Improve Productivity with Virtual Desktops

In a previous post, I’ve talked about how Window users can easily enjoy a Mac feature called Expose. In this post, I’ll go over how Window users can once again enjoy a feature from another operating system called Linux. That feature is the ability to create virtual desktops. While just the thought of being able to create virtual desktops is pretty cool, it can have a pretty big impact on your productivity as well. When you hear or read about the Windows desktop, you’ll most likely think of it as a singular object. That means everything you do and folders and applications you open are displayed on that one desktop. However, that’s not necessarily so anymore. With virtual desktops, you are literally able to create more desktops. Why would you want to do such a thing? Well, let’s think about the possibilities. For one, it can help those who are always working with dozens and dozens of applications at a time to better manage their desktop. Rather than stuffing everything on one desktop, why not divide them into two, three or even four desktops? Secondly, organizing your workload is now much more easier. For example, you can assign desktop number 1 as your work desktop. Here you will mainly focus on tasks you must accomplish for work. This could be working on Word documents to emailing. You can then assign virtual desktop number 2 for your Photoshop and photo sessions. Finally, desktop number 3 can be used for leisure activities like browsing through Youtube, chatting, and for whatever social networking site you are affiliated with. With these separation of tasks on separate desktops, it helps minimize distractions and so it’s easier to focus on what needs to be done. As you can realize, such a powerful concept can now be utilized by yourself. While Ubuntu (a very popular Linux distribution) users have enjoyed this feature for quite some time, we on the Windows side can now say the same as well.

Alright so let’s cut to the chase. The concept of virtual desktops doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how it works. Luckily, it also doesn’t take one to utilize it! I will be going over two free tools which will help us create and manage the virtual desktops. While both are very easy to use, you’ll quickly learn that one of them has a lot more configuration and customization option than the other.

Sysinternals’s Desktops

Once again, we must give our thanks to two of the most awesome Microsoft technical fellows out there who goes by the names of Mark Russinovich and his partner in crime, Bryce Cogswell for creating another fantastic utility. You can say that this is Microsoft’s implementation of virtual desktop as Sysinternals is a part of Microsoft and so I’m believing that if they didn’t want consumers to have this feature they would have pulled the plug on it.

1. You can download Desktops from here.

2. One of the neat things about the majority of Sysinternal tools and utilities is that they are super small in size and don’t require any installation (which makes them portable). Before actually using Desktops however, it’s recommended that you read over what the developers have to say about it on that same webpage. For example, read over this passage:

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, and because a separate Explorer process must run on each desktop to provide a taskbar and start menu, most tray applications are only visible on the first desktop.

After reading the passages and having downloaded the utility, simply run it by extracting it first and then double clicking on the executable. Immediately, you be presented with some configuration option. There isn’t much to configure other than to have the tool automatically start upon your logon and the hotkey configuration.

Sysinternals Desktops

3. Once you hit OK, you’ll then see the Desktops system tray icon. Desktops allow you have a maximum of 4 virtual desktops. The four blue squares you see in the system tray represent those 4 desktop spaces. The blue square that represents the active desktop you’re on will glow inside. Windows Vista and 7 users with the Aero theme enabled will quickly notice that the virtual desktops you create (not your original desktop) will have the Aero theme disabled. I’ve noticed this in the past when Desktops was first released and it still hasn’t been fixed. While having the Aero theme automatically disabled on the other virtual desktops isn’t that big of a deal to most, it can still be looked as a limitation when compared to the second tool I will mention later. One handy feature is the ability to quickly preview all 4 desktops at once by clicking on the Desktops system tray icon. Switching to any one of the desktops is just another click away.

Desktops Switcher

As mentioned on the webpage of Desktops, there are some limitations. One big limitation is how some applications only allow you to have one instance of it running at any given time along with how the Desktops utility works in general. Firefox is one example. If you have Firefox opened on desktop number 1, you won’t be able to open another instance of it in another virtual desktop. If you try, you’ll be greeted with this message:

Limitation

Also, Desktops doesn’t have a Quit or Exit option so the only way to actually exit the application is by ending the process in Task Manager. All in all, Desktops is quite useful but it’s severely limited when compared to the application I will introduce next. In fact, I found that many applications can’t be started while in a virtual desktop created with Desktops. For example, I couldn’t even start the simple Snipping Tool in Windows 7 to take a snapshot when I was in a virtual desktop.

VirtuaWin

VirtuaWin can be considered the bigger brother of Sysinternals Desktops. Not only is there more customization options, but it actually works better than Desktops as you’ll soon see for yourself.

1. You can download VirtuaWin from here. As with Desktops, there is also a portable version of VirtuaWin so no installation is necessary. If you do download the portable version, you’ll want to follow the instructions here to make it truly portable, which opens VirtuaWin with all the options you have set on whichever computer it is opened from.

2. Right click on the system tray icon and select Setup to configure VirtuaWin. First up is the General tab. One of the most important configuration here is deciding how much virtual desktops you can ultimately create. Remember, Sysinternal’s Desktops allowed only a maximum of 4 virtual desktops. With VirtuaWin, you can have much as 20 virtual desktops! You also have the option to name each virtual desktop.

VirtuaWin General

3. The next tab is Hotkeys. Here you’ll get to configure the actual keyboard combination you need to press in order to switch and navigate your virtual desktops. The default is by holding Ctrl+Alt plus the left, right, down, and up keyboard buttons.

VirtuaWin Hotkeys

4. Next would be the Mouse tab. This is not what you might be expecting at first. In the FAQ section of VirtuaWin, they clearly state that you cannot use the middle mouse button to scroll through your virtual desktops (although it does provide a workaround). In this mouse section, you can configure desktop switching with the mouse by moving the pointer to the left, right, up or bottom edges of your screen.

VirtuaWin Mouse

5. In the Modules tab, this is where you can configure the plugins you have downloaded for VirtuaWin. By installing modules, you can increase the functionality of VirtuaWin. Go to their Module page to view them.

VirtuaWin Modules

6. The Experts tab is, well, better left to the experts! I’ve noticed that VirtuaWin works perfectly without any hardcore tweaking so it’s safe to just leave this tab alone.

VirtuaWin Experts

7. Once everything is set, it’s time to test it out! VirtuaWin works differently than Desktops. Immediately you’ll notice that switching between desktops does not disable the Aero Theme like how Desktops does! Also, you can open new Firefox windows in different virtual desktops! You are no longer restricted to just one instance of it (technically, there is still one one instance of Firefox running but due to how VirtuaWin works, you are allowed to open new Firefox windows in different desktops).

In the End…

In conclusion, virtual desktops can ultimately improve your work flow if utilized correctly. I know it might seem difficult and even at times very awkward but that’s only because we have been stuck in that singular desktop mindset for so long. We have to break away from that habit and start thinking and working differently. With these two utilities, you can do just that. Although Sysinternal’s Desktops is very simple, it lacks in several departments. VirtuaWin is in my opinion the better of the two. Try them both out nonetheless and see how you like them.

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