Linux Virtual Workspaces--How Do They Differ?

Here's how KDE, GNOME, Unity, Mate, Cinnamon and Xfce each implement virtual workspaces.
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Virtual workspaces have been a feature of Linux desktops since their earliest days. Not only are they easier to set up than extra monitors, but they allow basic apps like web browsers and terminals to stay open full-screen while leaving plenty of working room. With these advantages, virtual desktops have become an indispensable daily tool for many users.

But while the basic functionality is universal on leading desktops, the details vary considerably. In particular, recent years have seen attempts to enhance the basic functionality to the point where the innovations promise to revise the entire concept of the desktop.

Now there is a concept of virtual desktops to suit almost anyone.


Mate, Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2, offers classical virtual workspaces. That is to say, Mate installs with four workspaces that are controlled by a switcher on the panel. You can move between workspaces by clicking the switcher or by keyboard shortcuts, and you can alter the rows and columns of workspaces displayed.

Workspaces in Mate can be individually named, but they share the same wallpaper and desktop icons with each other.


As a popular GNOME 2 replacement, Xfce is almost as traditional as Mate. It has all the features that Mate has, but in addition, Xfce includes a margin setting for positioning—a small feature, but one that improves desktop legibility.

More importantly, in Xfce you can reduce repetitive stress by using the mouse's scroll wheel to slide smoothly back and forth between workspaces. In fact, this use of the scroll wheel is almost too easy, because one wrong twitch of your mouse hand can inadvertently cause you to change workspaces.


As of the 13.04 release, Ubuntu no longer installs with the Workspace Switcher on the launcher. Presumably, they intended this change to reduce the confusion new users might feel when faced with a feature not found in a default installation of Windows. However, I can't help observing that, if the Amazon and Ubuntu One Music icons weren't on the launcher to generate income for Canonical, there would be more than enough room for the Switcher.

If anything, the removal of the Switcher probably annoys more veteran users than it calms new users. Fortunately, it can be easily remedied by selecting System Setting -> Personal Appearance -> Enable workspaces. Should you later change your mind, you can either uncheck the Enable workspaces box, or else click the Restore Default Behaviours button directly beneath it.

Once enabled, virtual workspaces on Unity behave much the same as on Mate and Xfce. However, if you ever want more than four workspaces, you will have to install Unity Tweak Tool and go to the Workspace Settings tab. In theory, Unity Tweak Tool will allow 625 workspaces, but in practice even 6-7 are illegible on the launcher.

Another weakness of virtual workspaces in Unity is that no keyboard shortcuts are defined, so you will have set them up yourself. As far as workspaces go, Unity simply isn't designed for advanced users.


Cinnamon is Linux Mint's GNOME 2-like shell built on top of GNOME 3. Although it has all the features you might expect, it might be momentarily puzzling at first.

To start with, Cinnamon defaults to two virtual workspaces. These are displayed in a switcher on the panel, but unlike the switcher in Mate, Cinnamon's cannot be right-clicked for configuration.

Instead, you need to right-click the panel and select Add applets to the panel to add the Expo applet to manage the virtual workspaces. Expo presents workspaces as a series of thumbnails—a minor enlargement of the switcher with a field for renaming each workspace and a plus sign button for adding an apparently unlimited number of workspaces.

In addition, you will probably want to add the Window Quicklist applet, so you can track which windows are open on which workspace.

Expo deserves full points for ingenuity, since it tries to present graphical controls rather than text-based ones. The only trouble is that the execution is a little shaky.

To start with, Expo fills an entire window, rather than a single dialog box. This arrangement can be confusing, because the current workspace is indicated only by a black background in the name field—which at first glance looks as though the name cannot be changed and is easily missed.

Also, while the plus sign is convenient and visible, the deletion method is inconsistent. Instead of another button on the side of the window, deletion requires that you go to each thumbnail's upper right hand corner and close it separately.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Gnome, KDE, xfce, desktop, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE

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