Data Management compare

Five free replacements for Windows Explorer

If you've ever wished for more or better file management features than Windows Explorer offers, these free alternatives might be the answer.

I must say I'm not a fan of Windows Explorer as a file manager. When using it for simple file management, and it starts up the old Not Responding behavior, it can be a nightmare of frustration. This is a pain because Explorer is so interconnected with so many other tools. That's why I often rely upon one of the free replacements for the default Windows file manager. There are quite a few. Here are my top five. Give these a try and more than likely you will come out with one you like.

Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.

1: CubicExplorer

CubicExplorer is a fine example of how to make a full-featured, yet lightweight file manager for Windows. This particular file manager offers some great features: tabbed exploring, bookmark files and folders, search filters, a built-in text editor, file preview, transparency levels for different programs, themes, shortcut key support, breadcrumb navigation, session saving, and much more. CubicExplorer is broken up into three panels: Main navigation window, Navigation tree, and Filter/Preview/Dropstack panel. The Dropstack panel allows you to drag and drop files/folders into groups for temporary quick access.

Figure A

2: Explorer++

What I like about the Explorer++ file manager is that it's not required to install, so you can run it from a flash drive. No more having to put up with wonky Explorer on your machine or any other machine. Pop this tool on a flash drive and carry it around with you -- you'll have a file manager that will work when Explorer is flaking out. Explorer++ features:

  • Complete portability
  • Tabbed browsing
  • Real-time previews as files are selected
  • Easy-to-remember keyboard shortcuts
  • Customizable user interface
  • Full drag-and-drop support
  • Advanced file operations

Figure B

3: Xplorer2

Xplorer2 comes in two flavors: free and not free. The free version (called the Lite version) doesn't have all the features of the paid version (you'll be missing Advanced Searching and Customer Support) but is still a solid file manager. You can browse the entire shell namespace, preview docs/pics/music/video, view side by side, filter using wildcards, synchronize folders, and obtain more information per file/folder than you get with the default file manager.

Figure C

4: NexusFile

NexusFile brings a bit of style to Windows. Not only is it skinnable, it also offers some great built-in features: tabbed browsing, built-in FTP, built-in archive, advanced rename, Split/Join File, and much more. NexusFile might well be one of the most powerful Windows file managers you will come across. Its only downfall is that the interface could take some time for new users to grow accustomed to. But for anyone who has used a typical FTP client (or an older file manager), the learning curve will be nonexistent.

Figure D

5: Q-Dir

As the site says Warning: Once Q-Dir, always Q-Dir!!! Whether that applies to you will depend upon what you want from a file manager. If you want a crazy amount of interface control, Q-Dir might be the perfect fit for you. Q-Dir offers a large number of preconfigured viewing options to satisfy just about any need. You want four panes? You got it! That is, after all, what the Q stands for: quad. You can install this file manager on your hard disk or as a portable solution. It offers preview filters, drag and drop, clipboard, exporting to XLS/CVS/TST/HTML, screen magnifier, color filter, highlight filter, and much more.

Figure E

Choices

If there is a feature you've always wanted in a file manager for Windows, it probably exists in a different tool. The five free alternatives we've looked at here represent a nice cross section of the possibilities.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

50 comments
1000164640
1000164640

I just downloaded qdir. Bad experience. Very good reviews on cnet and I downloaded the 64 bit version (from download.cnet).  Wasn't paying a huge amount of attention when I started the install but noticed after stage 2 of a seven-stage process that I was being asked to install all sorts of other software. Unfortunately stage 2 involved installing one of those "we-will-take-over-your-search" things.  Once I spotted it I knew how to fix most of the issues but it threw up one I had never seen before, whereby if you added a new (blank) tab (using latest version of Firefox) it automatically went to an ad-invested search page. Had to download and run SearchReset add-on which thankfully worked.  Silly me but it is an awful long time since I have had that experience.  Ran malwarebytes which picked up over 100 threats all related to this PUP.Optional.SearchProtect.A or PUP.Optional.Conduit.A. 

