October 28, 2007
I'm of two minds on the desktop.
If you're really using your computer, your desktop should almost never be visible. Your screen should be covered with information, with whatever data you're working on. I can't imagine why you'd willingly stare at a static background image-- or even a background image covered with a sea of icons. Unless you consider your computer a really expensive digital picture frame, I suppose.
The desktop background, as I see it, is completely superfluous. My desktop "background" right now is plain black. And that doesn't bother me in the least, because none of it is visible. I have browser windows and programs-- the things I'm actually doing -- covering all three monitors. When I'm using a computer, I make it my goal to never see the desktop background. Every time the desktop background is visible, that means I'm making poor use of my monitor pixels. Whenever the desktop background peeks through, I treat it like a reprimand.
I won't lie to you. I don't always achieve my goal. The desktop is sometimes visible when I'm working. But I do try my darndest to cover all my monitors with something useful, and a static desktop background just isn't useful.
That said, it is fun to have a unique desktop background. Even if you rarely see it. In the above official screenshots from Apple and Canonical, the desktop background images were picked quite intentionally. I've done this myself; when I put together those pictures of the monitor arms, I specifically chose an interesting desktop background to show it off.
Sometimes you just want to show off, even if it's only for yourself. When I graduated to my first triple monitor configuration, back in 2004, I used this 3200 x 1200 image of the entire first level of Super Mario brothers as my desktop background.
But I felt very, very dirty afterwards. I worry that if we spend too much time obsessing over our desktop backgrounds, we'll start treating our computers like fashion accessories instead of tools. We should be filling our screens with information, not distracting ourselves with pretty frippery.
However, if we do it responsibly, if we keep reminding ourselves that our desktop is not a destination, it's OK to obsess over our desktop backgrounds a little bit. The desktop is like an aesthetically pleasing airport we must occasionally pass through before arriving at our real destinations: a web browser, a word processor, an IDE, a graphics editor, etcetera. You know, the places we really want to go. A good-looking airport gives every traveller a positive feeling about where they're going, so feel free to spruce it up. Just don't go so far that you become one of those weird people who hangs out in airports.
In my original research, I ran across a lot of sites with great wallpaper resources. There's a heavy emphasis on extra-wide wallpapers here, as I run triple monitor configurations at home and at work. If you, too, rock a multi-mon setup under Windows, you'll need a utility to get different background images on each monitor, or to span a single image across all your monitors. I use Ultramon which does this and much more; Display Fusion does less, but it works for this, and it's free.
Personally, I don't care for photographs on my desktop. I prefer abstract backgrounds. This must be an unusual preference, because most desktop background websites are completely dominated by photographs. Still, I found a few sites with good abstract backgrounds, even though I had to sift through a lot of photographs to get to them.
For abstract backgrounds, I had the best luck with Flickr and InterfaceLIFT.
If you spend the next hour searching for the perfect desktop background, don't blame me. I tried to warn you. I'm hoping you don't see that special desktop background of yours too often.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Don't the One Laptop Per Child people use the desktop to show what is currently being worked on and what nearby people are currently working on?
These days, I don't usually have a desktop background at all. It's not used for shortcuts as I much prefer keyboard quicklaunch apps such as Launchy or SlickRun, to name but two.
However, I used to have a job where people would frequently come to my desk and the desktop background often provided an interesting talking point if I was to minimize everything and click on a shortcut (which was often necessarily the case at the time). You'd be amazed how long some accountants would voluntarily talk about glowing blue mushrooms!
Often I see topics like "show us your desktop" on forums but I never post mine. Because there very little interesting to see on it. All the interesting stuff on my desktop is things you dont see: I start my applications with keyboard shortcuts, or automatically at login. They are placed at the right positions by default so for most windows (based on parameters like fullscreen, is it a popup etc) I don't even have window decorations. This is something you can do with compiz fusion btw: configuring stuff like window decorations, transparancy, based on the title, state, size and all other parameters of your windows. Also with things like the scale plugin etc you can easily drag windows without needing decorations for them. Compiz fusion is a great productivity helper, even though it is most known for it's visual effects.
In my honest opinion the desktop is one of my favorite features in windows. I like to keep my most used docs/apps right there for easy launching, and I also like to have my downloaded files go right to the desktop so that I don't have to search for them since I will probably be using them right away.
