Free add-ons teach Windows Explorer new tricks

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

You can choose from dozens of file managers to replace Windows Explorer — some of them are even free — but only the original is so closely integrated into the OS.

Before you give Explorer the boot, check out some first-rate add-ons that turn Windows’ tired file browser into the information manager of the future.

It’s time to go beyond files and folders

You can find plenty of good replacements for Windows Explorer online. For example, in his Sept. 20, 2007, column, Woody Leonhard recently recommended Xplorer2. But few match the convenience of having a file manager that is built into the operating system.

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Rather than trying to find your ideal file manager at the downloads store, I suggest you mend it, not end it. You can give Windows Explorer most of the tools and abilities found in the video preview simply by installing a handful of free or low-cost Explorer extensions.

Give Explorer more file-management muscle

Here are some of my favorite tools for souping up the Explorer you already have.

Give your dialog boxes more reach. The one freeware utility I recommend over all others is FileBox eXtender. Not only does the program enhance Explorer, it also improves common Open and Save As dialog boxes and other interface elements.

FileBox eXtender’s pop-up menu lists the last several folder locations you opened. You can also view a list of your favorite files or folders and resize dialog boxes so they always open at your preferred dimensions.

In addition to file management chores, FileBox eXtender adds a stay-on-top button to every window’s title bar, as well as a button to “roll up” the window — just like a real window shade — until only its title bar is visible.

Add breadcrumbs to XP’s folder paths. If you’re using Windows XP, you may need a few add-ons to update that OS’s version of Explorer to match Vista’s file manager.

An example is Vista’s “breadcrumb” style of displaying folder paths. Click any folder name in the path to navigate back to that folder instantly. Click one of the arrows separating folder names to see a pop-up menu of subfolders to navigate the other direction.

Explorer Breadcrumbs from Minimalist lets you add an Explorer toolbar with this same feature to Windows XP, 2003, or 2000.

In Vista, breadcrumbs replace the previous path notation in the address bar (click to the right of the path to see and select the old style). But since Explorer Breadcrumbs simply adds a new toolbar, you can keep both path styles visible in your Explorer windows at once, if you wish.

The program won’t nag you, but the developers ask that you register the product for U.S. $8 if you decide to hold onto it.

Keep tabs on your open windows. If your screen is cluttered with Explorer windows, consider replacing them with tabs similar to those in Internet Explorer 7. Giving your windows tabs would let you switch from one folder location to another with a single click or by pressing Ctrl, Tab.

That’s the idea behind QTTabBar. It took me a while to figure out how to use the program to create a new tab. (One way is to right-click a tab and choose “Clone this.”) Once you get the hang of the tab-creation process, however, the program becomes very handy.

In addition to the tab toolbar, you can show or hide a toolbar for managing the tabs themselves. Since all of that toolbar’s features are also found on the context menu for the tabs, you can save space by turning that option off and right-clicking the tabs instead.

QTTabBar also pops up a menu of objects in a folder when you click the tab’s icon. The program’s Options dialog includes plenty of customization choices.

You can download QTTabBar for free at the moment, but the program’s status as freeware is not well documented.

Make new folders faster. Creating a new folder for organizing your data is one of the most common file management chores — so common that Windows has a button for it in common file dialog boxes like Open and Save As. But Explorer makes you dig into a submenu on the context menu or File menu for this common task.

For a quick and easy solution, download and install bxNewFolder. This simple utility adds a New Folder button to Explorer’s existing Standard Buttons toolbar, so there’s no new toolbar to take up space. Just click it (or press F12) and type a name to create a new folder in the current location.

The Create New Folder dialog box also includes a history of recently used folder names. Press Enter to finish up, or Shift+Enter to finish and open the new folder with one fell swoop.

Maximize your viewing and connectivity options

Add a third folder window to Explorer. I haven’t yet found a tool that gives Windows Explorer side-by-side or stacked folder views in a single window. But FolderBox from BAxBEx Software comes close.

FolderBox lets you open a pane in an Explorer or folder window by clicking View, Explorer Bar, FolderBox. This pane, or FolderBox, works like an added folder window within Explorer.

Your new folder window comes with some handy navigation controls as well as buttons for bookmarking up to five of your favorite folder locations. Of course, you can drag and drop files between FolderBox and other parts of the Explorer window for convenient copying and moving. Best of all, the program is free!

Convert your FTP servers into folders. Explorer has My Computer (or Computer in Vista) for accessing your local drives directly and My Network Places (which Vista calls Network) for opening network locations. Wouldn’t it be nice to access FTP locations in Explorer just as easily?

That’s the idea behind My FTP Places. The program adds an eponymous icon to My Computer, after which any FTP locations you set up appear nested underneath this icon. This lets you copy files to, remove files from, and otherwise manage your FTP sites as if they were folders on your computer.

Unfortunately, integrating FTP with Explorer comes at a price. My FTP Places is free for your first 50 connections, but after that you need to pay a $40 registration fee.

If you don’t mind doing your FTP chores from a separate program, there are plenty of free alternatives. One of the most favorably reviewed is the open-source FileZilla.

Size up your folders in a jiffy. The best free Explorer plugin for viewing folder sizes is, appropriately enough, Folder Size. This freebie adds columns to Explorer’s Details view that total up the size of each folder in the list.

Folder Size also shows columns that display the number of files and the number of objects (files plus folders) in the selected folder. Although the scans the program performs to collect the size information can take time, the utility’s overall performance on my sort-of-new XP machine was good. (Folder Size does not run on Vista systems.)

If you need a more detailed and graphical way of tracking down your disk hogs and don’t care about integrating the information into Explorer, TreeSize Free is a no-cost, standalone tool that ferrets out the space hogs on your system.

Of course, there’s plenty you can do to tweak your file and folder settings in Explorer itself. In a future column, I’ll describe how to add features and customizations to Windows Explorer without having to download or install any add-ons at all.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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