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Why Windows needs multiple desktops capability March 21, 2009

Posted by rm42 in Computers, Linux, Uncategorized, Windows.
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The vast majority of Windows users in the world have never experienced the advantages that a multiple desktop computer environment provides.  That is because most people use Microsoft Windows and that operating system only comes with a single desktop environment*.  Users of the Linux operating system have been enjoying multiple desktop capabilities for many years already, and they are about to experience the next step of the multiple desktop paradigm evolution.  So why are multiple desktops useful and how much do they really help?

Single desktop deficiencies

First of all, lets discuss the problems that having only one desktop creates.  Most people I know of like to place items on the desktop.  They do that because they hope to be able to find them quickly next time they need them.  The idea is to have them readily available rather than having to dig down searching for them.  Ironically that is what they end up having to do, in a way.  That is because just about every user likes to have two or more applications open at a time. And, more likely than not, those applications will be in the way when trying to reach for those “handy” desktop items.

Usability experts are well aware of that problem and that is why you hear them discouraging the use of desktop items.  Microsoft has been trying for years to wean off its users from placing things on the desktop, but no matter how much they try, users continue to fall for the temptation of placing things on the desktop.  Whose fault is it?

But, the difficulty of accessing items on the desktop is just part of the problem that comes with a single desktop interface.  Since modern computers excel at multitasking most users enjoy being able to do more than one thing at a time.  Unfortunately, the Windows interface does not scale well for multitasking.  For example, lets say that one has just returned from a vacation and now finds some time to do some photo processing.  This task will usually involve a file manager, and one or two image management applications.  So far so good.  We can manage to work with that in just one desktop.  However, if you like taking pictures as much as I do, and if you are as much of a perfectionist as I am about the final quality of your photos, that task is likely to be a several hours long task.

Lets think about that for a moment.  Can anyone really hold their undivided attention to a single task for several hours on a Saturday afternoon?  Should any one even try to?  In practice, I find it very hard to work on a single task for a long period of time.  I get bored, uninterested, and unproductive.  Switching between tasks allows me to keep my interest and intensity up.  And I am quite sure that I am not alone in this.  There have been many studies that find that one cannot efficiently maintain attention spans longer than 10 or 15 minutes.  That is why it is recommend that teachers switch to a different teaching method every so often to keep the minds of their students engaged. I find the same applies to my type of work most of the time.

So getting back to our photo processing task, what other tasks are we likely to want to do in parallel with it?  I don’t know about you, but I am rarely at the computer without running Firefox.  I am also very likely to have a Word processor and an email client open, at least!  That means that to switch between tasks in Microsoft Windows I am going to have to minimize and maximize applications often.  And if I try to reach out for something on the desktop, restoring the sometimes multiple windows that belong to each task can start to get quite laborious.  But why does it have to be that way?  Having multiple desktops solves all of these problems.

Desktop shortcuts are a great way to start populating a desktop with the applications needed for the task it is going to be handling.

Multiple desktops advantages

I have to admit that, in spite of the fact that I had used Linux for many years, I was still mostly a one desktop user.  What finally made me realize that I could work more efficiently by using multiple desktops was Compiz. With it, it was easy to see visually what was going on in each of the desktops and made me realize that I could separate my tasks between them.  With KDE 4 one does not need to use Compiz to get the same 3D functionality.  See this for example.

While those effects are fun and were instrumental in helping me understand the multiple desktop potential, I find that I don’t need 3D effects any more.  I have developed a “standard” methodology for my work.  I like to use between 4 and 6 desktops at a time, depending on if I am at work or at home.  This allows me to have all the windows related to each task on their own desktop.  Usually, the first desktop is reserved for Google Apps running on Firefox.  Desktop 2 is file management.  Desktop 3 is general web browsing.  Desktop 4 is word processing, etc.  These guidelines are not very rigid, but I tend to stick to them.  It took me a while to unlearn the minimize and restore habits, but now I find that my workspace is much better organized and clean, and this makes it easier for me to work.  There may be a bit of a learning curve, but it is not steep and it is very worth wile.  Once you get used to the multiple desktops you will never want to go back.

