Get Four Computers in One

In praise of virtual desktop software.

Call me crazy, but right at this moment I’ve got eight browser windows open on my PC, each of them populated by dozens of tabs. There are also three open Word documents, an Excel spreadsheet, a text notepad, a Skype window, an IM window, iTunes, Picasa, a few file browsers, and a calculator. I’m guessing you’ll question my sanity, because that’s what people did last month when I bragged about my blazing fast computer’s ability to keep hundreds of browser tabs open simultaneously. “200 tabs? You’re either incompetent or lying,” wrote one guy—and he was one of the nice ones.

Well, I’m not lying, and I like to think I’m not incompetent, either. It might sound as if my computer is overrun by open windows, and you might assume that it takes me forever to find what I’m looking for in this onscreen morass of computing options. But in reality, I’m staring at a screen that’s pretty clean—all I can see right now is one Word document and one Chrome window.

Where are all of my other windows? They’re on my PC’s other desktops—three completely separate workspaces that I can get to with a single click. In each one, I’ve set up a different arrangement of open windows dedicated to a specific set of tasks. It’s like working on four different computers at the same time; when I’m done with one set of windows—or I just get sick of them for the moment—I switch to a new, blank workspace and start collecting windows all over again. I can switch back to the old screen at any time. It’s the best of all worlds—I have instant access to a lot of different apps at the same time, but my screen, my taskbar, and my mind remain uncluttered.

Techies will recognize that what I’m talking about isn’t novel. “Virtual desktops,” as these separate workspaces are called, have been around since the early days of graphical computing. Some of the most-memorable PC industry also-rans of the 1980s and 1990s—Amiga, OS/2, BeOS—allowed for multiple workspaces, and most graphical Linux systems have included virtual desktops for many years. Apple added virtual desktops to the Mac OS in 2007, and there are a variety of third-party utilities that allow you to get virtual desktops on Windows.

Virtual Desktop in action.

Even so, virtual desktops have never reached mass adoption. For instance, the Mac’s workspace system—called Spaces—is turned off by default, and Apple rarely promotes the feature. That’s a shame. Whatever OS you use, and even if you have many monitors, there’s a good chance you often get overwhelmed by the mess of open windows that build up over a long day at your PC. If so, you need virtual desktops. They’ll make you sane again.

On my Windows 7 PC, I get virtual desktops using a program called WindowsPager. It loads quickly, it’s intuitive and easy to learn, and best of all, it’s free. (It works on Windows Vista, XP and 2000, too; see this Lifehacker post for other great virtual desktop managers for Windows.) When I load up WindowsPager, it adds four small tiles to my taskbar, with each tile representing a unique workspace. If I click on a tile, I’m taken to a new desktop that’s free of windows, with a taskbar that’s free of icons. As I open windows, WindowsPager sketches it in the appropriate taskbar tile. This lets me see what’s going on in each of the desktops at a glance—I can see that there’s a big Chrome window in Desktop 1, three Chrome windows and Skype open in Desktop 2, and so on.

WindowsPager also makes it easy to rearrange my desktops. Say that I’ve got several windows open for managing my finances—Excel, a Chrome window with tabs for my bank and credit card accounts, and a calculator. By clicking and dragging, I can move all these windows to their own desktop in a matter of seconds. When I want to return to managing my finances, I just click on that desktop in the taskbar, and all my finance-related windows are right there. (FYI, WindowsPager’s features are similar to those of other virtual desktop programs; here are tutorials for using virtual desktops on the Mac and Ubuntu.)

You might argue that there’s something “wasteful” about using a PC in a way that necessitates a windows manager. Indeed, that was one of the main complaints about my column on my lightning-fast computer—why do I need to keep so many programs open at the same time, anyway? If only I managed my PC’s resources better—if I closed tabs and programs when I got done with them—then I wouldn’t need a top-of-the-line PC, virtual desktops, or any other system to keep my computing straight.

But I don’t think I should have to change my work habits to accommodate technology—the trade-off should be reversed, with my computer accommodating my habits. In the same way that certain people get more done with a messy desk than a clean one, some folks like a computer that enables them to work on multiple concurrent tasks. Yes, I could get by if I didn’t keep lots of browser tabs and programs open at the same time, but I wouldn’t be nearly as happy or efficient.

I bet that’s true of a lot of people in this age of distraction. I’m often using my machine to work on several different projects at the same time—I might be responding to e-mail, looking for a new coffee table, researching an upcoming story, writing a story due in one hour, and organizing my photos (among other things). Each of these tasks requires a particular set of windows. For some projects, arranging windows is pretty much the whole task—if I’d like to organize files between different drives on my computer, for example, I need to open a few file browser windows, and then drag and drop files between them. Now imagine that while I’m organizing my files, I get an e-mail that requires an immediate response—but in order to respond, I’ve got to look up something on the Web and send a couple of IMs.

What should I do? If I were trying to keep my PC uncluttered, I’d have to close or minimize those file-transfer windows. But that would be a pain—setting up those windows took time. It’s far easier to keep them open in one workspace and address the new task in another. And don’t worry about “wasting” resources. These days most of us use computers that are more powerful than we need; there’s a good chance you’re nowhere near maxing out your machine’s capabilities. So go ahead: Load up virtual desktops, and run a whole lot more programs at the same time. You’ll get more done. I promise.

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