Hack 76 Extending Your Screen Real Estate with Virtual Desktops


Virtual desktops allow you to stretch your screen real estate well beyond its normal size, as well as to organize different views of your workspace.

At any point during the day, I might be writing software, listening to music, purchasing computer equipment, messing with my GPS and software, playing computer games with my son, or working with my editor. Sometimes, I'm doing all those things at once. It's a wonder that I can keep all the windows organized. Fortunately, I don't have to do all the organizing myself.

Virtual Desktop Manager (VDM) gives me a way to organize the work I'm doing, using up to four switchable desktops. VDM is part of the unsupported PowerToys collection from Microsoft that includes TweakUI [Hack #8].

Download VDM from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp and install it on your machine. Once you have installed VDM, you will not notice anything new. You have to activate its toolbar before you can begin using it. To activate VDM, right-click on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen and select the Toolbars Desktop Manager, as shown in Figure 8-6.

Figure 8-6. Activating the Virtual Desktop Manager

After you activate VDM, you will notice a new toolbar on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, as shown in Figure 8-7. To switch between desktops, press one of the numbered blue buttons. At first, the desktops will appear the same, because you haven't done anything in them to make them unique.

Figure 8-7. The Virtual Desktop Manager toolbar

Click button 1 and then launch your web browser. Next, click button 2 and then open your email program. Next, click button 3 and then open the My Computer icon. Now, click the green button with an icon of a window on it. Your screen should look something like Figure 8-8. Click on one of the four images of the desktop to switch to that virtual desktop.

Figure 8-8. The Virtual Desktop Manager preview screen

Without changing a single option, VDM is a very useful addition to Windows XP. But if you don't twiddle with it, you can't really call yourself a hacker, now can you? If you right-click on any of the buttons on the VDM toolbar, as shown in Figure 8-9, you will be able to configure VDM to suit your needs.

Figure 8-9. The Virtual Desktop Manager toolbar configuration menu

Your desktop has a background image that you can set as you wish. When you purchased your computer or installed Windows XP, the background image was a grassy hill with a blue sky. Since VDM provides you with four separate desktops, you can customize each with a different background image. If you choose the Configure Desktop Images item from the toolbar's menu, you will see the dialog box shown in Figure 8-10.

Figure 8-10. Virtual Desktop Manager background image settings

To change the background for one of the virtual desktops, specify which desktop area you want to change on the left side of the window. Then, locate a file from the list on the left. The list of images comes from both C:\WINDOWS\Web\Wallpaper and C:\Documents and Settings\<Your Name>\My Documents\My Pictures. If you want to use a picture not in the list, click the Browse button and locate the file. However, you might find that VDM changes your original background picture to a solid color when you first run it. Just change it back to your preferred background.

Look at Figure 8-10; notice that desktop 3 is shown in gray. This is how VDM informs you that you have no background image set for the desktop. When you switch to that desktop, the background will be whatever color you have selected in your display properties.

In addition to pressing the numbered buttons, you can use keyboard shortcuts to switch between the desktops. Hold down the Windows key (if your keyboard has one; if it doesn't, you can change the key assignments, as explained next) and the number keys 1 through 4 to switch to the appropriate desktop. To switch to the VDM preview screen, hold down the Windows key and press V. To change the key assignments that switch between the desktops, choose Configure Shortcut Keys from the toolbar menu and use the dialog box shown in Figure 8-11.

Figure 8-11. Virtual Desktop Manager shortcut key settings

I'm not a big fan of animation on my computer when I'm trying to work. I don't like wasting CPU cycles and I don't like waiting for them to finish. (Also, it reminds me of the talking paperclip in Word.) So, I generally turn off all animation in the Windows desktop and Explorer. If you want to speed up the switch between virtual desktops, uncheck the menu item named Use Animations.

Look at Figure 8-8 again. Notice that each of the separate desktops has taskbar buttons for every program that is running. VDM does this so you can move running programs between the desktops. I prefer each desktop to have taskbar buttons for programs that run on that desktop. To do this, right-click on VDM on the taskbar and uncheck the menu item named Shared Desktops.

If you would rather rely on keyboard shortcuts and reclaim space on the taskbar, right-click on VDM and uncheck the Show Quick Switch Buttons menu item.

The least useful bit about VDM is the fact that it actually wastes valuable space to tell you that it's there. If you uncheck the item named Show Title, the letters MSVDM will disappear from the toolbar.

Several things to keep in mind that when using VDM:

  • If you choose a background image using the Settings dialog, the VDM settings will override the background image settings in the Display Properties dialog (your previous image won't be selected any more; you'll have to reselect it).

  • If you use background images, the act of switching between desktops will be noticeably slower.

  • Shortcuts and icons on the desktop will show up on all virtual desktops.

  • If you have programs that float above all other windows on the screen (such as a program with an "Always On Top" option), they will show up on all desktops.

  • Windows Media Player using the MiniPlayer skin is one of those programs that float above everything else. If you turn on the Windows Media Player toolbar and then minimize the player, a smaller version of the player appears on the taskbar and it is available to all desktops.

8.5.1 See Also

  • Another popular product is the shareware application Cool Desk. It costs $24.95 and supports up to nine separate desktops. You can download Cool Desk at http://www.shelltoys.com/virtual_desktop/index.html.

  • Also try Desks At Will. It costs $22.50 and also supports up to nine separate desktops. You can download Desks At Will at http://www.idyle.com.

  • One of the more interesting desktop managers is Vern. Vern is free to download, but the author asks users who enjoy it to contribute. You can download Vern from http://www.oneguycoding.com/vern/.

?Eric Cloninger