Roundup of Functional File Managers

Last month, I reviewed Directory Opus, a fantastic file explorer that utilizes the two-pane view popularized by Norton Commander. It’s not the only file explorer that’s built around that feature. In this roundup, I look at four other file explorers that were also inspired by Norton Commander.

Orthodox File Managers

The ideas behind Norton Commander have been formalized into the concept of the Orthodox File Manager. These file managers have two panes and a command area. The command area is either an actual command line in the case of text-only programs, or buttons and menubars in the case of graphical equivalents. The two panes show different parts of the file system. This is convenient because one often wants to move or copy files between different parts of the filesystem, and Orthodox File Managers provide quick commands for doing this to selected files.

In this roundup, the first two programs are old-school text-only programs. Command line junkies should not be neglected. The other two are graphical.

Midnight Commander

This program is part of the GNU project and is thus, naturally, licensed under the GNU General Public License. The current version is 4.8.7 and can be downloaded from its project page at the GNU Foundation.

This is the most basic of the programs in this review. It is a text-only program that displays in the Windows command console. Resizing the console does not resize the program display. When I installed it, Midnight Commander did not even show the contents of directories. The website has not been updated since 2007. In short, this was a very weak showing from the GNU Project.

Open source advocates tout their development model as superior to that of closed source software. Failures like this need to be called out. If Midnight Commander is no longer a priority for the Free Software Foundation, then whoever own the project should publicly say so. Releasing non-functional software is bad for one’s reputation.

Far Manager

Far Manager is currently in its third version. It was originally written by Eugene Roshal, but is now maintained by the Far Group. Like Midnight Commander, it too, is text-only. Unlike the developers of Midnight Commander, the developers of Far Manager did something about the inadequacy of the Windows command console. They wrote a companion to Far, called ConEmu, a terminal emulator that is worth a review in its own right.

What sets Far Manager apart from most other Orthodox File Managers is the plugin support. Far Manager includes plugins for FTP, file archiving, and text editor support. Despite its text-only nature, the user interface can be customized to be pleasing to the eye and the plugin architecture has been expanded to include the .NET architecture. Among other things, this means that there is a plugin that can display pictures in the console window by using DirectX.

Far Manager is offered as freeware under a revised BSD license.

FreeCommander

Unlike the previous two programs, FreeCommander is a graphical program. Its current version is 2009.02b and is written by Marek Jasinski. It is freeware program under a proprietary license.

FreeCommander includes such features as FTP support, built-in compression (including 7Zip and RAR), multiple-file renaming, as well as such niceties as one-button access to the Control Panel, the Start Menu, and screenshots. One annoyance is that one must download help files separately and install them manually. I fail to see the benefit to this.

Total Commander

Total Commander, by Christian Ghisler of Ghisler Software GmbH, is currently at version 8.01. Like, FreeCommander, it is a graphical program. Unlike the other programs in this roundup it is shareware. It has a trial period of one month, after which it must be registered for $44.00 (depending on the exchange rate with the Swiss franc).

Although it is a graphical program rather than a text-only program, the interface of Total Commander resembles Far Manager and Midnight Commander more than that of an ordinary CUA-based application. The bottom of the window shows what commands are bound to the function keys. The menubar doesn’t match standard Windows conventions, either; for instance, there is no Edit menu. Fortunately, the online help is good and does not bring up a web page from the Internet when invoked.

Conclusion

After trying out these alternatives, I still prefer Directory Opus, but if I had to choose, I would go with FreeCommander. Like its name, it’s free, and it has a good selection of features. I give Far Manager an honorable mention because of the plugin architecture and extensibility.

Although I wouldn’t want to see Microsoft kill another category of software by embrace & extend, I wonder why Redmond hasn’t folded features of Orthodox File Managers into Windows Explorer. There’s a market for it. This software has been a cottage industry for more than twenty years. Until Microsoft changes its mind, we can enjoy the competition among the little players in this market niche.