Aug 052016

VirtualDimension logoShort story: It’s [VirtualDimension].

Long story… It’s most definitely not what Microsoft added in Windows 10. Besides it being limited to Windows 10, it just sucks for a multitude of reasons. And there I was, having hopes for it as well… If you’ve ever used multiple desktops on a graphical, X11-based Linux or UNIX window manager / desktop environment, you’d know what I’m talking about. Usually, what you’d get on those systems, whether KDE, Gnome, Xfce4, LXDE, or whatever is just one small, configurable panel which allows you to control multiple virtual desktops. On my Gnome 2 on CentOS 6.8 Linux, it looks like this (others are very similar):

Virtual desktops on Gnome 2

Virtual desktops on Gnome 2

The leftmost desktop is my usual “Internet” environment, here I chat, read emails, browse the web for anything work-related and so on. The second one is a Linux distribution development desktop. Here I’m building a derivative of Klaus Knoppers’ [Knoppix] distro. Then comes the testing environment for said distribution on desktop #3. Usually some shells and one VMware Player instance. Next to that are two more VM desktops for software testing and for writing user guides for software installation on different operating systems. At the moment that’s MacOS X and a Windows XP x64 software build VM. Usually there’s also a Windows 7 one. One is empty (for arbitrary stuff), then comes the server administration desktop with 9 open shells, one for each server. And the last one is my private desktop with yet another web browser, and some shells for spawning screen sessions for running software compilations, encoding runs and the likes.

Now, I have a 30″ screen both at home and at work, resolution is 2560×1600. But it’s just never enough screen real estate. So I wanted well-integrated virtual desktops for Windows as well, but last time I tried out some software, I couldn’t find a good one. Recently, I tried again for some reason, like “let’s give this one last shot”. And I tried a lot of programs!

Among the software tested were [Dexpot], [Finestra], [VirtuaWin], [WindowsPager], Xilisoft [Multiple Desktops] and the Windows PowerToy predecessor of [Desktops 2.0] written by Windows Hacker Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell. And finally, [VirtualDimension]. Some of those are free and open source software, others are not.

One of my primary requirements was compatibility to Windows XP x64. Of course it’d be nice if it worked on Windows 10 as well. But most of the above had important features missing or severely misbehaving on XP. Some were just very, very sluggish when switching desktops. Others had missing features to begin with, like previews on the desktop tiles. A blank desktop tile doesn’t help at all, as I need to see roughly what’s running where at a glance.

I’m not gonna make this a lengthy top list or anything, I’m just gonna show you what the software of my choice – VirtualDimension – could do for me, let’s look at the tiles first:

VirtualDimension on XP x64

VirtualDimension on XP x64

We’ll start with my good old XP x64 first. Here you can see my system tray, and Miranda being open. VirtualDimension cannot be embedded into the taskbar properly (damn), but it has an “always on top” feature. Since the contact list in my docked and always-launched Miranda doesn’t go all the way down, there is free and unused space there. Perfect for VirtualDimension! And since it’s always on top, it doesn’t disappear when clicking on Miranda for chatting.

Given the source code is definitely coming from a UNIX or Linux user (given he built it with GCC/Mingw), some features immediately ring a bell. Like “mouse warp”, where you switch desktops by moving your mouse to the border of the screen. I disabled that, don’t like it. But yeah, it’s there.

Important: While it doesn’t give you live window geometry previews, it does give you iconized previews, so you can always identify any desktop quickly by seeing what’s running there. The desktops can also be named, and there is an OSD that you can have pop up on you when switching, like so:

VirtualDimension OSD

OSD showing right after a desktop switch

In this case I had just switched to desktop #2, which is for A/V processing exclusively. This is just the top left part of the screen, where one of my eight transcoding shells was running a x265 benchmark prototype test. Color, display duration, transparency to mouse clicks on the OSD part, font and size are configurable.

Also, you can freely define keyboard shortcuts for switching desktops as well. I chose CTRL+Shift+Right as well as CTRL+Shift+Left for switching desktops and Alt+Right / Alt+Left for pushing a window to the next/previous desktop as those don’t conflict with other shortcuts I’m using.

What else can it do? Let’s right click on one of the icons in the preview tiles:

VirtualDimension iconized window right click

Clicking on a program icon in VirtualDimensions’ preview tiles gives you this menu

The first five options from the top are global ones. However, the ones below are specific to the icon you right-clicked. With “Activate”, you’d switch to the target desktop and put focus on that programs’ window. The others are pretty self-explanatory as well I guess. We also get a graceful “Close” option, and a brutal “Kill” option that’s equivalent to murdering the process in task manager. Maybe useful since it’s faster that way.

