Users of Linux and OS X benefit from having the ability to create and utilize multiple virtual desktops to use throughout the day. These desktops can allow the user to keep more programs open without cluttering the workspace, as well as separate programs that don’t need to be displayed together.
I use multiple desktops in OS X as I switch between video editing, communication, and browsing applications. Some applications exist consistently across all of the virtual desktops, while others exist within a certain space.
Believe it or not, there are several ways to do this in Windows, though support isn’t necessarily bundled with the operating system itself.
Here are two solutions that will allow you to create multiple virtual workspaces within Windows.
Desktops is a very small, simple program that runs in your System Tray, giving you the ability to navigate between multiple desktops with a few simple clicks. Alternatively, you can browse virtual desktops using a hotkey combination assigned to each one.
Desktops is lightweight and blessedly solid. Applications run just fine, for the most part, and switching between desktops is quick and snappy.
There are several downsides, however. One of these downsides being that you won’t get to enjoy transparent Aero interface objects as you would on the primary desktop. This is due to how Desktops actually creates the virtual spaces.
In addition, you don’t have the ability to move a window from one desktop to another. Wherever you launched the application is where it remains, making it significantly less useful to the similar functionality available on Linux and OS X.
Still, if you’re looking for a solution, this is one of the best out there. Not only does it run with minimal system resources, but it also works with virtually every consumer Windows version since XP.
VirtuaWin is another free utility that works across a multitude of different Windows releases including those dating back to the Windows 9X days. Operating differently than Desktops, VirtuaWin allows you to enjoy features such as Aero across multiple workspaces while still maintaining some semblance of separation between them.
VirtuaWin has an abundance of options available to you to suit your particular needs. While it may not be as smooth or native as the built-in feature found on OS X or Linux, it is a giant leap forward in terms of creating a larger overall workspace. Panes can be arranged in various ways, though everything is handled in a relatively smooth and snappy fashion.
You can switch between applications from the icon in the task bar as well as switch between desktops. You can assign hotkeys to represent switching patterns including next, previous, and directional differences. Oh, and you can extend your desktops well beyond the default four by configuring the desktop grid size in the preferences menu. For example, you could have a 3×3 desktop with nine workspaces, 2×3 with six, or any other arrangement that suits your needs.
You can drag windows between workspaces by enabling the mouse support features. For example, you can configure the delay at which a new workspace is loaded when your mouse hits the edge of your current workspace. You can even configure a hotkey to turn this feature off when you don’t want to accidentally cross to another workspace. If you’re a fan of using the middle button for desktop switching, you can enable that as well.
Dexpot is perhaps the most glossy of the bunch. It is free for private use, and can be used for 30 days as a trial in a corporate setting. With it, you can configure up to 20 desktops, each allowing you to run (and share) various programs between them.
A window catalog allows you to quickly browse each desktop and see every window currently active on it. This may not be as fluid as Mission Control, but it is certainly one of the more appealing features out of the three Windows 7 compatible virtual desktop programs in this article.
You can even configure it so that each desktop creates an icon in your task bar. This makes it incredibly easy to switch to a specific desktop without having to hit hotkeys or browse between them individually. Double-clicking on the icon(s) in the tray reveals a full screen preview of all of the desktops, simultaneously. This is about as close to Mission Control as you can find, though it would be nice to have it activate as you hit a corner.
Mouse switching is supported, with or without triggers, to prevent accidental switching between desktops.
There are some fairly stunning visual effects available, as well. Plugins such as Dexcube mimic the 3D desktop environment found on Linux-style virtual desktops. You can also configure whether activating an already-open window in an opposing desktop will copy it, move it, or switch you to its current workspace.
Out of these three very different solutions, Dexpot has to be the one that shines above the rest. Not only does it have a modern look and feel to it, but the features it makes available to users are almost exactly what I’d expect from a mature virtual desktop management program. Where others may provide reasonable solutions with a microscopic RAM footprint, Dexpot goes above and beyond by providing live previews in the taskbar, fast switching, and 3D graphics that only add to the experience of the user. After all, experience is the most important factor for any consumer software, right?
Each solution has its own perks and downfalls, though it ultimately falls on the user to decide which one works best for them. Others out there may provide better results, though “better” is always relative.
What about you? Do you use any of these (or other) virtual desktop applications on your Windows PC? Which one, and what have your experiences been like?