Virtual Workspaces for Linux Desktops: Page 2

Here's how KDE, GNOME, Unity, Mate, Cinnamon and Xfce each implement virtual workspaces.
(Page 2 of 2)

Worst of all, workspace features are squirreled away under Preferences ->Cinnamon Settings -> Workspaces, which takes some searching to discover. However, at least two settings, "Only use workspaces on primary monitors" and "Display Expo view as a grid," are settings that many users are likely to want.

But for all the attempt at innovation, Cinnamon does not deliver much that makes working with workspaces easier, much less add any new features. Frequently, its resemblance to GNOME 2 is deceptive.

Gnome Shell

If any implementation of virtual workspaces is impossible to miss, it is the one used in Gnome Shell, the interface for GNOME.

Gnome Shell uses two desktops: a workspace where work is done, and an overview, which opens when you click the Activities link in a workspace. What is noteworthy about the overview is that it automatically assigns workspaces, always keeping a minimum of one active workspace, plus one unused one.

To a certain extent, this practice allows Gnome Shell to open most applications maximized—the only exceptions being applications with such small dialogs that the practice would be ridiculous.

However, the advantages are often outweighed by the disadvantages. Working with several windows open at once requires careful rearranging of windows. Although you can drag windows between workspaces, you have to be in the overview to do so—and you will almost certainly want to do so, because Gnome Shell's concept of how apps should be arranged on different workspaces will sooner or later be at odds with yours.

Gnome Shell may help to introduce new users to the concept of virtual workspaces. But it does so at the expense of giving them no choice. More experienced users may sometimes struggle against it

Until such time as Gnome Shell adds an override feature (don't wait up), you may have an easier time if you mine GNOME Shell Extensions to add a menu and workspace switcher that allow you to bypass the overview. Until then, GNOME Shell is an ambitious revamping of virtual workspaces that really only works for undemanding users.


Although KDE prefers the term "virtual desktop" to "virtual workspace," the concept is the same. Moreover, whatever name you prefer, no desktop has done as much to improve and extend the concept as KDE.

KDE begins with all the conventional features, including the ability to name each desktop and to navigate to them with keyboard shortcuts.

However, it also includes one unique feature—different widgets, wallpaper and icons for each desktop. To access it, select System Settings -> Workplace appearance and Behavior -> WorkSpace Behavior -> Virtual Desktops -> Different widgets for each desktop.

This change can make each virtual desktop identifiable at a glance. More to the point, it is one of several ways that KDE offers multiple icon and widget sets that are ready for use with a few mouse-clicks.

Even more importantly, KDE includes the option of creating Activities. Activities are a kind of higher-level virtual workspace that are set by largely by task, so that you can create custom icons and widgets for each task.

Not only can each Activity support up to twenty virtual desktops, but each Activity can have different layout, ranging from a generic desktop to Newspaper, a multi-columned desktop designed for widgets, and Search and Launch, an interface originally designed for netbooks (if anyone remembers them still).

KDE has struggled with providing the proper overview for Activities. The current solution, a horizontally scrolling window, is even more cumbersome than Cinnamon's Expo. But otherwise, the combination of virtual desktops and Activities is by far the strongest and most promising implementation of virtual workspaces among the major Linux desktops.

Choosing an Implementation

The amount of energy devoted to improving the features and interfaces of virtual workspaces suggests how central they are to users of the Linux desktop.

However, it's only in high school that you get marks for effort. Many—even most—of the attempts to rethink virtual workspaces are not improvements on the tools that were available in GNOME 2 or KDE 3. Some are worse.

If virtual workspaces are an important criterion in your selection of a desktop, I suggest that you look at Mate or Xfce. Mate's and Xfce's workspaces are not especially inventive, but they get the job done. Moreover, if you have ever used a traditional Linux desktop, you will instantly know how to use them.

But if you feel like experimenting, then consider KDE. The KDE project has not done a good job of explaining Activities, but your own investigation might reveal how useful they can be. Even if you choose to avoid Activities, the individual configurability of KDE virtual desktops still it make a feature you'll want to try.

As for the other choices, keep an eye on them. All are reasonably recent possibilities, and could still implement new practical angles on virtual workspaces—a feature that, almost more than anything else, distinguishes the Linux desktop from its competitors.

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

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