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Virtual Desktop Application Round-up

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Virtual Desktops have been around for a while. Linux has been the champion of VD’s (not to be confused with the other VD’s…) for the better part of 10 years with the functionality built-in. Windows has a few third party options, but none feel natural – they’re obviously not a part of Windows, and it’s evident in their operation and use. (For those wondering, I’m relegated to a Windows environment at my day job.) OS X has a handful of third party options as well. But unlike on the Windows platform, these VD apps feel very much like a part of the OS X platform and present fantastic usability, allow for user customization, and increased productivity.

So what are they?
Virtual Desktops basically give you multiple desktops to work on. You generally have a “pager” which shows your various desktops, and at the very least, wireframes of the applications open on each. The Pager allows you to move between VDs, drag apps from one VD to another, and just basically take stock of what you’ve got going on across all these work spaces. Virtual Desktops are terrific for organizing your work on a computer. I generally have 3 VDs going at once: 1 for my coding, previews window, and req documents; 1 for iTunes, my email, and browser; and 1 for Photoshop and other graphics stuff that I’m in the middle of using. Couple Virtual Desktops with Expose and a dual display setup and you’ve got oodles of work space and then some.

I’ve gathered 4 of the most well-known Virtual Desktop contenders, and will hit the highs and the lows of each. Hopefully this will be helpful for new OS X users and will open a new world to those who’ve lived without the knowledge of Virtual Desktops until now.

The Lineup:
You Software Desktops Beta – (price TBD)
[open source] Desktop Manager – (free)
[open source] Virtue – (free)
CodeTek virtualdesktop pro – ($40)

The Ties That Bind
There are plenty of common features across these 4 Virtual Desktop applications.

  • Nearly unlimited number of desktops are possible (but c’mon, who needs more than 10, max?)
  • Cool transition effects between Virtual Desktops (Cube effect still hasn’t gotten old for me somehow)
  • Menu bar and Pager displays of your Virtual Desktops

You Software: Desktops Beta
I think the high point of Desktops was the option to have multiple Desktop folders, corresponding to the virtual desktops you’ve setup. This means that each virtual desktop could potentially have a unique set of folders, aliases, files, etc displayed on it. The idea is great, but I’d have to use it a bit to get used to it, and really know if I liked it or not. Having different files on different virtual desktops may prove to be more than my brain could handle… Your mileage may vary.
You can also set different wallpaper for each of your virtual desktops. Nice for a little variety, but even better for keeping track of which VD you’re on – Work, Play, Email, Internet, etc, etc.
Another feature that I found to my liking was the drop down Pager from the menu bar. I personally don’t like having the pager cluttering my desktop space – screen real estate is precious to me – so being able to click the VD icon in the menubar and see a full size Pager of my Virtual Desktops is pretty great. Plus you can move apps from one desktop to another by dragging/dropping in this drop down pager. Or, if you’d rather see the pager desktops all the time, you can optionally display them in the menubar (my preferred method).
The preferences screen was pretty concise and easy to understand. I like knowing what my options are without playing detective to determine what the application is doing, go figure.
I think You Software missed one major thing with Desktops Beta (but it’s beta, so they’ve still got time to add it), and that is, no hotkey bindings! There’s one you can assign for activation of the app, but that’s it. It’s OS X for crying out loud – we keybind everything! I’d be happier to see the ability to assign hotkeys to switch desktops, move apps between desktops, etc.

MY CONCLUSION: Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of Desktops Beta when I first downloaded it. I’m still not sure I’m 100% sold, but it’s definitely worth a look. I anticipate playing with it until it’s shareware, and then I’ll evaluate whether I’m hooked on it enough to spend money on it.

Desktop Manager
This has been the mainstay Virtual Desktop App on my OS X systems, as well as the one I’ve recommended to friends. Of course up until just recently, I’d only heard of Desktop Manager and CodeTek’s VirtualDesktop – but more on CTVD in the next section.
Desktop Manager is good at being a Virtual Desktop manageemnt tool without a lot of extras. It’s got some nice transitions, assignable hotkeys for the various operations, menubar pager, and little more. This isn’t a weakness in my opinion. It does the job without cluttering-up a lot of other things that I won’t use. I like to work fast and not have to think too much about my environment as I go. Desktop Manager is perfect for this.
Hotkeys are plentiful and assignable in Desktop Manager. There’s a lot more hotkey assignable actions than I use – in this case I’m glad for additional options should I choose to learn them… I can move between desktops, move apps between desktops, open the preferences and tons more using hotkeys that make the most sense to me. I likey!
Another feather in Desktop Manager’s cap is that it’s Open Source, so gets updated fairly often with user requested features and is free to use.
Since I use Desktop Manager daily – and have for sometime- I’ve found the one thing that bugs me is that after it’s been running for days at a time it’ll lose the ability for me to move apps across desktops via hot keys. A relaunch of the app fixes this, but it’s mildly annoying to deal with.

