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ATPM 12.11
November 2006


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Software Review

by David B. Thompson,

VirtueDesktops 0.53


Developer: Tony Arnold

Price: free (donationware)

Requirements: Mac OS X 10.4. Universal.

Computationally, I grew up in the Microsoft DOS environment way back in the early 1980s. I learned to work with the command line; that mode works for me. I changed jobs in 1993 and decided to leave the DOS world. The multi-tasking application I used, Quarterdeck’s Desqview, was in trouble and trying to cope with the changes in the personal computer world. Microsoft’s Windows was coming on strong and end-users were abandoning the command-line DOS for Windows. I had already begun my migration from DOS because I found myself installing DOS ports of Unix tools on my system. After tinkering briefly with Windows 3.1, I abandoned DOS/Windows and installed my first Linux distribution.

Of course, the Intel 80486 platform I used didn’t have the horsepower to run X-Windows effectively, so I remained in text-mode, using the multiple consoles available under Linux to do the same thing I’d done with Desqview all those years. After a couple of years, I finally traded up to the Pentium-class systems and could run X-Windows. While my work was still mostly done in the command shell, I used a few graphical programs to do things such as e-mail and Web browsing.

Enter the Unix “pager.” The pager is a small graphical program running under X-Windows that allows the user access to n virtual desktops. The number of virtual desktops, n, is configurable by the end-user. After some experimentation, the number for me was nine. It allowed me to have associated tools open and running together on a desktop in a fashion that made sense. (Well, it made sense to me.)

Several years passed and I continued to work with Linux. But, with more work-related travel, I found myself with a Windows notebook computer for travel, and I was back to running Windows again—and Linux! Arrgh! Fast forward to 2003, and I decided to give a PowerBook a try. I began the search for a single computer to do all of my work.

Given the Unixy nature of OS X, I decided to find a pager application similar to what I used under Linux. I found CodeTek’s VirtualDesktop Pro, tried it, and bought it. I expect to review this application in the future when CodeTek releases an Intel-compatible version. When I bought my MacBook Pro, the CodeTek application would not run, so I was forced to seek an alternative.

I found and settled on VirtueDesktops. It runs on Intel-based Macs. In fact, it runs very well.

Installation was simple. I downloaded the archive, expanded it, and copied the program to my Applications directory. A quick double-click and we were up and running. I used the Preferences window to choose the number of virtual desktops I wanted to use, saved the results, and restarted the application. I also set the application to load on login, so I don’t have to start the program manually every time I use my Mac.



Mark Tennent mentioned VirtueDesktops in last month’s MacMuser, but decided he didn’t like the multiple-desktop paradigm. After a few days of frustration, Mark decided this paradigm is not for him. That’s perfectly OK—they call these personal computers for a reason.

For me, though, this is my preferred operating environment. I currently run six virtual desktops. My browser lives in one (and sometimes a repository such as Yojimbo or Mori), Mail and iCal (and sometimes Address Book) live on another, TeXShop and a Finder window or two live on another, and iTunes lives in yet another. That leaves me a spare if I need another tool or toolset.


The Pager

Moving between applications is as simple as using the standard Command-Tab key combination. The system changes desktops seamlessly. This is just as expected and is unaffected by the presence of VirtueDesktops.

An alternative means of moving between groups of applications (the way I use virtual desktops) is the Shift-Tab key combination. This key-combination invokes the pager so the user can select which virtual desktop to use. I have mine configured to a 3×2 layout.



I’ve been using the application for several months now without a single problem. It’s a simple program, still undergoing active development, but it is stable on my system. It implements the Unixy virtual desktop system I want in a simple, elegant fashion. I’m able to work in my preferred mode and keep my windows relatively clean. This is comfortable for an old Unix geek like me.


Unlike CodeTek’s product, VirtueDesktops runs on Intel-based Macs, an absolute requirement for me, now that I’ve upgraded hardware. The program is stable, has sufficient features, and was easy to learn to use. If you, like me, like a number of virtual desktops because of the way you work or organize your work, then you’ll like using this program.

Reader Comments (21)

Allen Watson · November 2, 2006 - 11:49 EST #1
I use "You Control Desktops" from You Software. It works very nicely, and has a number of features I don't see in VirtueDesktops: You can pin an application to a particular desktop; you can have a particular app or window appear on all desktops; you can even pin a particular window of an app to a certain desktop. And it is easy to move things from one desktop to another.

My only complaint has been that sometimes, when I switch desktops, it does a second, undesired switch, and I have to switch a second time to my desire desktop. I've reported that as a bug but have heard nothing in response.
Dave Thompson (ATPM Staff) · November 2, 2006 - 12:01 EST #2
That's a new software for me! If I wasn't satisfied with what I'm using, then I'd definitely be after YCD.

I've heard that Leopard will have a virtual desktop feature when it's released. If it works well, and like I want to use it, then I'll abandon third-party applications and go with the operating system. Otherwise, I'll be scanning the horizon once again for an appropriate tool.

Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · November 2, 2006 - 12:35 EST #3
Allen/Dave - I reviewed You Control: Desktops last year.
Dave Thompson (ATPM Staff) · November 2, 2006 - 22:05 EST #4
Good review on YCD last year. I also saw the note for DeskTopManager, which is something I looked at briefly, but decided not to use. (Although I can't remember why I shied away from it now. Old-Timer's disease?)
whoDean · November 3, 2006 - 10:48 EST #5
"has a number of features I don't see in VirtueDesktops: You can pin an application to a particular desktop; you can have a particular app or window appear on all desktops; you can even pin a particular window of an app to a certain desktop. And it is easy to move things from one desktop to another."

VirtueDesktops does all of these things.
chris · November 3, 2006 - 16:29 EST #6
You Control Desktops lost me when I experienced their buggy v1, and more so, their poor customer service... i'd recommend Virtue or Desktop Manager over their product
veggiedude · November 4, 2006 - 08:18 EST #7
I love this app, it is my favourite and I have also tried all the rest of them. It should be noted that the idea of Virtual desktops was invented on the Mac way back in '86.
JuliaL · November 4, 2006 - 13:38 EST #8
This may fall under the category of "if you don't know why you'd use it, you probably don't need it" but I'm just not sure I understand the point of multiple desktops. I use an iBook exclusively, and often have multiple apps open and use the command-tab to toggle amongst them. What's the point of having them sequestered in their own desktops? Obviously, there is a point, since so many people do it, but I have yet to read a review of one of these programs that explains it in a way I can understand.
Allen Watson · November 4, 2006 - 16:07 EST #9
Major problem, however: For the past 3 days, the download site for VirtueDesktops has been unreachable. The entire site is unreachable, not just that particular page. Wonder what's going on?
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · November 4, 2006 - 19:32 EST #10
Allen - you're right, and I am sure this frustrates many people. I reported to the editors that the link wasn't working just a couple days before we published this issue, but since it had been working before and there's no news of a substitute link, there wasn't much we could do. All we can say is, keep trying periodically.
Dave Thompson (ATPM Staff) · November 4, 2006 - 20:25 EST #11
Lee/Allen: I just checked the link too and it's still down. However, it was up and running when I wrote the review. I checked it (as well as downloaded an update). What a bummer...

Julia: If you don't "get" the idea of multiple desktops, then I'd say that operating paradigm is not for you. Mark Tennant basically said the same thing -- he found the use of multiple desktops confusing. I'm of the opposite type -- I find too many windows open on a single desktop confusing.

I prefer to organize my tools by task. For example, I have Camino and Mori open on my "browsing" desktop, MacJournal open on the "writing" desktop (I might have TeXShop open there too and a couple of Finder windows as well, if I was doing a little more writing, and perhaps BBEdit too...), Mail, iCal, and AddressBook are open on the "mailing" desktop, and so forth.

This model works for me, but it doesn't work for everyone. It's just the way my brain is wired.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · November 4, 2006 - 21:09 EST #12
Dave - rather funny, actually, but I have a completely different rationale for multiple desktops. My primary one is, unfortunately, loaded with icons on the desktop that I'm doing stuff with. Another has just some work-related stuff, and another is completely clean for when I want to show off. :-)
Dave Thompson (ATPM Staff) · November 4, 2006 - 21:15 EST #13
LOL! I keep a pretty tidy desktop -- I hate stuff lying about and when I get more than a handful, I start cleaning house.

I tend to use directories for projects at hand and keep things pretty organized. I have to because I usually have more than one project active at any given time. So, if I don't stay organized (meaning keeping my work files organized) I can get pretty messed up pretty quickly.

My "filing" system took years to organize and has been through a number of iterations. I think I've got something that works fairly well for me now, but it's taken a long time to tune.

BTW, I really like Digital Blasphemy for desktop images. I used to use a few of my digital images, but find his work very pleasing and fun to show off.
Tony Arnold · November 8, 2006 - 06:52 EST #14
Hey guys - sorry about the downtime of the site - our server had a hardware failure that took down all of our services. The main site is back up now, but the issue tracking and subversion repositories are still unfortunately down. Thanks for bearing with me :)
sjk · November 8, 2006 - 17:23 EST #15
I've heard that Leopard will have a virtual desktop feature when it's released.

You've heard, but haven't seen Apple's Spaces demo video? :-)

My primary one is, unfortunately, loaded with icons on the desktop that I'm doing stuff with. Another has just some work-related stuff, and another is completely clean for when I want to show off. :-)

Are those different desktop icon views a feature of You Control: Desktops? I see that as an attribute of a more genuine virtual Desktop manager; other so-called VDM's seem like virtual display/screen managers and the underlying Desktop/Dock remains static. That's one reason I'm glad Apple hasn't described Spaces as a virtual Desktop manager… yet. ;-)

This may fall under the category of "if you don't know why you'd use it, you probably don't need it" but I'm just not sure I understand the point of multiple desktops. I use an iBook exclusively, and often have multiple apps open and use the command-tab to toggle amongst them.

