id="info"

Hardware

How do I ... create multiple virtual desktops in Windows?

Microsoft Windows does not have the inherent ability to take advantage of multiple desktops. But, thanks to Sysinternals and the utility Desktops, Vista can enjoy a Linux-like multiple desktop configuration.

If you've ever used Linux, then you know how effective having multiple desktops can be. Not only does it aid in keeping down desktop clutter, it allows you to organize your desktop into various work environments (such as networking desktop, writing desktop, graphics desktop, programming desktop, etc). I have always been a big fan of this metaphor and have taken full advantage of its usage.

Microsoft Windows does not have the inherent ability to take advantage of multiple desktops. But, thanks to Sysinternals and the utility Desktops, Windows can enjoy a Linux-like multiple desktop configuration. There is no pager, like with Linux, but with Sysinternal's Desktops you have the ability to switch from one desktop to another. It's safe, it's simple to install, and it's simple to use. And, best of all, it's free (but not open source).

With Desktops you are limited to up to four virtual desktops, but as a general rule, you do not need any more than four. Unlike the Linux virtual desktops, you cannot do edge-flipping or have a 3D cube (as in Compiz). With Desktops, you are limited to hot-key switching. But anything to help organize your work is improvement enough.

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

Getting and installing

As with any Windows application installation, all you need to do is download the Desktops download file, unzip it, and place the executable in a convenient location. However, Desktops isn't an application that will run at boot without a little help. When you first run Desktops, you will be greeted with the main configuration window (Figure A).

Figure A

This is where you do all your Desktops configuration.

In order to have Desktops run at logon, simply click the check box at the bottom left of the configuration window. Of course, startup is not the only configuration you can take care of. You can also set the hot-key combination of your preference.

Setting up hot-key combinations

With Desktops, you have your choice of Hot Key combinations. There are two columns in the configuration windows: one column for the primary key (Alt, Control, Shift, Windows) and one for the secondary key (1, 2, 3, 4 or F1, F2, F3, F4). This is very much a case of user preference. The only issue with this configuration is if your particular hardware already uses a particular key combination. Also note that when you have the configuration window open you cannot switch desktops.

The key combinations option is not the only way to switch desktops. With Desktops running, there will be a small icon in the system tray. If you right-click the Desktops icon in the system tray, you will see a Select Desktop option (Figure B).

Figure B

Selecting this option is the same as clicking the Desktops system tray icon.
Once you select that option, a pop-up window will open showing thumbnails of all your configured desktops (Figure C).

Figure c

Unlike in Linux, you cannot configure different backgrounds for different desktops.

There is one small annoyance with Desktops. When you switch to a new desktop (one that you haven't been on yet), it's almost as if the desktop has to fully load. This is actually just the panel starting up. After you have moved to a desktop once, the next time you switch to it will be instantaneous.

Unfortunately, as you can with Linux, you cannot move a window from one desktop to another. So once you have an application running on one desktop, you have to close that application and reopen it on the desktop you want to work with it on. It would be nice if Sysinternals would create an option that would allow users to drag windows from one desktop to another.

Final thoughts

I have long thought Windows needed virtual desktops. The virtual desktop is one of the features that make working on the Linux desktop so much easier. Virtual desktops have far too many pros and zero cons. I was thrilled to finally come across an application that allows adding virtual desktops to Windows. With the help of Desktops, Windows becomes a fraction more useful and a lot less cluttered.

Stay on top of the latest XP tips and tricks with TechRepublic's Windows XP newsletter, delivered every Thursday. Automatically sign up today!

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

Editor's Picks