Just last night, I was copying some very large files to an external hard drive on one desktop, backing up a DVD on another, browsing on another, and working on some spreadsheets and schedules on another. Of course, one can minimize and restore windows to do this too, but it is so much easier to switch desktops with a single click to see how the task is doing on another desktop (with multiple windows open), and then switch right back with another single click to the one that I am presently trying to give most of my attention.  And, when I want to reach for an item on the desktop all I have to do is switch to a new desktop and click on it.  No need to waste all that precious and handy space.  Desktop shortcuts are a great way to start populating a desktop with the applications needed for the task it is going to be handling.

Desktop activities

And that takes us to what is clearly the next step in the evolution of the multiple desktop paradigm, the ability of being able to preconfigure multiple “activities”.  The idea is that, instead of having a desktop populated with everything you could possibly need for any ‘activity’, one can have several types of desktops, each one populated with what one would need for a particular activity.  For example, one could have a desktop populated for general work, one for graphics work, another for research, another for development, another for gaming, one with nothing but your beautiful desktop, etc.  That way, if you are working on something and decide to start working on something else, all you have to do is start a new desktop and switch the activity.  With two click of the mouse you are ready to go.  Let me show you how it works.

Conclusion

So, are you convinced yet?  If you are not, it is probably my fault.  Do give working with multiple desktops a chance.  Avoid the minimize button like the plague.  Maybe then you will come to agree with me in thinking that single desktop interfaces are so last century it is not even funny.

*I am aware of several third party utilities that attempt to provide
multiple desktop functionality to Windows.  Unfortunately, neither of
those utilities provides a smooth experience.  They all fail due to
various bugs and/or heavy resource utilization.  What is needed is for
Windows to provide native multiple desktops.

Comments»

1. Mark - March 21, 2009

I’ve tried all of the 3rd party apps that I can find. You are correct, none of them work well. (I’m one of those cursed to use XP at work while wishing it were one of my Linux boxen at home) I’m guessing too much overhead on top of the overhead. I’ve got the transparency and window snapping apps, which make XP much more user friendly. I’m sure that MS will steal it and call it progress in a few more years.

2. Brad - March 21, 2009

Have you tried the powertoys for Windows XP? They give similar multi-desktop functionality as what you are talking about and is made by Microsoft.

http://www.osugisakae.com/writings/lin2winxp/multiple_desktops.html

3. rm42 - March 21, 2009

Brad,

I think that saying that what that little utility offers is similar is a stretch. In practice, there is no comparison. That little power toy is useless. That is why no one uses it.

4. nightowl512 - March 21, 2009

I’ve used the multiple desktop feature that comes with my nvidia software, it works, but its still not as good as KDE

5. Aronzak - March 21, 2009

Another thing to add is that Windows 7 ads more features in terms of usability, like locking windows left or right. Multiple desktops are great for users that understand them, but, as you say, most people don’t notice that the feature is there.
As with many features in Linux, they really are more powerful, but it will take users a few years to learn them.

6. rm42 - March 21, 2009

Aronzak,

Locking windows to the left or to the right is a tiny improvement compared to the power of having multiple desktops at the finger tips. And yes, it is not immediately obvious just how powerful this feature is. But, as I said, with the new 3D environments like Compiz and KDE 4 Effects this feature really pops out at you. This feature needs to be in Windows yesterday.

7. eric - March 21, 2009

You want multiple desktops on Windows? Try VirtuaWin: http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/

I was on a grand search once for a good virtual desktop utility and I found this one. There is no pager (you can add one on as a module) but you will probably find like I did it is not needed. There are hotkey settings, what they call “edge knocking” and it just works great.

I run mine in a 3×3 grid and use the Blue 3×3 (http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/icon_sets.php) icon set in the notification area. It is alos open source and being actively developed.