Before its backlight died a few months ago, my 1024x768 iBook G3 display would quickly become uncomfortably cluttered without a VDM running. When I tried working that way for about a month no amount of tediously awkward app/window hiding/shuffling was enough to overcome the limitations I felt.

For me virtual [desktop/display/screen/whatever] managers can successfully create an illusion of having a larger or multiple display(s). I'm able to visualize and memorize locations of many windows of many apps when they're spread over a larger display plane (real and/or virtual) more effectively than when they're layered/stacked within a single smaller display space.

Might Apple's Spaces be a step towards eventually redefining the traditional Mac OS Desktop metaphor with alternatives for different contexts? More apps are supporting full-screen mode and running an app that way creates a kind of temporary "virtual desktop" for it. And Dashboard is another virtual layer. Is the single, simple Desktop layer becoming increasingly threatened by Apple's evolution of OS X?

Though I'm still using PPC Macs I switched to VirtueDesktops when CodeTek's VirtualDesktop Pro development stagnated for too long and its future became uncertain. Migration was easier than I'd anticipated, with a few issues …

Unlike CTVDP, VirtueD has a frustrating problem with windows moved to different desktops not reliably remaining there when the app is bound to a different desktop. For example, DEVONthink Pro has a binding to a "DEVON" desktop and any open windows moved to a "Browser" desktop insist on jumping back to the "DEVON" desktop (after temporarily disappearing into limbo) when they're interacted with.

Another VirtueD annoyance is Finder not being active when switching to a desktop it was the last active app on, unless there's Finder window open on it. The app that's active before switching to a desktop without any app/window on it remains active after switching; I'd prefer and anticipate Finder to become active in that context.

Can anyone explain what the modifier keys for the "Change desktop to show focused application" preference do? Figured I'd ask here since I've never gotten an answer on the forum.

For me VirtueD features like Growl and slapping support are frivolous compared with other things that might get higher development priority. Still, I don't have expectations for VirtueD and appreciate Tony's work on it. Freeware developers can have the luxury of working on whatever they feel like. :-)

I was disappointed with CodeTek's near-complete lack of communication about the status of CTVDP, e.g. no web site updates for over a year. That was certainly a motivating factor in switching to VirtueD and I'm not sure if CTVDP 4 will win me back. And next year all the VDM products will have Spaces to contend with …
Jari Hirvonen · November 9, 2006 - 08:45 EST #16
Virtue can be found:

Desktop Manager by Rich Wareham, from where Virtue has been developed from
- this is more like UNIX pagers, but is no longer developed actively
- DM has fewer features but not all of them has been incorporated to Virtue

Some help for cluttered desktop:
DesktopSweeper by Philippe Martin
- just hides all icons on desktop, and displays them again with keyboard shortcut
- it requires additional software to be installed
Allen Watson · November 9, 2006 - 19:20 EST #17
I've been trying out virtueDesktops for the last few days, and I find it quite flaky. Windows moved to another desktop just disappear for an undefined period. If I change my monitor setup from no mirror to mirror (in preparation for unhooking my external monitor so I can take my laptop with me), VD does not realize resolution has changed, and the identification of the desktop thing floats half off the bottom of the screen, unreadable. I have a hard time moving stuff where I want it. In the current beta, attaching an app to a desktop does not work. And so on. I've gone back to You Control Desktops. I had a complaint about the way YCD did not want to quit when disabled from prefs, but I've since learned that it is necessary to use YCD's "Stop Engine" command from the file menu. So I'm happy with it again. It's a lot more stable than VD; not perfect, but better.
David Thompson (ATPM Staff) · November 12, 2006 - 18:43 EST #18
Tony: Thanks for the heads-up. I haven't been back to check your web site, but I'll trust it's back up and running.

SJK: Nice work and I appreciate a revealing second perspective on desktop and desktop-management software.

I especially appreciate the link to the Spaces preview. This looks like it will put the third-party desktop managers out of business. We'll see, I guess. I'll certainly want to give Spaces a workout.

Allen: I'm sorry you've had trouble with VirtueD. I haven't had the problems you experienced on either of the Macs I used it on (A dual-G5 and a MacBook Pro).
Maksim · December 3, 2006 - 01:20 EST #19
Julia, I absolutely must have virtual desktops to get work done. Having virtual desktops allows me to easily group windows (regardless of whether they are from diff. applications or from the same app) and bring any desired group to front with a keyboard shortcut.

Imagine using one app to work on two different projects, with a lot of different windows associated with each project. Virtual desktops make it a lot easier to switch working between projects, especially if you need to have all of the project's windows visible to work on it.
Clayton Lai · June 12, 2007 - 10:02 EST #20
VirtueDesktop does not have all the features of You Control: Desktops. You can neither drag windows from desktop to desktop nor send windows to other desktops by keystrokes in VirtueDesktop. These two features make You Control: Desktops the better of the two. IMHO.
Tim · April 5, 2008 - 17:31 EST #21
I like virtue desktops as it's a good window manager but i can not get it to act like yod'm' 3d - (I used it last year when I still had my PC)
Is there a way for it to act like Yod'm'3d or Ubuntu 3d cube?

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