6 best orthodox file managers for Linux

8th Jun 2009 | 11:00

6 best orthodox file managers for Linux

Go back to basics with these old-school file managers

Krusader and EmelFM2

Depending on when you got started with computers, you've probably used an orthodox file manager. They're zippy, they're often favoured by those who are more comfortable on the command line, and enable you to do more via keyboards than some can do with a mouse.

The interface is made up of two panels, which you can switch between with the Tab key. Norton Commander inspired a whole bunch of orthodox file managers, many of which are still actively developed today.

Anyone who started with Linux in the 90s will have used Midnight Commander. But does it make sense to use it or any of its brethren in the age of multi-core desktops? The answer to that question is a most definite yes.

In the 90s the Linux GUI was a far cry from the present-day Compiz-laced bells and-whistles graphical interfaces and there was no Konqueror and Nautilus. But you didn't use an orthodox file manager just because it was lightweight. You used it because it worked, and with a couple of keystrokes could compress a file, generate an MD5, and copy it across the galaxy.

The modern day OFMs build on that, and can do a lot more. They can still be used with only minimal mouse input, thanks to their extensive keyboard shortcuts. And just because you use them with a keyboard, doesn't mean they all run from the console. And you can easily spot an OFM, since many honour their lineage by including the word 'Commander' somewhere in their name. Ten-hut!

Krusader - Kruise for KDE users, but what about the rest of us?

If you didn't pick this up from the name, you haven't been using Linux long enough. Krusader is an OFM designed for KDE. Krusader will work with some third-party apps, but it insists on quite a bit of KDE-specific programs, which will run without issues on your Gnome box.

KrusaderKRUSADER: Designed solely for KDE, this is a very versatile file manager

KRename equips Krusader with a bulk rename facility; KDiff, or Kompare, will compare files; KGPG enables you to encrypt and decrypt files; and you can email them with KEmail. The KIO slaves let you browse compressed archives and files over Samba, and NFS shares as well as FTP and SSH.

You can synchronise directories over the network, or browse a remote (or local) directory in sync-mode, which keeps an eye on the changes you make to a directory in one pane and replicates them on the other pane automatically. Krusader can open multiple tabs on either pane.

If you start it from the command line you can give it a commaseparated list of directories, which it opens in tabs on the specified pane. It also uses KDE's KParts component framework, which is similar to Gnome's Bonobo, to embed external clients into a Krusader window itself. For example, if you open an ODF document with Krusader it will invoke KOffice and display the document in a window within itself.

One of the best bits about Krusader is its ActionMan tool. It helps you set up, and manage custom user actions, which can then be performed on the files in the panes. For example, you can set up a user action to add an OGG file into the music player's playlist, or pack a bunch of files into an ISO, or copy the selected files into the clipboard, or edit a file with superuser permissions, or just display the uptime.

You can export and import user actions, and there's a whole forum on the Krusader website dedicated to ActionMan where users share their custom user actions.

A feast of features

When copying a file locally, Krusader will not alter its original attributes (user, group, timestamp). It can compare files in two directories, and depending on your action, the missing files are selected.

The selection can then be copied to a particular destination or on to the clipboard and them pasted on to any place that can access the clipboard. It also has a file splitter, which can combine files as well. To verify that the split files are reassembled, you can also use Krusader to create and verify MD5, SHA1, Tiger and other checksums.

Many components in Krusader are so advanced they have a name of their own. Its advanced file search, called KruSearcher can search for files inside archives based on their modification date and even ownership and permissions.

Its internal viewer/editor, KrViewer can open multiple files in tabs, can export documents as HTML, has a spellchecker and syntax highlighting for various configuration files, databases, and several scripting, and programming languages, and even display pictures.

Krusader also has a front-end to the locate command, which relies on a database to hunt for files. To manage mounted file systems Krusader bundles MountMan, along with a graphical disk usage tool based on the filelight disk space analyser. Then there's BookMan for organising bookmarks of local folders and remote connections.