I have never been a big fan of the start menu, it is great for holding programs that I won't be using very often, but it ends up being filled with junk, since most programs insist on putting a folder into it.
As far as the background image goes, I have had this laptop for nearly 6 months now, and it still has the default Windows Vista background, although I am now thinking of wasting some time and downloading a new one while I wait for Blizard to finish their weekly maintenence on my realm (I hate when days off fall on Tuesdays).
Great post Jeff, you never seem to be at a loss for something interesting to talk about, and I love this blog because even if the topic is something that I never thought I would be interested in, I still end up getting sucked in and reading the whole thing. Keep up the good work.
Not sure if I agree that all of your screen(s) should be covered with windows all of the time. It depends what you are working on, but often I find myself using the Show Desktop shortcut (Win-D) to hide all that information and data so that I can concentrate on what I am working on at the moment. I tend to work in txt files a lot (from todo lists to coding) and filling up your screen just isn't needed. Plus I usually have a couple RDP sessions going and reserve one monitor for that.
With that said, I tend to always have unique background going and change it every couple weeks or so. I often make a custom background that "shows" what project I am currently working on (either a logo or abstract layout/colors). That helps me stay focused as I get started each morning, plus customers seem pretty excited about it during demos.
The best part about backgrounds? Locking your screen and letting them distract your co-workers.
Come on! Next you'll be fretting that looking out the window is also a potential waste of time. And while staring at computer screens can become an entrancing time waster, I find that a soothing, uncluttered desktop is often a great way to focus my thoughts and un-frazzle my nerves.
The good news about desktops is that, for Windows users, they replace the junk that MS supplies by default. A nice bridge between abstract and realistic images are from Astronomy Picture of the Day (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html). Huge archives, and a good reminder there is a bigger reality out there than your computer -- really.
The desktop for me is just a temporary workspace, but I rarely actually see the desktop itself, just the folder. I prefer not to chew up resources needlessly with wallpaper images that I never see.
Ditto for screensavers - the only time I see 'em working is when I'm not working - and if I'm not working on the PC, I'm not in front of it.
Graham is right - we've outgrown the notion of our Windows "desktop" being analogous to our actual desktops.
back in 2004, I used this 3200 x 1200 image of the entire first level of Super Mario brothers as my desktop background.
I'd love to grab that pic, but it looks like you might have blown this guy clear off the internet!
a href="http://www.xmonad.org/"http://www.xmonad.org//a (or wmii or something similar).
I know you are a windows man - but xmonad is like using an IDE for ALL your work. Not having to think about window placement consciously is the greatest! Xmonad also works with multi-monitor setup :)
Here's a local copy of the original version. The one hosted on that site is a little nicer because it adds a smooth blue to black gradient at the top, but it's essentially the same.
You may need to resize to taste, of course..
The complete first level of Super Mario Brothers as a background image:
Jeeva - I'm not sure about xmonad, but I AM intrigued by the keyboard they have in the screenshots on their website. I've never seen that before. Anyone know anything about it?
I don't agree that you should never see the background. I have two 19" monitors, and *usually* they're both covered with something, but occasionally all that whiteness hurts my eyes, and I have to minimize everything on one of my monitors.
I wonder, by the same logic, would you also insist on covering every inch of your physical desk with information?
There's times when I've been close to that, but not any more thank goodness. Too much information and clutter is distracting and tiring.
Then again, maybe the desktop is more for the average user who isn't hammering away at the PC each minute of the day, and doesn't know their way around too well. Then a desktop with pictures of the grandchildren and a few handy shortcuts to useful stuff that they would otherwise be groping around to find might be just the thing.
Well it works like that for my father.
I wonder, by the same logic, would you also insist on covering every inch of your physical desk with information?
The physical world isn't the virtual world; we shouldn't project the limitations of one on the other.
Since you mention this neat idea of filling you desktop with information, I've started using a new window manager on my desktop called xmonad (http://xmonad.org/) that implements the idea of all windows being full screen at all times. There are no window borders, default menu bars, etc. It's a very neat idea to mess around with.
By the way, I love your site. Keep up the excellent work.
