What are those little overlay icons: Windows 7 edition

Some time ago, I summarized the overlay icons that come with Windows. There have been some changes in Windows 7, so I figured it'd be worth coming up with a new list.

  • A small arrow. This is still the shortcut overlay.
  • A padlock. This means that you have a private item in a non-private directory. (See below.)
  • A downward-pointing blue arrow. This is still the "to be written to CD" overlay.
  • A pair of green swirly arrows. This means that the item is available offline. This used to be a pair of blue swirly arrows. Apparently, green is the new blue. (See below for more discussion.)
  • A gray X. This means that the file has been archived to tape and will take a very long time to access. (Formerly, a black clock.)

A private item is an item where the only user account with access is you.¹ You create one of these, for example, by going to the sharing wizard and saying Share with: Nobody. To avoid clutter, the overlay is shown only when there is a transition from non-private to private. (Otherwise you'd have a lock overlay on everything in your Documents folder, for example.)

No longer present as an overlay is the sharing hand. Why was the sharing hand removed in favor of the private overlay?

Given the changes in how people use computers, sharing information is becoming more and more of the default state. When you set up a HomeGroup, pretty much everything is going to be shared. To remove the visual clutter, the information was moved to the Details pane. What's more, a single overlay cannot express the different ways an item can be shared, so in order to figure out what the deal is, you have to go to the Details pane anyway.

A similar thing happened to the offline files swirly arrows. They used to be placed on every item that was available offline, but feedback from customers highlighted that this was unnecessarily noisy because it trumped other (more informative) overlays. Instead, the swirly arrows are shown only on the root of the folder that is pinned and not on everything contained within it. In other words, the swirly arrows are placed on the thing you clicked on to make the files available offline, and conversely, on the things you need to click on to stop making them available offline. Per-file overlay information is still displayed in the preview pane, but it's been taken out of the icon list.

Generally speaking, overlays are not a good way of presenting information because there can be only one overlay per icon, and there is a limit of 15 overlays per ImageList. If there are two or more overlays which apply to an item, then one will win and the others will lose, at which point the value of the overlay as a way of determining what properties apply to an item diminishes since the only way to be sure that a property is missing is when you see no overlay at all. (If you see some other overlay, you can't tell whether it's because your property is missing or because that other overlay is showing instead of yours.)


¹Even though you are the only user account, there can still be access granted to groups and non-user accounts such as the Administrators group and the SYSTEM account.

Comments (28)
  1. asd says:

    Sad thing shared folder icon was removed. That was the only overlay that was useful to me.

  2. R. Bemrose says:

    There is one icon missing from this list:

    A multi-colored shield icon.  This means that a UAC prompt will appear when you access run this program.

    Or at least I’ve only seen it on programs.

    (I also find it amusing that the captcha I’m being presented with is 404.

  3. Leo Davidson says:

    After being confused by it, then working out what it meant, I’ve found the padlock icon to be really useful.

    I often move video files into a share that my HTPC can see and if I move them from a private folder on the same partition they don’t always get the permissions of the new folder (depending on which program I move them with, anyway). The padlock means I notice that straight away instead of when I’m downstairs trying to view the thing on my TV. ’tis a good idea.

    I missed the share overlays at first but not anymore. I think I just missed them because I was used to seeing them. It’s not like I am constantly sharing and unsharing folders and need a visual reminder of the state of them at all times. Shares are a rather static piece of configuration.

  4. anon says:

    What I’d like to know is: Was the overlay simply removed so users can still set their own overlay for shared items? Or was the ability to display an overlay for shared items itself removed? I hope it’s the former and if not I hope Windows 7 SP1 to make it the latter. User choice remember? After all these years!

  5. anon says:

    Sorry I meant if not I hope Windows 7 SP1 makes it to be the former, that is, just not show it by default but allow users to customize it.

  6. someone says:

    Btw why is HomeGroup flawed/insecure by design?: http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/w7itpronetworking/thread/65a65b3a-b9b3-46da-8414-265797990c62. Of course I want HomeGroup to simplify sharing, of course I want HomeGroup to share my entire libraries but on downlevel OSes, libraries aren’t exactly the equivalent of special folders. By sharing the entire users folder and giving permission to “Everyone”, you are causing massive potential privacy/sharing issues. That essentially makes HomeGroup as secure as password less file sharing/simple file sharing.

    [You still need a password to connect to the share, as noted on pages 9, 12, 14, and 15 of the document. -Raymond]
  7. James Schend says:

    What about the little icon with two MSN-style people looking at each other?

    I have a DVD encoder program that shoves this overlay on every file it creates, and I have absolutely no idea what it means or how to get rid of it.

  8. Miff says:

    Yeah, I have the same question as James Schend.  I frequently use Cygwin and any file it creates has that icon on it.  (Here http://i45.tinypic.com/1692uf6.png is what it looks right.)

  9. Bengt Larsson says:

    @James Schend, Miff: as a guess, it has something to do with access control lists. Cygwin likes to set its own ACL instead of using the default one.

  10. Brian Hoyt says:

    We have gotten the gray X in another scenario.  If a file is marked for offline but offline files are disabled (or allocated 0 space) on the machine and then the machine goes offline (or it believes it is offline) we will get the gray X.  We thought it indicated an unavailable offline file.  Before someone asks how this circumstance happens, it is User GPO vs Machine GPO when a student gets a loaner laptop.

