Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fixing Windows 7 - Part 1

Preamble:
As this is the first part of this series, and of my software recommendations/reviews, I thought I'd explain how I plan to approach these. As you will come to discover if you keep reading this blog, I have a rather long form style. To put it bluntly, I'm long winded, verbose. Hopefully some of you will like this, but I don't expect everyone to. So for the reviews I thought I would cut to the chase, putting the name of the software, its purpose, and the highlights of features right at the top. I invite you to read the rest of the post, which will explain my recommendation, but if all you're looking for are the highlights, you'll be able to get them right away. Let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions for how to improve the format.


Software: Free Commander (and other 3rd party file managers)
Function: File Manager
Replaces: Windows Explorer
Cost: Free
Why: If you dislike the Windows 7 file manager like I do, this allows you to go back to XP-style explorer, with more traditional (and useful) search functionality, dual-pane interface, and lots of other useful features.

*Update*: See below for some further comments after extended use of FreeCommander on Win7.

The Problem
I started testing Windows 7 earlier this year with the first Beta, and later the public Release Candidate. I'll save my more in-depth thoughts for a later, longer post, but I will say that overall I am fairly happy with Win7, at least as an improvement on Vista.

What inspired this post, and the ones that will follow, was the discovery of quite a few little annoyances, missing features, or "improvements" in Win7 that I really didn't much care for. One of the first things I noticed, not surprisingly, was the new Windows Explorer file manager and, in particular, the awful, awful Search function, which seems to take the worst qualities of the Vista approach and remove even more control and accuracy.

As a long-time Windows user I naturally got used to the way things worked in Windows Explorer, and they haven't really changed all that much since Windows 95/98. Windows 2000 and XP brought simple, generally effective refinements, and resulted in a very basic but fairly effective file management tool. If Microsoft had left it at that, I would have been perfectly happy.

Instead, with Vista, they evidently tried to "evolutionize" things. The search function has now turned into a persistent thing, available at all times in the upper-right, much like modern web browsers. This is a great thing in concept, except that the search is then so broad and general by default that it inevitably turns up a lot of irrelevant stuff. Most of the time searches need to involve more complex queries (at least for me), so a simple search box won't do. I find myself always needing to open the "Advanced" options box to do what I want. In XP the search function basically gave you access to all the options from the get go, arranged in collapsible sections, so there was no need move to a more "advanced" interface or to re-do your search once you got there.

They also added in more sophisticated tagging (good, in theory), smarter file management (again, good in theory), and worst of all "smart" indexed search. The search index system has been around since Windows 2000 if I recall correctly, but I never really found it to be of much use. It slows down the system and takes resources, and while it speeds up searches, it can also give you false results if it hasn't indexed something. Overall I preferred simply waiting a bit longer for a full search, and relying on specifying a starting folder to speed up the process when possible. This worked very well for me for years and I developed a lot of workflows and processes around this, like searching for all files above a certain size across the entire drive, which is useful when cleaning up a hard disk, for instance.

So in Vista, and likewise in Win7, everything now relies heavily on the search index. This was done with the no doubt noble intention of speeding up searches, probably as a response to Apple's "Spotlight" (which actually seems to work fairly well, and still faster than Vista with indexing). The problem is it simply does not seem to find me the files I'm looking for. Ever. Granted you can choose not to use it, as before, but here's where it gets weird: the results I get when not using indexing are still not as comprehensive as those I was able to find using the old Windows Explorer. I have no idea why this is, I only know that it is so. Yes, perhaps I am not using the new search properly and it could turn up the correct results with the right input, but as an experienced Windows user I should be able to work out how to do basic searching, and if I can't that's a serious problem. Searching around the web a bit one finds others with similar complaints, so evidently I'm not alone.

So what to do? I realized quickly that an alternative file manager would need to be found. Several years ago I won a license for one of the commercial ones through a great software discussion and development community called Donation Coder, but even though I now had a commercial-level file manager, I never fully switched over to it. My needs at the time were just not sophisticated enough justify it in most casess. I preferred the simplicity of Windows Explorer. But now, unsatisfied with the default Win7 option, I needed to see what other possibilities there were. A quick perusal of search results showed a number of options, both commercial and free. But most of the free ones were outdated and infrequently updated. The commercial ones looked nice, but I just wasn't prepared to spend money on this just yet, not when Win7 wouldn't be commercially available for months and I was using a Release Candidate that would eventually expire.

