The best freeware file manager: a comparative analysis

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File management in Windows (browsing, viewing, copying, deleting files etc) is an area where Windows Explorer is not sufficient for many people.

Explorer lacks several functions such as a tabbed interface and multiple panes for organizing files easily, quick file viewing, sorting folders by folder size, enhanced archive management, multiple file renaming, to name a few.

One of the major shortcomings is Explorer’s tendency to stop ongoing file operations if one of the files is locked or not available because of security settings, which makes it unclear which files where copied and which were not.

There are several freeware file managers that address this gap in Windows’ file management functionality. We looked at 17 of these and found 10 that had many of the advanced features we were looking for. This post will compare the following program across several criteria: CubicExplorerFreeCommander, Master Commander, Nexus File, Nomad.NET, Q-Dir, SE-Explorer, UltraExplorer, Unreal Commander and Xplorer2 Lite.

[Editor’s note: this post was written by Freewaregenius contributor Priit L.]

Window Pane

What are the criteria to evaluate a file manager? What is important? There are as many opinions as there are people. In this article we tried to compare these programs across several criteria that we thought to be important, although at times felt like we had to make a comparison work that was akin to comparing an apple and an orange, which was a hard job. So, we apologize if you feel that your favorite file manager has been unfairly evaluated.

If you would like to simply jump to the overall verdict ratings list, click here.

In this comparison the criteria are:

  • The user interface: it must be simultaneously intuitive, powerful enough and not too cluttered. Tabs and breadcrumbs are modern addition to the interface that can improve usability. We also considered the option to open multiple folders in different tabs and to drag-and-drop files or compare the contents of several folders.
  • File operations: lot of file managers use Windows’ built-in file operations which will stop on encountering the first problem. The best file managers have the ability to pause/resume operations for time-consuming transfers, to display the transfer rate and estimated time to completion. Often they also have enhanced support for skipping/overwriting files, like ‘skip all’/’overwrite all’/’overwrite all older’ etc. If some of the selected files are locked or inaccessible they can be skipped and the copying/moving of other files will be resumed.
  • Additional features: many programs have advanced features that make life easier such as:
    • Multi rename tool – ability to rename multiple files using patterns. Like rename all selected files like ‘IMG_0203.JPG’ to ‘Toms_Birthday_Picture_3.jpg’.
    • Merge/split – Split big files for sending them by e-mail or burning to optical disks and afterwards joining them back again.
    • Show folder size, sort by folder size – allows to sort folders by size of the contents. NB! Use with care, as this can be time-consuming for big folders like ‘WINDOWS’ etc.
    • Copy file name/info as text – also can be used for creating directory listings.
    • ‘Copy To’/’Move To’ buttons – similar function that to some other small ‘gadget’-programs offer.
    • Favorites/Quick Launch/Drop Stack etc – ability to mark several folders You use often or You need to perform some operations.

Also worth mentioning while dealing with Windows file managers is the Norton Commander legacy. Most computer users today may be unaware of the time before Windows when all file operations were carried on the DOS command prompt. Norton Commander (abbreviation NC) was the most popular file manager at the time and the two-paned interface and keyboard shortcuts it introduced are still used on many Windows file managers. We gave points to the programs that can be configured using either Windows Explorer style operation or Norton Commander style operation for the fans of both interfaces. Probably the most popular Norton Commander clone is Total Commander (shareware).

After evaluating 17 freeware programs ten of them were chosen for detailed consideration. In alphabetical order these programs are: CubicExplorer, FreeCommander, Master Commander, Nexus File, Nomad.NET, Q-Dir, SE-Explorer, UltraExplorer, Unreal Commander and Xplorer2 Lite. The following programs were also evaluated but got a lower score than the first seven: a43, AltCommander, ExplorerXP, FileAnt, JExplorer, Pablo Commander and Snowbird.


The Evaluation

The User Interface

In this section the quality and usability of the user interface is evaluated.

#1: CubicExplorer

Windows Explorer style, with tabs, breadcrumb path and quickview/bookmark/filters panel. The toolbars and panels can be customized by dragging.

CubicExplorergeneral1 CubicExplorerpreview

  • Tabs: Yes, multiple tabs can be opened
  • Panes: No NC style multiple panes
  • Favorites: Yes, called Bookmarks. Several bookmarks can be quickly opened in different tabs.
  • Score: 5/5

The interface is simple, modern, intuitive and configurable.

#2: FreeCommander

Norton Commander (NC) clone with tabs. Two panes, NC-like vertical split or horizontal split. Cannot switch to one pane. Select files in Windows Explorer mode or NC mode. NC legacy key shortcuts. Folder sizes can be shown (manual or automatic), folders can be sorted by size. Intuitive quick filtering.

