PCs

Add multiple desktops to Vista and XP with the Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager

Having multiple virtual desktops has long been a feature of KDE and GNOME in Linux. Apple recently added it to the Mac as well. Now you can do the same thing in Vista or XP.

Microsoft has really taken a lot of heat over the Aero desktop in Windows Vista, most of it pretty well deserved. It had a golden opportunity to radically shake up the Windows UI, but the most we got to show for it is Flip 3D. One GUI element missing from Windows Vista but included in other operating systems, especially Linux, is that of the virtual desktop.

If you're running KDE or GNOME, you can have multiple desktops running simultaneously in Linux. Apple released a similar feature with the Leopard iteration of Mac OS X. In Leopard, virtual desktops are referred to as Spaces.

Microsoft never included such a feature in Windows XP. Even though they did do some things with Aero under Vista, like I said, this is an area they forgot to include. However, you can add virtual desktops to Windows Vista as well as Windows XP by using the  Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager. Here's how.

Why would you want multiple desktops to begin with?

If you never worked with multiple desktops, the advantage may not be immediately obvious. You can organize applications and data across multiple desktops, quickly switch between them, and get work done a little more efficiently.

Granted, having multiple monitors is more efficient than having multiple virtual desktops. The problem is that not everyone had multiple displays nor the video card capable of driving multiple displays to begin with.

Likewise, you can move from application to application by merely selecting it from the taskbar or just pressing [Alt][Tab]. If you're like me, however, and can have literally dozens of windows open at the same time doing various things, there's an awful lot of clutter to [Alt][Tab] or click through. Spreading the screens across multiple desktops makes it much easier to organize data and applications, along with switching between multiple views.

The Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager

The Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager is a freeware program hosted at CodePlex. It's a development community hosted by Microsoft for the development of open source programs. Think of it as being MS SourceForge.

You can get the Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager from the project's home page. Currently, the code is at Release Candidate stage, which means that they haven't created the final version. I downloaded and installed 0.9 RC for this article. There doesn't appear to be any significant bugs or problems so far, but if you're not comfortable running pre-1.0 code, you might want to wait a few months.

The installation program is amazingly small in this day and age of near-gigabyte installs. The executable file is a little over 1 MB in size. As a prerequisite, you must have .NET Framework 2.0 installed on your workstation. Installing the desktop manager is like installing every other Windows program you've ever used. There aren't any gotchas to watch for during the installation. When it's done, you'll find the icon to launch the All Programs listing. I set the Virtual Desktop Manager to start every time my XP box boots by adding it to the Startup folder.

Running Virtual Desktop Manager

When Virtual Desktop Manager loads, you'll notice a new icon in the System Tray:

This icon controls Virtual Desktop Manager, which lets you change desktops or change the way that Virtual Desktop Manager behaves.

If you hover the mouse over the icon, you'll see a small switcher window appear:

From here you can select the desktop you want to switch to by clicking it. As you can see, the mini-switcher displays icons to represent some of the programs running on that desktop.

If you press [Win][Z], you'll get a full-screen switcher window:

This window shows more detail about what programs are running in each desktop.

Finally, you can also use the mini-toolbar to switch windows. It appears on every desktop and rides on top of all active programs. I've noticed it even floats on top of and is useful if you're running Virtual PC sessions full screen. It looks like this:

The mini-toolbar can be a little slow sometimes. I've noticed that it can sometimes take up to five seconds to switch windows after clicking the number. My test machine is a 2.8 Ghz P4 Dell with 1GB of RAM. The slowness is probably due to the fact that this is still 0.9 code and that I sometimes can have dozens of windows open.

To see the configuration screens for Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager, check out the  Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager Photo Gallery.

Who needs to upgrade from XP?

One of the nicest things about Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager is that it works on Windows XP as well as Vista. This gives you the ability to get GUI features from modern OSs like Linux and Mac OS X without leaving the relative comfort of Windows XP. You don't even need to make the jump to Vista to get a desktop feature that Microsoft forgot!

