Hardware

A new virtual desktop tool from Microsoft's Windows Sysinternals team

Microsoft's Windows Sysinternals team has developed a lightweight and very dependable virtual desktop manager called Desktops that allows you to create up to four virtual desktops on your computer. Greg Shultz introduces you to Desktops and shows you how it works.

If you're like most computer users, chances are that when you're working on a major project, you have multiple applications running at the same time. When you do, your taskbar can get quite full and you can find yourself spending a lot of time locating and switching between applications. In this situation, even Windows Vista's stacking taskbar buttons aren't much help.

Microsoft's Windows Sysinternals team has developed a lightweight and very dependable virtual desktop manager called Desktops that allows you to create up to four virtual desktops on your computer. This allows you to spread out your applications on the various desktops. By doing so, you can work more efficiently by grouping applications for related tasks on separate desktops. For example, you could have one desktop for programming tools, one for database work, one for e-mail, and one for surfing the Internet.

As you may remember, Microsoft's PowerToys For Windows XP set included a similar utility called Virtual Desktop Manager. While the new Desktops utility performs the same function as the Virtual Desktop Manager PowerToy, it uses a much more efficient resource management system and was designed to work in Windows Vista.

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I'll introduce you to Desktops and show you how it works.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a TechRepublic download.

Getting Desktops

Desktops, which works in Windows XP SP3 as well as Windows Vista, is available as a free download from the Windows Sysinternals page on the Microsoft TechNet site. It can also be run online directly from the Live.Sysinternals.com site. Either way there isn't any installation process as Desktops runs from a single executable file — Desktops.exe.

How it works

Desktops uses a Windows desktop object for each desktop. As such, each desktop runs its own instance of Explorer.exe and is completely separate from the others. This design makes Desktops run very efficiently with very little overhead, but at the same time it carries with it a few idiosyncrasies that some might call a lack of features that can be found in other similar utilities. However, for what features it doesn't provide, Desktops more than makes up for in speed and reliability.

For instance, in Desktops:

  • The Aero theme is available only on the first desktop.
  • Flip 3D works only on the first desktop.
  • Many of the Notification Area icons appear only on the first desktop.
  • You cannot move applications from one desktop to another.
  • You cannot have separate background wallpapers on each desktop.
  • There is no way to close Desktops other than logging off.

Many people might immediately consider such drawbacks an immediate turnoff and never really give Desktops a second thought. However, I'd urge you to seriously experiment with Desktops and see for yourself whether you can benefit from having more than one desktop at your disposal for your everyday computing tasks. With this in mind let's take a look at how you use and configure Desktops.

Using Desktops

As I mentioned, you can download Desktops and launch it from Desktops.exe or you can launch the executable online from Live.Sysinternals.com site. Either way, you'll see the Desktops icon appear in the Notification Area, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

You'll find the Desktops icon in the Notification Area after you launch it.

This single icon serves several purposes. First, you can double-click it to configure Desktops' switcher hotkey. Second, you can single click it to launch individual desktop sessions as well as display a graphical image of the four desktops, very similar to the type of image you see for the Taskbar thumbnail preview. Third, you can hover over the icon and a popup will identify which number desktop is currently displaying. Let's take a closer look.

When you double-click the Desktops icon, you'll see the dialog box shown in Figure B. As you can see, the default switcher hotkey is [Alt] and the number, but you can specify any combination of the four hotkey modifiers and either the numbers or the functions keys as the desktop specifier. You can even configure Desktops to launch at logon.

Figure B

You can configure the hotkey that you use to switch between running desktops.
When you click the Desktops icon, you'll see the thumbnail preview. To switch to an open desktop, you can simply click its image (Figure C). As you can see, this is also the way to launch individual desktop sessions — you just click a blank image. When you do, the desktop will essentially boot up and the Desktops will instantly make it the current desktop.

Figure C

Clicking the Desktops icon will display a graphical image of the four desktops, very similar to the type of image that you see for the Taskbar thumbnail preview.
As you're working on a desktop, you can hover your mouse pointer over the Desktops icon to display a popup that tells you which of the four desktops you are on, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

You can hover over the Desktops icon, and a popup will identify which desktop is currently displaying.

Since Desktops requires very little overhead, theoretically, you could leave it running all the time. However, as I mentioned, if you want to close Desktops, you have to log off. When you do so, you'll hear a log off sound effect for each desktop you have open.

What's your take?

Have you experimented with Desktops from the Windows Sysinternals team? Did you use the Virtual Desktop Manager from Microsoft's PowerToys For Windows XP set? Have you used another third-party virtual desktop tool? Please drop by the Discussion Area and let us hear from you.

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About

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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