Multiple Desktops on Multiple Monitors: How to Cope with Screen Overload

So. Your office is now paperless. Your desk is (mainly) clear of paper. You feel proud of embracing the future.

However, over time, slowly but surely, your old paper clutter infects your digital world. You have multiple applications, email clients, web browsers; multiple cases, matters and tasks. Your monitor becomes a confusing tangle of windows upon windows and your newly gained productivity slowly drops again. What do you do?

Multiple Monitors

A first step is to get extend your desktop onto another monitor. You can pick up a 21-inch USB monitor for around £139 (at the time of writing). Also many offices now have a glut of old 15-inch LCD monitors floating around; a second graphics card to give you a second VGA port will cost around £30. (You can also use any additional ports, e.g. DVI/HDMI to add further monitors). One screen can be used for “always-open” applications such as email or a web browser; the other can be used solely for work products (e.g. office-applications, CAD programs, IDEs etc).

Multiple Desktops

Those who have been smugly using Linux operating systems (e.g. Ubuntu) for ages will understand the usefulness of multiple desktops. Basically, a little icon in the corner of your screen or on your task bar allows you to have multiple instances of your desktop that exist simultaneously. You can switch between each instance using the mouse or assigned hotkeys. This effectively gives you multiple computer workspaces.

Windows has been slow to get involved in the multiple desktop party. To my knowledge no native Windows tool exists. However, through my travels I have come across a variety of third party tools that provide multiple desktop functionality:

  1. For XP there is a small Power Toy called Virtual Desktop Manager (see link for download) that provides up to four desktops with links on the taskbar and a handle preview feature. I started using this but found it a little slow and buggy.
  2. There is also a small Sysinternals tool called Desktops (see link for download) that provides similar functionality (up to four desktops). It also has a handle system bar icon. However, I found that applications crashed quite often when using it.
  3. Finally, I came across VirtuaWin, which is a freely distributed program and is licensed under the GNU General Public License. It supports all versions of Windows (I have only tried XP) and offers a usable portable version to avoid install conflicts. It is by far and away the fasted and most stable tool. I have the Windows key and the arrow keys set up as hotkeys to switch between the four offered desktops and the system bar icon offers a handle one-click representation of your open programs across the desktops.

I now have two monitors and four desktops working nicely with each other. One quantifier for Windows is that a relatively heavy duty machine is required (however, most multiple core Intel machines with GBs of RAM should be fine). I can have a dedicated desktop for each matter I am working on and move all distractions to other desktops. Productivity is restored.

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