Some other nice little utilities to make windows play nicer are AllSnap (snaps windows to the edge), TaskbarShuffle, Launchy, WinSplit Revolution and there are others. It is my belief you can turn XP into a solid and rocking system if you do it right. I’m a dual-booter (actual triple on this one) so I not ultra-biased either way. But honestly I have XP set up for huge productivity. XP + quality open source and legit freeware apps makes for a sweet system IMHO.

Check out VirtuaWin, take the time to figure it out, and I think you might actually like it.

Eric

8. kilgoretrout - March 21, 2009

I think there’s a good reason why MS hasn’t implemented multiple desktops – namely, windows doesn’t multitask nearly as well as linux and multiple desktops encourage more intensive use of multitasking.

9. Yonah - March 23, 2009

Kilgoretrout, you are wrong. The NT kernel multitasks just as well as Linux if not better. You have absolutely no basis for your claim. It’s baseless propaganda, period.

That said, “virtual desktops” have always been available for Windows with 3rd party add ons. It’s not even a “PC only” concept as I had a similar utility on my old Commodore Amiga. While cute, the overall demand for this feature is still quite low. While the author claims he needs to do more than one thing at a time to stay interested (ADHD?), studies have PROVEN that the more people try to multitask the worse the results become. Therefore, most people are best to limit themselves to no more than 2 or 3 activities as once.

Better yet, most people who do need more than 1 screen prefer something that has always worked better: multiple displays. An area Windows handles quite easily, but something Linux will often give you a very hard time with due to poor drivers and complicated configuration settings. Virtual desktops are just not the killer app you want them to be.

rm42 - March 23, 2009

Yonah,

I believe that what Kilgoretrout meant was that Linux distributions (which includes the kernel, a window manager, and a desktop environment) multitask better than Windows as a whole, not just the NT kernel. It may be that the NT kernel is fine at multitasking, but at least on my desktop, Windows as a whole does fall on its knees when multitasking much sooner than the same desktop running Linux. I love multitasking, both at home and at work. About 3 months ago I tried all the Windows “virtual desktops” 3rd party add-ons that I could get my hands on. Neither of them gave me the smooth well built experience that the Linux desktop environments give. And all of them made my desktop take a hefty performance hit. So, I had to remove them. As it is today, it is not worth it for me to run them on my desktop. Now, if I was running a quad machine with 10 gigabytes of RAM it may be a different story, at least in the performance area. But that is not what most people have today. So, saying that Linux does the better job multitasking today is a valid argument.

“While cute, the overall demand for this feature is still quite low.”

How do you measure demand for a feature that most people don’t know about? I guess we could see if maybe there are third part utilities trying to fill in the void. Hmmm….

“studies have PROVEN that the more people try to multitask the worse the results become.”

Where those studies done on a Windows machine? ;)

“most people who do need more than 1 screen prefer something that has always worked better: multiple displays.”

I have used multiple displays many times in the past. They come in handy for some tasks, like doing CAD. But, it only solves part of the problem. Again, modern computers excel at multitasking. The single desktop interface is the bottleneck.

10. CL17 - April 14, 2009

Yonah said:

“Kilgoretrout, you are wrong. The NT kernel multitasks just as well as Linux if not better. You have absolutely no basis for your claim. It’s baseless propaganda, period.”

Yonah, you make a fool of yourself quite well with that statement. Not only because it is without evidence to back it up, but because empirically, anyone can see that Windows is not as good at multi-tasking as any other multi-tasking operating system available! I’d go find evidence of my statements, but anyone who can’t sit down and compare the two and come away understanding that when one one system (Linux) can support dozens and even hundreds of applications running simultaneously, and remain usable – and the other (Windows) can’t even support half that while remaining usable – one wins out pretty clearly.

11. How to Get Six Pack Fast - April 15, 2009

This is very hot info. I think I’ll share it on Digg.

12. Gaurav Prabhu - April 17, 2009

Till now I too was gone addicted to the minimize-maximize routine due to the fact of being a Window user for around 5 years. Now it’s about time I get used to the multiple desktop & then experience how I become productive myself.

