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Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

By on August 13, 2004 (8:00:00 AM)

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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 an 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 applet.

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 desktop.

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

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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on Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

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and for those arduous days you have to use windows

Posted by: Administrator on August 17, 2004 12:18 PM
bb4win of course<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;-)


Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 26, 2007 11:46 AM


Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on December 06, 2007 12:53 PM
I am interested but I still can't see the added value of grouping applications on a virtual destop - even if there are many of them active at the same time. I find the applications buttons or the alt-tab switcher sufficiently efficient. I have the feeling that I would spend much more time switching between desktops and choosing the right one for a particular application and I feel that I will be forgetting where to look for an application in the end, etc. etc. Still, I am eager to know what I am missing in virtual desktops and compiz for that matter.


Linux Desktop: Virtual desktops

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 02, 2008 01:33 AM


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