A Virtual Desktop for Mac OS X

No matter how large one's computer display is, like closet space it's never enough. A concept called virtual desktops was invented some years ago, and has been implemented in various ways since. One option for the Mac OS X operating system is CodeTek VirtualDesktop, an application that extends the display beyond its borders.

In my office, several of our machines are multi-headed. It's easy to get used to multiple displays on one desktop (and hard to go back to a single display). When it comes to computing, efficiency is what you're looking for. Clicking through layers of windows is an improvement over the single-function machines of yore, but by today's standards it doesn't qualify as efficient. Sometimes "wasting" desktop space is an efficient way to work for the simple reason that you can see everything at a glance. Being able to do that on a limited screen size is the problem. A virtual desktop is as near to a perfect solution as there can be, short of adding physical displays to your computer. And, in the case of a slot-load iMac, that isn't an option anyway.

CodeTek VirtualDesktop, now in version 2.3.x, installs in the standard OS X way. Simply download and drag the application into your Applications folder. To run it, double-click. To run it automatically at boot time, add it to your Login Items system preference.

VirtualDesktop is intuitive to use. With the default settings, you move the mouse "past" the left and right edges of the screen to move onto the second desktop. Keep moving in the same direction, and you'll round-robin to the first desktop again. Sweet! And if you don't like that particular option, you can turn it off. But why would you?

Well, at first you might find it disconcerting that your screen pops out and another one pops in; that's why. And it takes a finite amount of time - milliseconds, I would estimate - to completely redraw the front screen. In that split-second, you could feel a certain disorientation, particularly with respect to where your mouse is right now. But I not only got used to it quickly; I even became quite attached to how things were located exactly where I expected them to be as I moused across desktops. This really is a must-have feature in a virtual desktop, and blows the doors off most of the ones I've seen in other operating systems. Though it's good to be able to select a particular desktop, when you're busy you really don't want the fuss of an additional search and click on a desktop screen manager. Just mouse and go, I say.

There is, I should point out, an option to ignore this action only at the corners, probably to stay out of the way of the Hot Corners feature in the Screen Effects system preference. However, I have that option turned off, and my hot corner (upper-right) works perfectly nevertheless, and the mouse passes through the other three corners transparently as expected, and exactly as I like it.

I tweaked a few other default settings early on. For one thing, the default thumbnail desktop (a.k.a. Pager) is too large and obtrusive for my tastes. No problem. Click the blue dot in it to bring up VirtualDesktop preferences, and shrink both the size and transparency there. You still want this thing visible, just out of the way. I also set the Dissolve speed to the fastest setting.

VirtualDesktop Preferences

The one and only bug I have encountered with VirtualDesktop is how it sometimes loses mouse-controlled screen switching after the machine wakes from sleep mode. The on-screen thumbnail desktop continues to work just fine, so you won't be stuck. To regain mouse control of VirtualDesktop, quit and restart the program, a tad inconvenient, but it doesn't happen too often. There is a preference called Change Desktop using Mouse, which turns mouse action on and off. I'd guess that toggling this might reset things, but I have not had the opportunity to try it so far. In all likelihood, by the time this article goes to print, that bug will have been squashed.

There are other virtual desktop programs available for OS X. None I looked at had the mousey feature of VirtualDesktop. So for me the choice of which virtual desktop program to go with was simple. Had there been other problems, I might have steered clear, but VirtualDesktop has been rock-stable in my tests, other than the one glitch above. That in itself is an accomplishment, as this kind of program strives to emulate physical hardware, i.e. a pair or more of high-resolution displays.

I came across VirtualDesktop while looking for something else entirely. It probably entered my purview, though, because there are similarities. I have been looking for a program that can join together two Macs onto one keyboard and mouse. Such an application exists in the X Window world, but so far its OS X analog has eluded me. In my case, I have a pair of iMacs, identical twins, available to me, and it would be nice to extend their usefulness in this way, side-by-side on my desk. Please drop me a line if you know of such an animal.

The next major release of Mac OS X, code-named Panther, is due out shortly. You never know, it may well include a virtual desktop application. As this is standard equipment in any Linux installation, Apple might feel a certain drive to match the competition, as it were. If by any lucky stroke Apple actually decided to include VirtualDesktop itself as part of the package, then that would be very nice. Meanwhile, why wait? Download the thing and try it yourself. I'm betting you'll love it. Ciao.