The idea of tabbed program interfaces is far from new – it is something that has been present in web browsers and numerous other applications for many years now. It’s a great alternative to having to work with multiple window for the same program, and makes it easier to switch between documents and views than using menus.
But strangely, tabs are something that have not really made their way into Windows itself. While Internet Explorer is adorned with tabs, the same cannot be said of Windows Explorer. That is, until you install the free utility TabExplorer.
Introducing the App
You can grab yourself a free copy of the program from the iWesoft web site and it does not matter which version of Windows you’re using as TabExplorer is compatible with everything from Window XP and 2000 upwards. The installation itself takes mere moments and on first launch you will be greeted by the set up wizard. This simple configuration screen comprises nothing more than three check boxes to start with.
The first thing to do is to tick the Enable Tab Explorer option, and this does exactly what you would expect. As you’ll almost certainly want to have the tool available at all times, you should also tick the ‘Auto Run on system startup’ box so that it will start automatically with Windows. Left with just these options enabled the setup wizard will be displayed every time TabExplorer starts when you turn on your computer. This can be prevented from happening by ticking the bottom box as it’s not something you’ll want to see every time you restart.
Switch to an open Explorer window, or launch it from the Start menu if necessary, and you’ll see that a row of tabs appear above the title bar. If you have more than one Explorer window open, each of these will be represented by a tab and you now have another way to switch between windows. TabExplorer works like an add-on rather than fully integrating into Windows so you’ll find that you still see multiple taskbar buttons that you can use for switching, but the tabs also serve this purpose.
This is how things appear when you have Explorer in windowed mode, and there is a slightly different appearance when you maximize a window. When you work with Explorer at full screen, the tabs feel better integrated thanks to the fact that they appear in the title bar rather than above it. The movement of the tabs between these two positions takes a little getting used to, and it probably would have been better if the title bar location had be made the default.
One of the best uses of tabs is when you are copying or moving files from one folder to another. You can have the source folder open in one tab and the destination in another. To copy from one to the other you can drag files from the source folder to the tab relating to the destination folder and this will bring the folder into focus ready for the files to be dropped into place.
Just as with tabbed browsing in Firefox et al, moving between tabs (or windows) take just a click and open a new tab is made simple due to the fact that there is a dedicated button at the end of the tab bar. Click this button and a new tab will appear at the default location, but there are more options available by right clicking any of the tabs.
There are web browser style options such as the ability to open a new tab, close all open tabs, close all but the current tab, close all tabs to the left, or all to the right. These quick close option come in very useful when working with a number of folders at the same time. Other options that mimic web browsers include the ability to re-open closed tabs, pin tabs you don’t want to accidentally close, create clones of existing tabs, rename for easer identification and more.
On the subject of tab identification, you may want to enable the Rainbow Tab option to color each tab so that it stands out and can be more easily differentiated from its neighbours. Despite the name, TabExplorer is about more than just tabs; the right click menu includes a number of additional settings such as control over windows transparency, window positioning and more.
Where It Fails
The idea of TabExplorer is sound, but in practice it delivers far less than it promises. To some extent, tabs are useful and can be quickly navigated. While there are many comparisons that can be made with browser tabs, there are jarring differences such as a lack of support for familiar keyboard shortcuts. Rather irritatingly, it is not possible to have separate Explorer windows open that have different tabs. Any open windows appear as tab in an Explorer window you look at.
Looks-wise, the program could have been far better integrated into Windows. As it stands, it feels tacked on and the fact that tabs disappear momentarily when moving windows around the screen is a little disorienting. The lack of integration with Windows means that when multiple Explorer windows are open, even though they can be accessed through tabs, they are still treated as entirely separate entities and therefore appear individual as you Alt-Tab through running programs.
TabExplorer may seem slightly gimmicky at first, it’s the type of utility that grows on you. You might imagine that it would be something that would be an immediate boost to productivity, but in all likelihood you’ll find that it takes a little getting used to.
It is not going to revolutionize the way you interact with your files, but in some circumstances you may find that it speeds up some operations and provides a number of helpful options.