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Article

Favorite minimalist file managers

Brief looks at file managers our hero and readers like most

(LinuxWorld) -- A surprising number of you seem to like minimalist window managers. According to your mail, you have different reasons for using them, however. Some of you don't go for the point-and-click-everything approach to computing advanced by GNOME, KDE, and similar desktop environments and window managers. Others simply don't have the horsepower required for GNOME and KDE, or even when they do, they don't want the CPU and memory resources wasted on a desktop.

When you give up GNOME and KDE for simpler tools like Ion, Pwm, and other minimalist window managers, you sometimes have to give up a few good things about GNOME and KDE along with the bad. The two features people seem to miss are launchers and desktop file managers. Launchers are easy to replace. Even the light window managers like Icewm and Fvwm include program launchers, and most of the rest of the window managers let you click on the desktop (called the root window in X11 terms) to bring up a launch menu.

File managers are relatively easy to replace, too, but not quite the same way. Before I get to the details, I plan to seize yet another opportunity to indulge in a couple of rants.

Rant No. 1: Why don't computers organize things automatically?

First, why aren't file managers obsolete by now? Computers are ideal for organizing things automatically. So why do we spend so much time organizing our files manually? It is possible that this problem is too complex to solve, although I find that notion a bit difficult to swallow, given that I've solved similar problems in database management. I suspect it is simply too boring to solve, and the progress is stifled by historically entrenched but inadequate file systems. I also wonder if the fact that many people are used to managing files manually makes it too easy to ignore.

Rant No. 2: Why the folder metaphor is stupid

It should be obvious by now that folder and icon-based file management is fundamentally flawed. The OS/2 Workplace Shell was the most powerful expression of this desktop metaphor. Once you got used to using the right mouse button to move icons (or "alternate" mouse button for your lefties), drag-and-drop operations were extremely intuitive. Folders were objects with properties that actually meant something more significant than which background picture to display. You could set a folder so that when you open it, OS/2 would automatically open all of the documents contained within that folder.

Here are the most telling things about this advanced desktop power. IBM extended the auto-open feature of folders to make it ridiculously easy to organize, edit, launch, and debug C++ projects. I would argue that the result was far more intuitive than any integrated development environment ever created. Yet the product flopped.

The KDE file manager, Konqueror (which is also the browser, among other things), is also extremely powerful. I love its most advanced features, such as the ability to open windowpanes but link only some of them so that changes in one are reflect in another. However, I never use these features. They're more trouble than they are worth. I know of many people who agree. Why do we continue to adopt this folder and icon metaphor for nearly every supposedly easy-to-use file manager?

I found a new storage metaphor called "Lifestreams" to be a promising alternative, but it obviously wasn't promising enough to go anywhere because I couldn't find any evidence on the Web that it still survives as a project. Lifestreams was a time-oriented stream of document desktop presentation that you could browse easily. It's hard to describe better than that in few words, so if you want a good idea of what it was all about, check the reference section for a link to a paper about the project.

For Icon-oclasts

Given that we don't have an innovative solution to file management or an original idea for a user interface that beats the folder and icon desktop metaphor, what options are available to those who like minimalist window managers? Far too many to list here. If you want a reasonably complete list, go to freshmeat.net and use search terms like file manager. Even if you weed through the false positives, that leaves countless programs you can use to organize your files.

If you're stuck on the icon and folder approach, you have plenty of options other than the default file manager for KDE or the two most popular desktop file managers for GNOME (Nautilus and GMC, although there are others that are built to integrate well into GNOME). You can steal XFTree from the XFCE desktop environment, for example, assuming you don't want to use XFCE itself, which isn't minimalist but doesn't consume many resources, either. XFTree likes to use the Rox File Manager for strictly icon-based views, so you'll want to install Rox as well.

There's Xfm, which is about the most primitive application launcher and icon-based file manager on the planet. It's too primitive for my tastes, but if you want the least amount of features without giving up icons, this could be the program for you.

At the other extreme is DFM, a file manager that emulates some of the features and look of the OS/2 Workplace Shell. Having been a huge fan of the OS/2 Workplace Shell, I'd like to say I'm as big a fan of DFM. Nevertheless, it simply lacks too many of the visually pleasing features of the Workplace Shell and doesn't deliver enough of the power. If you're an OS/2 fan, however, you'll find it worth the try.

Most of the remaining icon-based file managers tend to be resource-hungry (although I admit I haven't tried them all, so there may be exceptions).

Too many commanders

Of the remaining file managers, most of them seem to be based on Norton Commander. The good news about these file managers is that you can use them with non-desktop style window managers like Ion, because they don't rely on placing any icons on the default workspace. (Ion has nowhere to put the desktop icons for file managers like DFM, so even if you can find such a file manager that works with Ion, it's sort of a waste to use it.)

The most famous of the non-desktop file managers is the console-based Norton Commander clone called Midnight Commander. This was the foundation for the first graphical file manager for GNOME.

I was never a fan of Norton Commander, so I did not find Midnight Commander intuitive. Nevertheless, I use Midnight Commander often. If it made it easy to customize the key bindings, I'd like it a lot more than I do. If you're a fan of Norton Commander, however, I suggest you also look at X Northern Captain. It's one of the more attractive looking Norton clones, and it's reasonably powerful. Advanced Midnight Commander claims to be a bug-fixed and enhanced version of the Ximian code. If you're an emacs addict, you can run the similar Evening Commander file manager without having to exit emacs.

As it is, I prefer a similar two-paned program called Worker. Worker isn't a Norton Commander clone, but it does use the two-paned file list format. What I like most about Worker is the fact that I can customize it easily.

There are other similar programs, some of which seem to be more popular. One is called FileRunner, which is an extremely powerful file manager I used to use often. I don't even recall why I got out of the habit of using it, because it really does a wonderful job as paned file managers go. Other worthy contenders are Gentoo and EmelFM. They're all quite good, and some of these paned file managers look so much alike that I wouldn't be surprised to learn if they share a common foundation in code.

Finally, if you're an old fan of the DOS file manager XTree Pro, you'll be happy to hear there are at least two clones available for Linux. One is Ytree, the other UnixTree. I like XTree Pro even less than Norton Commander, so I'm not a reliable witness as to whether these programs are any good. You'll find a couple more file managers in the resources section below that don't really fit into any of the above categories, such as Vifm and VFU. Regardless, if you're into one of the minimalist window managers, you're sure to find a matching file manager from the resources or by searching a resource like Freshmeat. Enjoy!

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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