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!