Thanks for the excellent article.

rm42 - April 17, 2009

Gaurav,
Thanks for the kind encouragement. I am very glad you found it useful. :)

13. MojaveMike - May 1, 2009

For years I’ve found Windows multiple desktop ad-ons to be quite usable. Recently I put a spare LCD monitor on my desk and set my laptop to use multiple displays and found it invaluable and I would hate to go back to one display. Just my two cents.

rm42 - May 1, 2009

Mike,

Which multiple desktop utility do you use? And what are the specs of your machine?

BillH - July 24, 2009

Mike,
Try setting an application to open on your second monitor while your laptop is docked (or when the second monitor is attached) and then take your laptop to some other place and open that application – where did it go? Windows cannot open it on your laptop monitor until you move the application window to the first screen. We run into this all the time where I work – many users have multiple monitors and can’t work the same way when at home.

14. Mark - May 10, 2009

Yonah is correct that humans don’t multi-task well. It is actually less productive to attempt to multi-task. However, real-life does not always allow this luxury. [computers multitask well, but just because the NT kernel has the ability, that doesn't mean that the programmers did their part right.]

I have dual monitors at work on my XP machine and run software to create multiple-desktops. 3 is my personal sweetspot. (and sorry, I have tried several and I don’t recall which one I’m using now. Some don’t work well, so look around.)

I’m now a Project Manager (desktop one – MS Project and associated pprograms), however I used to do the tier 2 support, and still get called on that multiple times a day (desktop two – multiple tech windows pre-arranged). This works great for be because I don’t have to take time to re-start and re-arrange things each time I have to switch to another job duty.

Oh, and I keep desktop 3 open for other things that come up that aren’t related to the other two – and I get those interruptions several times a day also.

15. e_Fish_NC guy - May 12, 2009

Thanks for this excellent share –
you convince me to finally invest the time !

@Eric – “It is my belief you can turn XP into a solid and rocking system if you do it right.”

I totally agree – AHK + StrokeIt + Quizo + …..

although, I’m finally dualbooting Linux,
& on my way to a “Linux from Scratch” so I can get my Linux as lean & mean as my XP –
minimal Services running, etc.
Max Performance!

But as long as I gotta use a MSoft product,
my config of XP hauls a** as I’m sure yours does.

16. RonCam - July 23, 2009

This article says it refers to running Multiple (Virtual) Desktops in Linux. Just to make sure I’m on the same page — the article refers to running Multiple Virtual Desktops in KDE4.x (on any particular distro of GNU/Linux)?? This I gathered from watching the videos. If so, then –

I notice in the video, changing the Activity not only switches the Wallpaper, but also brings up the Folder with the Icons specific for that Activity. Correct? I haven’t yet been able to duplicate this, with the documentation I’ve seen.

And, changing the Desktop shifts only the running Applications, but leaves the Desktop’s contents intact?

Am I correct that even the Beryl cube shifts Applications, but not Desktop contents? Y’odm-3D does shift both simultaneously, but you’re limited to four cube faces. StarOffice’s multiple virtual Desktop feature shifts not applications, but only the Desktop contents (Icons, Bookmarks, Folders, etc.) but on the other hand, it’s capable of as many different Desktops as will fit on its pop-up Desktop Menu …

I am actively looking for a StarOffice replacement, and the KDE Activitiy featire seem closer to what I now have than anything else. Please reply with a link to the best documentation (verbal, diagrams, videos, all the above) for using Activities in KDE4.x. I’ve set the tag to be notified when there’s a reply … :-)

rm42 - July 23, 2009

This article says it refers to running Multiple (Virtual) Desktops in Linux. Just to make sure I’m on the same page — the article refers to running Multiple Virtual Desktops in KDE4.x (on any particular distro of GNU/Linux)?? This I gathered from watching the videos. If so, then –

The “Desktop activities” section is KDE4 specific, yes.

I notice in the video, changing the Activity not only switches the Wallpaper, but also brings up the Folder with the Icons specific for that Activity. Correct? I haven’t yet been able to duplicate this, with the documentation I’ve seen.

