December 19, 2006

A survey of Linux file managers

Author: Bruce Byfield

Linux file manager ontogeny encapsulates the history of GNU/Linux. File managers began as command-line and generic graphical tools and progressed to desktop-specific ones, gaining sophistication along the way, with mouse controls, for example, replacing buttons. Today, the more than a dozen options highlighted here will suit users with widely varied interests.

Many modern file managers no longer try to be an all-in-one application for everything from copying files to archiving them. In some circles, file managers even seem to be considered obsolete, judging from the fact that many distributions no longer include one on the desktop, and some users seem to prefer search tools like Beagle to organizing their files into directories. However, even the oldest file manager remains useful, and may work better than newer options for some users, depending on their preferences in matters such as the relative advantages of keybindings versus mouse clicks.

Command-line choices

Using a command-line file manager is like stepping back in time. Most of them are based on Norton Commander, the old DOS standby. Both Midnight Commander and FD Clone display two panels and use either the function keys or keybindings to manipulate selected files. Midnight Commander even goes so far as to borrow the Norton Commander's blue and cyan color scheme.

Command-line file managers not only pack considerable functionality into small programs, but also frequently include functions not found in many desktop file managers, such as as an FTP client and advanced sorting options. They are particularly apt to support a full set of keybindings; vifm even goes so far as to borrow vi keybindings. Even if you spend most of your time on the desktop, you should probably familiarize yourself with one command-line file manager for the rare time you need it. Fortunately, that's not hard to do.

Generic graphical choices

In large, long-established distributions such as Debian, you can find packages for as many as a dozen file managers designed for the X Window System or Unix-like operating systems, rather than for a specific window manager or desktop or for GNU/Linux in particular. Some, such as the Desktop File Manager (DFM), are reminiscent of the modern spatial view in GNOME. However, to a modern user, many of these choices look painfully obsolete, with no drag-and-drop support, anti-aliased fonts, or CUPS printing. The Gentoo file manager (not to be confused with the distribution of the same name) supports only ASCII characters, and is unable to sort some of the characters in a modern UTF-8 locale.

Most of the available generic file managers are more or less direct transitions from command-line counterparts. Many, such as emelfm, support keybindings as well as their command-line equivalents, while others, such as FileRunner and Worker, include a formidable range of options via buttons. The main difference between these programs and their command-line counterparts is that the generic file managers include history, bookmarks, MIME recognition -- although, in some cases, by manual configuration -- and a greater variety of views of directory listings and file attributes.

The generic file managers reflect the needs of GNU/Linux users at the time they were first written seven or eight years ago, with built-in options for such commands as diff, mount, and symlink -- features that more recent file managers often have dropped. One especially thorough choice is TkDesk, which, in addition to offering both a tree view and two additional panes, also includes a configurable floating window for commonly used applications. In general, the geekier and less mouse-dependent that you are, the more likely you are to appreciate these applications.

Desktop environment choices

Most users are familiar with the file managers that come with their desktop environments: Konqueror for KDE and Nautilus for GNOME. Less well-known is Thunar, which is designed specifically for Xfce, but is responsive enough that users of other desktops may appreciate it.

Konqueror is not exactly a thing of beauty, especially in icon view, where file names are often truncated to the point of unreadability with the default settings. However, in Detailed List View, which includes a full list of file attributes, it becomes serviceable, if sometimes inclined to stall when doing multi-gigabyte file transfers. Many will appreciate its extensive keybindings. However, Konqueror's main strengths are not as a file manager but as a Web browser and a file viewer.

At any rate, Konqueror is preferable to Nautilus, which began as buggy and has improved only slowly. Although Nautilus' stability is no longer an issue, as it was in its initial releases, its default spatial view is. This view, chosen to simplify the average user's view of the hard drive, shows only the current user's desktop and home directory as a selection of icons. Even worse, in this view, the directory tree that has been a mainstay of file managers from the earliest days of computing is awkwardly reduced to a combo box in the lower left of the window. Like Konqueror, Nautilus is useful as a file viewer, but as a file manager, it is tolerable only in browser mode, which uses one pane for the directory tree and is only available from System Tools -> File Browser. Yet even in browser mode, the default view is of the home directory, with a separate entry on the tree for the entire filesystem.

With the general shift away from file managers as a central point for file manipulation, many users get by with Konqueror or Nautilus with few complaints. Still, alternatives do exist.

One of these alternatives is Dolphin, a KDE application currently at its 0.70 release. Dolphin focuses only on file management, with few of the other purposes that tend to clutter Konqueror's and Nautilus' menus and tool bars. The advantages of this focus can be seen in Dolphin's speed and ability to handle large file transfers. Although it so far lacks a tree view, users can improvise one by pressing F9 for a split view, then selecting the Previews view mode for one of the resulting panes.

By far the most promising file manager for the desktop is a KDE application called Krusader. With its use of function keys and its ability to call external applications as needed, Krusader looks more like a direct descendant of the Norton Commander clones than other modern file managers. With its abilities to search archives, compress files in a variety of formats, encrypt, and show disk usage in a chart in a separate window, Krusader is easily the most powerful file manager for the modern desktop. Its main drawback is that too many functions are dumped into the Useractions menu, although some users may also dislike the fact that it displays selected files in separate windows rather than existing panes.

Choosing file managers

The selection of a file manager is a highly personal decision. For most users, Midnight Commander is probably the command-line choice that is quickest to learn. Few users will want to use one of the generic file managers unless they are already familiar with it from another Unix-like operating system. Of the modern file managers, Konqueror the most satisfactory -- so much so that otherwise dedicated GNOME users have been known to install KDE mainly so that they can use it.

However, for those who have always relied on file managers, the first choice has to be Krusader. Combining the centralized functionality of earlier generations with the look and feel of modern applications, Krusader is by far the most complete of the file managers I've mentioned.

Depending on your priorities, you might settle on another choice, but it's worth taking the time to explore your options. For many users, the choice of a file manager remains nearly as important as the choice of an editor is to a developer. A file manager can't force you to organize your files, but the right one can help you keep them that way.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

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