For something that you look at every day of your working life, your computer desktop doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. That's too bad, considering that the desktop can do a lot more than display wallpaper and hold shortcut icons. From widgets to workflows, from calendars to computer stats and beyond, you can do a whole lot on your desktop without manually starting up a single program. Hit the jump for our top 10 list of applications and tweaks that make your desktop a truly useful place to land.
10. Embed Text Files on Your Desktop with Samurize (Windows)
If you keep important information like tasks and project notes in plain text files, you can pin that information to your desktop automatically. Free Windows application Samurize can embed text files data right on your desktop behind any program windows, giving you at-a-glance access without having to launch a text editor. Here's a detailed tutorial on how to incorporate text files onto your desktop with Samurize. (Samurize includes support for system statistic widgets, too.) Linux users can get something similar with programs like gDesklets or Conky, or by embedding a terminal in their desktop with Compiz Fusion.
9. Monitor Your Mac with GeekTool (Mac OS X)
More than just the Mac equivalent of Samurize, GeekTool is a desktop overlay that helps you keep tabs on nearly anything that can be piped through your system terminal—text files, CPU and memory usage stats, a calendar display, a list of Google Calendar events for the day, or even dynamic graph images. And it's a great motivator to keep your desktop space tidy, to boot. Here's how to monitor your Mac and more with GeekTool.
8. Check Multiple Web Pages at Once with Dashboard Web Clips (Mac OS X Leopard)
Sports scores, web site stats, player widgets for Last.fm or Pandora—our commenters can think of many uses for OS X Leopard's Web Clips Dashboard feature. Use Safari to clip sections of web pages you want to add to Dashboard, and hit the F12 key to invoke a screen full of web page sections all in one look.
7. Embed Web Pages with Active Desktop (Windows XP)
Ahead of its time and awkwardly implemented at first, Active Desktop was born buggy in the Windows 95 era and kept out of Vista, but XP users can profit from a few intrepid web hackers' use of the ability to embed web pages right into your Windows desktop. For example, you can automatically keep Google Calendar on your desktop, keep web search boxes in your desktop corner, or use reader favourite Netvibes as a desktop background.
6. Reserve Desktop Areas with DesktopCoral (Windows)
The good software Samaritans at DonationCoder have turned out a number of great problem-solving applications, and DesktopCoral is no exception. Need to keep your browser or other apps from taking over a piece of screen real estate you want to keep clear for IM windows, email monitors or GTD apps? Fire up the app, define the area you don't want anything to expand over, and your maximise button becomes a little less overpowering. It's a great complement to nearly all of the Windows-based tricks cited in this list.
5. Google Desktop Gadgets and Yahoo! Widgets (Windows/Mac)
Gadgets and widgets are pretty much like the web itself—a great way to get things done, or get lost for hours in games, dancing babies, and Digg links. But you can also bring on the productivity with Outlook to-do lists and task timers in the Windows sidebar with Google Gadgets (or onto the Mac Dashboard). If you're more of a Yahoo devotee, we recommend the Informer Widget, an all-in-one wunderkind that integrates RSS monitoring, email notifications, system stats, Wi-Fi strength, and a good number of other info nuggets.
4. Get the Best Windows Vista Gadgets (Vista)
Like the aforementioned gadget engines cooked up by its competitors, Microsoft's own Vista Sidebar gadgets don't get a lot of respect, but there are a few standout tools for the taking. Save yourself a good number of Ctrl+C/Vs with a Clipboard History, get iPhone-like visual voicemail via CallWave, and, actually, turn a lot of Google or Yahoo gadgets into Sidebar items with free converter Amnesty Generator. Plus, it's built into the operating system, so upgrades automatic and no third party software's involved.
3. Add Your Outlook Calendar to the Desktop (Windows)
There's a reason desktop calendars—the mammoth, coffee-stain-collecting kind—have survived into this thoroughly digital age; regardless of all the work and minutiae piled up, you can get a feel for your day and beyond by looking down. Download Windows utility Outlook on the Desktop (original post) and you'll get a similar always-there planner for your computer screen, with an adjustably-transparent calendar laid over your desktop space.
2. Stretch Your Wallpaper Across Dual Monitors
Dual monitors boost your productivity by simple virtue of the fact that they offer more screen real estate to get things done, but let's get real—who doesn't want to show off their side-by-side screen setups? Grab a copy of DisplayFusion (original post), and easily split your epic/panoramic/super-cute wallpaper across two monitors. Here's more on how to make the most of your dual monitors, and our some of our favourite sources of free desktop wallpaper.
1. Arrange Windows with Hotkeys (Windows)
Sure, you could arc your mouse pointer around every time you want to resize or shuffle an application window around—or you could keep your hands on the keys and shuffle them around instantly, "Minority Report"-style. WinSplit Revolution (original post) assigns window movements to user-defined shortcuts, so you can swing a full-window Outlook to, say, your second monitor, shove Pidgin into the lower-right corner, and keep Firefox open in the upper-left.
What desktop improvements, plug-ins, or function-changing hacks help you get things done and enjoy your computing experience? Found a better version of the apps mentioned here? Share thoughts and links in the comments.