Virtual desktops have been around for a long time on Linux and Macs. In fact they’ve also been built into Windows for many years, but gaining access to them required special software. Now, with Windows 10, virtual desktops will finally be available witthout having to install extra software. See also: Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison.

What is a virtual desktop?

If you have a single monitor attached to your PC or use only your laptop's built-in screen, you have one screen - desktop - to run all of your apps. This is fine if you only hop between a browser and a program such as Microsoft Office, but if you have lots of apps open things can get a bit confusing or just plain cumbersome. Virtual desktops are a bit like having lots of monitors: you can create different workspaces (screens) where you can arrange apps;  so if you want one for work-related apps and another for leisure, you can do that.

As they’re virtual they still share all the same data, files, everything, and you can move apps between them easily. It’s just a convenient way of grouping together related applications and tasks. You can’t break anything with them, and they can be very handy, so it’s definitely worth giving them a go.

Creating a virtual desktop

In the taskbar of Windows 10 you’ll see a new icon to the right of the search bar which looks like a rectangle with two smaller ones slightly behind it. This is called Task View, and clicking it will give you a thumbnail view of all the programs which are running. The same thing can be achieved by using the key combination of Win+Tab. When in Task View mode you’ll see an option in the bottom right corner that has a large Plus sign with New Desktop written below. Clicking on this will create a new desktop, one that looks and behaves identically to your normal one, but has no apps running on it. 

How to use Virtual desktops

Click the Task View icon again and you’ll see that there are two desktops shown at the bottom of the screen.

How to use Virtual desktops

Now if you have apps already running on your original desktop you can select that one and then drag the relevant apps onto the new desktop.

 How to use Virtual desktops

Virtual desktops in Windows 10: How to switch between desktops

You can easily switch between these different environments by either clicking on them in the Task View menu or using the combination of Ctrl+Win+either the left or right arrow key. Jumping straight to an app is the same as it ever was, with the Alt+Tab combination showing all apps open on all desktops.

At the moment you can create multiple desktops but functionality is somewhat limited. You can’t change the wallpaper of one desktop without all of them changing, and clicking on an app that is running in another desktop will simply take you there rather than launch a new instance. Microsoft will no doubt continue to add features as we get closer to the official launch, and hopefully some of these limitations will be removed.

Virtual desktops in Windows 10: the benefits

People use virtual desktops in a variety of ways, and by experimenting with them we’ve no doubt you'll find your optimum arrangement. We’ve often seen setups that have productivity apps - such as Office, OneNote, and email - in one desktop, and then a browser, music app, or even gaming in another. Remember that while you can’t have two copies of a browser open in different desktops, you can always drag an open tab down until it turns into a new window, then open the Task View and drag the new window to the other desktop. Another option is to install another type of browser, such as Opera, Firefox, or Chrome, and run that in your other desktop.

How to use Snap Assist in Windows 10

When it comes to arranging what’s on your screen, Windows 10 has improved 'snapping'. In Windows 7 and 8 it was possible to automatically resize windows to cover half the desktop by simply clicking and holding on the top part of a window and dragging it either to the left, right then letting go. In Windows 10 the feature is called Snap Assist and has new tricks.

Now when you’re in an app and press Win+Left or Right arrow you’ll see the app take up half the desktop and show you all the other open apps that can join it on the other side of the screen. To select a partner just click on it and you’ll have a split screen with the two apps nestled side by side.

If you prefer to use a mouse, click and drag an app using its top bar to the middle of the left- or right-hand edge.

How to use Virtual desktops

That’s not all though. When you have a window selected you can also press WIN+up, down, left, or right and it will resize to either the whole side of the screen or a quarter, and you can move it around to the different sides of the screen using the keys. This allows you to create a grid that has four windows open, each one occupying a quarter of the display.

To do this with a mouse, simply drag the application to one of the corners until it fills a quarter of the screen.

How to use Virtual desktops

Obviously on a small or low-resolution screen this won't be as useful, but if you have a large monitor then this quick way of arranging apps should become a regular part of your workflow.