Free CommanderFree Commander - quick-filter

  • Tabs: Yes, multiple tabs can be opened
  • Panes: Yes
  • Favorites: Yes
  • Score: 5/5

Powerful yet simple interface, not too cluttered. Very configurable.

#3: Master Commander

Norton Commander style interface with 2 panes, several tabs can be opened on each pane. Most similar to Total Commander (shareware) by interface and richness of functionality.

Master CommanderMaster Commander - file compare

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes, two panes arranged vertically or horizontally
  • Favorites: Yes
  • Score: 4/5

#4: NexusFile

Interface with two vertical panes, switchable to Windows Explorer style one pane interface. Tabs and breadcrumb paths. Different file/folder selection style – click left to the file name to select, click another time to deselect. Or select by Spacebar.

NexusFileNexusFile - resume-on-error

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes, one or two panes
  • Favorites: Yes
  • Score: 5/5

Intuitive uncluttered interface with ‘breadcrumb’ paths. Support skins, the default one is ‘terminal’ type light text on black background.

#5: Nomad.NET

Windows Explorer style interface with 1 or 2 panels, arranged vertically or horizontally. Breadcrumb style folder path. Folder tree can be shown beside or above the file/folder listing. Quick and advanced filter.

NomadNetWE NomadNetNC

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes. 1 or 2 panes, arranged vertically or horizontally.
  • Favorites: Yes, called Bookmarks
  • Score: 5/5

Nice RunAs function in menu which allows to run the program with command-line options (besides running as different user).
One can select all files or all folders by clicking the number of files/folders on the bottom of the pane.
Type a file name to begin quick filter or quick search.

#6: Q-Dir

Flexible interface with panes and tabs. There are 12 buttons with preconfigurations – from 2 to 4 panes, split vertical and horizontal etc. The big folder tree can be shown/hidden and also there is a button to show tree for each pane. Address bar can be shown as breadcrumb (Extras/Address bar/Modern style).

Q-DirQ-Dir - Explorer-style

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes, easily switched between different configurations
  • Favorites: Yes
  • Score: 5/5

The first start after installation, displaying 4 panes can be a bit frightening but You can switch to a view that has less details.

#7: SE-Explorer

The program has different tabs with different modules. The ‘File Manager’ tab has Norton Commander style two-pane interface and NC style keyboard commands. Select files with ‘Insert’ key, Shift/left-click does not work. (see left screenshot below)

SE-Explorer - File Manager moduleSE-Explorer - File Explorer module

The ‘File Explorer’ tab has Windows Explorer style interface, Windows classical selection by mouse, also Ctrl/Shift keys can be used to change the mouse-click action (see right screenshot above).

  • Tabs: Tabs are only for different program modules, not for folders
  • Panes: Only for different modules
  • Favorites: No
  • Score: 3.5/5

#8: UltraExplorer

Powerful and configurable Windows Explorer like interface with tabs and optional second pane. Breadcrumb paths and Mac style ‘Column view’ folders available.

Folder size calculation by clicking appropriate button or automatically (configurable). ‘Flatten folder’ view to see all files in the subfolders.

UltraExplorer - with viewerUltraExplorer - NC-style

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes
  • Favorites: Yes
  • Score: 5/5

#9: Unreal Commander

Norton Commander style interface with two vertical or horizontal panes. Simple, not cluttered, configurable.

UnrealCommandergeneral UnrealCommanderquickview

  • Tabs: Yes
  • Panes: Yes, two vertical or horizontal panes
  • Favorites: Yes, named Hotlist
  • Score: 5/5

Cannot display folder tree in any form?

#10: xplorer2 lite

Single or dual pane interface, divided vertically or horizontally. Windows style file selection. Many useful functions but many more are only available in the commercial version.

xplorer2

  • Tabs: Yes. By default Excel style tabs on the bottom of a pane but this can be configured.
  • Panes: Yes, one or two, vertical or horizontal split.
  • Favorites: Yes, called Bookmarks
  • Score: 5/5

Simple uncluttered interface, well configurable. Unfortunately, so many useful functions are disabled in the free version.


File operations

In this section we evaluate how the file managers perform file operations like copying, moving and deleting. The problem with Windows Explorer is that it stops the operation when one of the files is locked or unavailable and you never know which files were successfully copied and which ones were not. In worst cases it will result in the loss of files when the user thinks that the files are copied when actually they were not. The best file managers have their own custom built file handling with ‘resume on error’ and ‘pause/resume’ support.

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Archiving/file compression

Most of the advanced file managers have built-in packers that allow to treat archive files like folders, copy/drag-drop files out of the archive, modify the contents of an archive file etc.

