PCs

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.

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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.

50 comments
dennyhal
dennyhal

I just installed the Mult Desktop pgm. I created four desktops. The first desktop was duplicated in the other three. When I deleted icons from 2,3 and 4 IT ALSO DELETED THEM FROM DESKTOP ONE !! What a mess I have now to straighten out :(

fabshift
fabshift

i use Multiple Desktop pretty much reliable.

Giph
Giph

This application basically is crappy compared to http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/ this app is much more linux-like & much more customizable. Try it out!!!! Thanks for the tidbit though.

sykandtyed
sykandtyed

You could open as many programs that your memory would allow full screen and move your viewing area over each open window. If memory serves me you could arrange like 2 x 2 or 2 x 3. BUT, it was a DOS GUI. Anyway, here's how you can have multiple windows open without desktop clutter and cut and paste between them. Get a thumbnail view and it's right there in Vista. Drag any open program and drag it Right, Left and/or Bottom until as little as you want is visible. Click the Switch Between Windows Icon or pass the cursor over the tab in the task bar, to view your open programs. You want it in view, drag it back. It's cheap and you've got 4 programs you can cut and paste. You can't do it to full screen program. Did I over simplify a complex problem? Cheers!

cbarrows
cbarrows

Interesting issue: Firefox can't be used in multiple desktops (version 3.0.3 at least). The system recognizes it as already running and won't open another, even though you can open multiple instances on the same desktop view. Two other things to note: These views are based on temporary files. Any changes you make to the desktops will be lost when you shutdown or restart, except for the view you shutdown from. The second, the clipboard is still universal: anything you copy in one view, you'll paste in another. Having separate desktop clipboards as well as a universal clipboard would be a useful feature.

oisleach
oisleach

The Open Source VirtuaWin Project Allows you to have up to 9 virtual DeskTops, and uses an Icon in the App Bar on the LEft hand side to switch from DeskTop To Desktop http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/

wesley.camp
wesley.camp

For me I use a number of programs to enhance my my desktop. The first I use is called Yod'm 3d v1.4. This is a 3d cube desktop manager very much like Linux compiz. You have 4 desktops that can have there own wall paper. Next is winflip. This stacks windows like Vista dose to replace the alt+tab window switcher. Last is WinRoll. This little app will roll up a window into it title bar with a right click. In linux this is called shade. With a right click you can see the window behind quickly. Most of these are a waist if you have dual display but are great for laptops using single display. All of the above can be found with a quick google search and are free. Wes

tep2
tep2

I have been trying to connect my laptop to the TV, but for some unknown reason, NVIDIA nView Desktop Manager does not open up so that I cannot specify a second monitor. Would you know if this application would be a good workaround? Thanks.

.Martin.
.Martin.

is that it won't let me run Firefox on more than one desktop.

m_h_es
m_h_es

WOW.... its a very good application I LIKED in my enviroment as my title is IT-administrator.thanks very much

V
V

Great! Not having to move/resize open windows is definitely a bonus if you don't have much screen real-estate. This should be offered in Windows Update, and not some obscure backwater for tech-heads.

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RE: "It would be nice if Sysinternals would create an option that would allow users to drag windows from one desktop to another." This would appear to be a limitation of Windows; from the Desktops utility page @ http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/cc817881.aspx: "Desktops reliance on Windows desktop objects means that it cannot provide some of the functionality of other virtual desktop utilities, however. For example, Windows doesn't provide a way to move a window from one desktop object to another,"

Busboy2
Busboy2

I think just a couple extra monitors would be just as usefull and probably more practical.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've tried over a dozen virtual desktop utilities for XP and Vista. My current favorite is VirtuaWin (open source, Jack), followed very closely by Dexpot. Both will work with either V or XP. http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/ http://dexpot.de/index.php MS has a couple of virtual desktop manager Power Toys, but I consider both inferior to third-party products. 'Bullet comment' pro's and con's available via peer mail.

mike
mike

Virtual Dimension does grant the option to use more then 4 desktops, a pager, ability to drag running applications and much more. I am in no way affiliated with the product but a very happy user!

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

I know there are many of you who like to take advantage of the multiple-desktop metaphor. I am not a big fan of multiple desktops - I think there is too much overhead to make it worthwhile. I prefer the folder metaphor. What are the advantages of the multiple desktop over folders? How many desktops do you use on a regular basis?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

after the 30-day trial. Most of the alternatives mentioned above are free; some are open source.

cbarrows
cbarrows

It's similar to a service - it's not installed, it's simply a process in use. Simply remove the file from your start up services or delete the file outright.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Virtual desktops let you simulate having more desktop space using a single monitor. Pretend you've got IE and Outlook open on your desktop and they're taking up all the space. Switching virtual desktop is like peeling that entire desktop off, applications and all, and putting it aside for a while. On your new blank second desktop, you might open Excel maximized. If you need to run something else, you could switch to a third desktop and open Word or a programming utility. When you want to, you can switch back to the first desktop with IE and e-mail, or back to the second with Excel. The applications will look exactly like they did before you switched; any ongoing processes like compiling or downloading will have continued while you were away. What virtual desktops won't do is simulate a second physical monitor. Think of them more as a way to get more desktop space out of your existing physical monitor.