The Solution
Finally I stumbled upon FreeCommander, and after 5 minutes using it, I knew I had found my new file manager. The first thing I checked was the search functionality. Is it close enough to XP to let me search the way I want to? Yes, it definitely seems to be, with the addition of a lot more power and flexibility to boot. So there's my main gripe laid to rest. But it gets better.

It brings back the "up directory" button that Vista and Win7 both lack. There is a built-in text file viewer, archive support, ftp connectivity, file splitting, "favorites" functionality (bookmark locations in your file system), folder comparison and synchronization, checksum functions (MD5), layout save/load, and handy shortcuts to lots of other stuff like the commandline, system folders, sophisticated customizable keyboard shortcuts, and a lot more. FreeCommander is also a dual-pane file manager, something I always saw value in but never fully embraced. Not surprisingly, I'm starting to find it very useful already.

It can even display the size of folders (not just files), something Microsoft says is just too slow and system intensive to have in the file manager, but which I think is too useful not to have. It also has a handy file/directory lister that can output to a text file - a function that apparently justifies entire stand-alone commercial applications.

In short, it gives me everything I liked about XP's Windows Explorer, and adds a lot of great additional features to boot. All for free! Highly recommended.

Mind you, I don't think there is official support for Windows 7, so I may run into problems the more I use it. I'll definitely post an update if that happens. But for now I'm very happy, and frankly regretting not having spent the time to find out how great FreeCommander is a long time ago.

*Update*: After a month or two of using FreeCommander under Windows 7 I have definitely found a few issues that show it's not quite ready for full-time Explorer replacement in this particular OS. The two major problems I have encountered are:

1: Inability to drag files from the FreeCommander application window onto an application and have them open/load (e.g. a movie dropped onto The KMPlayer).

2: If I leave FreeCommander and its separate search window open for a while, eventually it seems that I can only open the search window, not the main file explorer window. Clicking the (separate) taskbar icon doesn't seem to have an effect. Even alt-tabbing doesn't bring it up.

Still, despite those problems, I continue to find it useful, particularly for its powerful search functionality. I have been using version 2009.02, and apparently 2009.02a has recently been released, November 14th. I have yet to test it so I'm not sure if it resolves these problems, but there is no mention of it in the change log. I have reported the issues on the FreeCommander forum, so hopefully they can be resolved soon. The bright side is that development still seems reasonably active, and a "new, improved" version is also in the works, which may well be more readily compatible with Win7.

As a result of these issues, I have continued to look into other file management options. While I haven't found one I like more than FreeCommander (that isn't commercial), I thought it would be worthwhile linking to some good resources for your own research, since it seems like almost any alternative is better than what is built in to Win7.

First, there is a short list from The Free Country, always a good resource for free applications by category:
Free File Managers

For coverage of a lot more options, including commercial applications, you can check out a few threads on Donation Coder, one of my favorite software discussion sites (more about the site in another post). Each of these has tons of useful information:

What's your preferred File Manager
File Managers! Windows Explorer replacement! Come one, come all...
12 Windows Explorer Alternatives Compared

All of these threads started some years ago, but in the great tradition of Donation Coder, they have continued to be updated and discussed over time.

The Simple Help blog also has several articles, also a bit older, but still relevant:

15 Windows Explorer alternatives compared and reviewed
10 (more) Windows Explorer alternatives compared and reviewed

Keep an eye out for part 2 of this series coming soon, covering Start Menu and Task Bar utilities to help customize (and fix!) Win7's new, enforced paradigm.

1 comment:

tux. said...

If an XP-like Explorer was all you need, you were satisfied with Explorer++ instead... however, you are right about the stupidness of Vista/7's "new" explorer. Multi-media might be a good idea, the lack of essential functions definitely isn't. (The "Up" button is available via the breadcrumbs bar btw.)

Right now I use xplorer². I never need two panels. Eleven years of single-pane file managers leave their marks.