Updated: September 16, 2017
Back in the 80s, Tom Clancy contemplated writing this book, but instead, he went with a more submarine-focused bestseller. Fast forward to 2017, we still do not have a real file manager with tabs, at least one sponsored by Microsoft. Windows Explorer doggedly remains a one-view application.
This isn't necessarily bad, but there are times when you might want to have tabs, or even a saved session of tabs, so you can quickly restore your work state after a reboot. All of which calls for a supplementary program. Which one? A good question. Hence the hunt.
Whenever in doubt, consult Gizmo's Freeware. This is probably the sanest place to check for free, bullshit-free software, and indeed, as you may expect, you will also find sound advice on advanced file managers and explorers for Windows. They come in a variety of names and flavors, often *commander* something or the other, and they cater to users who do not just want file managers, they want lots of extras, plugins, two-pane view, encryption, and other features. This can be an overkill.
And the repertoire is definitely overwhelming. I spent a good week searching, testing, trying to figure out which one suits me the best. Rather than offer you a full comparison of all the available choices (there's a dozen), I decided to focus only on those that I feel provide the necessary balance of ease of use, simplicity, aesthetics, stability, and convenience. The rest might be good, too, but the idea is to de-clutter the choice.
Anyway, I will expand on what I started in 2014, with QTTabBar, an extension for Windows Explorer, which provides the necessary tab functionality. This time, we will look at programs that do not change or affect the Windows baseline. Finally, all of the testing takes place on a Windows 10 system.
This is the first of the two most promising candidates. The program comes in two flavors, both 32-bit and 64-bit, and it does not require an installation. You just extract the archive and place it wherever. However, the executables are not signed, so Windows will complain about this.
Bar that one, Explorer++ looks like a very neat little program. It resembles Windows Explorer, so usage and intuition are there. Pretty and simple to use, with some powerful features under the hood. Most importantly, it comes with tabs, it lets you save and show bookmarks, and it will restart a new session with all your current tabs. However, you can choose to start with a specific location. Quite simple and elegant.
The name is quite nerdy, and so is FreeCommander XE. The list of features is long and maybe even too dazzling. MD5 checksums, secure erasion of files, folder comparison and sync, screenshots, regex searches, and more. Of course, like all the rest it starts with two panes, which I never really understood, but this must be a valued feature, I guess.
Figuring out the aesthetic side of things is a little tricky with FreeCommander XE, but I got there eventually. Some larger icons, the sidebar with favorites, sorting out the startup location, and a few other niggles. It does not take much to have a proper, powerful tabbed file manager.
Compared to Explorer++, it is a little less intuitive, and you may want to tweak the style. For instance, the default view comes with a somewhat annoying gradient, which does not work well on modern versions of Windows. Strangely, the so-called XP profile comes with a flat, cleaner layout than the rest of them. A bit of housekeeping is mandatory, and you can never achieve a spartan view, because FreeCommander is loaded with options and features, but it works well, it's signed, so no nags, and has some really wicked tricks up its sleeve.
Only two options, because anything else will force you to embark on a choose-and-pick, hesitate-and-fret journey that undermines the purpose of this article. Explorer++ is very elegant and simple to use, portable, fast, can be used as a direct replacement for the Windows application, and it supports tabs, favorites and saved sessions. FreeCommander has more tools and a busier interface, it takes more time mastering and taming, but it will not clash with UAC prompts, and you get some powerful, advanced extras.
Nothing stops you from using both these programs as you see fit, but the idea is to converge and find the ultimate tool. Now, ideally, the best solution is a hybrid of Explorer++ and FreeCommander, as they both have their advantages. Looking at the world of Linux, we have the same dilemma. Dolphin versus Files, logon session restore where possible, context versus visual clarity. Similar concepts, similar woes. But it was the tabs that we sought to hunt, and hunt them we did.
So. Which one? I really have no preference for either. Honest, miss. I find them both good and then not quite perfect, and this is probably what makes me wonder if one should ever replace the default file manager in day to day work. But tabs are a wicked and needed feature, especially if you like to keep many folders open, and so, your dilemma narrows down to just two candidates. I recommend you take them for a spin and decide. Either way, you will see a nice productivity boost. Until the next time.