Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops can help reduce desktop clutter, where you have too many windows open to keep track of them all. Each virtual desktop becomes a separate workspace, to help you organize your work tasks more effectively.

When I ran Linux at work, I used to open my email client on one virtual desktop, my web browser in another, and my OpenOffice documents in a third desktop. This was especially useful when writing a document that required referring to other Word or Excel files. I could open all the files at once, and keep them open on the same virtual desktop, making it much easier to switch between them.

Even Mac OS X supports virtual desktops natively, through Spaces. This is basically the same thing as on Linux, except you have to press a hotkey to select a different virtual desktop.

So why is it that Windows still does not have a virtual desktop manager? I'm currently running Windows 7, and this very useful feature is missing. I've been using virtual desktops under Linux since 1993/1994, and Apple has supported them since Mac OS 10.5. But Microsoft hasn't gotten there yet, I guess. It's 2010, but still no virtual desktops in Windows?


  1. Although it's not as nice as being able to hit a hotkey, there is a Microsoft Powertoy available:

    I was in the same boat you're in now last summer for an internship - I've been running Linux for years now and had to switch back to Windows for work. First things I did: install emacs and the virtual desktop thing.

  2. Interesting, but this is for Windows XP. I am running Windows 7.

    But I can only compare defaults, here. Virtual desktops are supported by default by Linux (and MacOSX), but not by Windows XP/Vista/7.

  3. I've always wondered this. I imagine that an accurate answer to this question would reveal interesting features of the Windows "operating" system.

    Or maybe just a preference of Bill Gates.

  4. JH, check out

    I realize that you want to compare Linux and Windows defaults, and you should continue doing so. Just thought I'd let you know there's a couple little ways to go back to Linuxland... those things definitely kept me from going insane when I had to switch back to Windows briefly.

  5. My ATI video card supports a similar feature but I had to install it separately... I have two rather large monitors on my (only) windows 7 machine and that helps but I do prefer linux to windows now (after a bit over a year on Ubuntu).

  6. I'm not sure if virtual desktops are supported by default on Linux; I haven't used anything other than KDE for years now. Of course you can open as many virtual terminals as you please and run X on them, if that's what you mean.

    Microsoft claims it innovates. I guess they haven't innovated a believable story to tell people why they would copy features from software that runs on a geek toy like Linux.

    Maybe Google will provide software to do that since they seem bent on raping the MS desktop and turning it into something different.

  7. XDE, XFCE, and other light-weight X window managers in current use all have multiple virtual desktops. Going back to the 90's, FVWM (a win95-lookalike) had it. Ditto TVWM, a form of Tom's window manager. Even the original Motif window manager had it. I haven't used MS OSes since Win3.1--they still haven't caught up?

  8. In fact, I don't think I can name any Linux window manager that doesn't support virtual desktops. Maybe TWM. I'm sure there's one out there, just based on the sheer number of WMs that exist, but for all intents and purposes, virtual desktops are supported by default everywhere on Linux.

    On Windows, I've been using VirtuaWin at work. Works pretty well. My big complaint about it is that you can't use the Win key in its assignable shortcuts in Vista and Win7; you're restricted to combinations of ctrl, alt, and shift. That's a pity, because Win-6, Win-T, Win-G, and Win-B make excellent shortcuts to the four most common virtual desktops, especially if you have a split keyboard.

    But you're right; you shouldn't need a third-party tool to do this.

  9. You "can" put OS X on a netbook, but people do put linux on them. What's the relative use?

    I.E. what's the ratio of Linux on netbooks to windows on netbooks? I would say a dual boot should count as 2 computers, one windows and one linux.

  10. Oh, BTW @Greg: "I've always wondered this. I imagine that an accurate answer to this question would reveal interesting features of the Windows "operating" system."

    I don't really think that's true (as opposed to, say, the file locking behavior manifesting itself in how obnoxious updates are with respect to rebooting).

    I don't know of any reason that, if MS desired, implementing virtual desktops would be difficult at all. In fact, evidence seems to point to the contrary: there are a few virutal desktop managers available for Windows already, and they work reasonably well without even modifying the shell at all. This is true even on XP, and some of the new desktop compositing features of Vista and 7 should make things even easier.

    So I really do think it's an active decision by MS to not support them.


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