It also tracks popular URLs and since Krusader is well integrated into KDE, the bookmark manager can let KDE's wallet handle the passwords for remote connections.

Like all good OFMs, Krusader ships with its own terminal emulator with autocompletion. For the purists, the best bit is that Krusader can be controlled completely from the keyboard.

Version: 1.90
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: A complete replacement to the point-and-click file manager for KDE users, but a pain to setup for others.
Rating: 8/10

EmelFM2 - A nice shaken and stirred modern OFM that blends the old with the new

For an app that's still only halfway to its first 1.x release, EmelFM2 has a whole bundle of useful features. It works on anything that can run GTK+2, and a port is available for Nokia's Maemo platform. EmelFM2 sports a mouse-friendly user interface with lots of functionality available via the right-click context menu.

EmelEMELFM2: With a mouse friendly interface, this is one of the easiest file managers to get to grips with

The interface also has an output pane, which shows the results of commands and several buttons for most common functions such as moving, copying, renaming items, creating a symlink etc. One of the best features of EmelFM2 is its ability to trim the list of files in the panes.

You can set filters to display files and directories that match a specified name, date, and even permissions criteria. To help you with the filtering, EmelFM2 lets you use wildcards (* and ?) and allows the use of multiple filters at the same time. You can also invert the effect of the filter to show all files that don't match the filters.

In addition to its keyboard bindings for power users, EmelFM2 lets GUIed users drag and drop files from one pane to another. If you press the Shift key while dropping, the selection is moved, and if both Shift and Control are pressed, the selection is linked. Or just press the Alt key, and when you drop a selection a menu will prompt you for the operation you want to perform (copy/move/link/cancel).

Deleted items aren't zapped off the disk, but end up in a .Trash folder, which means they can be retrieved. EmelFM2 is pretty useful for people who move huge files routinely. That's because it doesn't hold up the interface when performing a long task such as copying a bunch of files, and enables you to view and edit other files.

More power to you

The next great thing in EmelFM2 for power users is its output pane, which can have multiple tabs. You can select, edit and save the text via the content menu. This might sound crazy for an output dump, but that's because you don't know about the awesome power of the output pane text.

Magically any text in the output pane can be executed. So if you select filename in the output pane and right-click on it, EmelFM2 will show a submenu listing operations for that particular file type. If you select a command, the context menu shows the result, and a double-click will re-execute the operation. Complement this with the built-in CLI and you've got a file manager that's aware of its roots.

EmelFM2 has plugins that let you pack and unpack a selection of files into lots of compressed archives (including .tar.gz, .tar.bz2, .7z, .rar, .arj and .zoo), clone files, encrypt and decrypt them by recursively looking into directories and optionally compressing them as well. With the encryption plugin, the original file is retained, or you can choose to delete it.

Then there are the plugins that enhance EmelFM2's included abilities. You get an advanced file finder that can search via MIME types, modification, and access time stamp of a file, its size, owner, and other attributes.

There's also an advanced rename plugin that supports regular expressions, and a plugin to compare contents of two directories, which uses md5sum for accurate comparison. There's also a plugin that extracts the contents of a compressed archive into a temporary directory allowing you to browse the contents.

When you head out, EmelFM2 can repack the archive for you, which is useful if you've made modifications. The biggest missing feature in EmelFM2 is that it doesn't have any network support. Before you moan and move on, think about this for a second. If you have a Samba or NFS share that you need to sync files with, you could just as easily mount it some place in your filesystem and EmelFM2 will see it like any other directory.

Version: 0.5.1
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: Its low dependency list and consistency across desktops makes EmelFM2 ideal for distro hoppers.
Rating: 8/10

Gnome Commander and MuCommander

Gnome Commander - Mild mannered OFM with an aptitude for renaming files

The only thing Gnome about Gnome Commander (GCMD) is that it's based on the GnomeVFS virtual filesystem. Even that has been deprecated since Gnome 2.22, but that doesn't make GCMD any less commanding. In fact the latest release squeezes even more juice from GnomeVFS and makes GCMD a pleasure to work with over a network.

