August 13, 2004

Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

You're a busy
professional, right? And all day you have to work with multiple
applications at
once. A Web browser for doing research, an email client for keeping in
constant contact with colleagues, an office suite, a graphics program,
and the list goes on. All of these applications take up valuable
desktop space.
Since you are now familiar with managing desktop application windows,
things couldn't get any easier right? Wrong! The Linux desktop offers
added feature called virtual desktops to ease your multitasking woes.
Let's take a closer look.

Virtual desktops are multiple desktop areas. This is much like having multiple computers. Applications can be sorted by running them on separate desktop areas. For example,
you can set up a virtual desktop for each group. You can set up a separate virtual desktop for Office applications, email, graphics, etc.
Then, to move between applications, simply switch desktops without the need to minimize, maximize, or shade the application windows.

Even though I use KDE for the
following examples, virtual desktops are supported by every desktop environment and window manager on Linux.

When you start KDE, you should see an area on the desktop panel that has square icons with numbers on them. This is the desktop pager
applet. If it is not present you can add it by right-clicking an empty area on the desktop panel. Then, using the pop-up menu, select
Add->Applet->Pager. Each square icon on the pager indicates a separate virtual desktop. To switch from one desktop to another click
the corresponding icon on the pager applet. The icon for the currently selected virtual desktop, or active desktop, will appear colored on the

While working on one desktop area, open an application. Then switch to another virtual desktop. The application that you just started
disappears from view. It is still running on the other virtual desktop, so don't worry. Now start another application in the newly selected
desktop. Repeat this for every virtual desktop. Now you have multiple application windows open on each desktop.

Navigating virtual desktops

Like everything on Linux, there are multiple ways to switch between virtual desktops. You can use the pager applet, the desktop pager,
or the keyboard shortcut. The key
board shortcut is the most convenient of the three. Press the Ctrl and Tab keys simultaneously to switch to the next desktop, in numerical
order. A windowless pop-up dialog appears highlighting the desktop to switch to. To switch to a specific desktop press the Ctrl-Tab
combination, with the Ctrl key still pressed release the Tab key, use the Tab key again until the desired desktop is highlighted, and release
the Ctrl key.

Applications can reside across all virtual desktops, or on a single virtual desktop. To change an application's behavior across the virtual desktops, right-click the titlebar -- or the button on the taskbar -- and highlight "To Desktop". Then choose to show the application on all or a specific desktop.

Customizing virtual desktops

To customize the virtual desktops, right-click the desktop and select "Configure Desktop" from the pop-up menu. Select 'Multiple Desktops' from the list on the left to view the configuration dialog on the right. At the top of the configuration dialog you will see a slider
and a small area indicating the number of virtual desktops. Below that
you will see an area labeled "Desktop Names" with a text box besides
desktops 1 through 16. To change the number of virtual desktops
available, drag the slider or click the arrows on the right side
of the number box.

Don't worry about losing applications while decreasing the
number of virtual desktops. If a desktop is removed that has an application
running on it, then the application will be moved to the next available

As you change the number of available virtual
desktop, you will notice that the entry boxes in the second section change. Unavailable
desktops are grayed out. Each virtual desktop is named
'Desktop' plus it's number by default. To change the name of each
virtual desktop, select the text box next to a Desktop and type a name
for that desktop. For my example, I named desktops one through four
Office, Email, Web, and Graphics.

At the bottom of the window you will notice a check box labeled "Mouse wheel over desktop switches desktop". This is for those of you with
mice that have a scroll wheel button. With this enabled, scrolling the mouse wheel over an empty space on the desktop will change the the next
virtual desktop numerically in the direction that the wheel is scrolled scrolled. Click the check box to enable or disable this feature.

Once you have finished configuring the virtual desktop to your tastes, click the 'OK' button. You will notice that the pager applet
changes to indicate the new number of virtual desktops. To tweak the
pager applet a little more, right-click the applet and highlight the
'Show' entry on the context menu. In the submenu you will see several
options including:

  • Number - displays the virtual desktop number in each icon

  • Name - Shows the name of each virtual desktop

  • None - Doesn't show anything on the icon. Only useful with the
    preview option enabled.

  • Preview - Shows a preview of each desktop by indicating
    applications with a gray box inside each icon.

  • Transparent - Makes the applet transparent. Useful if you have
    configured the desktop panel to be transparent

The desktop pager

Another application to further expand on the virtual desktops is the desktop pager. This little application works similarly to the pager applet. To open the desktop pager, right-click the applet and select "Launch Pager". You can drag the pager to any location on the desktop. By default the pager is available on all virtual desktops. To make the pager always in view, right-click it's titlebar and select
'Advanced->Keep Above Others' from the menu. While the desktop pager
takes up even more space on the desktop, it is useful when using
applications in fullscreen mode where the desktop panel isn't viewable.

On of the more interesting features of the desktop pager, not
available on the pager applet, is the ability to drag applications from
one desktop to another. This eliminates the need to switch desktops at
all. Instead you can drag an application to the active desktop to work
with it, and then drag it back when you are finished. This and other
options can be activated in the desktop pager configuration. To access
it's configuration, right-click the desktop pager and select "Configure
KPager". Other options include:

  • Show name - displays the desktop name.

  • Show number - displays the desktop number.

  • Show background - displays a preview of the desktop background
    of each desktop.

  • Show windows - displays the application windows that are open on
    each desktop.

The appearance of the application icons in the pager can be changed
in the "Type of Window" section of the configuration. You can choose
Plain, for a simple square representation of each application; Icon, to
show an icon of each application; or Pixmap, which displays a preview
of the application. The layout of the desktop pager can also be changed
to either Classical, to show to rows of desktop windows; Horizontal for
on horizontal row; and Vertical for one vertical row.

Virtual desktops can provide a newfound freedom while using Linux, so have fun using them.

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