Whether qdir is good or bad, it is coming bundled with a whole lot of malware.  I won't use it for that reason.

vsparadi
vsparadi

Advanced IP Scanner will browse network resources that are not seen by these and Win Explorer.

vsparadi
vsparadi

Advanced IP Scanner will browse network resources that are not seen by these and Win Explorer.

rorwell
rorwell

"File Explorer" under Win 8/64-bit is NOT my friend. Do you know which of the 5 alternatives you listed in 2011 (Cubic explorer, explorer++, nexusFile, q-dir, xplorer2) will work in that environment? Btw, explorer 2 doesn't have a free version for 64 bit, so it costs $30 for their pro version. TIA.

stuartjd
stuartjd

Just about everyone I know who uses Total Commander swears by it. It's easy for newbies to use, and has plenty of advanced features as well.

martosurf
martosurf

I can't believe that as 2012 people *still* uses Winshit, come on guys... I mean, if you're not tied to it because the software you need then why not to switch to a GNU/Linux distro? You will be _fascinated_ about the technical excellence and graphical desktop choices you have. And about graphical choices one way of making Winshit less shitty is installing KDE SC on it, this will completely change the way you use your computer and will prepare you to -provided you aren't tied to any windows-specific applications- to the big leap. Also, you will have the Dolphin file manager that will rock up the way you work with your files.

mike
mike

Remember XTree, XTree Gold? Anyone have any copies lying around? Now lives as ZTree but I haven't tested. Was the best file manager ever

jonc2011
jonc2011

Free to try for 30 days, then $44. Pity!

oldguardreindeer-techrepublic
oldguardreindeer-techrepublic

What search capabilities do these alternatives have? Explorer in Win 7 has a search capability that appears to be indexed and it can search for file names, types of files, etc., and with a small bit of knowledge (I know, a dangerous thing), a search can be narrowed and refined somewhat. I use it often but I wish it was smarter, easier or more sophisticated (maybe it's just me). So, I'm hoping to hear from you all about searching.

kerry.sisler
kerry.sisler

Will admit to really not considering anything for use that: 1) Wants to diddle the windows registry at all; 2) That wants to use or touch or create any folder except the one it was put in; and 3) Has to run an installer to get it installed and working(sic). This is fully in line with the current thinking for Portable Applications... I will normally Google for "free portable applications" first and exhaust those sites before searching further for tools which are shareware or retailware, etc.

RB1955
RB1955

A little late to the conversation, but illuminating none-the-less. I've used a few of the versions of PowerDesk Pro. Nice program. THEN I found the Personal Brain program ( http://www.thebrain.com/ ). They have one free and two non-free versions. I'd try the free version and go to pay-version/s if you think you need to. I finally got the Pro version ("Core" version is lower cost not-free one). I saw the PB prog demo'd on Stewart Cheifet's Computer Chronicles about 1999 or 2000. Got hooked on it a few years after that. Ver 6 allows you to drop entire folders onto the interface and it does the rest. Seriously one of the coolest uber-utilities I've ever worked with. They have a good series of web-based training vidoes. PB can also easily be used for mind-mapping as well (all versions). (OK, I'm a PersonalBrain fanboi, but just a customer, for about 9 years.)

Ron_007
Ron_007

Thanks for the list. DuoExplorer - I'm using it now but I also play with QDir and FreeCommander. I was really P.O.'d when MS unilaterally decided to eliminate the 2 pane File Explorer. Expecting me to open 2 copies of Windoze Explorer side by side is NOT a solution!

liltwin1101
liltwin1101

Thanks for the article! Where I have been? Under a rock? Goodbye Win Explorer. I downloaded and tested all but Xplorer2. Each has its own uses and I plan on using the other 4 as needed for specific needs. NexusFile will be the tool of choice though. It really has a number of very useful functions. I like the ability to change colors and that you can get to folders and files with several options. The FTP is a plus. Q-Dir is good for looking at multiple file locations at one time. I elected to use them all from their portable exe, even on my laptop. I am getting a new PC soon and did not want to install the apps. They all load faster than Win Explorer.

