5 Ways to Improve Virtual Desktops in Windows 10

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It’s no secret that Microsoft is trying real hard to get people onto Windows 10. And even though their methods are questionable — annoying at best, destructive at worst — we can’t deny that the new operating system (OS) offers a lot of improvements that weren’t available before.

In this article, we’re going to explore the Virtual Desktops feature. We already took an introductory look at how to use virtual desktops, so this post is going to be all about taking your productivity to the next level. That’s why virtual desktops exist after all, to make you more productive!

By the end, I hope you’ll see why I think the Task View feature is one of the more compelling reasons to switch to Windows 10. So without further ado, let’s get started.

1. Use a “Current Desktop” Indicator

One of the biggest oversights of Virtual Desktops is that there’s no obvious way to know which particular desktop you’re currently using. On Linux, for example, most desktop environments have a tray indicator showing which desktop you’re on.

Unfortunately, such an indicator isn’t available natively, so for now we’ll need to use a simple but effective workaround.

windows-10-virtual-desktop-indicator

Head over to the VirtualDesktopManager project on GitHub, click on Releases along the top, and download the latest binary release in ZIP form. (Make sure you don’t confuse it with the source code ZIP!)

It’s a portable app so you won’t need to install it or anything — you can run it as soon as it’s unzipped, though we recommend moving it somewhere logical like Program Files in a folder called VirtualDesktopManager.

When running, you’ll see a new icon in your system tray that indicates which virtual desktop you’re currently on, which is exactly what we wanted.

Pro Tip: Create a file shortcut and stick it inside your %APPDATA%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup directory to start VirtualDesktopManager every time you log into Windows.

2. Set a Unique Wallpaper Per Desktop

If the system tray indicator mentioned above is too subtle for you, then there’s another workaround that you can try: setting each virtual desktop to a unique wallpaper. That way you can instantly see which one you’re on.

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Or win the best of both worlds and use both applications.

windows-10-virtual-desktop-wallpapers

Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t support individual wallpapers per virtual desktop (yet?) so you’ll need to use a third-party application to get it done.

Head over to VirtualDesktop on CodeProject and download the Demo file (the other file is just the source code). This one is a portable app as well so no installation necessary, but you will need to create a free CodeProject account to download it.

While running, you can designate a different wallpaper to each virtual desktop, and when it detects a switch between virtual desktops, it will change the wallpaper accordingly. It has a bit of a delay so it isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad either.

Pro Tip: Create a startup shortcut using the instructions in Tip #1 to start VirtualDesktop every time you log into Windows.

3. Launch Directly on a Certain Desktop

There’s one more third-party application that’s worth mentioning: VDesk on GitHub. This is a command-line utility that comes with an optional “installation”, which basically adds a new item to the menu when you right-click a file.

To get it, navigate to the Releases page at the top and download the latest EXE release.

windows-10-virtual-desktop-open

Once downloaded, you can run VDesk from anywhere using the following command in Command Prompt:

vdesk [#] [application]

So if I wanted to open Notepad, for example, then I could run the following command to launch Notepad on the second desktop:

vdesk 2 notepad

If you omit the number, it will launch on a new desktop:

vdesk notepad

But this is cumbersome to do on a regular basis, so we recommend using the optional installation feature to hook the utility right into the context menu:

vdesk -install

Now when you right-click on any file, you’ll see a new action called Open in new virtual desktop, which does exactly as it says. To get rid of it, just run the opposite command:

vdesk -uninstall

4. Learn the Keyboard Shortcuts

Perhaps the easiest way to maximize your productivity with virtual desktops is to simply learn the keyboard shortcuts for adding, removing, and switching between open desktops. It’s much faster and more convenient than using the mouse, period.

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We’ve explored the keyboard shortcuts for Virtual Desktop before, but in case you aren’t familiar, here’s a quick overview:

  • Win + Ctrl + D: Create a new virtual desktop.
  • Win + Ctrl + F4: Close the current virtual desktop.
  • Win + Ctrl + Right: Switch to next virtual desktop.
  • Win + Ctrl + Left: Switch to previous virtual desktop.
  • Win + Tab: Open the Task View.

I personally don’t mind these shortcuts, but I’ve heard many users complain about how uncomfortable and/or unintuitive they can be. If that describes you, then you should consider installing VirtualDesktopManager (instructions are in Tip #1).

With this application, you get two more shortcuts:

  • Ctrl + Alt + Right: Switch to next virtual desktop.
  • Ctrl + Alt + Left: Switch to previous virtual desktop.

Sometimes it doesn’t register, maybe because another application is already using it, in which case you can go into the settings and use the alternate shortcuts:

  • Shift + Alt + Right: Switch to next virtual desktop.
  • Shift + Alt + Left: Switch to previous virtual desktop.

In any case, these shortcuts are the best way to maximize control over your desktops. Ignore them to the peril of your office productivity.

5. Organize Your Desktops by Function

This final tip also answers the frequently asked question, “Why should I use virtual desktops, anyway?” Even if the feature sounds cool, a lot of people aren’t sure how to use it productively. If that describes you, keep reading.

Virtual desktops aren’t as nifty as having multiple monitors, which allow you to see all of your desktops at once. So instead of using virtual desktops as a way to expand your desktop, you should think of them as ways to organize your desktop.

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Here’s how I personally have my virtual desktops set up:

  • Desktop 1 is dedicated to leisure: web browsing, video games, IRC and instant messengers, etc.
  • Desktop 2 is dedicated to utilities: music applications like Spotify, email applications like Postbox, and other helpful tools I may want running in the background.
  • Desktop 3 is dedicated to work: separate browser full of research tabs, applications for note-taking and writing, etc.

When I’m working, I stay focused on Desktop 3. All of my “distracting” applications are on Desktop 1, so I’m less likely to slack off or waste time. When I’m done with work, I switch over to Desktop 1 so I can goof off and relax.

And because Desktop 2 is in the middle, I’m always only one screen away from checking my email or skipping to another song. Also, don’t forget that apps will only show as “active” in the Taskbar when they’re open on the current desktop!

You don’t have to organize your desktops in the exact same way, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how you can set them up in a way that enhances your productivity.

Let Virtual Desktops Make Your Life Easier

It’ll take about a week of daily use to really get comfortable with the virtual desktop workflow, but once you get over that initial hump, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them.

If you aren’t on Windows 10 yet, there are ways to get virtual desktops on Windows XP, 7, and 8. However, it’s nicer to have it as a native feature, so you should seriously consider upgrading to Windows 10 while you can.

How do you use virtual desktops? Got any other interesting tips or tricks that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

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