MY CONCLUSION: I’m very happy with Desktop Manager. I anticipate that I’ll stick with it as my Virtual Desktop application. It does the things that I need while being simple to use. It’s free, which I think will probably edge it out over Desktops Beta when they begin selling it as shareware. We’ll see.

Virtue is the other Open Source (free) Virtual Desktop application. I can’t even remember how I came across it… It’s spawned from the Desktop Manager project, so has very similar features and underpinnings..
Basically, the functionality that I like in Desktop Manager is there, but I don’t like the usability of this Virtual Desktop app. It was just a little too difficult to get a handle on. I had to play detective to determine what different settings actual did. The preferences window was just a little too confusing for me to get comfortable with.

MY CONCLUSION: Since this is based on Desktop Manager, there’s not a whole lot to say about it in addition to what I said about it’s sibling. I like that Virtue presents another Virtual Desktop option, but it needs some work. On the plus side, being open source, it will hopefully get frequent updates and user-feedback to help it mature into more of a contender in the future.

CodeTek VirtualDesktop
I think CTVD has been around the longest for OSX. I think it’s also always been for purchase only – the Pro version is $40 and the Lite version is $20. (Aren’t Lite apps usually the free versions?) So I tried CTVD early on, and didn’t like it. Did without a Virtual Desktop app actually, until I found Desktop Manager.
Basically CTVD does all the things you’ve already read about in the previous 3 apps. It’s full featured and has a TON of options to customize your use of it. I guess that’s why the charge so much for it.
Two big strikes against it though, in my book:
1 – you can only opt for a desktop pager. I didn’t see a way to have it display your desktops in the menubar. Granted, the reasoning may be that if you’ve got 15 VD’s it would take up your entire menubar. At least make it an option for people is all I’m saying.
2 – This was a HUGE deal breaker. It’s got some bug that when CTVD is running, you can’t type ANYTHING into firefox – not the address bar, not the search, not web forms, nothing. That’s no good. Didn’t even bother to test with Safari, Camino, etc, etc. Turned it off after I messed wtih some settings and made sure I didn’t miss any groundbreaking features.

MY CONCLUSION: CodeTek VirtualDesktop is better than I remember it way back when. But in my opinion, the only thing it does better than You’s Desktops Beta is the hotkeys options. Worse, it doesn’t have a menubar pager, it’s $20 – $40, and it breaks firefox. Not a great set of cons to this one.

I hope I covered all the main points. There’s so much that can be done with these applications, that I urge you to try the one that sounds best to you – if not all of them – out and see what you can do with them.
I don’t like to have to learn a whole lot as I enhance my computing environment, so more barebones and to the point are preferable for me. Your brain may be capable of more and you may prefer a full featured Virtual Desktop app such as You Software’s Desktops or CodeTek’s VirtualDesktop. As is my disclaimer: Your mileage may vary.
If I’ve missed some features that you deem noteworthy, know of other Virtual Desktop application options, or just want to tell me what an awful/awesome review this is, please feel free to comment away!

20 Responses to “Virtual Desktop Application Round-up”

  1. I would concur with sjk: to the best of my knowledge, development on Virtue appears to have been utterly abandoned. The website hasn’t been updated since January of 2005, and the application has never worked under Tiger with any degree of reliability. It’s sad, because I was particularly fond of a few features in it–most notably the ability to switch desktops when switching applications (that is, if I Cmd-Tab to an application, I switch automatically to that desktop).

    DesktopManager has been an excellent choice for me: very stable, consistent, and full-enough-featured to be useful without feeling cluttered. I’d love to see a new version to implement a couple of long-standing requests like the above Cmd-Tab option, but overall it’s an excellent application, particularly considering the price!

