Virtual Desktops: Brilliant or Nuisance?

One of the best things about any Linux Desktop Environment/Window Manager, is the ability to have as many virtual desktops as you like. On any system I set up, I stick with the default of four, and reserve the first one for chatting, the second for browsing and e-mail, the third for any multimedia-apps and the fourth for file managers and terminals. My system feels uncluttered, and my panel isn’t filled with a thousand applications. Whenever I’m working on a Windows system, I feel like everything is a mess and I have to search way too much where I put every window (at work, I have a second screen. This helps, but it’s still no match for four virtual desktops).

Funnily enough, whenever I put a Windows user on a Linux system, this is the thing they struggle most with. Most of the time, they just can’t grasp the concept, or don’t understand how it could be useful. As a result, they always stick to the first workspace, and whenever a window ends up on another, they can’t find it again.

I was reminded of this because apparently, the developers of Linux Mint feel the same way. Unlike most Linux distributions, there’s no pager in the panel that lets you switch from one virtual desktop to the other. Personally, I find this a pain, but when it comes to Windows users, this makes sense…and Linux Mint is definitely geared at Windows converts. Different workspaces can be a marvelous tool to organise all your application windows, but if all your “customers” are baffled by it, why include it at all? You may disagree, but in the end, it all comes down to “what’s your target audience?”.

That being said, I find it very strange that the way Linux Mint implements this is by simply getting rid of the pager. The four virtual desktops are still there, but you have to switch between them with the Ctrl+alt+Left/Right buttons. This makes no sense to me, and only leaves the possibility for a user to move an application to another workspace without giving him or her the possibility to find it again. As a sidenote, Ubuntu, it seems, strikes the middle ground here, and includes two workspaces, with a pager.

For me, switching between workspaces is the same as switching between applications, but apparently it’s a difficult concept for most people, and the only reason I can think of why this is so, is because users have become so accustomed to Windows (or MacOS X), that they can’t think of screen estate beyond the actual borders of the screen.

So, not only is Linux free as in speech, and in most cases, free as in beer, it also frees you of the boundaries of your hardware 😉 I just love this OS!



15 Responses to Virtual Desktops: Brilliant or Nuisance?

  1. Mesanna says:

    I enjoyed this post. When I first started using Linux, I behaved exactly as you said. I didn’t quite understand virtual desktops, and when I figured out how they worked, I didn’t think I’d ever need them.

    What got me started on using them was The Gimp with its multiple panels. I discovered I could put all those on one desktop whilst I ran my browser etc. on a different one. After that I was hooked and now I use them constantly.

    I use Windows at work and there are times when I’m running several programs at once that I feel frustrated that I can’t just move something out of the way!!

  2. flammenwurfer says:

    An interesting view on virtual desktops. I use my virtual desktops, but probably don’t put them to use as well as I could.

    I usually get to the point that it’s a pain to find the window I want, then I move some to another virtual desktop.

    I do have my grandmother using puppy linux and she kept accidentally switching desktops without knowing it so she’d have her email app open on the one she couldn’t see and then she’d try to open her email and wouldn’t let me because it was already open. I just turned off the virtual desktops because even after i explained it to her she didn’t really understand and couldn’t remember the next time it happened.

  3. celettu says:


    Yep, sounds exactly like my experience 😉 I added your blog to my RSS links…always nice to read about other Linux enthusiasts!


    I think indeed that for some users it’s too confusing too have them.

  4. stan says:

    In KDE you have some very handy options for managing/finding windows in any desktop. Open your System Settings app, go to Desktop on the General tab. Then the Desktop Effects section, Screen edges tab.

    You’ll see 8 squares, red are not assigned an action, green are.

    Click on one red square, to make it simple take the top left one, on the menu that drops down pick Desktop Grid. Now when you put your mouse over the edge of the screen where that box indicates you will get a grid showing all of your desktops and you can click any of them to select it.

    Current desktop a mess and you need to see the windows on it sorted into something you can work with? Set one of the squares to Present Windows – Current Desktop. Slide the mouse to the spot you picked and all your windows slide around and resize so that all are visible.

    Really hosed things and need to see all windows on all your desktops? Pick another square and set it to Present Windows – All Desktops and poof you can see everything you have open.