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FTP

Most of the evaluated file managers have ability to work with FTP servers – list files and folders, download and upload files. Once it was considered very important functionality, but now FTP usage in general has been decreased and many programs have their own FTP clients like webpage creators, image managers etc.

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File viewers

An important feature for a file manager is the ability to view the contents of different files like text, image and video. The best file managers can open the files and also preview the contents inside the interface, without opening another programs.

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Quick view in UltraExplorer UltraExplorer-general-viewer Quick view in xplorer2 lite xplorer2-preview2 Thumbnail/hint view in Nomad.NET
Nomad-Net-WE

Portability

Portable versions can be used on removable media like USB flash drives, without needing to install the program to all the computers You would like to use it. This option is especially handy for people who like to use their favorite tool on several computers.

  • All except Unreal Commander provide portable and installer versions. Unreal Commander can be made portable and prepared portable version can also be found on portable programs websites.

NOTE! Master Commander, Nomad.NET and SE-Explorer require Microsoft .NET Framework to be installed. You must install .NET Framework before You can use these program from the removable media. This is making the portable use of these programs more inconvenient.


Interesting features:

Some of the evaluated programs had special features worth mentioning:

#1: CubicExplorer

  • Dropstack, used for holding a set of file shortcuts to work with later

#2: FreeCommander

  • Wipe File option.
  • Split/Join files.

Master Commander - processes and modules#3: Master Commander

  • Wipe file function.
  • Create ISO.
  • Split/Join files.
  • Digital signature, checksum, code page conversion functions.
  • Process viewer

#4: NexusFile

  • WhatIsThisFile function – opens http://ext.xiles.net for the selected file type
  • CreateShorcutOnDesktop/CreateShorcutOnQuickLaunch functions

#5: Nomad.NET

  • Powerful search (also by attributes, for example picture taken date, file owner, document author, MP3 album name etc.), find duplicate files
  • Copy file details like size etc. to clipboard for directory listing.

#6: Q-Dir

  • Export function to create directory listing in TXT, CSV, HTML, XLS or DOC format.
  • Screen magnifier.

SE-Explorer - folder-size#7: SE-Explorer

  • Disk/folder/file size scan, with top largest files output etc.
  • Resource view (like icons contained in EXE and DLL files).
  • Search files function by resources contained in them.
  • DLL inspector.
  • Text file compare, showing differences in files line-by-line.

UltraExplorer - Mac-style#8: UltraExplorer

  • Mac style ‘Column mode’ view with folders in columns and current file info on the last column.
  • ‘Flatten folder’ view to see all files in the subfolders
  • A “file basket” where users can virtually ‘park’ items to perform operations on later.

#9: Unreal Commander

  • Compare files (binary and text)
  • Wipe files

#10: xplorer2 lite

  • File shredder

Strengths and weaknesses, summary

As the previous chapter shows, different programs have different emphasis. Some of the file managers with good interface lack even essential functionality. Some of them do not have very flexible and usable interface but a lot of extra features. In this chapter we bring out the positive and negative of all the evaluated programs.

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Two programs receive a perfect overall score 5/5 *** Editor’s choice! ***: Master Commander and Unreal Commander.


Word of conclusion

The best in this comparison – Unreal Commander and Master Commander – appeared to be from the Norton/Total Commander legacy. However, picking the best Windows Explorer style file manager from these ten is harder to do. Q-Dir and UltraExplorer both have some major drawbacks: Q-Dir lacks functionality like a powerful viewer, directory comparisons etc, and UltraExplorer has no custom file handling with ‘resume on error’ and ‘pause/resume’ support. Ultimately, I would choose Nomad.NET as the strongest candidate for the ‘Best Windows Explorer style file manager’ title. The strengths are uncluttered powerful interface and enhanced file handling. The weaknesses are missing built-in viewer and .NET Framework requirement that reduces portability.

Again, probably some of you, friends, may disagree with some scores and the weights of the evaluation criteria. Some criteria like ‘intuitiveness’ and ‘clutter’ are very individual and can absolutely not be evaluated without being subjective. Also the emphasis on the need for custom enhanced file operations with ‘resume on error’ and ‘pause/resume’ support can be argued. You could argue that one can use programs like SuperCopier or TeraCopy to enhance the file operations. Similarly one can install other gadgets giving functionality of CopyTo, MoveTo, ‘create folder listing’, ‘Pack to archive’, ‘Extract …’ etc to the right-click. The problem with this solution is that You install several different system utilities from several different creators and each one is potential source of errors and system instability. The more elegant (and secure) option is to have one file manager from one creator that provides all this functionality as one entity. And after all – file manager is to manage files and proper file handling should be essential part of a file manager.