Virtual desktops are pretty cool

by Seanba on April 7, 2010

I used to be able to get by doing my work with only a handful of applications, but now that I’m programming a Wii title and supporting all the tools in our content chain, I find that I often get lost in the mess of windows open on my desktop …

Task switcher window is full

The number of Windows Explorer instances I find myself dealing with are especially troublesome, and I often find even opening more (with multiple instances pointing to the same directories) because it’s easier to do so than to hunt down the Explorer window I’m interested in.

Too many Windows Explorer instances

Time was, I’d just learn to live with this kind of annoyance, but one of the things I’ve promised myself this past year, in an effort to grow up as a developer, is to seek out solutions to these kind of inefficiencies.

What I really needed to clean up this mess was a way to section off my work into three categories:

  1. Programming – where I (should) spend most of my time.
  2. Deployment and testing – on the Wii platform.
  3. Email and internets – a combination of work-related communication and goofing off. I generally don’t want to be here too much.

Linux users have been using virtual desktops since forever for exactly this reason, so what I needed was an XP solution along those lines. (And to my surprise, upgrading to Vista or Windows 7 wouldn’t help – they still don’t feature virtual desktops out-of-the-box.)

Virtual Desktops on Windows

Microsoft has a Virtual Desktop Manager PowerToy available, but either I’m too stupid to figure out how to use it (a definite possibility) or it just doesn’t get the job done. As best as I could tell all it did was group applications to be minimized based on what “desktop” is currently active. The same mess of applications was still in the taskbar and the task switcher. Bleh.

VirtuaWin is awesome – and free!

I then tried VirtuaWin, and I have to say this thing is pretty slick and solid. It does exactly what I want, without trying to be ridiculously fancy about rotating 3d cubes and such. And as a developer I have to give monster credit to the authors for crafting it in such a way that makes it extensible through dozens of plugin modules. I recommend installing VirtuaPlus, as it allowed me to choose a separate background image for each desktop.

Main work desktop  Wii testing and deployment  Email and mental-break

Hey there, Miss Doesn’t-find-me-attractive-sexually-anymore: I just tripled my productivity!

I’ve been using VirtuaWin for a couple of weeks now and I’m convinced it’s one of the best productivity tools I’ve installed in a long time. Those of us who do knowledge work are always fighting to keep our flow running, something that switching gears kills, particularly when I have a hard time finding my way to the applications that now demand my attention.

Super-sized Homer tripled his productivityBut now, say I want to test something quick on my Wii dev kit? A quick Ctrl+Alt+Right gets me there with all the tools needed for that purpose. Need to bring a Wiki page over to my programming work? Two Alt+Win+Left clicks and I’ve pulled Internet Explorer from my goofing-off desktop, past my Wii staging ground, and to my true working environment.

And speaking of goofing off, I just love having a separate desktop for my low productivity tasks. The custom look for that desktop reminds me that I shouldn’t be there for too long – so I get in and out of my mental breaks much faster.

As an added bonus, I find myself with fewer applications active at the same time now. The logical grouping of my windows keeps me from opening multiple instances of the same application, especially all those damn Windows Explorers. And I’m no longer shy about what to shut down because I better know when it is done serving its purpose for awhile.

VirtuaWin is one of those programs I can’t believe I’ve been working this long without. If you’re looking for a bit of order to your workspace then go get it now.

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