Alternative Linux file managers

Managing the Jungle

Article from Issue 190/2016

Working with files and folders is a typical daily task on any computer. We tested four lesser known file managers that significantly simplify handling content on mass storage media.

Every Linux desktop environment has its own file manager. Outside the mainstream, beyond the kings of the hill (e.g., Dolphin, Nautilus, Thunar, PCManFM, and Nemo), many smaller and usually less popular file management tools access the content of mass storage devices. By targeting special audiences, these tools often have special functions that are missing in the major league tools on Linux.

XFE: For Oldies

The first contender is X File Explorer, or XFE for short, which was specifically designed for aging computers whose performance is no longer sufficient for state-of-the-art desktops. This oldie has been around since 2002, and unlike many other lean file managers, XFE comes with an appealing graphical interface. Most popular distributions provide the software in their repositories, from which you can easily set up the tool via Synaptic, YaST, or Apper.

If you use a distribution whose repositories still don't have the latest version 1.41, you can pick up the source code (as well as pre-built packages for some distros) from the project website [1]. XFE is based on the FOX Toolkit; it runs very quickly with frugal resource requirements, has no other dependencies, and thus remains compatible with all common interfaces.

Visually, XFE is strongly reminiscent of older file managers on Microsoft operating systems. On the left, you will find the tree view with the folder hierarchy of the mass storage device, and in the larger area on the right are the files of the active folder. The display areas, an address bar, a toolbar, and a menubar are arranged horizontally (Figure 1).

Figure 1: XFE is based on the classic window-splitting of older file managers under Windows with a directory tree displayed on the left.

To begin, you should configure the software to suit your needs in the Edit | Preferences menu and take a look at the list of external programs for viewing and modifying files. Under the Programs tab, you will find applications that not every distribution has on board out the box (Figure 2).

Figure 2: In the Programs tab, you can define the default tools for certain file types.

As its own viewers, XFE includes two display programs for text and image files, XFW and XFI: XFW allows supports editing. In addition the Archive Manager XFP, which shows the contents of packed files. For all other tasks, XFE reverts to the default programs from the Linux treasure trove.

The file manager also lets you customize the user interface and set the display options. For example, if you check the Hidden files box in the Panel menu, you will see normally invisible files and directories. If the interface is too crowded, turn off individual columns by unchecking the respective options in the View menu.

The software performs all changes in real time, removing the need to relaunch. You can also change the list views, allowing, for example, a Midnight Commander-style two-pane view. Depending on the selected view, the program automatically modifies the menu line and adapts all functions in a context-sensitive way.

Keyboard Controlled

XFE also supports drag and drop, both within the file manager and in the respective work environment. The lean file manager thus functionally blends in well with various interfaces.

Experienced users in particular prefer to use time-saving keyboard shortcuts when working with files and folders. XFE can also be controlled with keyboard shortcuts that you can customize to suit your requirements. The Edit | Preferences | Key Bindings menu has a dialog with numerous predefined shortcuts. Clicking the Modify key bindings button opens a list of predefined shortcuts, which you can then modify. XFE also takes into account its own menu items (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Numerous shortcuts allow almost complete keyboard-based control of XFE.


XFE reads and unzips archives, relying on external software to do so. However, Xarchiver, the default archiving tool, is usually missing on major desktops like KDE, which have their own desktop-specific tools.

This explains why XFE pops up a routine in a small window asking which tool to use when you click on an archive. You can then enter the command for the desired archiving program in the appropriate command line. This sets up the tool in question as the tool to call for working with archives of the format currently being accessed. Additionally, you can enter this software in the Preferences dialog as the general-purpose archiving tool.

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