the size from the default, but rather because they somehow turned into giant marshmallow men and they want to get the default size back.

There are two ways to change the size of the desktop icons on Windows Vista:

  • Click on the desktop, then hold the Control key while rotating the mouse wheel.
  • Right-click on the desktop and choose an icon size from the View menu.

When people get into this state where the desktop icons are gargantuan, it's usually due to a mouse that went berserk thanks to some sort of hardware problem such as a loose connection. By the time the hardware problem is fixed, the mouse has clicked and twirled randomly all over the screen, causing all sorts of havoc.

Comments (27)
  1. David Walker says:

    “Click on the desktop, then hold the Control key while rotating the mouse wheel.”

    WHAT?  I thought that was a joke.  What a strange, weird, unusual, oddball thing to implement.  Someone was smoking something at the time this was implemented.  The user should be required to spin around at the same time!

    Is this discoverable?  Is it documented?  I searched Help in Windows XP and didn’t see it anywhere.  

    How strange.

    [Ctrl+WheelTurn is the standard shortcut for zoom. -Raymond]
  2. njkayaker says:

    My pet peeve is how easy it is to change the location of menus and windows by mistake. It think it is much more common to change the location of these things by mistake than it is to do it deliberately.

  3. Ens says:

    All 5 major browsers do ctrl+mousewheel for zoom, explorer does it for zoom, Office does it for zoom, all kinds of little utilities use it for zoom…

    It seems optimally discoverable to me.  If you’re just guessing, the wheel is the obvious zoom tool at your disposal.  Unfortunately it’s tied up with scrolling.  So after failing at that, you press one of the obvious "do something else" buttons (ctrl and alt, which serve almost no other purpose than to modify other actions), and TADA!, it works.

  4. Dave says:

    On a Synaptics touchpad, there are "scroll zones" at the right and bottom edges of the pad. If you move your finger along the edge, it is interpreted as mousewheel motion. If the Ctrl key is down, well there’s your zoom.

  5. Dog says:

    [Ctrl+WheelTurn is the standard shortcut for zoom. -Raymond]

    Yes, but in this case, the action is not a zoom, it is a resize (with possible reflow).

    A zoom action only changes the view of something and can be undone simply by applying the reverse zoom action.

    A resize action (as in this case) changes the effective size of something and may cause changes to the layout. It is not trivially reversible.

    See why this behavior is wrong?

    [Okay, then what would you have used as the shortcut? -Raymond]
  6. Roastbeef says:


    Agreed totally… plus:

      -On apps that zoom there is usually a toolbar display or status bar indicating zoom factor so that the user can see that a zoom has taken effect.  The desktop has no such indicator.

      -Apps also have a menu item for adjusting the zoom, so the user can spelunk through the menus and see this option.  Much much harder to walk through all desktop settings to find the one that changed.

  7. Paul says:

    [Ctrl+WheelTurn is the standard shortcut for zoom. -Raymond]

    Are the standard shortcuts documented anywhere? It would be really helpful if there was a list of them somewhere.

  8. Ben Cooke says:

    It seems strange that something like this should have a shortcut at all. I would expect that icon size would be something that a user would set once to their preference, not something that would change regularly in normal use.

  9. DCMonkey says:


    There’s a reason why you didn’t find it in the Windows XP help. This reason is indicated in Raymond’s article.



    It’s also the shortcut for zooming in and out/changing views in a folder window. I imagine it applies to the desktop because the desktop is a specialized folder window.

  10. Jonathan says:

    [it is a resize (with possible reflow).]

    Word and Outlook do the same. Aslo Firefox it you check "zoom text only".

  11. Aaargh! says:

    > "Click on the desktop, then hold the Control key while rotating the mouse wheel."

    WHAT?  I thought that was a joke.  What a strange, weird, unusual, oddball thing to implement.

    Try that on a Mac, it’s even better, it zooms the entire screen up to an insane scale. (probably just part of the accessibility features and it can be useful even for people without a visual handicap).

  12. James says:

    Aaargh!: It’s quite handy for looking at most small items on screen, or for showing a particular element to other people. Rather than peering at a little patch of my screen over my shoulder, I can blow that detail up to fill the screen and show a group of people at once.

    Re: rogue mice sabotaging the screen, I’ve had similar irritations with modifier keys getting "held" over remote console connections. Using Alt-Tab to switch away from the remote desktop seems a particular problem, presumably because pressing alt and tab gets transmitted but by the time I release alt the focus has already moved.

    (Ab-)Using the plain old scroll wheel to control zooming is a particular bug bear of mine, particularly on web content: I can be scrolling through a web page as normal, then suddenly hit a map and find I’ve stopped scrolling and zoomed in to crazy levels of detail without meaning too. Slightly ironic, since I implemented that "feature" myself three years ago when I was still using my own map applet on a website, but I certainly regret it now.

  13. Josh says:

    @James: The problems with stuck modifier keys in Remote Desktop sessions should have been fixed in RDC 6.1 (comes with XP SP3, Vista SP1 and WS08, and I believe it was made an optional update on XP SP2, possibly WS03 SP2).  The problem was fixed on the client-side, so as long as you have the updated client the problem should be fixed regardless of the server you are connecting to.

