Extending Windows Explorer with TabExplorer

Windows Explorer does a basic job for Windows pretty well. But when using it, you can’t feel but that it’s a bit under featured. In the common situation where I’m working with more than one folder at the same time, I have to manage a separate Explorer window for each folder. That was once the normal state for applications, but lately application designers have begun bundling similar tasks into a single window.

Multi-document interfaces date back to the early days of Windows, but became very popular when adopted by many popular web browsers several years ago. The native Windows Explorer application hasn’t followed this pattern so for actions such as dragging files from one folder to another you must keep separate windows open. Will TabExplorer improve your computing experience? Let’s find out!

Editor’s Note: Often, an app is interesting enough to warrant multiple, different perspectives on its functionality and usability. Last week, you read Mark’s take on TabExplorer. This week, we’re going to take another look at it!

Using multiple tabs makes any file operation requiring going back and forth between separate folders faster. It also feels easier to keep track of multiple tabs compared to multiple windows. There’s no need to wait for Microsoft to change the design or look for complete replacements for Explorer.

Several program add tabs to Windows Explorer without replacing it. This gives you the comfortable interface and compatibility of Explorer with the convenience of tabs. One freeware program that adds this feature to Explorer is TabExplorer. Is it a solution to adding tabs to Explorer?

TabExplorer Features

TabExplorer Configuration

Configuration Options for TabExplorer

After installing TabExplorer you’ll be presented with a window to set options for the program. The first option lets you turn the program on and off. The ability to turn off the program might seem like a small item, but turning the program off without uninstalling is valuable if you find it conflicts with another tool.

You can also choose to run the program automatically on startup. You can choose if you want the settings to show on startup and can always access it later through the tray icon. TabExplorer also gives There is also an option to activate a mode for touch screen which I did not test as I did not have a device with a touchscreen while testing the program.

TabExplorer with Multiple Tabs Open

TabExplorer with Multiple Tabs Open

If you open an Explorer window once TabExplorer is running, you’ll notice a tab at the top of the Explorer window For each window you open you’ll see a tab. TabExplorer leaves each window separate and you can Alt-Tab between them as you did before. In fact it appears to work by gathering and stacking the separate explorer windows on top of each other and showing whichever you select.

If you don’t select the multicolor option then all tabs except the current one are a single color. With the multicolor option each tab will take on a different color making them more visually distinct. Also since it captures all Explorer windows, windows such as the Control Panel and Control Panel settings will also appear as tabs. Each tab can be closed by clicking on the small ‘x’ icon in the right corner and a new tab can be opened by clicking the small blank tab to the right of the tabs representing your open windows.

More Than Just Tabs

TabExplorer Popup

A Context Menu Gives Additional Features When TabExplorer is Running

If you right click on one of the tabs, you’ll see a few additional useful features TabExplorer adds. The first set of options allow you to manage the tabbed environment. From the popup menu you can open a new tab. You can also clone a tab, which creates a new tab at the same folder as the tab you’ve selected. You can also pin a tab, which protects it from being closed by clicking on the x to close it. The menu also allows you to rename a tab. This gives it a persistent name that remains until you close the tab regardless of which folder the windows is set to.

If you’re using many folders at one time, then naming them according to task instead of location can be quite handy. For example if dealing with two folders named source, you could rename one to “old source” to make it easier to remember what lies in each folder. There are also multiple options for closing tabs allowing you to close the selected tab, closing all tabs other than the selected one, closing tabs to the right or left of the current tab, and closing all tabs which closes the window too.

TabExplorer also keeps track of recently closed tabs and can reopen them which saves time when you close a tab before you meant to or realize that you weren’t done working in one folder. There is also an option to clear the history of closed tabs. TabExplorer also will allow you to set the Windows Explorer topmost which will keep it above other windows that you open.

A final couple of handy options are the ability to open a command prompt in the current folder. You can also copy the name of the folder or the path to the folder to the Windows clipboard. The tabs themselves can be dragged to re-order them.

Weaknesses

While TabExplorer works well, some things could be improved. While the program does track recently closed tabs, it does not remember these after all Explorer windows are closed. For a program targeted toward experienced and power users, there are few keyboard shortcuts. You can press Ctrl+W to close the current tab, but no keyboard shortcuts work to open new tabs or changing between tabs. I would like to see more shortcuts for the the many other options and features in the program.

TabExplorer works by capturing every Explorer window that opens and stacking them. The result is often flickering when opening a new window as the window opens and then snaps to the tabbed window. There is no way to pull a tab to a separate window. There are also a few rough edges in the tab implementation. Pinning a tab will prevent you from clicking and closing it as the pin replaces the close link, but you can still close a pinned tab by using the Ctrl-W keyboard shortcut. Since each Explorer window still exists, clicking the Explorer close button will have the effect of only closing the current tab.

Conclusion

Adding tabs is such a useful feature you wonder why Microsoft hasn’t built the feature into Windows Explorer. As often is the case, other developers have stepped up to add the missing functionality. TabExplorer has a few inconsistencies and minor bugs, but overall does the job of adding tabs quite well.

While not as pretty as some other tools, the program is very stable and I didn’t see a single error or crash after using it for more than a week on several Windows 7 computers. Overall if you’re looking for a free way to add tabs to Windows Explorer, give TabExplorer a try.


Summary

Lightweight and stable application that adds tabbed interface to Windows Explorer.

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