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Managing multiple desktops in KDE

Managing a department is no picnic, but managing space on your desktop can be even more troublesome. At any given moment, you may have any number of applications open on the desktop at once. Each one carries critical pieces of your daily life. You've got your e-mail client, a spreadsheet or two, that speech you're working on and a project planner. Throw in a browser window or two and your desktop's a mess. Having the right thing up on your screen when you need it can involve a series of Alt-tabs or feverish mouse clicks to minimize and maximize windows.

Isn't there a better way?

Sorry to say it, but in Windows XP, about the only other way to deal with screen clutter is to get a second monitor. Failing that, screen clutter is just another thing you have to deal with. But with Linux you don't need to buy the extra monitor. Instead you can manage clutter by way of multiple virtual desktops!

Virtual desktops allow you to place one or more applications in distinct locations with easy navigation via the mouse or keyboard. You can have Evolution on Desktop 1, TaskJuggler on Desktop 2, OpenOffice.org Writer on Desktop 3 and Gnumeric on Desktop 4. If you're working on that speech and you need to check an e-mail, hit Ctrl+F1 to see Evolution and Ctrl+F3 to go back to OpenOffice.

While the GNOME desktop environment also handles virtual desktops (but calls them "workspaces") with equal aplomb to its more popular rival, this article will focus on KDE.

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By default, KDE gives you two desktops. If you need more, open the Control Panel. In KDE, go to Desktop, then Multiple Desktops. Drag the slider down the bar, or just enter the number in the edit box to set the number of available desktops. You can have up to 20. Notice that you can give each desktop a name, which you could use as a label if, for example, you're inclined to put Internet applications on one desktop and other types on another. But the names are just decoration, so you could even name them Shelby or Sarah if you so desire.

For easy access, KDE also displays all open applications, regardless of desktop placement, in the taskbar. If you prefer to completely separate your desktops, go to the Taskbar settings and un-check "Show windows from all desktops." Insatiable customizers can even display different wallpaper on each desktop. Go to Appearance & Themes, then Background to adjust the settings for one or more desktops.

When you have your settings the way you like them, it's time to toggle your desktops. The KDE taskbar includes a small visual representation panel of your virtual desktops. The active desktop is highlighted. Follow these steps:

  • First, open an application. The open window will also appear in the panel.
  • Click the square labeled 2 in the panel. Don't panic! That may be the first reaction when you see the clean screen, but your opened application is still there in Desktop 1.
  • Now open something else. You will see its representation in the panel too.
  • Use Ctrl+F3 to move to the third desktop.
  • Open a Konsole shell application. You know that the command-line shell is the essential tool for Linux power users, so you always want access to it.
  • Click the icon in the left corner of the title bar. Select To Desktop from the menu, then click All Desktops.
  • A Konsole appears on all your desktops, which you can see in the taskbar desktop panel. You can also use this menu to move a window from one desktop to another.

Virtual desktops ease the burden of the busy multitasking knowledge worker or manager. It is a Linux feature you may not realize you need, but once you start using it, Windows will just feel that much clunkier.


This was first published in April 2006

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