  14. mikeb says:

    [Ctrl+WheelTurn is the standard shortcut for zoom. -Raymond]

    I like Ctrl-Wheel to zoom.  Now if we can only get all the applications to zoom in or out using the same wheel direction.

  15. Angus says:


    Why does this need a shortcut at all? It’s a preference that most people will want to set once, then leave forever. Right-click and select view are perfectly adequate and discoverable for that.

  16. steveg says:

    If Ctrl+Wheel didn’t zoom it would be a bug. And if you’re like me and didn’t read the post clearly, it’s Vista and not XP. 2 minutes of my life I won’t get back :)

    A slight tip I’m sure 99.99% of you know, is if you get weird things happening due to a stuck modifier key, just press them all one a time and you’ll be back to normal. Shift. Ctrl. Alt. Win.

  17. Just freakin amazed! says:

    Is it just me or does this blog seem to be like a buglight for stupid people? Seriously, how do peopel like dog get anythign done, ever? Nothing is EVER to their satisfaction.

    @Dog – you make me tired just thinking about having to spend 5 minutes in a room with you.

  18. Dan says:

    For those of us who avoid Vista like the plague*, the "classic", pre-Vista method of sizing icons which goes all the way back to 95 and NT4 is to open up Display Properties > Appearance > Advanced, select Icon from the drop down list and adjust the size in pixels.  You can also adjust the spacing manually but it shouldn’t be necessary.

    XP users skipping Vista for Windows 7 corner:

    * – personally I have a triple-boot with XP, Vista, and Ubuntu, and am considering getting rid of Vista since I never boot into it anymore and I’m running out of disk space so 20gb more would help greatly.  Besides I have a vLited VM which runs faster than the Host XP OS.  Whee.

  19. Tester says:

    I tried to change the icon and font size on XP. What interested me was:

    1. Why does the process take so long – something like 5 to 10 seconds when you press apply.

    2. During this time the screen goes to various shades of gery and a dialog says please wait. I have the standard windows desktop (you know the one with the fields and clouds). As I watch the clounds in the left hand part of the screen seem to "shimmer" – is it just me?

  20. SuperKoko says:

    The Microsoft PS/2 mouse protocol allows a good driver to re-synchronize input if a byte is lost, since bit 3 of the first byte of a record is always set to 1 while second and third bytes will often have bit 3 set to 0. Protocol confusion is still an issue.

    For serial mice, the Microsoft protocol was even stronger. Only the first byte of a record had the sign bit set so that a good driver would allow protocol extensions (e.g. adding a fourth byte with a zero sign bit) without compatibility issue.

  21. Zian says:

    Going against the tide for a bit…

    Thanks for telling us about this feature, Raymond. I just tried zooming in such that the icons fill my desktop and I really like the way the icons look under Vista. I can even make out the reflections on the recycle bin.

  22. Marc says:

    I read about this somewhere – it’s quite useful. You get more size options than the settings window IIRC.

    Dan: Why do you avoid Vista like the plague? Unless you have an old PC, or have very old software you need to run – I can’t think of any reason to avoid it.

    As a former Mac user, not having a 3D accelerated desktop, and the tear free smoothness that goes with it just feels wrong!

    Not to mention the much quicker sleep resume times, better file management options, native wireless networking stack (woo, no more randomly disappearing access points, and yes zero-config doesn’t freeze my on-line games every 2 minutes), start-up apps getting launched on a low priority so the stuff *I* launch takes precedence,  a really nice start menu search, and a nice prompt that tells me when a program I’ve just run wants full access to my system.  In fact I miss Vista at work, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Delphi 7 didn’t work under Vista I’d be using it.

  23. David Walker says:

    DCMonkey:  No, it’s not mentioned in Raymond’s article WHY ctrl-mousewheel will make the icons larger.  

    His article said that the reason the icons got larger is because the mouse hardware went berserk.

    That’s not the same thing.  If Raymond’s article does say why Ctrl-Mousewheel is not documented in Help as making the desktop icons larger, please point out which sentence (of the six sentences) it is.


  24. David Walker says:

    Damn lack of Edit!  

    I meant to say, it’s not mentioned in Raymond’s article, why "ctrl-mousewheel will make the icons larger" is not documented in Help.

  25. GregM says:

    David, I think DC is referring to this sentence, particularly the last two words, about why you won’t find it in the Windows XP help.

    "There are two ways to change the size of the desktop icons on Windows Vista:"

    Now, if you said that you couldn’t find it in the Windows Vista help, that would be another matter.

  26. jtbworld says:

    Hope next Windows version supports higher quality of icons than now. At least IE8 has improved the favicons a bit.

  27. Matt says:

    I found this within the first few days of my Vista experience, and filed it away under "cool features that were only thought halfway through".

    There’s times I want to use it to get a better look at document thumbnails; but I never do, because the re-flow is destructive.  When I zoom back out 20 seconds later, I know that my icons will all be in a bunch of separate little clusters. and I’ll have to spend time dragging things back where they belong.

    (On the subject of scroll wheel tricks, I do use shift-scroll to move sideways in Office 2007.  All the time.  I didn’t realize how huge this extra little feature is until I had to go back to 2003 for work a few months later.  Yikes.)

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