29 comments
jarichon
jarichon

Didn't see this one mentioned. I use it with 9 desktops and have for so long I now consider it as essential as System Restore for Windows. Steve Rigger, http://www.ambienbuy.org/

fabshift
fabshift

i use Multiple Desktops for 3 reasons: 1) saves the windows open in other desktops if you close it 2) the same version works on xp, vista and win7, 3) price is good and support is excellent

teknosoul
teknosoul

Hello, I just finished reading this article after doing a Google search this evening on an idea that struck me while working on a design project. The idea or "concept" stems from a common problem that developer's & designers encounter in desk space that is filled with multiple workstations (most of the time using multi monitor configurations) and laptops. While having a super workstation utilizing multiple monitors & multi-workspace environments is very much needed in todays world of multi-tasking environments, also having a portable "on-the-go" laptop is not uncommon and often times very much needed. One of the challenges with having multiple systems/workstations is that a single hardware source comprised of multi-monitors is bound to that single system/workstation; you are bound to that workspace no matter how hard you try to move the mouse over to that other workstation. While there are plenty of Remote Desktop applications that exist, there is not any solution that I know of too date which allows a single I/O source to interface with another independent system (in this case a laptop). "The Theory: Explained" So what exactly does that mean you might ask? The concept is simple: to have a single I/O hardware source (your keyboard and mouse) which is attached to you main workstation have the capability to extend it's functionality across multiple workstations, exactly like a multi-monitor environment and just as if that other system was completly integrated or "merged" into your main system/workstation adding the capability to move from one monitor to the next on totally independent systems. When I was first introduced into the multiple workspace environment I questioned its existence, but as time passed and as my skillset grew as a developer and designer I realized how much nicer this environment is for true multi-tasking. While in deep thought about multiple workspaces this evening, I had a thought regarding their functionality and inter-operability with other hardware sources which ultimatly led me to a google search for such technology.. here I am! So the real question is "how could this be acheived" and what is the relevence with "multiple workspaces". Below are just some thoughts of mine on how this idea could be put into action. "The plan: Future Development Potential" This concept is really not far off from being more than just practical, but there is a serious potential for this idea to become the "next best thing"! At least I think so! Ok so, at first thought, why not just have a dual cabled mouse & keyboard (LOL). Yeah, thats just not going to cut it I don't think :) In all seriousness however, developing a working platform for this idea would have to consist of the following: 1. A client/client application which communicates across the network layer, which sends I/O data (amongst other things) to each other in a syncronized mannor. I am sure it is possible to construct such an application, however it would take quite a bit of knowledge in hardware resources and network communications to make it work (amongst many other things). Unfortuantly I am more of a visual designer & corehack-developer as my strong suit is in interface design & functionality with a minor background in server side scripting. I do have a suggested name for such a project however, how about "workspace Live" or perhaps this is more suitable "break-the-screen 1.0" :) I guess in the meantime, I will still have to use network shares and the gamut of networking tools to get the job done! But just think of how nice it would be to be able to simply come home from work, drop your laptop into your docking station, fire up those dual monitors on that system, then log into your main workstation, fire up those dual monitors on that puppy, and then simply use a single mouse & keyboard to move windows, files, etc. between the two systems without having the need to access a network share, fire up a FTP client, or use a web based tool, to get the job done. Well you get the point.. :) Seriously though, I think it is time to just move into the wilderness in a house comprised of oil lanterns and outhouses because the first thing that really bother's me about this entire thought is that I spend way to much time in front of a computer in the first place! :) So I guess the simple answer really is "cloud computing"... But we are many years away from that technology becoming mainstream in the home office... Scott

temp01
temp01

"but if you?re not comfortable running pre-1.0 code, you might want to wait a few months.- July 2008" Feb 2010: Current ver. .9.1 It makes me smile to see that FOSS, regardless of the underlying OS, is developed by people who are completely unable to finish absolutely anything.

pablo1319
pablo1319

Need to try it to see if I like it.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

I downloaded this and started using it right away. As a Mac and Windows user, I missed the ability to have multiple desktops on my PC under Windows. I really love it and the desktop switching works really well. The controls are easy to use and the interface is intuitive, taking up very little Desktop real estate. Kudos to John for the great tip!

tantg
tantg

When using VXVDM to switch between desktops, icon order as arranged by Taskbar Shuffle got messed up. Am waiting for version 1.0 to see if problem persists.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/ I've tried several freeware desktop managers for XP. VirtuaWin has a relatively small footprint, and configurable keyboard shortcuts to easily move apps from one desktop to another. Dexpot is also a good app. With that said, I plan on testing the VDM John discusses. It's usually not much trouble to install and remove this type of app. Among others I've tried and discarded were: - Desktop Manager Power Toy - hides Excel toolbars when switching desktops. - Deskwin - you must wait until an app finishes saving before you can switch desktops. - Desk Illusion - no apparent way to move an active app from one desktop to another. - multiDesk 2001 - has problems losing pop-up windows. - VirtualDimension - un-minimizable control window, not a tray icon. - Fusion Software Multi-Desk, Virtual Desktop 1.01 - neither appear to do anything. - Microdesk - annoying activation option; bizarre settings; difficult to uninstall. I'm really looking for a virtual desktop manager that will allows me to 'pin' an app to a specified desktop position when the app opens. I have one desktop with my e-mail, help desk app, and an MMC windows for Active Directory tasks. A second has my hardware inventory spreadsheet. A third has Firefox. The fourth is usually empty; I use it for occasional short term tasks that require me to have two or more open windows at once.

