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Use a Free Utility to Create Multiple Virtual Desktops in Windows

00_lead_image_mdesktop

If you’ve used Linux, you’re probably familiar with the virtual desktop feature. It provides a convenient way to organize programs and folders open on your desktop. You can switch among multiple desktops and have different programs and folders open on each one.

However, virtual desktops is a feature missing in Windows. There are many third-party options for adding virtual desktops to Windows, including one called Dexpot, which we have covered previously. Dexpot is free, but only for private use. Companies, public institutions, non-profit organizations, and even freelancers and self-employed people must buy the program.

We found another virtual desktop tool that is completely free for everyone to use, called mDesktop. It’s a lightweight, open source program that allows you to switch among multiple desktops using hot keys and specify open programs or folders to be active on all desktops. You can use mDesktop to group related programs or to work on different projects on separate desktops.

mDesktop is portable and does not need to be installed. Simply extract the .zip file you downloaded (see the link at the end of this article) and double-click the mDesktop.exe file.

NOTE: There is a release version available (1.5) and a beta version of 1.6 available, which has more features available. We downloaded the beta version and show that version in this article.

01_running_mdesktop

mDesktop runs in the system tray. Right-clicking on the tray icon brings up a popup menu that allows you to switch desktops, access the settings, and hide the system tray icon. The default method of switching among the desktops is to hold down the Alt key and press the number for the desired desktop. By default, there are four desktops available.

To specify the number of desktops and change the hot keys for switching desktops and sending open programs to other desktops, select Settings from the popup menu.

02_selecting_settings

The General tab on the Settings dialog box allows you to change the number of available desktops, up to a maximum of 10. There is also a customizable hot key to unhide the mDesktop system tray icon, in case you chose to hide it using the icons popup menu.

The To switch directly to a desktop drop-down list allows you to specify whether to use the Alt, Ctrl, or Shift key with the desktop number to directly switch to that desktop.

Use the To switch to the next desktop and To switch to the previous desktop drop-down lists to specify whether to use the Ctrl key, Shift key, or Alt key with the Right and Left Arrow keys to switch to the next and previous desktops.

If you want a specific program to be available on all desktops, you can specify a hot key combination that allows you to do this, using the To send an active window to a desktop drop-down list.

03_mdesktop_settings_general

The Desktop Names tab allows you to assign names to each of the available desktops. These names display on the popup menu accessed from the mDesktop system tray icon.

04_mdesktop_settings_desktop_name

The Windows tab allows you to specify open programs or folders that you want available on all desktops. To add a program or folder to this list, click Add.

05_mdesktop_settings_windows_click_add

Enter part of the window title for the program or folder you want to show on all desktops in the edit box and click OK.

06_add_a_window_dialog

The window name displays in the list.

NOTE: The Select button allows you to click on a window to add it to the list, but, as of the writing of this article, this doesn’t seem to work in the beta version.

To remove a window from this list, select the window name and click Delete.

07_window_added

To stop using virtual desktops, right-click on the system tray icon and select Exit. Any programs or folders you had open on desktops other than the first one are moved to the first desktop.

08_closing_mdesktop

mDesktop works in the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7, Vista, and XP.

Download mDesktop from http://code.google.com/p/mdesktop/.

Lori Kaufman is a freelance technical writer who likes to write geeky how-to articles to help make people's lives easier through the use of technology. She loves watching and reading mysteries and is an avid Doctor Who fan.

  • Published 12/3/12

Comments (22)

  1. neighborville

    Many years ago, about the time of Windows 3 or so, I had a great virtual desk program that had two features that I have not been able to find since those days and that was the capability to configure several virtual desktops and save those desktops between Windows sessions, i.e., once configured they had a permanent life until changed by the user. Additionally, those configurations were maintained in a simple ASCII file where the user could change their content with a text editor. Those two features, in my opinion, make the entire concept of virtual desktops a productivity tool worth spending time on. I believe the vendor involved was either Symantec or PC Tools. The current crop of virtual desktop managers, to my knowledge, do not have these capabilities and therefor have little interest on my part.

    If anyone knows of a virtual desktop manager the has these capabilities, I would be interested.

    P.S. a real kick would be a virtual desktop manager as I described above with Fences overlaying each desktop.

    Cheers > JR

  2. Cody

    Awesome! I use an extremely outdated version of Vista/XP Virtual Desktops that works well, but is dated 2007. I will try out mDesktop.

  3. nt0xik8ed

    I like this feature in linux and could never get it to duplicate as well in windows with the free apps. I purchased cubedesktop pro a few years ago and it’s perfect. except now i have dual monitors and switched over to windows 8 and haven’t used it much. But i’ve always liked the organization of virtual desktops.

  4. bamanzi

    what about VirtuaWin? It’s open source. http://virtuawin.sf.net

  5. Ya YA

    It’s not too hard to find these desktop switchers for Windows. I’ll definitely give mDesktop a try since I especially like self contained portable apps like that. But when it comes to desktop switchers there are others – lots of others.