GnomeGNOME COMMANDER: The bulk rename utility is a very handy feature for managing your files

Thanks to the GnomeVFS virtual filesystem, GCMD can connect to Samba and NFS shares, and transfer files over FTP and SSH. Also helpful are the quick access device buttons. GCMD seems to be big on using metadata attached with files. It has a comprehensive bulk file rename utility that can use the metadata attached with the file.

For example you can use the date/time info from a JPEG's Exif data or album/artist info from the MP3's metadata to rename the files with these details. The advanced rename utility also supports regular expressions and gives a preview of the filenames as they'll appear once the batch rename operation is complete. It's really impressive and offers a great amount of flexibility and control.

GCMD currently ships with two plugins – File Roller and CVS. Since GCMD can't handle compressed archives, the File Roller plugin plugs that hole, allowing it to create and extract Zip, Tar, 7z, bz2, Rar, RPM, Deb, and other archive types. But GCMD relies on the graphical Meld tool to help users see the difference and merge files between two files.

If you've got Meld on your box, GCMD will let you compare two files and synchronise directories. However, the command line lacks autocompletion and the gaps in the documentation aren't helpful.

Version: 1.2.7
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: Powerful metatag rename utility, but lacks documentation and plugins.
Rating: 7/10

MuCommander - The Wile E Coyote of OFMs on Linux

First things first: MuCommander is based on Java and will run on nothing but Sun's own Java runtime environment. If you're using GIJ (the GNU Interpreter for Java), you're out of luck. For the rest of us, MuCommander offers some wonderful features. With it you can browse, compress and uncompress archives in various formats including Zip, Rar, Tar, Gzip, BZ2, ISO/ NRG etc.

MUCommanderMUCOMMANDER: You can compress and uncompress to various file types with this file manager

It also enables you to modify the contents of a Zip archive. MuCommander has several useful switches, and when launching it from the command line you can specify what you want to load in its panes. For example, mucommander smb:// /Download will display the contents of a Samba share in the first pane, and list /Download in the other. Remember though that you'll have to stare at the splash screen longer than usual as MuCommander tries to connect to the remote machine.

MuCommander supports virtual filesystems and can view files on Samba, NFS shares and on FTP. You can use it to compare files across the two panes. MuCommander has a bulk rename tool and will let you email files without using a third-party app.

This is great, but it didn't work with Gmail's SMTP settings. MuCommander can't encrypt/decrypt files, its built-in command line lacks autocompletion, there's no mount manager and it lacks documentation, which is especially harsh given that the only way to customise the keyboard mapping and alter the buttons on the toolbars is to edit the three XML files – action_keymap.xml, command_ bar.xml, and toolbar.xml.

Version: 0.8.3
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: Consistent across platforms, but lacks documentation and customisation involves editing XML. Rating: 6/10

Midnight Commander and Beesoft Commander

Midnight Commander - The file manager that first brought twin-pane madness to Linux…

Midnight Commander is the daddy of OFMs. If you were working with Linux in the 90s you couldn't have missed using it, not only because it was the default manager of the Gnome desktop environment but also because it could do so much that you could write a Bible-size book on it.

Mighnight commanderMIDNIGHT COMMANDER: This OFM has extensive keyboard shortcuts to improve productivity

Midnight Commander is also the only file manager in this Roundup that can work in a regular console, over SSH connections, and inside an X window terminal emulator. You can use the mouse to select files, open directories and so on, but if you want to enhance your productivity with Midnight Commander you need to know the keyboard mappings. And they just keep on adding.

For example, when using Midnight Commander inside a terminal emulator, you'll have trouble using the function keys, which will be intercepted by the terminal itself. Instead press the Escape key and use the numpad – so instead of F1 do Escape+1.

With Midnight Commander you can view the contents of archives and RPMs, and copy files via FTP and SSH. In fact, the popular Fish protocol (Files transferred over Shell) was originally written for MC .