  11. Andrew says:

    I’m curious to know why is there a 15 image limit for overlays?

    And do external overlay programs such as TortiseSVN that can place overlay icons on images need to use up the remaining slots out of the 15 images, or is there a new limit for new overlays?

    [Follow the link, then study INDXETOOVERLAYMASK and its consequences. It’s all there – you just have to put the pieces together. -Raymond]
  12. James Schend says:

    Bengt – Thanks. Do you know if there’s a help file or somewhere to get a complete list of icons and what they mean? Raymond’s article is great, but it’s only scratching the surface. :)

    [A complete list is impossible because anybody in his garage can make up a new one. -Raymond]
  13. A complete list is impossible

    Bah.  There are a finite number of overlay formats and a finite number of possible icons in each format.  A complete list is therefore quite possible, though not perhaps as useful as James would like.

  14. Gary says:

    Wonder if the gray X will become repurposed to mean "stored on that slow, spinning hard disk" when there’s native support for SSD-As-Cache scenarios in Windows. I assume.

  15. Dean Harding says:

    "…external overlay programs such as TortiseSVN…"

    TortoiseSVN has to work within the limit of 15 as well. That’s why TortoiseSVN, TortoiseCVS, TortioseGit and TortoiseHG all share a common "TortoiseOverlays" component, otherwise if you had two or more of those programs installed, they wouldn’t be able to use all of the overlays.

    As for finding out all the possible overlays, I believe the following registry key will show you all of your currently installed overlay handlers. You’ll just have to follow the tracks a bit:


  16. someone else says:

    People have already started screaming: http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/en/windowsserver2008r2general/thread/09aba76f-7d9f-49ee-a005-23de8937b288. They do notice when MS does ridiculous things.

  17. someome says:

    @RChen, it does not seem to ask for my password when accessing the HomeGroup from an XP machine. It is setting to permission level to "Everyone" instead of "Authenticated Users".

  18. Wolf Logan says:

    @R. Bemrose:

    Strictly speaking, the shield means that the app will request elevation when run. Whether that means you’ll get a UAC prompt is up to a variety of other factors (in Win7). Also, it doesn’t necessarily mean the app *requires* elevation; it’s possible Windows has detected it’s an older app that is simply *likely* to need elevation in order to work correctly. It’s still up to you to decide whether to grant elevation when it’s requested.

  19. Marquess says:

    "that slow, spinning hard disk"

    Actually, 10000 RPM disk are still blazingly fast, especially on sequential reads …

  20. asd says:

    @someone else, thanks for the link! It’s fun how people quote Raymond without attributing the quote to him. Like that Vincent Hu, MSFT, Moderator. I guess it’s the default policy now. “Raymond Chen forbids us from quoting him as the reliable source, well, fine, we’ll just pretend we’re coming up with his words ourselves”.

    [How do you know he was quoting me? Maybe I was quoting him? Or maybe we both were quoting the same third person? -Raymond]
  21. DWalker says:

    As for shared folders, perhaps an attribute column (or a separate column showing whether something is shared) would be useful.

  22. J says:

    What a nice example of how hard it must be to make changes in Windows without annoying some percentage of the user base.  I’ve found the sharing overlay useful before, but haven’t particularly missed it.

    (Personally, I’d have thought someone managing an enterprise network with thousands of shares changing daily would have required something other than these overlays to manage it, but I guess not.)

  23. James Schend says:

    [I included all the ones built into Windows that I knew about. -Raymond]

    Oh well, thanks anyway.

    I can cope with the "MSN people" icon being there, as long as it doesn’t mean something like "these files will self-destruct in 24 hours!" Just bugs the heck out of me that there’s no way to look it up.

  24. Leo Davidson says:

    I think the "MSN people" overlay is a bit like the opposite of the padlock overlay. I’ve seen it on "public items in private places" (as opposed to "private items in public places" which is what the padlock is for).

    Not 100% sure, though.

    If I create a new folder below my C:UsersLeo dir and then share it (via Advanced sharing, FWIW), then the "MSN people" overlay appears over that folder. But it then vanishes as soon as I refresh the directory. (Perhaps the overlay limit is being hit?)

  25. James Schend says:

    [A complete list is impossible because anybody in his garage can make up a new one. -Raymond]

    Well, ok, but how about a complete list of the ones *built-in* to Windows? I’ve Googled, I’ve searched Windows Help, I can’t find any mention of that icon anywhere. (Admittedly, it’s not an easy thing to search for.)

    I highly, highly doubt that my video program made by GNU-loving hippies integrates with Windows well-enough to provide its own icon overlay. But hey, I could be wrong.

    [I included all the ones built into Windows that I knew about. -Raymond]
  26. someone else says:

    @asd, I wasn’t quoting him at all. I was just hoping that because a DCR has been made to PSS, MS might accept it.

  27. 640k says:

    15 available overlay icons in an OS from 2009 is a joke.

    And every new Windows version is allocating more and more of the scarce resources available, thus making existing apps work worse.

    Windows 8 will propably work-a-round this problem somehow (in an even more flawed way). Not because the designers wants other apps to work better, but because the want >15 icons themselves. That would be the only reason for them to fix this pathetically low limit.

    [I don’t understand why you want to make a bad situation worse. In my opinion, overlays are a bad way of conveying information since you can display only one of them at a time. We should be making overlays less attractive, not more. -Raymond]

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