There are no physical limitations stopping people covering their entire desk in paper. Or their floor for that matter.
Some people actually do that, and I used to be one.
There are limitations to the speed with which physical stuff can be opened and closed, but that's an even stronger argument for leaving it all open on your desk. And yet there may be a downside to it.
The question I asked was meant to be more about the psychology that leads to thinking that a bit of empty screen is "wasted space", esp when you have three monitors.
And I wasn't questioning anyone's right to feel that way, just
probing the thinking a little bit.
So to probe some more... as I'm reading the comments on this blog, there are two big blocks of empty white space in the sidebars. Is that a waste of space? Would it be better if the sidebars were full of some info or other all the way down to the bottom? Or is there advantage in the screen not being too busy and too full?
Feng Shui for monitors? :)
I'm actually interested to know what people think about that.
Maybe the post's point wasn't really about wasted space at all, but about "not distracting ourselves with pretty frippery".
I occasionally used to fret about the perfect desktop and window manager, until it finally clicked: 1024x768 blue pixels. You want an app? Click on it for a menu (1st entry: a terminal; I never call anything else). I haven't changed it in years, and spend my time doing work inside applications.
So yes, indeed.
Actually, I have 4 desktops (on one monitor) and decided to use 4 background images. However, most of them I see seldom to never, as I am completely against having icons on your desktop. However, at my work I found a use to having icons on the desktop - there are some tasks I have to do on shutdown time (register my hours) so I created shortcuts to the excel files and I get a visual reminder after closing all programs and just before shutting down. at home, on my linux boxen I don't shut windows before closing, so I rarely see the desktops 1 and 2 (because of all the windows) and 3 and 4 (because I never go there)
- Desktop 1 is my "play" desktop, not as in gaming but I do my normal surfing here. Desktop changes regularly (every month or so) with usually one of my own more artistic/industrial photos.
- Desktop 2 is my "work" desktop, for long-term projects. Background here is a picture of Berlusconi resting, which won the world press photo a few years back (http://fototapeta.art.pl/2003/i/wpp/09-KRABBE.jpg) which inspires me to take a short break.
- Desktop 3 and 4 see few usage. Desktop 3 is a very nice picture of some military in a hailstorm, and desktop 4 is a cell-shaded manga renderinf. I think they have been on there for 2 and 6 years, respectively. 6 years is longer than I have this computer.
there is this really useful "show desktop" button. I hardly ever use it but many people don't have it in their quick launch button so I teach it to many people who have their desktop cluttered with icons.
I too have four desktop on a single 21 inch monitor. I used to have two 19 inch monitors at my previous workplace, and I usually had one application maximized on each of them. In my current settings, desktops are separated according to subject, so I have a work, fun and reading desktops.
While working I usually have two applications tiled side by side (IDE and reference, IDE and another IDE, IDE and command line, etc..), so I usually don't see the background. It is however sometimes uncomfortable to have one application maximized on all of my monitor, so I sometimes happen to see the background when only browsing\reading something, and I don't consider it bad in any way.
Regarding backgrounds, I usually go with something abstract and dark blue. (Microsoft's "Prairie Wind" tiled is usually my choice)
If you're writing blog entries about desktops, you are also not making good use of your monitor pixels. Go do some actual work.
Holy Christ. All you people debating the coolest desktop are total tools.
Sorry everyone. I was drinking way too much kool aid when I made that post. I'm a tool for calling you guys out.
I like leaving mine blank, since I dont have the internet, so there's never anything interesting to put there anyways... PLus it distracts me and sometimes it slows down my computer, for no real reason I can think of.
My desktop on my Apple laptop is a mess of icons but then so is my real desk. Moving the pointer to the top right sweeps away all windows exposing the desktop (with files, shortcuts etc.), moving back brings the windows back. Plus, it being a laptop, the trackpad is within easy reach of the keyboard, so isn't as inconvenient as moving to the mouse on a desktop machine.
On my XP desktop computer its a whole different story, I much more use command launchers and search for documents, and barely use the Desktop at all.
So I'd say what you say is true for your setup (and likely most other computers), but then not all computers are the same!
nice Senns; I have a pair of 580s also.
although I also agree with you w/ regards to the desktop as a tool, rather than just something to look at.
