Windows Explorer Alternatives

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2822, 2010-05-28, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 7-13) and their website.

For most people running Microsoft Windows on their PCs, one of the more frequently used applications is Windows Explorer, the default file manager for the operating system. It is a relatively capable application for finding, moving, deleting, and renaming files and folders. Yet like so many other applets built into the Windows operating system, it provides just enough functionality to be usable for most tasks, but it also has just enough limitations to prove very frustrating for some tasks. That's not to say that it isn't used on a daily basis by countless computer users the world over. However, even though it does the basic jobs flawlessly, there are lots of additional features that it is lacking.

Imagine that you have two files, and for some reason you need to know which one is larger. Let's say that Windows Explorer indicates that both files are "1 KB" (one kilobyte). So they appear to be the same size. But they might not be. The first one could consist of exactly 1024 bytes in total, while the second one could consist of only three bytes (which is the smallest size possible on a Windows file system, because at a minimum, a file must contain a carriage return, a newline character, and an end-of-file character). Windows Explorer rounds up to the nearest kilobyte, and provides you no option to change the file size reporting so that it will display file sizes in bytes instead of kilobytes.

Here's another example to consider: If you have two different folders containing what should be identical files, but you aren't completely certain, then you would want to compare them, to see if they have the exact same filenames, file sizes, and file contents. Or perhaps you know that there should be some differences in the files, and you want to see which ones are larger and which ones have been modified most recently. Obviously, it would be wonderful to be able to fire up Windows Explorer, split the screen into two separate panels, one for each folder, so you can quickly eyeball the differences between the two. That was a feature available way back in Windows 3.1, but was sadly dropped in later versions. Even if it were still present, you would only be able to compare last-modification dates, but not the exact file sizes, as explained in the previous paragraph.

Any PC veteran could provide other examples — both hypothetical and ones they have actually experienced — in which Windows Explorer's deficiencies proved to be a surefire source of frustration and wasted time. As a result, software developers have created dozens of programs designed to replace this venerable Microsoft program — not just providing the baseline features found within Windows Explorer, but adding so many more. The majority of Windows users probably won't try to seek out these alternatives, because they don't realize that Windows Explorer can be replaced. In this article, we will explore some of the free file managers.

A43

This first candidate may have a name that sounds like it came from Star Wars, but in terms of program price and footprint, this application is very much down to earth. A43 is, like all of the programs we will examine, free of charge, and yet quite capable. The Web page mentions that it offers an integrated text editor (no more fiddling with Windows Notepad!), file zipping and unzipping, file search (much better than Windows's native search), program quick launch, buttons for accessing favorite folders, and no installation required. That last feature is something that makes this program a great option for a USB thumb drive, because all of the program settings are stored on the removable media, which means that you can plug it into any PC and immediately start using A43, without having to install A43 on the computer's hard drive. In addition, it does not write changes to your Windows Registry, which, if it is anything like most users', is already bloated enough.

A43 interface
Figure 1. A43 interface

In terms of the examples mentioned earlier, A43 unfortunately does not apparently allow one to specify that file sizes be given in bytes, but does support a dual-pane view (using the non-obvious View > Splitter > Open/Close Splitter > FM Extra). Nonetheless, it has additional capabilities that Windows Explorer users can only dream of: narrow the list of files displayed by using edit masking (e.g., w* to only see files beginning with the letter 'w'); modify the date and time stamp of a single file or a group of files all at once; map folders to virtual drives; view files in hexadecimal format (handy for programmers who want to locate some text in an executable); and view images within the application, without having to start a separate dedicated application.

To install the program, simply unzip the downloaded file into the folder of your choice. At that point, you may want to create a shortcut to the executable file, A43.exe. As of this writing, the current stable version is 2.53, but the 3.0 beta 4 version is available for testing. The project welcomes donations, and currently has a forum in which users can post questions and feature suggestions to the developer of A43.

ExplorerXP

Among people who appreciate the advantages of shareware, ExplorerXP is one of the favorite choices for file and folder management, partly because it is free for noncommercial use, but more so because of its many features, several of which are listed on the homepage: multiple folders can be open at once, each in its own tab; toolbar access to all the major Windows folders (My Computer, Recycle Bin, My Documents, and the Desktop); drag and drop with Windows Explorer; rename multiple files at once; display folder sizes and folder size cache; merge and split files; advanced move and copy of files and folders; support for Unicode and USB devices; recursive deletion of files and folders that match patterns; organizing folders into groups; and configurable keyboard shortcuts.

ExplorerXP interface
Figure 2. ExplorerXP interface

This program has an attractive interface — more comprehensible and easily navigable than that of A43. It does include an option to open a DOS command prompt within the selected folder, but unfortunately there does not appear to be any way to customize that in order to execute a Windows batch file of your own (the way that one can do with a Windows Explorer shortcut in the Start menu). Installation is a snap, and the program runs equally fast. Yet there are a couple blemishes: Most Windows users quickly learn that the "+" icon is displayed in front of any folder name to indicate that it contains subfolders, which can be displayed by clicking the "+". For some reason, ExplorerXP displays them in front of all folder names, even those with no subfolders, which can be a bit disconcerting. As with so many shareware programs, including A43, ExplorerXP offers very meager help information — namely, just a table listing the keyboard shortcuts. But that is less of a problem with ExplorerXP, because the menu items and toolbar icons are generally easier to understand, and all of the latter category provide useful tool tips.

CubicExplorer

Judging by their file last-modified dates, both A43 and ExplorerXP have not been updated for years. That does not imply that they are inadequate, but they would not be your best choice if you are looking for a program that is enjoying current fixes and enhancements. If that is what you seek, then consider CubicExplorer, which benefits from continual improvements, as well as explanatory blog entries on the website.

CubicExplorer interface
Figure 3. CubicExplorer interface

Years ago, CubicExplorer (CE) was not receiving high marks from industry pundits or users, but now it is turning heads, largely because of its extensive feature list: a clean interface, tabbed browsing, file search with file masking patterns, image gallery and previews, bookmarks, free disk space labels, thumbnails, a built-in text editor, empty Recycle Bin button, multilingual support, toolbar customization, direct access to Windows's display settings, native video playback, and many themes to choose from to change its appearance.

FreeCommander

Of all the freeware and shareware file utilities for Windows, FreeCommander may have the most impressive list of capabilities: move, copy, delete (even secure wiping), and rename files and folders; rename multiple files; tabbed interface; dual-panel viewing (horizontal and vertical); tree view for each panel (optional); file filters for display; built-in file viewer (in text, binary, hexadecimal, and image format); archive handling (ZIP, CAB, RAR formats); file viewer in archive files; nested archive handling; file searching (inside archives, too); uploading and downloading of files using FTP; access to system folders, Control Panel, desktop and Start Menu; file properties and context menu; file splitting; folder sizes; folder comparison and synchronization; modification of file timestamps and attributes; favorite folders and programs; user-defined columns for detailed view; DOS command line; multiple language support; and many more.

FreeCommander interface
Figure 4. FreeCommander interface

Admittedly, a laundry list of features do not necessarily mean that a particular application is the best one for you in the long run. But that's one of the great things about free software: you can try it, at no risk, with no time limits. If you later find a superior replacement, you may have lost a few hours trying out your first choice (and perhaps a few nerves as well, if it proved quite dissatisfactory); but at least you didn't lose any money.

Windows Explorer hasn't changed much over the years. But you always have the opportunity to make a change, and switch to a better file manager.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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