  2. Mhr? Been using virtual desktop for ever. Used to use CTVD when I was beta testing for them. No love anymore.. wrote up over 320 bugs and then get booted out the door with nothing. So.. bugger CTVD… I haven’t really tried virtue.. but I will soon. You softwares app sounds like a joke.. and not being free either just makes it look like an idiotic thing to do… so I wont even bother with that.
    I would like to express my severe disappointment in the developer of Desktop Manager have allowed his fine project to stagnate to such a degree. But.. I see that he is very busy with his blog.. and well… you know that can take away alot of your free time… writing about what you had for dinner and stuff. I mean who cares if someone’s donated anything to you… what you had for dinner is important.

  3. Is Virtue still being developed? 0.5r2 isn’t reliably compatible with Tiger.

    Seems there’s more hope for Desktop Manager. 0.5.3 was released a few months ago for Tiger compatibility.

  4. @JamesR:
    I did this original round up about 9 months ago. THEN, virtue didn’t fare so well on my system. I’ve not tried it since, but maybe it’s time to revisit things.
    It’s actually the baby brother of Desktop Manager, so as it grows, I can easily see it overtaking DM…especially since DM development seems to have hit a wall.

    On a somewhat related side-note, I recently bit, and paid the $10 for You Software’s Desktops app. Tried it for almost 2 weeks. Couldn’t stand it – compared to Desktop Manager at least. Not very pleased with the lack of assignable hotkeys. Otherwise not bad, but I use the hotkeys more than I realized.

  5. As a matter of public record to the readers of this piece, I’ve used both Desktop Manger and Virtue, and virtue to be superior in crucial ways. Although configuration is a bit more complex, the reward is a VDM of unbelievable sleekness. It is a lightweight VDM that should be considered (once configured properly) by anyone who desires the least amount of screen realestate to be taken, and by those who like to customize their environment. For instance, i use shift+{up,down,left,right] key combos and the result is very intuitive. I wanted to balance the review to hightlight why virtue has won some hearts.

  6. I’ve been uisng CTVD for quite a while. I am not s fan and am severly disappointed that the creator hasn’t made any noticeable effort to correct the mozilla issue. Yes it only effects Mozilla products so there is some issue as to who should do the fixing … But since I have to pay for CTVD I tend to look there way.

    I am a fan of Mozilla products, especially Firefox. The previous mentioned work around is good in a pinch but there is a better way. If you Launch Firefox completely BEFORE launching CTVD the issue does not present itself. Be sure to ALWAYS KEEP ONE FIREFOX window open. And do not launch CTVD until at least one Firefox window is open.

    With that method I never experience any of the issues that CTVD and Mozilla share. Everything wors as it should. If Firefox crashes, you close all its windows or you shutdown firefox you must stop CTVD relaunch Firefox and Then CTVD. This can be a pain but is far, far less frequent than CMD+Tab. I normally go weeks before I have to do that.

  7. Great round-up. i’m playing with Desktop Manager now and it’s great. However, you mentioned that you are able to move apps between desktops via hot keys.

    How exactly are you doing that and is it possible to do this with a mouse (drag and drop with the pager). I’ve looked at the sourceforge page and i can’t find it documented anywhere.

    Thanks in advance, keep up the great work.

  8. Thanks for that tip, Derek. I rarely use Firefox but it’s good to have a workaround for compatibility with CTVD when I do.

    I wonder what the future holds for “virtual desktop” apps on OS X. Development has stagnated lately, with the appearance of You Control: Desktop beta being the last significant news. Hopefully after Tiger is official released we’ll see more progress.

  9. Howdy,

    Thanks for the list. Couple of notes about CTVD, which has been my main manager for a couple of years (though I’ve tried the others):

    1. The Firefox bug is *tremendously* annoying (note that it is a bug in Firefox, supposedly, although only CTVD seems to be affected) – however, there is a workaround: if you CMD-tab away from Firefox and then back to it after creating a new window, all the text fields should become enabled.
    Still annoying, but now that I’ve developed that little habit, not nearly so bad.

    Hope that is helpful…

  10. Mike Wong

    Hi there. Nice write up. Just wanted to let you know that in You Control: Desktops, you can set hot keys to switch to the next/previous desktop as well as to jump to a non-sequential desktop (i.e. from Desktop 1 to Desktop 3). Check out our forums here and here. Weve got a new method to set hot keys (thats a little more intuitive) coming in the next beta release.
    Mike Wong
    You Software

  11. The reason Desktop Manager loses the ability to move windows after a few days is really it loses the ability to move windows after the Dock relaunches (so if you force quit the Dock or something, it loses this ability). That’s because it has to inject code into the Dock to do the window-moving (all virtual desktop apps do), and it really should listen to the app launched notifs and re-inject the code when the Dock relaunches, but it doesn’t.