I don't have "Show Desktop"-button in my computer. Its a shame, because I use it to clear everything down while I perform some sub task.
But what really annoys me is the lack of skins in programs. For example WinAmp and even Firefox have skins. But Google and YoutTube doesn't have an option to change the white background to black - or at least I have not found such an option. YouTube Channel has some settings for colors though.
Also the skins could be flashy like they got the look and feel from some fractal generator. That way all the frames, buttons, tabs, and widgets would look and feel eg. "dark and bluish stars with shiny blue widgets" or "black soft round forms with green widgets" or "pink and furry" or "black yellow with gothic styles".
It would be easier to use precreated skins like in WinAmp than to use random fractal like styles. Also it would be real hard job to integrate the support of dynamic fractal look and feels into every application. Some applications have their own look and feel, like Nero CD Burner.
Some programming languages and environments have look and feel concept in them to some extent. Java Look And Feel is per operating system, where developer can edit the LF somewhat.
If I could choose my style and if everything from the desktop to Google would automaticly use that style, I would call that progress.
I am hard pressed to find somebody, even a non-techie, who would spend time mesmerizing over their desktop. Most people just drop files there, which is quite honestly more efficient than opening up Windows Explorer and looking through folders for stuff. So the pattern is exposing the desktop long enough to locate and use a file, and back to whatever word processor or browser activity prior. whatever wallpaper that exists in the background serves precisely that purpose - a wallpaper that does not make the "wall" look so bland. That's all there is to it.
That said, i never keep files on my own desktops.
if Johns BackgroundSwitcher has not been mentioned yet it should be :
has support for :
0) update time
1) local repository
2) flickr/yahoo/phanfare photo albums so you caa pull stuff off the web
3) multi monitor support - same image everywhere, diff on each monitor (very cool)
I always found it curious that MS left this kind of thing out of Windows but Apple did not.
p.s. anyone know why the CAPTCHA is always the same ?
I think I'm in some weird hybrid mode. I crave a very clean desktop, but I want a cohesive gadget reference and a nice initial image to get the creative juices flowing.
I'm running dual monitor at work and I have some core google desktop gatdgets on the far left sidebar, no icons (minus recycle bin) on the far right, barely any quick launch apps (thanks to Launchy/Google Desktop) and I feel right at home....streamlined yet innovative.
Oh, current wallpaper (have to give props) is the Teocava sheep, in dual monitor form: http://www.dual-display.com/pages/posts/sheep9.php?p=30
I never use a background because of its performance impact!
I go a long time between views of the desktop as I work in various programs. Inevitably, the image data gets swapped out to disk while I consume memory for other purposes. When I eventually need to render the desktop again, Windows has to swap in 3200x1200x3 bytes of image data, which always seems to take about a year.
And on the subject of "desktop-as-a-workspace", who the heck works on one file, or a small number of files, at a time? Even if I'm doing something mundane like editing a document, I end up chasing images and charts across many directories. Spewing all of your working data onto a flat desktop strikes me as insane. Once I get down to real work in Visual Studio, the thought of trying to use the desktop as any kind of useful interface to the hundreds of relevant files is completely laughable. If your work maps to files on a desktop, it is either trivial or horribly organized.
Its good use of desktop space, if dialogs are big enough. But many dialogs are very tiny and not even resizable.
In Visual Studio 2005 there are news or such in the middle of the start page. I would like to hide the news so that I have a clear desktop in the studio. But I have not found a way to hide the news except by starting a project.
I always you something other than the default wallpaper for windows. It comes in handy when you have your desktop open and multiple virtual machines (VMWares) open at the same time. It can become confusing if your machine and the virtual machines have the same background and/or wallpaper. If mine is different, then I know at a quick glance if I am on my local machine or a virtual machine. So, I use the desktop wallpaper as a kind of marker to where I am.
Kashif: You could also create folders on your C:\InProgress like Important, Recent, Todo etc. Then you could drag shortcuts to those from the original files, that are located in the proper archiving folders through out your machine. That way all the files would be where they belong, but you could have shortcuts to them somewhere else than on your desktop so that you remember what you were doing.
I never see my desktop, because I do all my work, browsing, and command line work within emacs. My Desktop background is a message that says, "OMG! Emacs crashed!"