By Michael M. MurphreeÂ¬â€
I tested these utilities on a Debian-based system. Debian’s apt utilities made it easy to find and install a dozen file managers in about 15 minutes. I found filers for the console, for X Windows, and even a few with their own desktop managers. All provided the simple cut, paste, and copy capabilities I expected; but each also provided little extras that I didn’t.
Console-based file managers
I tested three file managers that operate at console. Older systems, Telnet sessions, and serial connections benefit greatly from applications that don’t require X environments. Servers often boot to run level 3, which provides no X display, but a good file manager can be crucial to administration. I simply prefer the console, whenever I can use it. Whatever the reason, a good ASCII or curses-based file manager can make life easier for you.
FDclone is a Japanese clone of FD, a filemanager for DOS. According to its home page, FD is so popular inJapan that it has become synonymous with “file manager.” It tookme some time to warm up to FDclone, most of which was spent lookingfor a help button. Failing to find one, I pored over the man page, which wasnot as helpful as I would have liked. Then on a hunch I typed a question mark, which was in fact the help key. Then I was impressed.
FDclone’s default layout seemed strange at first. Instead of scrolling alphabetically off the bottom of the display, the file list wraps to the top of the next column, more like a magazine article than the terminal output that I’d expected. Still, the application offers many nice features. Keys 1 through 5 break the display into one to five columns, with file information decreasing to accommodate the smaller column width. FDclone can display the contents of .tar, .zip, .tar.gz, .rpm, and many other archives, and includes support for user-defined types. FDclone also supports recursive searches. Ifyou’re looking for a small and fast file manager with single-key access to many functions, FDclone is worth looking at.
Midnight Commander is one of thebest-known console file managers, and was the most powerful and flexible one I tested. Midnight Commander allows you to view two directories, a directory with file attributes, or a directory and file preview at the same time. On curses-based systems file types and permissions are shown by color, but you can specify “slow” and “ASCII-only” display modes from the command line. These are especially valuable for slow connections and on very old systems. Midnight Commander’s help system is well-written, and invaluable, as Ctrl and Alt key combinations make up the bulk of functions. Pull-down menus are also available, and some functions are mapped to function keys, as listed at the bottom of the display.
Midnight Commander supports FTP, console mouse, and file undeletion (on ext2 filesystems only). It is such a popular file manager that many versions are available for both the console and X Windows. It is the only console file manager tested that supports FTP sessions. It is very flexible, with many configuration options accessible from the pull-down menu. Midnight Commander’s consistency between console and X file managers is a strong asset if you’d rather not learn two file managers, or run a console application in an xterm window.
I am a vi zealot, so I was thrilled to find vifm, a file manager that caters to that zealotry. Since most of the vi keystrokes have become second nature to me, navigating vifm was almost second nature as well. Vifm lets you cut with dd, paste with p, and rename a file with cw. Movement keys are the standard hjkl, with h and l ascending and descending the directory tree. The right panel toggles between a display of a second directory and file properties. You can call shell commands from the command line with :!, with %f and %F corresponding to highlighted files in the left and right pane. Vifm also mirrors its treatment of bookmarks, visual file selection, and user-defined macros from vi. Most importantly, :help opens an extensive help file with more options.
Like Midnight Commander vifm displays file properties by color, and it can set permissions and ownership; unlike Midnight Commander it does not offer file preview, although pressing Enter or l on a file will open it in vi. :apropos brings up a menu of all matching man pages, from which you can invoke man for the selected entry.
If you like vi, you should try vifm. You’ll find that it opens and responds quickly, no matter how old the system on which it’s running. While it couldn’t be more different from Windows’ filer.exe, to me it’s much more comfortable.
GUI-based file managers
You probably spend most of your computing time in the graphical user interface. That being the case, it would be a waste of resources not to takeadvantage of the GUI for your file management, especially if you’renot as comfortable at the command line.
X File Explorer
XFE, the X File Explorer, comes up fast. By default it presents a traditional tree view on the left and file panel on the right, but three other modes are available — two panels, tree and two panels, or a single panel. Open With and Associate options are available from the right-click menu. Although it does not have a lot of the advanced features of Konqueror or Nautilus, it should be more than sufficient for the average user. Its speed and familiarity make it a good choice for older systems, newer users, or those of us who’d run filer.exe under Wine if it could handle file permissions.
FileRunner is a basic two-panel file manager. You can access almost all of its functions through the scrolling button bar down the center. It’s a nice application for users who may not be very familiar with linked files, file permissions, or ownership. Those same users, however, might have trouble with configuration.
FileRunner is highly configurable, but the configuration browser is basically a front end for editing the ~/.fr/config file. Some knowledge of bash command syntax is helpful in using it, though every option is well-documented with examples. FileRunner alsohandles FTP transfers, proxy configuration, and logging. One of thenicer features is the “foreach” button, which will perform thespecified command on each highlighted file. You can also open acommand line and resizable output box for each panel. FileRunner issimple enough for a new user, with enough options and examples to bean interesting and informative learning tool as well.