Yes, that is the whole point of having multiple desktop activities. They are meant to put what you need for a particular task at your finger tips.

And, changing the Desktop shifts only the running Applications, but leaves the Desktop’s contents intact?

Correct.

Am I correct that even the Beryl cube shifts Applications, but not Desktop contents?

Correct. Also, with plain KDE 3.x you were able to assign a specific wallpaper to each desktop, but the icons and other desktop contents remained the same.

Y’odm-3D does shift both simultaneously, but you’re limited to four cube faces. StarOffice’s multiple virtual Desktop feature shifts not applications, but only the Desktop contents (Icons, Bookmarks, Folders, etc.) but on the other hand, it’s capable of as many different Desktops as will fit on its pop-up Desktop Menu …

I wasn’t aware of those two options. Fancy, but not quite as functional as the KDE 4.x option.

I am actively looking for a StarOffice replacement, and the KDE Activitiy featire seem closer to what I now have than anything else. Please reply with a link to the best documentation (verbal, diagrams, videos, all the above) for using Activities in KDE4.x. I’ve set the tag to be notified when there’s a reply …

Using KDE activities is rather easy. Frankly, I never read their documentation. I just did some Google searches and pieced it together. I tell you what, I’ll do a small tutorial just for you. Stand by. ;)

17. RonCam - July 23, 2009

Thanks much. Be sure to tell us the exact build-number of KDE we have to use, to get the same result as you’ll describe.

————-

An aside: Y’odm-3D, (the last) freeware (version) is for MS Windows, and StarOffice5.2 has native support for Multiple Virtual Desktops, that run only inside the office suite. I usually work in the StarOffice environment, with those Desktops, however.

These (in StarOffice) are actually fully-customizable, desktop-sized folders, and from the path name I see in the KDE Activity window, I am wondering if “under the hood” there’s some degree of similarity here. I also see a path before each of my Desktop names in the StarOffice Desktop Menu, so I was hoping for a similarity.

It would be great if I could just copy all my StarOffice Desktops into Activity folders, but that’s a bit of premature speculation, at this point …

18. Matthew - October 16, 2009

You very accurately summed up what I’ve come to realize. But I’m still using Compiz for my desktops. It’s fun and doesn’t have to be major eye-candy, but can be (and it’s good for impressing people). I usually relegate my work to different desktops as well, using my first for Firefox and music, my second for whatever secondary task I’m doing, third for file management, and fourth for word processing or a terminal or whatever. I’m flexible with it, but it’s very productive. I also find Sticky Notes really handy for managing schoolwork or notes on what I’m doing. When I go back to a Windows environment, I invariably feel boxed in and limited.

19. TheGooch - December 18, 2010

Since we are talking about a tool whose utility is based on the users needs, the “one size does not fit all” motto applies. Both my home and workplace computing environments have been a mix of Windows, Linux, UNIX, and Apple computer, so I’ve tried quite a few desktop combinations out. For a while I was enamored of multiple desktops, but that phase passed after a few years, and I’ve gotten very good at managing tasks using a single desktop.

I think multiple desktops are good if they emulate the way your mind pictures tasks(not focused, switching contexts often ) , but if you are a focus ( get anything not related to the task at hand out of site and out of mind ) , then a single desktop works better.

I find that I get more done of I remove any distractions from my focus task out of the way. If you are familiar with David Allen’s GTD methodology , then you know what I mean.

Howeve, all minds are not alike, so I think multiple desktops are great for those who need to continuously change contexts to be productive…which is ok if you can still get things done on time as opposed to many things things half-done and all late.

20. Java Guy - April 13, 2011

good stuff. many thanks for sharing it. Just curious. Does multiple desktops use more processor power/hardware resources and energy ( I am thinking laptop batteries)? Or to put it another way. Will battery life, with multiple desktops, same as using one desktop with applications minimized ?

rm42 - April 13, 2011

I have never felt a difference in battery life from using multiple desktops. If there is any difference, I would say it is negligible, at least in Linux. Windows is a whole ‘nother story.


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