mcmlxxiixxv
mcmlxxiixxv

Wow, this was exactly what I was looking for. I tried (played with) the 64-bit version on one of my my Win7 64-bit machines and it has worked flawlessly so far. And even better, it's portable. Thanks for this tip.

clebermag
clebermag

I have been looking for a good solution in alternative file explorer programs, mainly becvause the lacks leaded by Explorer fron Windows Seven, and after I readed this post, I may say that I found a right solution. there are solutions for problems to view file size, folder size, to organize files into folders using tab feature, and many othres. And, it looks like the old Windows 95 file explorer, that have the button "new folder", not available on Windows XP. That is very usefull.

vatsaldesai
vatsaldesai

I used to love Xtree in DOS days - Does anyone know what happened to it! Anything else is comparable to it.

TexasJetter
TexasJetter

Just checked out Cubic's website, they have a protable no-install version as well as the traditional installation.

bhwong1
bhwong1

One huge frustration with Explorer is copying or moving of folders where a single locked or corrupted file will quit the process halfway thru. Utilities such as http://www.codesector.com/teracopy.php that allows skipping these files and allow the process to be completed is really useful. Does these replacements able to handle locked/corrupted files and complete the file management process too???

adipur
adipur

Why don't you mention Total Commander? It is unequaled in it's abilities, speed and hidden possibilities for an advanced user. To the WindExplorer it is like Phelps to a baby-turtle.

leorickg
leorickg

I have been using Q-DIR for as long as I can remember. There was a time that I was looking for a better way of moving, copying files from multiple locations without opening too many explorer windows. I might as well try the others :)

seanferd
seanferd

They go over nicely in a PE environment that doesn't have the extras of a Windows install disc rolled in. The old branch of xplorer2, 2xExplorer, is still available but un-maintained. Still works fine on XP. There is also XYplorer and BSexplorer, among others.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

This is a good list. I think it will become even more relevant after Win8 comes out. Not sure what will happen to explorer but it is good to have something to fall back on just in case.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Windows 7's only searches the indexes unless you specifically turn the indexing service off (then outlook complains). I have had this become an issue with network drives. The search will miss files.

LalaReads
LalaReads

Great to have alternatives to Windows Explorer. NC was my ultimate file management tool in the DOS days. I would love to have a utility that does a side by side directory compare like NC, since I want direct control over directory syncing. Also like to have a quick loading file viewer.

mckinnej
mckinnej

is one of the very first things I install on Windows. I've been using it for years. I can't imagine using Windows without it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Is your alias supposed to be a Roman number? I get 1977, but I don't know what's up with the out-of-position 'xxv' / 25 on the end.

cerealdud
cerealdud

$85 !!!!!!!!!!!! for Base product, $105 to make it useful. I'll stick to free thank you very much... :)

ian3880
ian3880

All three are ones I have used and found/find to be excelent. Xtree was bought and buried by Symantec many years ago, if I remember correctly. Ztree, is indeed a direct replacement for Xtree in the Windows environment. Strictly speaking it isn't a WinEx replacement - it is a stand alone program that doesn't integrate into the OS. Ztree is extremely powerful, and dare I say, not for the novice. [But there again, we wouldn't be looking for WinExplorer replacements if we were novices, would we?] After MANY years with Avanquest's PowerDesk, I discovered Directory Opus which is is my current choice and I'm still being amazed at its power and customisation abilities. HOWEVER ... The original article was about FREE WinEx replacements, and this specifically excludes these two programs.

arthunter
arthunter

Yes, I remember Xtree fondly. I did a Google search and there are a host of hits but do admit that I have not tried any of them.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Note that non-home use requires the purchase of the 'Pro' version (appx. $19 US).