PMurray
PMurray

I have no problem with drag'n'drop of windows from one monitor to another. I just double click the window blue bar and drag it to the new window. I'm using the SysInternals version. Your link did not work

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Both Dexpot and VirtuaWin allow you to move apps between desktops with user-defined keyboard shortcuts. I use ALT-SHIFT-1, 2, etc. move an app. It isn't drag and drop, but I prefer keyboard shortcuts.

blarman
blarman

We have moved a majority of our administrative/data-entry personnel to dual monitors and estimate that for about $300 we can improve productivity by over $2800 annually. We use a lot of reference programs and having a second (or in the case of payroll, a third) monitor makes comparing notes possible and doable. Being in the IT department, it is REALLY helpful to have my code up on one screen and the test/results up in the other. One step better is to have BOTH dual-screens AND multiple desktops - that allows each desktop to focus on a key task area.

basil.cinnamon
basil.cinnamon

I actually use two PCs each with its own monitor, KB + mouse on my desk. Experimenting w/ software or hdw always brings down one PC at some time, and I can't afford not to have one of them running.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

costing more money and taking up a lot of desktop space, assuming your existing video card is capable of supporting them.

jps
jps

I've been using the open-source Virtual Dimension program with dual monitors on Vista and XP for about 18 months. It can be configured to run at start-up, provides for more than 4 desktops (I use 6) and has drag & drop capability. Nice program that just works. See all the features here: http://virt-dimension.sourceforge.net/

spidernet32
spidernet32

I usually use "Crystal Desktop" with three to four virtual desktop.

Open Minded Geek
Open Minded Geek

I use Linux with Gnome interface on adaily basis and frequently find that I utilise all four desktops at once. For instance I may have a web site admin panel open in one and some code snippet open in another. Because of the ability to switch between the desktops I find it easier to copy from one window to the other. One of my desktops (usually number 4) always has my email program running in the background. I know in Windows you have the taskbar functionality, but using seperate desktops makes some tasks so much easier than using the task bar

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm a big fan of virtual desktops, but I'm always willing to look at something new. What's the folder model, and can you recommend software that works on it? I may try Desktops, but before I do I'd like to know more about folders.

Sundaram Ramanujam
Sundaram Ramanujam

Virtual Desktop Manager is a Microsoft Powertoy for Windows XP. It allows you to maintain up to 4 different desktops, each with it`s own applications and desktop wallpapers. It integrates into the taskbar and allows you to quickly switch between your virtual desktops. You can also assign keyboard hotkeys to switch between or preview all 4 desktops at once. For example, you can open your e-mail program on one desktop, an Internet chess game on the second, several Internet sessions on the third, and multiple database sessions on the fourth. You can download the same with Microsoft @ http://download.microsoft.com/download/whistler/Install/2/WXP/EN-US/DeskmanPowertoySetup.exe

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Those apps may allow for moving windows between desktops, but they may use a different mechanism for providing the desktop functionality. Desktops uses Windows desktop objects, which leads to the aforementioned restriction. I have also been introduced to one Desktop-type program that uses Windows desktop objects, and permits one to "move" an application between desktsops... but it does so by killing the "source" process on the desktop on which it is running, and starting the new process on the new / specified desktop.

1bn0
1bn0

I use two desktops and a notebook on my desk, all at the same time. I'm trying to get my hands on a recently availabel dual video machine but it got stuffed in the warehouse with the rest of the equipment from the closed location. I prefer having multiple moitors as the copy/paste and mouse scrolling actually works. However for my curent setup I use one keyboard and mouse to control all three p.c.s. Win2VNC on my middle machine and VNC on the other two. The website explains the details, but basically you slide your mouse from one screen to the next and clic kto focus the input to that computer.

V
V

After the hike in oil prices, my fuel bill has doubled this year. So I've bought myself a KVM switch and put the spare monitor into storage. I'll probably have to replace my TV in the near future, and it can double as a PC monitor. A 42" monitor, sounds lovely. :=)

blarman
blarman

I'm a programmer, and I constantly have my code up on one monitor and the results on the other. I'm also the DBA, meaning that I frequently have several database tools open. Then I need messaging and email. The fourth is usually reserved for informational things like looking up phone numbers, etc. Having multiple desktops - with each dedicated to a specific function - helps me quickly switch back and forth and is a visual clue that makes my brain switch over as well. I haven't found a situation where I would use more than four, but I commonly use at least three. Now if only I could find a tool that supports BOTH multiple desktops and multiple monitors, I'd be in heaven. I've tried several combinations of software tools where one handled multiple-monitor support and the other did multiple desktops, but they rarelt play well together.

hakanopensky
hakanopensky

Is out there with drag n drop and program sharing capability among virtual desktops.However, last year or so it become buggy once -probably it was due to something else- and I gave it up.Maybe it is time to try again.

blarman
blarman

As with all PowerToys they either work or they don't, but support is non-existent and if it doesn't work, you're out of luck. I used the Virtual Desktop powertoy for a time, but I gave up after I went to dual-screens. It just doesn't work with dual monitors. I wish it did because it was pretty slick.

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Not at all. After not being overly impressed with desktop-manager programs several years ago, I now find that Desktops works in a manner I like. It's small, simple, and does what I need. I have no doubt that other programs such as Dexpot and VirtuaWin that you mentioned are quite good and capable programs, with different feature sets.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Is there a reason you don't want to use a virtual desktop manager that doesn't rely on Windows desktop objects?

PMurray
PMurray

It worked for me - Dell Inspiron 9400 with XP. I have not figured out if it is a novelty or something worth while. I used the SysInternals program.

cisco
cisco

At least for me it work with a dual monitor I have a latop with the lid closed connected to two monitors and it worked. Command Alt + #s didn't work so I changed to Ctrl + #s.

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