Virtual Desktop Application Round-up

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!