Many people use MC for its MCedit file editor, which has syntax highlighting for various languages and the bulk rename utility that supports regular expressions. If you have an task that'll take some time to complete, say batch renaming hundreds of files over the network, you can ask MC to work on it in the background. This frees up the interface to let you continue using the file manager to work on other files.

There's a background job manager that lets you monitor these tasks, and will also kill the jobs if you ask it to.

Version: 4.6.2
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: Productive in the hands of an expert, but involves a steep learning curve for new users.
Rating: 8/10

Beesoft Commander - Lightweight orthodox file manager for users who don't go out much

Beesoft Commander is based on Qt and behaves nicely on Gnome and KDE, will do most of your common file management tasks, and works well within its limitations. The nice thing about BC's interface is that it lists file extensions in a separate column, giving you extra file arranging capabilities.

BeesoftCommanderBEESOFT COMMANDER: File extensions are arranged in a separate column for easy sorting

BC can compare contents and sync content between two directories. It'll connect to a remote resource over FTP, but there's no VFS support to connect to SMB or NFS shares. The file finder supports regular expressions, and has a 'Goto' button that'll open the directory of a selected file in the active pane.

Once you've found the file you're looking for, BC can help you change its access permissions. It has a minimal file viewer that can display both text and images, as well as a text editor. The viewer displays line numbers in a column, but the editor, which is where numbering the lines would be more helpful, doesn't.

By default, BC is designed to use its own BeeDiff app to compare files, but you can use any other app you like. Since there's no documentation, it's impossible to figure out how you pass the files to another app as arguments and you'll run into lots of 'QString::arg: Argument missing:' errors.

Like Midnight Commander, Beesoft Commander relies on the 'Insert' key to select multiple files, and you can also reverse a selection. It can then join multiple selected files into one big chunk, which works great on plain text files. You can also compress a selection of files into Zip, Tar or Bzip, but there's no built-in mechanism for viewing or uncompressing them.

Version: 4.1.0
Price: Free under GPL
Verdict: A small in size and features OFM that can connect to FTP but lacks documentation.
Rating: 6/10

The verdict: best Linux orthodox file manager

The verdict - EmelFM2 - 8/10

Orthodox file managers have been around forever, and have evolved from simple CLI-only utilities for moving and renaming files to comprehensive file commandeering tools that'll give many modern GUI file managers a run for their money.

The top two contenders reflect this transition, but ironically neither carries the trademark 'Commander' moniker. At the expense of being krucified by the Krusader users, we'll offer the top spot to EmelFM2.

Feature-for-feature you can do more with Krusader, but a fully-loaded app isn't always the best. Krusader is deeply integrated into KDE, which is good for KDE users, but what about the rest?

On the other hand, EmelFM2 just needs GTK, and works well both in Gnome and KDE. The biggest issue with EmelFM2 is that it doesn't have a virtual filesystem to connect to Samba and NFS shares, but on the bright side this helps keep the dependency list to a minimum.

Midnight Commander is like Slackware – you don't recommend it to new users, and those that are using it, would never use anything else.

Gnome Commander is a good option for Gnome users, but it relies on a deprecated piece of technology. The Gnome Commander developers also have a few plumbing issues to fix in their documentation and offer more control to keyboardies. If you are using Gnome (or not) and need to rename lots of files borrowing data from their metadata, there's no better way to go about it than with Gnome Commander.

Then there's Beesoft Commander, which is light in both size and features. If it does everything you need to do, you aren't doing enough!

Finally we have MuCommander, which relies on Java for cross-platform support and runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows, and even your web browser. It's a good tool for new Linux arrivals, but it lacks documentation, and forces users to modify XML files to edit keyboard bindings and change menus. What's going on here?

So there you have it. KDE-only users should use Krusader. If you hop distros, or don't really care which desktop you use, go for EmelFM2.


First published in Linux Format Issue 119

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