Give yourself a clean desktop with these five virtual desktop managers

Virtual desktops allow you to have applications running on your computer sequestered into unique desktop views.

Users of UNIX and Linux are probably very used to virtual desktops; they've been present in the GUIs for those operating systems for a long time. Windows users, however, have been stuck with a single desktop - unless they use something like one of these five addons. For those of you who are unfamiliar, virtual desktops allow you to have applications running on your computer sequestered into unique desktop views or instances thereby keeping the various tasks you do separate and your desktop cleaner. Different virtual desktop managers implement this behavior differently but all choose from a relatively limited set of features to fulfill that implementation.

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In this edition of Five Apps, I take a look at five virtual desktop managers for Windows and highlight some of the various differences in the products.

Five Apps

1: Desktops by Sysinternals (Microsoft)

Microsoft would be remiss if they were not in this game somehow, given the fact that Windows is their operating system. However, their solution is probably the most feature-poor of the selections which is part of the reason why they're first (that, and "Desktops" is first, alphabetically).

Desktops is limited to four virtual desktops. Other than shortcut keys to select the desktop you want to view, the only other feature it has is a quick-preview of the four desktops by clicking on the notification center icon.

Otherwise, Desktops is unique among the selections on this list because it actually launches four separate instances of Explorer.exe to house the various applications. This has good points and bad. The good: it is much more stable than the selections that simply hide and show the applications based on the desktop selected; the bad: applications are locked to the desktop they were launched on - there is no moving of applications between desktops. Also, Desktops is a stand-alone executable whereas the others are all installed, and it is super small and light-weight. Desktops is free and compatible with Windows XP/Server 2003 or higher.

2: Dexpot by Dexpot GbR

Dexpot adds a few new and interesting features to the virtual desktop space. First, you can have up to 20 desktops available and can configure a multitude of options within the settings dialog. Second, they have several ways of selecting the current desktop including shortcut keys, an on-screen selection tool, and by right-clicking on the notification center icon.

Last, and my favorite, you can drag and drop applications from one desktop to another on the full-screen preview option or even assign applications to specific desktops permanently in your profile configuration giving you the ultimate control over what applications appear on what desktop.

Dexpot is free for personal, non-business use and costs approximately $32 US (Dexpot GbR is a European company, so their base currency is the Euro) for a single commercial license. License packs and site and multi-site licenses are available as well.

3: Finestra by Z-Systems

Finestra adds a few more interesting features into the mix. First, it has an unlimited number of desktops, although I can imagine that performance probably degrades after you pass a certain number. Also, like Dexpot, you can drag and drop applications from desktop to desktop on the full screen "switcher" but also adds an additional feature where you can simply drag a window to the edge of the screen to make it jump from one desktop to the next. You can see this effect in the image below by the "timer" mouse cursor counting off a half or full second before it jumps to the next desktop.

Finestra also comes with several other configuration options like per-desktop backgrounds, specific tray icons per desktop, and various colors, speeds, and hotkeys. As far as I can tell, this product is free for all types of users and situations, however there is a donate button on the settings screen.

4: goScreen by Andrei Gourianov

goScreen offers features similar to the others, but in a simpler implementation. For example, instead of a full screen view where you can move applications from desktop to desktop, goScreen contains a sidebar that uses a text-icon representation of the application or window to signify which desktop they are on. This sidebar is permanently displayed on the left edge of the screen by default, but can be hidden. The text-icon items are draggable to other desktops.

Clicking on a desktop will activate it with the windows in the last-used Z-order while clicking on an application will display its host desktop with that window at the top. goScreen contains many more features including a Launchpad module which allegedly allows you to dock applications, folders, and files there for quick launch, but I was unable to get it to work. You also have the ability to mark a window as always visible no matter which desktop you have selected. goScreen is shareware, with a 30-day trial period. A personal license is $28 and corporate licensing is available.

5: VirtuaWin

VirtuaWin is perhaps the simplest implementation on this list except for the Microsoft version; however the developers designed it that way. VirtuaWin's most stand-out feature is the fact that users can create custom modules for it, which expands the functionality greatly.

Within the base functionality is the ability to switch to a specific application or window, always show an application or window, or to "pull" an application or window to the currently displayed desktop. Like Finestra, VirtuaWin also allows you to drag windows from desktop to desktop by dragging to the edge of the screen, although without the cool animation. VirtualWin is free under GNU GPL.

Your picks

What virtual desktop managers have you used with Windows? Share your recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.

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