Most people use their operating system’s included file manager, but many geeks prefer third-party file managers. After all, Windows Explorer doesn’t offer tabs, a dual-pane interface, batch file-renaming tools, and more advanced features.
If you’re happy with your default file manager, that’s fine. These alternatives are really only useful if you’re craving a particular feature not found in your current file manager.
For as long as Windows Explorer has existed, Windows geeks have yearned for more features. There are many, many Windows Explorer alternatives out there. When installing them, be sure ot watch out for the junkware packed into their installers. The Windows software ecosystem is sick, and — in general — we hate recommending Windows software downloads for just this reason.
FreeCommander is a good option if you’re looking for tabs, a dual-pane interface, and all the other powerful features a Windows Explorer replacement can offer. Unlike many of the other available applications, it’s available entirely for free — although it isn’t open-source. You’re free to use it all you like, even for commercial purposes. No features are restricted to some sort of professional edition you have to pay for. Multi Commander is similar and also free.
Explorer++ is free and open-source, so it also won’t try to nag you for money or install junk onto your system. It includes tabs, a customizable user interface, file-filtering features, and can even run as a portable app without any installation. It offers a cleaner interview than Free Commander, but without the dual-pane view and some other powerful features. If all you want is a tabbed interface and a few other things, this is a great option
Other file manager replacements include Xplorer2, XYplorer, Directory Opus, and Total Commander. All of these programs offer paid editions they want you to purchase. There are free versions available for most of them — Xplorer2 Lite, XYplorer Free, and Directory Opus Light. They often lack many of the more powerful features found in the paid versions, but they’ll provide you with many of the features found in the paid versions.
Mac OS X
The Finder app included with Mac OS X does the basics, but it can certainly leave you wanting. As usual on Mac OS X, many of the alternative file-manager options available to you are generally paid software. You’ll have to shell out a few bucks to use them. On the bright side, this means that they see more development than many alternative Windows file managers, and their business model is selling software instead of trying to load your computer with crapware in their installers.
Cocoatech’s Path Finder is probably the most popular Finder replacement for Mac OS X, and we covered it as one of the best options if you want to merge folders on your Mac. It also includes a dual-pane interface and other powerful features. Developers in particular can get a lot of use out of its intergrated Git and Subeersion support, as well as easy access to a terminal.
Path Finder costs $40, but you can use the free 30-day trial to determine if you actually need all those fancy features.
If you want some of these advanced features — like a dual-pane interface — but don’t want to spend money on this type of program, try XtraFinder. It’a free application that adds features to the Finder, including a dual-pane interface, a copy queue, global hotkeys, and many new menu options. It doesn’t include nearly as many advanced features as Path Finder does, but most people don’t need all those bonus features. This could hit a good sweet spot for many people.
It’s hard to talk about alternative file managers for Linux, as every desktop environment tends to include its own unique file manager. These file managers also tend to see more development and often include advanced features you’d only find in alternative file managers on other operating systems. But, thanks to the modularity of the Linux desktop, you could actually run a different desktop environment’s file manager on your current desktop.
For example, GNOME and Ubuntu’s Unity desktop include the Nautilus file manager. KDE includes the Dolphin file manager, Xfce includes the Thunar file manager, and LXDE includes PCManFM. Each file manager has its own unique features — for example, Xfce’s Thunar file manager includes an integrated Bulk Rename tool for quickly batch-renaming files.
Every file manager tends to match its desktop environment in philosophy. For example, GNOME’s Nautilus file manager is shedding features with every release, chasing GNOME’s goal of simplicity and minimalism. Dolphin is more feature-heavy and uses the Qt toolkit instead of GNOME and Xfce’s GTK toolkit. Thunar, like Xfce itself, is a more minimal, barebones file manager that still has everything you need and gets the job done. Like LXDE itself, the PCManFM file manager offers a fairly minimal, lightweight interface.
Perform a search for “file manager” or something similar in your Linux distribution’s package management interface and you’ll find a lot of options.
So, do we think everyone needs to hunt down an alternative file manager? Not at all. We’ve usually been happy with the integrated file managers, which are there and get the job done if you don’t need anything special.
But lots of geeks do love their alternative file managers, and for good reason. They offer powerful features that can save you a lot of time if you need them.