Upon taking a look at the newest version of Mac OS X, Lion, I began to think: virtual desktops or physical desktops? The reason this thought came to me is because Lion sees a substantial rework of the way Spaces works. For those who don’t use Mac OS X, Spaces is a virtual desktop system that has existed since Leopard. In Lion, Spaces was made much easier to use for a normal user. Spaces has become a central part of Lion’s window organization. For those wanting to play around with virtual desktops on Windows, check out Dexpot. The question then came up, could I manage using virtual desktops only?
Virtual desktops allow a single desktop to act as though there were multiple desktops. Virtual desktops often provide an overview of what each desktop contains. From the overview the user can select a desktop and then if the desktop manager allows it, move windows between virtual desktops. The alternative to virtual desktops is multiple physical desktops. Physical desktops require you to have a video card that supports more than one output and of course you must have more than one display. With multiple physical desktops you can also move windows between the desktops as you can with virtual desktops. Both methods have been being used for years, in fact both Gnome and KDE on Linux have always had support for virtual desktops. Essentially both virtual and physical desktop extensions do the same thing.
Comparing both virtual and physical desktops, the first thing that comes to mind is that both have the potential to greatly increase your available workspace. With this aside I figured it would make sense to look at the benefits that both options have in common, that way it’s easier to select an optimal solution. Given that we have an increased amount of workspace one of the first things we can do is to organize the way we work. Use one desktop for web browsing and chat while using another for writing and file management, endless other combinations exist. Both options also allow easier multi-tasking, imagine switching desktops to check up on forums or Twitter while playing RuneScape and watching a movie on another desktop. Overall both solutions will allow you to more effectively organize your workspace and multi-task better. It’s something that everyone should look into whether or not it is perceived as a need.
With any solution comes downsides. The downsides associated with this realm may range from the cost involved or the annoying nature of different screen sizes. The downsides mentioned here will be specific to you and your setup you have chosen and may not even pose a problem.
The major downside of using virtual monitors is that there’s no easy way to have an always on heads up display that shows what your other desktops are showing. This can particularly become an issue if you are working with documents on one virtual desktop but have the need to have a web browser up for reference purposes. The solution to this problem is to use a larger display resolution, the larger resolution will enable more windows to be shown on one desktop. Another minor downside to the virtual route is that to have effective multi-tasking one must constantly be switching between desktops, this can become annoying quickly.
The foremost downside in using physical desktops is the cost. If you only have one desktop you are required to procure another display, this can cost money if you don’t have a stash of technology around your house. Another factor on the cost front is that if the graphics card on your computer is relatively low spec it may not be able to drive more than one display. Chances are if the computer in use has any graphics card that is capable of gaming it is capable of powering at least two displays. The other somewhat minor issue with using multiple physical desktops is aligning the desktops such that they are at the same height to not cause neck strain, this can be remedied by using identical displays.
Now that we know the benefits and downsides of both virtual and extra physical desktops it’s time for a choice to be made. From my personal experience it goes without saying that if you’ve used more than one physical display it’s nearly impossible to go with virtual desktops alone. If you’re just looking for a way to have additional desktops for organizing applications I would fully suggest using virtual desktops. If more space is desired and easier multi-tasking it’s probably best to go with an extra physical desktop. My main setup features 23” display running at 1920×1080 alongside my MacBook Pro running at 1440×900. As I mentioned earlier it is awkward at times having two different display resolutions, my biggest complaint of my current setup. Overall it depends on your needs (window management vs. extra screen space for multi-tasking) and available hardware.
As always if you have any suggestions or questions about this piece, please feel free to contact me.