Snowden
Snowden

But in my usage going back to version 3 it's the best by far. I always question the use of "freeware". When I purchased Windows Commander, it cost me under 30$. When you talk about support, one day I found a very minor problem and emailed Mr Ghisler. Within hours I had a corrected version and on the web site was posted a a new release. I was a controls engineer/cad manager now retired for a large GM facility and without Total Commander my work life would have been much harder.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It's shareware on a 30-day trial license. If you continue to use it after that time without purchasing it ($46 US), you're violating the license agreement.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Any specific recommendations for use within PE? Jack noted Explorer++ doesn't require an install, so I'll probably start with that.

seanferd
seanferd

Even when, IIRC, indexing was installed by Office and not a Windows component. I've tried it a couple of times across Windows versions, as I figured it might speed things up sometimes, but it missed tons of files. As to alternatives, why look for search necessarily bundled into the file manager? Use the Windows search if you find it better, or a search app if that works better for you. The only way to really know what suits you, though, is to download the thing and try it. This would be undeniably faster and more reliable than describing and discussing relative merits. But I have found no search tool or file manager (that includes a search tool) which was lesser than Windows search. (Well, I never went digging through absolute junk in terms of search tools, so YMMV.)

marcdw
marcdw

The file manager I spend most of my time in is FAR Manager. Along with various plugins I find I can't live without it. When used with a utility called ConEmu it allows for tabbed behavior (such as editing/viewing multiple files) among other things.

joanarbo
joanarbo

Not free, but you get updates without any further cost. See comments above. It does not only have 'two panels', but multiple tabs on each side, so all your disks, preferred directories and computers on your net are at hand. You can also batch rename, syncronize, change views with a click, tailor your usual commands on the ribbon, change names without risking an extension mishandling, copying and renaming on background and so on. And 15 languages to choose. Give it a chance! I've being using it for years after NC was unavailable anymore.

mcmlxxiixxv
mcmlxxiixxv

It's my birthday all mashed together: MCMLXX = 1970; II = February; XXV = 25 Edit: Fixed

pjkettlejr
pjkettlejr

ZTree works pretty much the same as the old DOS XTree. Although it is not free (Cost is about $30 USD.), I keep an updated copy on my PC for those odd moments when the need arises to poke around inside a file or program.

SKDTech
SKDTech

It is an outstanding file copy/move utility and I have licensed it for the additional features and because I think it is worth it, good products should be supported and I can use it for side work without legal worries. But it is not an explorer replacement.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

adipur asked why it wasn't included. Now he knows.

seanferd
seanferd

All the rest are standalone/portable. Although you can actually "install" some of them in a PE with scripts, like with WinBuilder. (You can even have Windows Explorer if you build a PE with a Windows install disk, if you want.) Some of these are unpacked from installers, but they don't need the registry. They may optionally use the registry for paths and MRUs and such, but most will save settings in the app directory in an ini file or something. So it is sometimes good to run them and set up your preferred defaults before adding them to a PE if it is going to be on read-only media. (If you aren't going to capture a running OS or export a VM.

mckinnej
mckinnej

Works fine from a portable, just make sure the settings are stored in the right place.

oldguardreindeer-techrepublic
oldguardreindeer-techrepublic

I agree that sometimes just searching through the start button search or recent docs or those start menu type things is easy enough and quite direct, but sometimes the search is because I want the utility of the file manager for drag/drop, comparisons, or such. And my mileage ALWAYS varies :). Thanks for the comment.

bhwong1
bhwong1

Will be great if there is a file copier that automatically skip unreadable file after trying for few seconds without prompting for action. Most copiers will freeze for as long as a min before prompting for retry or skip. On a crashed harddisk, we want to copy all the readable files asap without retrying and risk having more sector damaged. After all the savable files are saved, then retry on the corrupted file. Does unstoppable copier fit this requirement? If not, is there any such utilities exist? Quite surprise that such useful and basic utility is not available. :(

seanferd
seanferd

If you are looking for a file copier. It's pretty good at grabbing files residing partially in damaged sectors as well.