Virtual Desktops

One feature that Unix-based operating systems have had for years (but Windows hasn’t) is virtual desktops. When you boot up most flavors of Linux, for example, you’ll see an odd feature on the taskbar: a grid, usually with four “buttons” on it. These four buttons represent four virtual desktops. You just click on a button to switch to a different desktop; you can even move windows back and forth between the virtual desktops.

Why would you want a feature like this? Because it allows you to organize your desktops in any way you see fit. Perhaps you’d like one desktop with all of your web applications (web browser, email client, etc.) and another desktop with all your local applications (Word, Excel, etc.). Perhaps you’re working on a couple of projects at once; you can use one desktop for all the windows for one project, another desktop for another project, and another one for your email and web browsing. Or maybe you just want to be lazy at work: virtual desktops mean that you can have one desktop with a browser open to an online poker site, and another desktop open with some Excel documents, so it looks like you’re working. That way, if the boss comes around you can look productive with a single mouse click!

Whatever the case may be, virtual desktops are one of those things that, after you’ve used it for a week, you’ll wonder how you ever managed to get by without it. Although virtual desktops aren’t built-in to Windows, many third-parties offer software that can create such virtual desktops. Here’s a quick review of some of them:

Dexpot (free for personal use) – My favorite virtual desktop app for Windows. Although Dexpot suffers from the worst performance of the bunch, it’s been completely stable for me (see the other apps for various complaints). Dexpot offers a slew of customization option, such as the ability to select different wallpapers or colors for each desktop, the ability to password protect some (or all) of your virtual desktops, the ability of add on on-screen display (OSD) when switching desktops, the ability to customize hotkeys for switching desktops, the ability to tweak the appearance of most parts of the Dexpot program, and much much more. It’s easy to get started with Dexpot, and you can tweak it to all hell and back once you’re comfortable with it. The only bad thing about it is the performance – switching desktops seems to take a second or two on my system. It’s almost like switching screens in a KVM setup than switching virtual desktops. But, unlike the other programs listed below, Dexpot doesn’t have any strange quirks and is really stable. Unlike most other virtual desktop programs, Dexpot works beautifully with any flavor of Windows, including Vista and Server 2003.

AltDesk ($15 per license, volume discounts available) – AltDesk offers the best performance on my machine, but it does so with a few annoying quirks. For starters, the software lets you choose individual wallpapers for each of your virtual desktops, but you don’t have the option of simply giving each desktop its own background color. Since the easiest way to divide virtual desktops is by the background color, this is a silly omission on the programmer’s part. Another weird thing was that the wallpaper would often change on my desktop from desktop 1 or 3 to desktop 2, even though each program was on the correct virtual desktop. It was an annoyance that got really old, especially since we’re supposed to shell out $15 for this program, when Dexpot works better and is free. One neat thing about AltDesk is that the “pager toolbar” (the floating toolbar that shows each desktop and which programs are running on which desktop) is completely skinnable, and the site offers dozens of skins free of charge. AltDesk is compatible with Windows 9x/NT/Me/2000/XP.

Virtual Dimension (free and open source) – Virtual Dimension is a free virtual desktop manager for Windows 98/Me/NT/2000/XP. It works as well as AltDesk (more or less), but it has one annoying (and show-stopping) quirk: sometimes the pager area disappears completely, and the only way to get it back is to close the program, delete the program’s entire key from the Registry, and restart the program. I ran Virtual Dimension for only three days and had to do that procedure twice – which is unacceptable in my book. Perhaps Virtual Dimension will work better for you; if you’re a fan of open source, this is the only way to go.

Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager (free) – Microsoft has offered this free powertoy for XP for some time now. It’s as stable as can be, but suffers from one amazing omission: it doesn’t include a pager! So you can’t move windows back and forth between desktops; you can only switch to a virtual desktop and start a program there. Another “problem” – you can’t customize the desktops, so whatever wallpaper you use one one desktop, you have to use on all your desktops. So it’s kind of a downer, but if you want to try virtual desktops and want something that’s guaranteed to not crash your system, this might be the program to use. Note: if you do install this, there’s no “program” to run; you just right-click on the taskbar and choose Toolbars > Desktop Manager.

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