And if we click on the free area?

VirtualDimension, right click on the free area of a preview tile

Right-clicking on the free area of a preview tile gives you a list of all programs on that desktop.

Ok, not sure how useful that is, but at least it may help with identifying the windows on a desktop in more detail, as you get the window titles here. For my encoding shells I could get very quick glance at the progress, but not exactly in great detail. So the helpfulness of this is limited.

What else?

Well, it’s extremely fast! That’s one major plus for VirtualDimension, as several of the other solutions (open source ones as well) were abysmally slow, at least on XP x64. But damn, VirtualDimension just flies! And its memory footprint is minimal. I saw less than 12MiB of consumption here. Even if you add a truckload of Desktops (there seems to be no upper limit), it just won’t slow down unless you spawn like 50 CPU intensive processes all over the place killing your CPU or maxing out your RAM. But that wouldn’t have been VirtualDimensions fault then. Its memory footprint will linearly grow by spawning more desktops, so with eight you may see around 20MiB. Still neat.

And what’s bad about it?

Well, sometimes, if you have a lot of windows on one desktop, the icons are’t cut off in the right spot at the bottom of the preview tile, so they overflow just a little bit. Just a cosmetic issue. Also, you should maybe deactivate the shell integration. With this, VirtualDimension hooks itself into all windows (such a DLL hook means entering another processes’ memory area). With that, you can get its functions via right clicking on a windows’ title bar, like on UNIX.

Nice, but dangerous! This can trigger anti-cheat systems in online games, because they really don’t like you stepping into their processes’ memory areas! That’s what cheating tools do to modify a games’ parameters on the fly as well. You don’t wanna be banned because of such a thing!

In my case, I managed to lock myself out of Mechwarrior Online because of this. I wasn’t banned, but the login process wouldn’t even let me launch its window. Disabling the feature, launching MWO, then re-enabling it and trying to log in caused a pretty abnormal process termination:

Mechwarrior Online really doesn't like VirtualDimensions' shell integration feature

Mechwarrior Online really doesn’t like VirtualDimensions’ shell integration feature! And no, there was no “update available”… (click to enlarge)

There is an exception list for this feature, and I added all of MWOs’ .exe files to it, to no avail. Better to stay away from this one.

Now, well, this otherwise beautiful piece of software was dropped by its developer around 2005. About the time my XP x64 came out. Latest alpha build is from some time in 2006. So this is ancient! It even supports Windows 98 and NT 4.0, I mean… So, how about Windows 10 then? I mean, Windows 10 doesn’t even have a GDI UI anymore, this is like one completely different world. Since I do have a Windows 10 machine (yeah, ew), let’s check it out:

VirtualDimension on Windows 10

VirtualDimension on Windows 10 – hey, it really works!?

Miranda seemingly can’t dock properly on Windows 10 anymore. It kinda… floats near the desktop border when docked. It’s strange and it wastes space, but well, I don’t know how to fix that yet. But anyway, I embedded VirtualDimension into Miranda (by just moving the window there, removing its title bar and resizing it properly again). And guess what?

It just works™!

I launched some Metro / Modern UI apps in a window as well, and while those aren’t shown in the preview tiles, they can be controlled with keyboard shortcuts, just like regular windows. Also, it’s just as blazing fast as it is on XP. Ah, and… yeah, it actually does work on all 64-bit x86 Windows versions it seems! It’s amazing, but an ancient piece of 32-bit software that does alter a Windows systems’ usage pattern quite fundamentally still works fine on Windows 10 64-bit. I gotta say, I’m pretty relieved, because Windows 10s’ own solution just sucks – where is my live preview? – and I don’t want to change my usage paradigm too much when switching operating systems (even from Linux/UNIX to Windows and back).

Some of the other solutions like Dexpot or Finestra may be faster on Windows 10 then they are on a just half-supported XP x64, but nah, don’t need them.

VirtualDimension is as perfect as it gets, despite its age! Or maybe because of it?

Still, anyone interested in picking up that [VirtualDimension project on SourceForge] and in continuing its development? ;) I guess I can’t touch that code, would probably just mess everything up. Ah, it’s C++ by the way…

A few things could use some fixing, like the icon overflowing issue, Modern UI window detection, certain, rare windows being sticky on all Desktops even if nobody told them to do so (Miranda, X-Chat DCC windows) and that exclusion list for the shell integration, which doesn’t hook into all windows properly when active either anyway.

Would be so nice if somebody could continue working this! :)

Until that happens (I know, it never will), I’ll just continue using v0.95 alpha. ;)