Virtual perfection: Desktop Manager

by Robert Daeley

Devotees of Linux and other unixy operating systems, after using Mac OS X for a while, often complain about a lack of virtual desktops.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, imagine that the computer screen you're looking at was only one of several that you could freely switch between. You might have your email open in one, your NaNoWriMo story in another, and a Terminal compiling something in a third. Or maybe an Office desktop and a Home desktop, dividing it up by real-world context.

Anyhow, virtual desktops have been around for a long time in the X-window unix world and are hard to let go of once you've gotten used to the multi-tasking fun. As a matter of fact, the OS X Expose feature is often touted as a replacement for the virtual desktop, a different way of handling numerous windows.

However, there is a handful of utilities available for Mac that more closely resemble the experience. I wanted to mention one in particular, as I've been experimenting with it again this past few days. The aptly named Desktop Manager has been around for some time now, and while its stability has been a bit iffy at times (it is in beta), it has definitely gotten better, particularly in recent releases.

You can check out a couple of screenshots here, though it really needs to be seen in action to get the full experience. I usually wind up hiding the menubar pager they show on that page, preferring the standalone desktop pager, small along the side of the screen.

I have gone back to a virtual-desktop-less experience as of last night, though, as one issue I keep running into every time I try this -- which is not really related to this cool program. The Mac has never really been a perfect candidate for the concept because of the static menubar per application. It just feels wonky compared to an X-window program that has its own menubar attached. But maybe that's just me.

One tip: if Desktop Manager does crash (which it did a couple of times on me when navigating the menubar extra), the alarming disappearance of all of your windows may occur. Not to worry: they're just hidden. Relaunch Desktop Manager, and you're back to where you were pre-crash.

Do you have a virtual desktop fetish?


2005-11-10 14:13:12
Is the project still alive
I've been using Desktop Manager (0.5.3.) for a long time now. It works very well for me on my PowerBook running Tiger. I don't have issues with stability since I don't use the menu item (I don't have space left for it in my menubar anyway).
I'm all about keybord shortcuts and Desktop Manager 0.5.3 beats the crap out of other products and I have tried them all I guess.
Sadly the project isn't looking very actievely in delvelopment anymore and the 0.6 beta is not very useable for me. I don't ahve the skills in Objective-C to support the OpenSource project, but I'd really like to see the project come back to life again!

It's a great piece of software! I can really recommend to have a look at it.

2005-11-10 14:46:28
What's the real advantage of it?
Despite trying to use a Desktop Manager several times for a few weeks, I never managed to see a real advantage to having one.
If I don't use an application (e.g. Mail), I just hide it, why should it go somewhere "outside" my screen? It isn't faster to go from one screen to another than to switch from one app to another.
You might argue that you can organize some apps together in one set, but in reality, I just ended up having the window I want in the desktop I least needed it.
Well, but in the end, I am just glad that I am resistant to at least one geekery :-)
2005-11-10 15:34:39
All I want
I find Expose is fine for managing the usual amount of windows I have open - but what I really want is the ability to switch my current dock / desktop shortcuts. i.e. if I'm doing photo work I just want my dock to have all my graphics tools available, or a project specific dock for a set of documents.

I know I can do it with third party tools like Dragthing, but I get nervous about all these O/S extension tools by the mixed feedback about their stability.

Hopefully it's something that will be addressed, as the dock is a useless interface for managing large numbers of programs / documents.

2005-11-10 16:25:04
It's good, not perfect.
It's a great desktop switcher. Few problems, but works.

I use it for my email, AOL on screen1. Programming on screen2. Web surfing on screen3. Other on screen4. I just switch to the screen I need and everything is there. That way I don't have to minimize anything.

2005-11-10 18:02:33
What's the real advantage of it?
I'm with you. I don't know if I just didn't use it long enough to get into the groove, or it just doesn't solve a problem that I have. If I want to use my text editor, I switch to my text editor. If I want to use a browser I switch to the browser. If I want the editor and my browser frontmost on the screen, I just switch to one then the other and there they are on top.

I guess you could think of it as grouping applications together, which might help organize things in your mind. If you switched to your web development desktop, you'd have all of the apps you use for that at hand. But to me at least, that doesn't seem as intuitive as just going to the application you want at that moment.

A short tip - I usually have several applications running at once. When I cmd-tab to bring up the app switcher, I usually select the app I want with the mouse instead of tabbing to it. It's faster if you're hands on the mouse (unless you're just switching back and forth between apps of course).

2005-12-14 13:19:21
10.4.3 Bug using Desktop Manager
I just upgraded to 10.4.3 with its security patches. Now my Desktop Manager is behaving strangely. I get the desktop icons on one screen but not on the others. And although Previous Screen and Next Screen work from the menu, the keyboard shortcuts don't. What's going on? I hope Rick Wareham will fix this with a new version, if he can spare the time from his PhD studies.