June 9, 2008

Beesoft Commander: An old school file manager on the modern desktop

Author: Bruce Byfield

Although the last release of Norton Commander, the famous file manager for DOS, was a decade ago, its legacy lives on in dozens of clones on every operating system imaginable. On GNU/Linux, one of the most popular clones is Beesoft Commander (BSC). Although designed for the desktop and built with a recent version of the Qt libraries, BSC, like Norton Commander, remains a file manager built mainly for the keyboard. As a centralized tool for file operations, it offers a degree of convenience that makes it worth learning, especially if most of your work involves source code, HTML, or other plain text files.

The stable version of BSC is 2.27, and it's available from the repositories of many major distributions. Beta version 4.0.06 is also available from the project's download page, but if you try it, expect to see some blank dialogs, especially in System -> Configure.

The interface

In the tradition of Norton Commander, BSC displays two panes, each with the contents of a directory. By default, it displays detailed information about each file or folder: its extension, permissions, and size, the date and time it was last saved, and its owner and group. At the bottom of each pane, BSC displays the number of directories and files in each pane, as well as the number of currently selected items.

BSC supports full mouse functions in KDE, but not in any other desktop. In GNOME, for example, BSC does not support any dragging and dropping of directories or files between its panes and the desktop. Nor can you click the list of function buttons at the bottom of the window. Outside of KDE, BSC is aware of the mouse, but only to a limited extent. You can select files with the mouse, but the dialogs for basic operations are accessible only via function keys, even though you can use a mouse to navigate them.

These limitations are less of a problem than you might think. Even in KDE, the function buttons steer you strongly in the direction of using the keyboard. Similarly, although BSC has menus for configuration and advanced features, about half of the advanced features -- mostly those for file manipulation -- also have keyboard shortcuts. The expectation implicit in the design is that you will do most of your file management with both hands on the keyboard. The mouse compatibility seems largely an afterthought. To get the most from the application, you should press the F1 key and spend some time memorizing the key combinations.

Configuring BSC

By default, BSC uses what it calls "NC Selection mode." If, like me, you have no memory of how you selected files from the display in Norton Commander, one of the first things you might want to do is to go to the System menu and change to KDE Selection mode, which allows you to select files in the way you might expect, by holding down the Shift key when selecting the start and end points for a range of files, and the Ctrl key when selecting multiple files.

You might also want to change the font and background color for the panes and the function buttons from System -> Configure. From the same item, you can also edit the default terminal to use with BSC. The dialog also includes a tab for extensions, but it is not implemented in the latest stable version, although it appears to be in the beta of the development version.

If you are opening BSC for a long session, another option is to expand the functionality of the two panes by adding tabs to them from Operations -> Create new tab. Unfortunately, though, new tabs are not persistent, so you have to recreate them each time you start BSC.

Using BSC

For basic file management in BSC, you select a file, followed by one of the function keys, and do your work in a dialog. Function keys include Access (Permissions), View, Edit, Copy, Rename, Mkdir (Make Directory), Delete, and Pack (Archive). Since there is no dialog for selecting the programs with which to open files with particular extensions, you can view and edit only plain text files.

By default, BSC does not show hidden directories, so you may want to select System -> File filter to display. Alternatively, you can select Operations -> Select files via mask to have all files that fit a search pattern automatically highlighted. You can combine this feature with Reverse selections if necessary.

The more advanced file management features tucked away in the menu allow you to compare files and to synchronize directories. However, like the view and edit functions, these feature are useful only with plain files. They seem intended largely for developers.

Still other features in the menu include the ability to create MD5 control files, check a file against an MD5 control, or to view a list of disk partitions and a summary of RAM and memory for your computer. An especially useful function is the ability to use BSC as an FTP client, logging on to remote directories.

The audience for BSC

Despite its nod the modern world of mouse-driven desktops, BSC is an old-school program, both in its operation and in its effort to put all file-related matters into a single program. In this second aim, it is not complete, since it has neither the Web-browsing ability of Konqueror nor the DVD-burning abilities of Nautilus. Still, there is a refreshing simplicity in using the same tool for file management, archiving, and FTP.

BSC could hardly be called a modern program, but I suspect that is the point. Its design looks back to an earlier day when the mouse was not the main input device, and computer users could be counted on to make some effort to learn an application. These ideas are not popular today, but, for some, they still have validity.

Take the time to learn to use BSC and its efficiency could easily win you over. Anyone trying to ease repetitive strain injuries caused by the mouse might find it especially worth investigating.

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