It took all of about 20 minutes to get accustomed to Linux's virtual desktops, which let you switch between work environments with a single click. The problem is, I still spend most of my computing time on Windows machines that lack this handy productivity-boosting feature.
I tried using Microsoft's Virtual Desktop Manager, a PowerToy for Windows XP that lets you create as many as four separate desktops, but it's as buggy as an anthill, and offers no version for Vista. However, I did find three free virtual-desktop programs that work better and give you more options: VirtuaWin, an open-source program that supports up to 20 separate desktops; Virtual Dimension, another open-source app that offers more features than VirtuaWin; and Z-Systems' Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager, which takes advantage of Vista's Aero interface.
VirtuaWin's simple approach
At only 385KB, this lightweight utility keeps things simple but lets you add features via downloadable add-on modules that let you start applications automatically when you enter a desktop, give each desktop a name that shows on its taskbar icon (a feature built into Virtual Dimension), and cycle through your desktops automatically, among other functions. VirtuaWin's support for as many as 20 separate desktops seems like plenty until you consider that Virtual Dimension and Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager let you create as many desktops as your system's memory can accommodate.
You switch between VirtuaWin desktops by clicking one of the four corners of the program's system-tray icon, or by pressing the keyboard shortcut assigned to it. If you create more than four desktops, the icon displays the active desktop's number; click the icon once to view your open apps, or double-click it to open the Setup dialog box. Beyond that there's not much to the program, which is just fine if you're "cultivating a minimalist vibe," as they say in the movies. (Bonus points if you know which one I'm quoting.)
Customize with Virtual Dimension
There are many more similarities than differences between VirtuaWin and Virtual Dimension, but the differences are noteworthy.
Virtual Dimension lets you give each virtual desktop its own wallpaper, which makes it much easier to distinguish between desktops. The program is also much easier to configure via its Settings dialog box: you can assign various operations their own keyboard shortcuts for moving between windows, adjust the transparency of open windows, and tweak the utility's appearance in other ways.
Click the program's system-tray icon to open a small preview window that includes the names you've assigned to each desktop. Choose one of the previews to open that desktop, or click the system-tray icon again to close the preview. In addition to using keyboard shortcuts, you can jump between desktops by right-clicking the icon and choosing one from the pop-up menu that appears.
Get Vista's Aero effect with Vista/XP Virtual Desktop
This program's main claim to fame is its full-screen desktop previews in Vista, which take the guess work out of identifying the desktop you're looking for. You can create a separate system-tray icon for each active desktop, and assign each desktop its own background. The program also lets you adjust the size of the preview windows, but not their transparency as you can with Virtual Dimension. You get fewer keyboard-shortcut options with this program than with Virtual Dimension, though both let you designate programs that will appear on all desktops.
Two virtual winners
The Aero support and full-screen previews in Vista/XP Virtual Desktop Manager make it a good choice for that OS, but Virtual Dimension's easy customization and inclusion of the desktop names in its preview window give it an edge on XP systems.
Whichever program you choose, you'll find the ability to jump between workspaces makes Windows much easier to work with.
Tomorrow: fixes for applications that don't know when to quit.