Utility Spotlight: Juggle Those Virtual Desktops

Having multiple virtual desktops running multiple applications and multiple files can get a bit confusing. The aptly-named Desktops app can help.

Lance Whitney

Sometimes you need more than one desktop to juggle all the applications and files that you have to work with on a regular basis. With virtual desktop software, you can maintain separate desktops on a single PC to avoid cluttering up your main desktop with dozens of different windows and programs. You can manage your e-mail in one virtual desktop, run different Web browsers in another and use Microsoft Office in a third.

There’s a variety of third-party virtual desktop utilities on the market. One tool worth considering is the free Microsoft Desktops. Developed by Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell and available through Windows Sysinternals, Desktops lets you view and manage up to four virtual desktops. You can easily switch from one virtual desktop to another as you jump from one project or group of applications to another.

Download Desktops from the Sysinternals site. Unzip the downloaded file Desktops.zip and then run the extracted file Desktops.exe to trigger the program. You could also run Desktops directly from the Sysinternals Web site if you want to try it out without running it locally.

After starting Desktops, click OK; the app will appear as a system tray icon with four panels representing the four possible virtual desktops. Click the icon to display larger preview panels for each of the four desktops.

Your current desktop is Desktop 1. To open a second desktop, click on the panel for Desktop 2. You’ll see your standard Windows Desktop appear in Desktop 2. You can now open any applications or files you wish to run in Desktop 2. You can continue the same process until you reach the maximum of four desktops (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Desktops lets you control and manage up to four individual virtual desktops.

You can switch back and forth between the various desktops by clicking on the system tray icon and choosing the desktop you wish to display. You can also set up hotkeys to switch back and forth. The default setting is the Alt key, with the number keys one through four to switch to the corresponding desktop.

You can tweak that if you’d rather use the Control, Shift or Windows keys instead of Alt, and the function keys one through four. Right-click on the system tray icon and select Options to change the hotkeys. From the Options window (see Figure 2), you can also configure Desktops to automatically load every time you start Windows.

Figure 2 If you frequently need to manage multiple desktops, you can configure Desktops to load automatically.

Go Remote

Besides managing multiple applications and files, Desktops also comes in handy if you need to open a remote connection to another PC. Simply open and switch to a new virtual desktop. From your new desktop, use a tool like Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection to log into a remote PC or server. Now you can easily switch between your own local PC and the remote PC on one single monitor and one single desktop.

From a technical standpoint, Desktops works a bit differently than most other virtual desktop software. It creates a Windows desktop object for each virtual desktop, so each desktop runs within its own separate instance of explorer.exe. Therefore, Desktops does have certain limitations when compared to other third-party tools.

Most of your system tray icons will only appear in Desktop 1. You won’t be able to access them from the other desktops. You also can’t move windows from one desktop to another. You can’t close Desktops while Windows is running. The tool is designed to be available while you work in Windows, so the only way to close down your virtual desktops is to log off or shut down Windows.

Despite these limitations, Desktops is a reliable and robust tool. It supports Windows XP and later on the client side and Windows Server 2003 and later on the server side.


Lance Whitney is a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.