    One in particular I used with XP was one called “YoDm 3D” ( http://rocketdock.com/addon/docklets/22933 ). It’s part of the free Rocket Dock suite which I also highly recommend as an alternative launch menu. But YoDm 3D really isn’t a Rocket Dock add-on. YoDm is more of a complete self contained desktop switcher almost like mDesktop is. The only reason I used YoDm was because I liked the 3D spinning cube whenever I changed desktops – just like certain Linux distros!

    BTW, I don’t see any reason YoDm wouldn’t work with all current Windows versions. I just haven’t done it.

    But if that’s not your thing then there are a plethora of other desktop switcher choices. GiMeSpace (free edition), Dexpot, 360Desktop, T3Desk, Virtuawin, SDesk, and on and on, are all probably good choices, also all free too. But I do seem to have a problem calling any of them “virtual desktops.” To me, that sounds more like taking control of a desktop virtually in which a product like “Goto My PC” or even “Teamviewer” might be used. Therefore, I think we may want to call these things desktop “switchers” rather than virtual desktops. …I’m Just saying. :-|

  6. Seban

    I use VirtuaWin (Open Source/Gpl).

    I also know Dexpot (free for private use iirc), which has more functions, but I never really tested it so far. neighborville, you should have a look at this one

    http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/
    http://dexpot.de/?lang=en

  7. Alex Thorp

    I use dexpot. It is free and works great. There are also some other useful features that it has, like minimize to trey.

  8. mikebatech

    Also works in 64-bit Win8

  9. Ya YA

    I just gave mDesktop a try (Win 7 Home Premium 64-bit) and it seems to work great! However, it’s not much for eye candy. No spinning 3D cubes or sliding panes with dancing girls. But then, I’ll take solid functionality over fluff any day. Thanks for the tip.

    But if you do like fluff and like seeing a spinning 3D cube when switching between desktops then perhaps Yodm 3D may be worth considering. It’s part of the Rocket Dock suite of free apps and add-ons and I can confirm that it also works. (I’d provide a URL but that seems to be a big “no no” for some reason.)

    I’m also not comfortable calling these things virtual desktops either. Even though “virtual desktop” is a pretty good description, it does tend to lead me to think about an actual remote desktop being virtually controlled from another machine. Something that might require a host program like the free Teamviewer program or even Windows’ own “Remote Desktop Connection” utility (which is an entirely different subject).

  10. Nova

    Sysinternals has a free tool called Desktop.exe. Works great…provides 4 desktops, more than enough for me.

  11. Kevin

    Neighborville, the application you are referring to was PC Tools Desktop for Windows. Symantec bought them out and shut them down. You’re right, that was many years ago and there still isn’t anything like this built into Windows.

  12. Ken Spelman

    FYI,

    Twice I downloaded mDesktop and during the setup process my AVG anti-virus program detected “Malware, Threat detected”. It specifically cited “mDesktopsetup1.5[1].exe” as being infected.

    Ken

  13. neighborville

    Kevin, thanks for your reply. I have been looking for a long time for a replacement as I described in my initial comment. Its sad that someone hasn’t taken the concept of multiple desktops beyond the current crop of virtual desktop managers to a more productive level for the user. Hopefully, someday an open source initiative will get us there.

    Cheers > JR

  14. mustafa iren

    This program is good but Finestra is the best. I tried a lot of programs and i don’t like. Please check finestra. http://vdm.codeplex.com/

  15. Ben

    I use and love Dexpot, but am looking to try some free and open source alternatives.

  16. Murphy

    PowerPro still works under Win7 (did not test on Win8). http://powerpro.cresadu.com/

  17. Murphy

    Why you never write anything about PowerPro? This is so powerful tool that I am bit disappointed that you did not write anything about it. It also offers a virtual desktops and plenty of more stuff.

  18. toucan

    Whats wrong with the Desktop.exe application that comes as part of SysInternals? Surely everyone has that package on their systems!

  19. Don

    I use Virtuawin. It has a lot of great additional features like making programs show on all pages and forcing some programs to stay on top. You can also set up rules to make sure that every time you open a particular program that it opens on the specified page you have designated for it. It’s free and I absolutely love it!

  20. Dave Killam

    I use Dexpot and love it for it’s many features.

  21. Anas

    I think you can use System Internal for free, it is called Desktop.exe developed by MS.

  22. Jake

    In reply to neighborville:

    I’ve been using the free Virtual Dimension for years, It moved nicely from XP to Win-7. ASAIK it uses the registry for changes but it does keep the settings across reboots.

    While I can keep different applications and wallpaper on each desktop, I cannot have different desktop icons. And occasionally, some program will show up on all desktops. Still, easy to configure and that’s a minor bug.

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