Gentoo is one of the most popular X-based filemangers. (While it shares a name with a popular Linux distribution, the two are not related.) Gentoo utilizes the same two-pane layout as FileRunner, buthas icon associations for most file extensions. Gentoo also relieson a button bar, located below the file panes, for mostoperations, but each button may have a secondary function, accessedfrom the middle mouse button. A second, smaller button bar to theleft provides shortcuts to specific directories. Overall, gentoo ismuch more GUI-friendly than FileRunner. The configuration menu isless extensive, but you can change options with the mouse. Gentooalso provides click-to-sort functionality in the file panes, mountand unmount capabilities, and display of file permissions by color. You can add and edit buttons and give them a specific color andtool tip. Gentoo is a good, simple, powerful all-around filemanager.
GNOME Commander offers a much smaller footprint and a more polished GUI than do FileRunner and gentoo. Itprovides the more typical tool bar and menu system, in addition tomapping buttons to each function key. It also provides a commandhistory, capacity for multiple predefined FTP sessions, and filesearch. The most interesting feature that I found was the advancedrename tool, which allows you to quickly rename multiple files usingregular expressions, counters, and case matching. I was disappointedthat the user manual did not install properly, particularly sincekey combinations did not match those for Midnight Commander.It still struck me a a compact, polished file manager, especially suitable for those running the GNOME desktop.
If, on the other hand, you live in KDE land, you should try Krusader, which was by far the “prettiest” file manager I tested, but also the slowest. Like most KDEapps, it assumes that the KDE DCOP server is running. If it’s not, Krusader maytake a while to load. While it does not take as long as Konqueror,it may be too long a wait if you’re on an older system.
Once started, however, Krusader is impressive. While Konqueror provides a good, basic file management profile, Krusader goes far beyond it in terms of utility. It not only features thestandard dual panel, but each panel can be tabbed. In addition eachtabbed panel also can open a pop-up panel with file preview, quickselect utility, or yet another file pane.
Like GNOME Commander’s, the help file for Krusader also failed install on either of my test systems.
Krusader is a very large, very powerful file manager. Theinterface is pleasant, and its appearance is the most polished ofthe file managers I tested. Unlike Konqueror, Krusader is designed specifically for file management, and its capabilities in that area far exceed those of Konqueror. If you are a KDE user who needs to manage the contents of your home directory, Konqueror may be all the file manager you’ll ever need. If you find Konqueror to be too limited for your needs, Krusader will almost certainly fill them.
Worker is similar to FileRunner andgentoo, but it looks geekier. That might be because of its smaller footprint, crisp fonts, or bold colors, but it’s probably the buttons — rowsand rows of buttons. Most have more than one function, depending onthe mouse button with which you click them. There are multiplebanks of buttons grouped by task. Some of the best functions arehidden in plain sight, like the tiny little “c” in the upper leftcorner that accesses all the configuration elements — tons of them.You can access alternate banks of buttons by clicking thestatus bar.
Worker is fun to explore, and it makes you look like aguru just for using it. Tip — if you’d rather not spend hours todiscover its little extras, Worker has a very nice quick-start document in/usr/share/doc; you won’t find help from the GUI.
Worker is a file manager for somebody who cares most about getting a job done, and getting an application configured “just right.”
Desktop file managers
Three of the file managers I found are packaged with their own desktopmanager or application launcher. Because of their low overhead compared to the likes of GNOME and KDE, these all-in-one file managers leave more of your system resources available for applications. In addition, new users may find their simplicity of use reassuring. Power users may simply enjoy having a small and efficient interface.
Desktop File Manager
Desktop File Manager is a whole desktop solution,providing desktop icons for folders and applications. Icons can bedragged to the desktop from the file manger, or created through theright mouse button menu. The file manager is a single-pane window. DFM can set wallpaper, and can mount and unmount directories. It canbe used to modify file permissions and ownerships, and also to set adefault file editor. It is not a complex or extremely powerful filemanager, but DFM is an excellent choice for a new user.
TKDesk is a minimal desktop manager that comes up quickly. It starts with three panels, the leftmostcontaining a file list. Selecting a directory from a panel causesits contents to be displayed in the next panel to the right. As youdescend directories, TKDesk creates panels and moves previous ones to the left and off the window. Right-clicking any file or directory brings up anextensive options menu. Options include Edit, Tar, Place on Desktop,and Info. From the info window you can change ownership andpermissions or annotate a file. Annotated files are displayed asunderlined. TKDesk supports RCS version control. Its includedapplication bar is highly configurable, through modification of anASCII configuration file.
ROX-Filer is available as a standalone file manager,or with ROX-Session and OrboRox. It is asingle-pane file manager with a simple button bar along the top. ROX-Filer displays file type icons and thumbnail views. Alloperations are selected by right-click menu. Operations includemultiple sort criteria, a “find if…” panel for file searching,and ownership and permissions editing. If you are managing graphicimage files, ROX-Filer is a good standalonefile manager. If you are looking for a GNOME or KDE replacement, try ROX-Filer with ROX-Session, a session manager that loads and runs programs. ROX isavailable through the zero-install system, which makes it worth investigating as a thin client application aswell.
Which of these file managers was my favorite? After trying out all of them, I settled on vifm. It now seems like an old friend who’s learned a thing or two. See if one of these applications may be a good friend to you.
Mike Murphree is an administrator of Unix Servers and Linux high-performance computational clusters. He has been a Linux user since Red Hat 5.0, and currently maintains Red Hat, Gentoo, and Debian systems. He is certified by the Linux Professionals Institute (Level one).