    That doesn’t even cover the eye candy options of this tool that are a lot of fun for a few minutes but don’t impress me as much as the vanilla options I mentioned.

  5. ollesbrorsa says:


    The solution to your Windows woes is virtuawin , . I found this little gem of an app after a particularly hectic day at the office. The taskbar was completely cluttered with all kinds of open programs and I kept cursing the lack of virtual desktops. A quick google later I was in virtuawin heaven.

    Enjoyed reading your post.


  6. Johannes says:

    Thanks for your post!
    It’s great to see an advanced user that is able to think about how it feels for “standard” users & Windows users.
    All “standard” users I know are disturbed by the virtual desktops when they start using a linux box.
    I always get rid of the pager when I install Linux on a friend’s / family computer.

    All the best,

  7. […] Virtual Desktops: Brilliant or Nuisance? Funnily enough, whenever I put a Windows user on a Linux system, this is the thing they struggle most with. Most of the time, they just can’t grasp the concept, or don’t understand how it could be useful. As a result, they always stick to the first workspace, and whenever a window ends up on another, they can’t find it again. […]

  8. twitter says:

    You won’t get good airplane designs by asking people who think heavier than air travel is impossible. More is better. Most window managers do a fine job managing virtual desktops. E16 is the 2D gold standard for distinct virtual desktops and virtual windows made blindingly obvious and functional through excellent pagers. People who don’t want this convenience can set the number of desktops and screens to 1. People who grow up with good examples would never do that but this is not a bad way to give freedom to people who don’t have much going on and those who want familiarity over convenience.

  9. Ari Torhamo says:

    Part of the problem may be that the concept of “virtual desktops”, or perhaps how it’s currently presented, is somewhat confusing and isn’t in line with what the user is experiencing. Virtual desktops are currently explained as separate desktops, although they are in fact just a way to show different collections or groups of software (and documents, etc.) at a time. The desktop itself, the panels, menus, files and icons, are the same on every virtual desktop. Many users probably assume that if they started to use virtual desktops they’d from there on have several desktops in different states, and that they’d have to keep track of there files to know which desktop they are placed on, etc.

  10. Beautiful Chaos says:

    I think alot of people reduce to one Desktop, assuming that having Multiple Virtual Desktops will slow their system down. Which is completely understandable. I also think that the “Pager” could be changed a bit. It just doesnt seem to be the most effective method or design.

  11. Yonah says:

    A few points to remember. Though not installed by default, virtual desktop utilities for Windows have been available for a very long time. They simply aren’t that popular. Multiple displays aren’t even mainstream, a configuration I prefer myself.

    It’s also worth remembering that you might be causing yourself more harm than good. Human beings actually perform worse the more we try to juggle at once. Trying to multi-task between many different activities slows us down and increases our error rates. We all work better by focusing on one thing at a time.

  12. qo says:

    Mac OSX has had virtual desktops (Spaces) since Leopard. Expose adds the ability to zoom out all windows so all are visible (even when Spaces is engaged).

    That said, I still prefer Linux’s desktops which feel faster.

    Mac OSX and Linux Desktops both are light-years ahead of Windows 3rd-party solutions, in terms of speed, reliability, and polish.

    One example (and I think this is a Windows limitation since it happens on virtually all Windows Desktop managers I’ve tried)… In Outlook, click a URL. This will cause a copy of an already open IE (or Firefox) from another Desktop to be displayed on your Outlook Desktop. Not cool. Do the same on Linux or Mac OSX and your browser opens the page while remaining on its assigned Desktop. The difference between Mac and Linux is that Mac switches focus to the new Desktop (which I find aggravating as well) whereas Linux doesn’t (yeah!).

  13. Martin Burgess says:

    Good description of newcomers feelings towards virtual desktops.
    I got used to virtual displays after a few months but only recently found the Window Selector app (part of Gnome) which I have now added to the bottom panel. When I forget which desktop contains a program I can jump straight to it by clicking on Window Selector and selecting the program I want.

  14. michael says:

    under linux mint, to add the desktop pager
    panel – right click – add to panel – workspace switcher
    hope that helps

    • Tom says:

      Thank you thank you!! I develop in 1, have comms apps in 2 and use the other 2 for projects…. It’s a great way to switch between “tasks/projects. I was about to groan having installed Mint and loving it, only to find the panels were not there – you saved the day on that one 🙂

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