PCs

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.

TechRepublic's Windows Vista Report newsletter, delivered every Friday, offers tips, news, and scuttlebutt on Vista development, as well as a look at new features in the latest version of the Windows OS. Automatically sign up today!

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.

34 comments
skylark42
skylark42

I use a little utility called IconRestore (IR) to save my layout periodically, in order to recover from remote logins, which for some reason b*gger up my desktop. Problem is, it seems that (after a Save of the Desktop 1 layout) IR cannot restore this layout to Desktop 2. When you try, it cobbles up Desktop 2 completely. Neither can it save the layout of D2 (3, 4). I should probably send this to the developer of IR but I thought someone here might have encountered the problem and found a fix...

skylark42
skylark42

With versions of Firefox up to and including 11, I was able (using 2 different Firefox profiles) to open two instances, once on Desktop 1 and one on Desktop 2. With Firefox 12 and above, this no longer works. That is, Firefox opens its second profile window just fine - BUT ALWAYS ON DESKTOP 1. I therefore cannot use it as I always have, on several screens at once (which gives me a hugely increased desktop area). Does anyone know how to fix this, please? I imagine there's something in Firefox's Config file that can be changed but I've failed to find it. Thanks! (To clarify, this is sysinternals desktops.exe. I am on Windows XP, SP3.)

MatDiesel
MatDiesel

Another really cool thing, that probably won't make much of a difference to most people, but really did it for me, was that it is really simple to automate sysinternals desktops. In fact it is just three functions (OpenDesktop, SwitchDesktop, CloseDesktop). Although some of the others have plugins written for them (virtuawin in particular), I like the fact that I can write stuff for it easily, for example I like being able to switch by moving the mouse to a screen edge.

DJRudy
DJRudy

I just downloaded Desktops (because I love spaces on my Mac so much). Installed fine, but when I switched to Desktop 2, none of the buttons on my KEM Trackball worked. I am running Windows 7 Pro64. Just my $0.02

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

I used to use the Virtual Desktop Manager that was part of the XP Power Tools suite. At the time I working in a high volume helpdesk which required me to support hundreds of applications running on multiple platforms. I found it to be overwhelming trying to manage the upward of 20 windows/apps/webpages that I would have to have open to perform my job. Using the multiple desktops I could group related applications logically to a specific desktop. Once you were used to navigating between desktops the application worked well for its purpose. The problems that I encountered were related to confusion and system resources. Over the course of the day working between the various desktops, you would sometimes get confused and forget which application or web portal was running on which desktop, and you would sometimes open another instance of an application on a different desktop. The footprint of the Virtual Desktop Manager was small, but every application will consume system resources, and one application that hits the processor heavily will not only affect the desktop that it is running, but every desktop and application that you have running. For the job I work now the Virtual Desktop Manager would not be a good fit. I do better using RDP tools and Virtual Machines to test out other OS platforms.

reisen55
reisen55

Not that I use Linux extensively. I do have multiple desktops on Windows XP, and it is called RDP to different computers which gives me far more flexibility to do work on different tasks on different machines instead of one machine. Honestly, I find no real reason for this enhancement, our minds can only manage so much chaos at one time and that is bypassing the legendary faults of Vista entirely.

garyq
garyq

Kudos to Microsoft for catching up 10 years later with what I used to be able to do with Dashboard and Win3.11 10 years ago. Come to think of it, Dashboard was friendlier - as many desktops as you had RAM for (4mb!) a funkly clock and stars or moons for wallpaper... Don't get me started on Xtree, or we'll be reminiscing forever!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

But "You cannot move applications from one desktop to another." is a deal breaker for me. I normally have three or four desktops open at time. If I open an e-mail related to a particular project, I like to move it to the same desktop as the applications I'm using for that project. Dexpot remains my preferred virtual desktop utility for XP and Vista. http://www.dexpot.de/index.php?lang=en

LarryD4
LarryD4

I have used the Virtual Desktop option that comes when you use Nvidia cards and though a cool feature that was almost always available in any flavor on linux. I tend to just not use it. I would rather have a massive screen, with one desktop and the ability to have mutiple windows open on the desktop then have to flip over to other virtual desktops. When I had virtual desktops on, I would tend to forget what was running where and I would just open the application a second time.

gilbert_salter_jr
gilbert_salter_jr

It reminds me of IBM's OS2. Is it limited to virtual memory and cpu speed as well?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

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? Are multiple desktops important to your daily routine?

brent.russell
brent.russell

360 Desktop - been playing with it. Rather than a cube it uses a very wide ribbon picture for which there is now an app on their site so you can create your own pic. Wider ( longer ) the pic the more space you have and you just scroll sideways in either direction. So it's only one desktop but can be very wide and have a lot of space.

zefficace
zefficace

And Linux does it better. For instance, if you like your eye candy, it's on all desktops... hmmm... go figure. Again MS seems to want to prove that it likes to boast copying others as being innovation. It is the accumulation of stupid little things like this, and some bigger complaints, that convince me to switch my home computing to Linux a year ago... and hopefully the office soon.

