Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Virtual screens/desktops

Many former Unix users have asked me why Mac OS X doesn't have a "multiple desktops" or "virtual screens" feature, i.e. where one can flip back and forth between multiple "virtual desktops" (say, one which has your mail stuff, another in which you program, a third for web browsing,...). Actually, there is one family of commercial programs, as well as two freeware utilities, that allow this.

Codetek Virtual Desktop 2, Virtual Desktop Lite 3, and Virtual Desktop Pro 3 are the commercial offerings: see here for a feature comparison. I was a beta tester for version 1.0 of Virtual Desktop and, having only a 15" screen at the time, thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I still run CTVD Lite 3 on my laptop, but have less need for it at work with an additional 20" screen. Unregistered versions are limited to two desktop (enough to check out what the code does): registered copies can handle as many as 100. One can flip between virtual screens using a pager (with miniature outlines of windows on each screen), or configure hotkeys: the Pro version allows switching by moving the mouse pointer beyond the screen edges.

Virtue is an open source project that presently stands at version 0.5.1. Unlike the pager-oriented CTVD, mouse-driven switching is the default mode of operation here.

Desktop Manager (interview with developer here) is likewise open source: it can be used with a pager, but its unique approach involves putting icons for the virtual screens in the menu bar. Clearly, this is only usable on wide screens, since on a 12" iBook or Powerbook with some menu extras loaded, there just ain't no room anymore in the menu bar.