sotsotsot
sotsotsot

Looks like the one I downloaded from sysinternals(MSVDM)quite some time ago. A little 3D magic could cheer us up though(3D that has no indirect little problems like linux's...A very "interesting" feature but somehow I ALWAYS forget it's existence either in ubuntu or in XP. Years of routine is not easy to overcome of. Bravo anyway!

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

It seems like the Aero Glass interface is half-baked, especially compared to what's possible today in interfaces like Compiz Fusion on Linux. Even the most simple thing like virtual desktops, which has been around in Linux for years and is now available in Leopard, was left out. As I mention in the Microsoft Windows blog: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/window-on-windows/?p=732 you can now add virtual desktops to Vista with a simple freeware add on. The best thing about it is that you don't even need Vista to take advantage of the feature. You can even bring virtual desktops to Windows XP. I got used to virtual desktops from using Linux regularly. It's nice to have them back in XP. What's your take? Useful or useless CPU-sapping eye candy?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Why pay $17 for an app when so many others do the same thing for free?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

A 'Keyboard-Video-Mouse' switch. If you're unfamiliar with the hardware, say so and I'll explain in detail. If you are familiar with it, how does it differ from your concept?

.Martin.
.Martin.

Gmail was a beta for 5 years, 3 months and 6 days

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've used a couple of open source virtual desktop managers for Windows that work better than the PowerToy. With either of them, if I have a problem I can request assistance from the developer. It may be a long time coming, but MS officially denies support for PowerToys.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

I dont think it's quite the same thing. It does seem to add quite a few fancy effects however. One of the biggest differences is that Switcher 2.0 looks like it requires Vista, whereas this solution works equally well on XP.

spidernet32
spidernet32

Why don't you want to take a look at Crystal Desktop. It is not free, but it has more functions than any free managers. Besides instead of other managers, it costs not very much...

RoyinForest
RoyinForest

Didn't see this one mentioned. I use it with 9 desktops and have for so long I now consider it as essential as System Restore for Windows. It's not free - but neither is it expensive. Vedor's website is at : www.desktopplus.com

thedailycommute
thedailycommute

I've been using DesktopPlus (http://www.desktopplus.com) for years now, since the early 1.x versions (now at v2.6, but there have been no updates since Oct. 2004.) It works fine under XP, but I haven't (yet) tried under Vista -- that test will start in a couple of days when my current development machine is replaced :-) I periodically try out other virtual desktop managers, but always end up coming back to DTP, usually sooner rather than later :-) John

GBot
GBot

Unlock taskbar, expand taskbar to two rows, right-click, properties, auto-hide the taskbar, group similar taskbar items, click ok. Useless, CPU-sapping, "gee, I hope someone is looking over my shoulder at Starbucks," eye candy. However, WOOT for sourceforge, kudos to MS for CodePlex, and thanks to all for links to various alternatives!

Marty-7
Marty-7

We've already been using the Desktop Manager Powertoy from Microsoft here for some time and have been very happy with it. I realize it's not intended for Vista, but we've been happily using it on our XPs since 2004.

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

Nice idea, however I have 3 main problems with it: 1. It seems very slow, takes about 4 or 5 seconds to change desktops. And showing multiple desktops to pick from is extremely sluggish. 2. On my IBM laptop I have no Windows key so I have to use the Mouse! 3. The ability to send an application to another desktop would be good, like you can in Linux. Yet again, Windows tries and fails to catch up with features already available on other operating systems!

teknosoul
teknosoul

I don't think you are quite grasping the full concept! Scott

robindor
robindor

I have also been using Microsoft's PowerToy Virtual Desktop Manager for years: I can't remember when I installed it, but it has worked almost flawlessly ever since. Judging from the screenshots in this article, the new VDM is closely modelled on MSVDM.

maalmike
maalmike

You can send an aplication with a hotkey, just define it, in the options>HotKeys menu (default is ctr+win+[numpad number], so bad luck with this one) This is a lot better than the previus power toy avaible from microsoft, that was really SLOW!! An yes, if fails big time when compared to KDE, but it makes me feel a lot better with the ubuntu theme for XP.