Unemployed IT Guy
Unemployed IT Guy

I've been using virtuawin for about three years now and I love it. I use hotkeys to switch desktops and it will let me move active windows to any desktop I want. Lightweight too!

matt
matt

We run a print production environment and need to have many windows open for email, PDF processing, print production and file management. To be able to split these up would be great but Desktops does not work with us. The worst part is that you cannot open up any browser (chrome, firfox or ie7) in multiple desktops. The browser just fall flat on their face or close the open windows in the other desktop. By the way you can shut down desktops without logging of by ending the "desktop" process in task manager.

pgit
pgit

But then I'm on Linux. I do plan on giving this a try. But does anyone know if the powertoys work on vista?

neighborvl
neighborvl

I have never over the years found the right fit for me. Years back in the days of Windows 3, or so, I believe Symantec or PC Tools had a VDM with one fantastic capability and that was to to be able to define your commonly used desktops and store them on your hard drive at logoff and restore them as you had last used them after login. If someone took all of the wants posted here and added this one desired capability, at least by me, I believe they would have the killer VDMer. BTW, provide a Linux version as well!

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

it has been a buggy POS for me. Especially when dealing with the background pic. It gets much worse if you choose multiple different ones, however just having a background pic seems to easily cause problems with it. I much prefer the more stable Linux version (and allowing up to 20 desktops)(as if I need that many).

SKDTech
SKDTech

In contrast to your experience though I was able to move applications between the desktops, it was clunky and inefficient in practice though. Maybe I tripped across an undocumented feature? Overall I would say good initiative on the part of Sysinternals but I think they still have a bit to go before they can offer an experience similar to the comparable functionality on a Linux desktop.

Harlemite
Harlemite

And also the reason that we're now 100% Mac (Unix under the hood) in our home, along with my now dabbling in Ubuntu. As much as I'm grateful to Windows, and I am!, they no longer come to mind when I hear words like stability and innovation. Unfortunately, I work in an organization so large and seemingly lacking the vision or leadership needed to move on to something else. It's job security, but not without cost to the users.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

X and Xorg are the graphic desktop layer. X/Xorg started supporting multiple desktops long ago. Window Managers which draw the pretty GUI on top of X/Xorg have had the fancy bling for a long time too. If I remember correctly, Enlightenment was the first or one of the very first to focus on bling versus pure functionality. Linux is but the kernel that X/Xorg runs on top of.

---TK---
---TK---

So whats next? You think they will rip off the 3D Desktop Cube?

jhughes
jhughes

Used the previous MS Power Toy, it lacked, this one has a few things on the list of shortcomings I use constantly. Used a few others and they were too slow, or too unstable, or too many setting for what you need. Virtuawin is the one for me. Fast, stable, portable!

?/\/\?|???\/???
?/\/\?|???\/???

>>you cannot open up any browser (chrome, firfox or ie7) in multiple desktops By the way you can shut down desktops without logging of by ending the "desktop" process in task manager.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I've not used all window managers available but with Afterstep, Enlightenment and KDE, I've always been able to just close down Xwindows and have all my apps reloaded as they where when I started up X again. I would love to see someone write a proper multiple desktop system for Windows. I'm spoiled by my time away from it and always feel restrained by the single desktop when I do have to work with it. None of the virtual desktop or window manager replacements for Windows have yet to do it right.

?/\/\?|???\/???
?/\/\?|???\/???

>> I was able to move applications between the desktops

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

With Compiz, you get the cube view or the cube sides layed out flat to pan across. I actually like osX aproach of a zoom-out view that brings all windows into view allowing you to pick the one you want to jump too. I like'd the Compiz cube as a graphic effect but even then, the cube sides layed out flat was better for my needs. For me, the 3D got tired quickly though and I've long since stopped using the extra Compiz layer on top of my window manager layer.

keng
keng

There is a 3D Cube program that works with Windows and it's free. Go to www.docs.kr and check out Shock 4Way 3D. It has quite a few features, although the feature to have different wallpaper in each desktop does not work.

louspag
louspag

I remember coming across a 3d desktop program for vista recently. I have not tried it but if it works you can bet MS will at some point buy it or copy it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It recently nudged Dexpot out as my favorite desktop manager. If only it would let me 'glue' an app to a desktop...

pgit
pgit

Have MS move all the personal data, settings, mail db etc to a separate partition with a name with no spaces in it, Like Linux does with /home. Why MS doesn't have the option to leave your data set unmolested during upgrade or reinstall is a mystery to me. The only "reason" I ever came up with is "makes for more business for third party vendors..." like backup utilities, Norton ghost & etc."

neighborvl
neighborvl

I am aware of the availability of this capability in Linus, but I work within both linux and Windows environments and I sadly miss this capability within Windows. It seems that this situation will not change in the near term until the need for increased productivity in the windows environment receives enough attention, i.e., someone takes up the cause. Could that possibly be TechRepublic? Thanks for your interest and response regarding this Windows issue.

Guilherme de Santos
Guilherme de Santos

In the past I used to use a tool called Dexpot. It had the same functionalities that Desktops has and, in the latest version, you could create up to 20 different desktops! Ok... that is quite unnapropriate but its quite interesting. AND you can move windows through different desktops. Yeah! But I have to admit that Desktops is lightning fast! Usually, as you open a large number of applications, using other tools, it coul drop your PC performance to the bottom of the hill, but Desktops can work around that quite well.