Desktop LCD prices are constantly falling but not all of us want to buy new, larger monitors every year. Unfortunately 17" screens can feel cramped and restricted, even more so on 15" or smaller laptops for the power user with many applications running at once. If only there were an easier way to organize multi-tasking when desktop real estate is sparse. The solution is called "virtual desktops". Linux users have had this feature for years but it never caught on strongly in Windows, despite its usefulness. So for this week’s Freeware Frenzy, I’ll be examining four virtual desktop applications to see which is the best option for increasing productivity.

Desktop Manager
This app is a part of Microsoft’s Powertoys, tucked away on their website for users who need some extra features not otherwise found in Windows. Check out my review of TweakUI PowerToy here:  Given the manpower available at Big M, this app should prove to be powerful.

Installation is a snap, just agree to a license, enter your name, and choose between a Complete or Custom install (the only difference being the location of the install folder). After just a moment it finishes, but leaves you in the dark on how to use it, or even start it! There is no icon, start menu entry or system tray icon to get you going. Taking a look at the Microsoft website one more time, I noticed the one sentence description mentions: "Manage up to four desktops from the Windows taskbar." And sure enough, after right clicking on the taskbar, and going to Toolbars > Desktop Manager, I see five little buttons at the right edge of my taskbar. Buttons labeled 1-4 will switch to the other desktops (yes it is limited to four) and the fifth button will open a divided full screen to show all four desktops and let you choose amongst them.

The options for Desktop Manager are sparse, you can setup shortcut keys to switch desktops sans mouse or edit background wallpapers for the separate desktops. I did not have any big complaints; the program is simple but effective. I did feel that though the five buttons are small, the "MSVDM" label was a nuisance. To add taskbar space, you can remove the 1-4 buttons, leaving only the preview button. Loading a new desktop took just a second, but it was a tad slower then necessary, especially compared to the other programs in this review. By default each desktop’s taskbar shows all open programs across all desktops, which sort of defeats the convenience of separate work spaces. You can however uncheck the option for "shared desktops" to undo this. So Desktop Manager will get the job done, but let’s see if the other programs up the ante. One last note; the preview pane is not live updated, only a snapshot of before the preview. You cannot use this feature to monitor various programs at once. 

Virtual Dimension v0.94
Though prior to an official 1.0 release, Virtual Desktop adds some unique features to warrant a look; such as unlimited desktops and the ability to move apps between desktops. For the installation, merely agree to the license and choose a location. You’ll find Virtual Dimension in your start menu (where it should be), and a double click will open a small window with two areas. This is your ‘preview window’ to use the author’s terminology. You’ll see icons in each space corresponding to the apps open on that desktop. Using these icons, you can drag and drop programs between desktops. You can shrink down the preview window and dock it anywhere you like. It will stay open on all virtual desktops. A system tray icon controls all of the extras, such as hotkeys, transparency, backgrounds for the desktops in the preview window to keep track of each desktop easily, and even an on screen display to number your virtual desktops. Though you would need a great amount of desktops for such customization to be necessary, it is handy to have the option and not be constrained to only a certain number of desktops. I noticed that desktop switches were noticeably faster than Desktop Manager, but shortcut keys are a must. A stray mouse click on the control window can be very aggravating.

DM2 v1.22
This application adds some custom features to Windows such as minimizing apps to the tray instead of taskbar, transparency on any app by right clicking on the title bar and other interesting extras via plug-ins. One of those plug-ins is Virtual Desktop. Enabling the plug-in will let you configure up to 8 desktops designated and moved between via the tray icon. I found it cumbersome to be forced to use the system tray to not only switch desktops by also to move programs between desktops. Drag and drop is out of the question as well, you must click and select Send To > Desktop X. While DM2 offers some extras, the Virtual Desktop has a long way to go. Next!

This German product has been available for a few years and appears at first glance to be the most complete of all the Virtual Desktop programs in this group. Installation involves choosing language (English by default), license agreement, shortcut/language files and locations. The install takes just seconds and Dexpot opens afterward. Dexpot offers up to 20 desktops and extensive customization options that go above and beyond all of those offered in previous products. Settings are plentiful, from custom controls, backgrounds, switching desktops, password protection, transparency, drag and drop window movement, on screen displays or tray icon, specific rules and dozens of others will keep you occupied until the setup is just perfect for your liking. One last note, similar to Desktop Manager, the preview pane cannot be used to monitor applications on virtual desktops; you’ll have to open them fully to keep track of running programs.

So to choose a winner, all of the programs here will give you virtual desktops, but for the most complete solution, Dexpot gives you what you need, and then some.