Windows 11 deep dive: How to use virtual desktops
Windows 11 is the latest version of the most popular operating system in the world, and it brings a whole slew of changes if you’ve been using Windows 10 or an older version of Windows. Many features have changed quite a bit, some new ones have been added, and others have been removed. One of the features that’s changed a bit is virtual desktops, which have become a bit more customizable and easily accessible with Windows 11.
Virtual desktops aren’t new in Windows 11, and Windows 10 already had them, but there are some noteworthy changes. What virtual desktops do is give you different virtual environments where you can organize your windows and activities. Say you want to separate your work apps from your personal apps? You can create a virtual desktop where you have your work documents open, and another one with your personal messaging apps, instead of mixing them all together. Let’s take a look at how they work in Windows 11.
How to use virtual desktops in Windows 11
When you first set up a Windows 11 PC, you may notice an icon on your taskbar that’s a black and a white square. This is the Task View icon, and this is how you access your virtual desktops. When you click this icon, you’ll see all your open apps taking up most of the screen, but at the bottom, you’ll see your virtual desktops (likely just one, if you haven’t used this feature before). You can also access this screen with a keyboard shortcut (Windows key + Tab). Alternatively, hovering your mouse over the Task View icon will show you just your virtual desktops, without covering everything else on your screen.
Click the New desktop button and you’ll have a clean slate, at least in terms of open apps. Virtual desktops don’t actually change the icons you can see on your desktop — they simply separate your open apps. Once you have two or more desktops, the apps you open on one desktop won’t be visible on the others, although you can change this to some extent.
You can access Task View anytime you want to switch desktops, or you can mouse over the Task View icon to see your desktops without opening the full Task View interface. You can also reorder the virtual desktops you have by dragging them, which is new in Windows 11. If you want to move a window from one desktop to another, you can open Task View and drag the app into the desktop you want to move it to.
If you want to quickly switch from one desktop to the next, you can press Windows key + Ctrl, along with either the right or left arrows. This will navigate all of your virtual desktops one by one, and it’s a quick way to switch between them if you have two or three.
If you have a laptop or PC with a Precision touchpad or touchscreen, you can configure gestures to switch between virtual desktops quickly. If you want to use your touchpad to switch between virtual desktops, go to the Settings app, then open the Devices section. From here, select Touchpad and look for three-finger or four-finger gestures. If these options aren’t available, you may not have a Precision touchpad.
Depending on your preference, set three- or four-finger swipes to the Switch desktops and show desktop option. As indicated in the Settings app, you’ll then be able to move to the next or previous desktop by swiping the touchpad left or right.
If you have a touchscreen, you can switch between desktops in a similar way, but you can’t customize how many fingers to use. Swipe the screen left or right with four fingers, and you’ll be able to quickly switch between virtual desktops.
Customizing virtual desktops
If you want to be able to tell your virtual desktops apart more easily, there are a couple of things you can do. First, you can change their name, which is useful if you want the Task View to switch desktops. To change a desktop’s name, open Task View, click the name, then type whatever you want. This is one of the new features in Windows 11 compared to Windows 10.
The other — and perhaps most effective — thing you can do is set a different desktop background for different virtual desktops. This makes each desktops instantly recognizable, even if you never open Task View.
To do this, head into the Settings apps and open the Personalization section. Choose Background, and then choose a new image for the background. You need to use a single picture since solid colors and slideshows will always apply to all desktops. By default, any picture you choose will apply only to the current desktop, leaving the others unchanged. If you want to change the desktop background for a different virtual desktop (or all of them), right-click the image in the Recent images list, and then choose what you want to set it for.
Virtual desktop settings
There are a couple of settings you can change for how virtual desktops behave. To access your virtual desktop settings, open the Settings app, and in the System section (the default), find the Multitasking option. On this page, you’ll see a category called Desktops.
Here, you can change whether your taskbar shows open apps from all your desktops or just your current one. By default, the taskbar only shows the apps open on the current desktop. Seeing apps from all your desktops may be useful if you want to be able to see notifications and alerts from apps on other desktops. When you click an app that’s on another desktop, you’ll switch desktops automatically.
You can also change whether you see apps from all your desktops when you use Alt + Tab to switch between apps. Again, by default, you’ll only see the apps on your current desktop, but you can change that. And just like with the taskbar setting, if you choose an app that’s on a different desktop, you’ll change desktops automatically.
That’s about all you need to know about virtual desktops on Windows 11. This is a feature that many might overlook, but being able to separate different kinds of apps and tasks can be useful to help you stay focused and organized.
If you haven’t upgraded to Windows 11 yet, check out the minimum system requirements, or see if you have one of the many PCs compatible with the Windows 11 upgrade. If you’re looking more towards the future, you might want to check out everything that’s been added with the Windows 11 2022 Update, or some of the features currently available in preview for Windows Insiders. Virtual desktops haven’t really changed, but there’s a whole lot more that’s been added in the past year.