If you have a computer, you work with files, no matter how much the emergence of cloud computing tries to hide the fact. Google Drive and Dropbox, after all, are nothing but online file managers. When most people think of file managers, they tend to think of Windows Explorer or Mac OS X Finder, but there are actually numerous other ways to manage files as well. In this article we'll take a look at several ways to manage files to suit nearly any working style.

File List Manager

The simplest kind of file manager would be the file list manager. It simply shows a list of files, as the name suggests. This style of file manager just lets you view files by certain attributes, such as file size, date modified and name.

This style of file manager made its debut with FList on IBM’s Conversational Monitor System. In addition to listing files, it allows basic operation such as copying and deleting.

Most command line shells, such as the Windows Command Prompt, PowerShell and Unix shells are de facto file managers, letting you navigate the directory tree. While some of the file manipulation commands are external programs, a good number of them are built in. The "cd" command to change directories on Unix shells is usually implemented as a built-in command.

This is faster than calling up an external program at the expense of some memory. Since Unix systems have historically run on powerful computers, memory was less of an issue. Modern shells have lots of built-in commands, since most machines these days have more than enough RAM to hold them.

Directory Editor

A directory editor works a little differently than a shell. As the name suggests, it shows you a directory listing, which you can then edit like you would in a text editor. The only difference is that instead of saving a text file, you actually make changes to the directory tree.

Want to delete a file? Just delete the line, save and it’s gone. Want to create a directory? Just add in another line. You can also change the permissions by editing them as well.

A directory editor can be a standalone program, such as Dired, invented at Stanford in the 1970s. It can also be part of a text editor. The implementation of Dired in GNU Emacs is particularly well-known.

Orthodox File Manager

Another style of file manager became popular in the '80s: the orthodox file manager. This style of file manager is characterized by a display split into two panes. They usually show the directory tree. You can see two different places of the hierarchy at once, which can be useful. You can show other information, such as file attributes or previewing a file in one pane, while looking at the directory tree in another.

Norton Commander, released in 1986, popularized this style of file manager. Even though Windows eclipsed the orthodox file manager, they still have a cult following. Midnight Commander is a port for Linux and Unix-based systems, as well as Windows. (You can also get it as part of Cygwin if you want the Linux flavor on a Windows system.)

Spatial File Manager

Now we’re getting into the modern world of graphical file managers. One early style of graphical file manager is the spatial file manager. A spatial file manager shows the icons and folders that people have come to expect from modern file managers, but dedicates one window to one folder in the directory tree.

For example, your documents folder would be one window, and if you opened up a subfolder, that would open up its own window in turn.

The Macintosh Finder popularized this style, and it carried over to BeOS’s Tracer (not surprising, since Be was founded by an ex-Apple exec). The Nautilus file manager, also developed by part of the original Mac team, brought it to Unix-like systems as part of the GNOME desktop.

While spatial file managers are easy to understand, the disadvantage is that all those windows can cause a lot of clutter.

Navigational File Manager

The navigational file manager is the kind that most people are familiar with. Both the modern Mac OS X Finder and the Windows File Explorer are based on this paradigm. In this style, a single window represents a location in the file directory. The users can navigate up and down the tree, though there are ways to get to important places quickly.

3-D File Manager

There have been some attempts at 3-D file managers. One of the most famous was shown in the film Jurassic Park, where one of the main characters has to find a file to lock a door to keep the velociraptors from getting in, yielding the classic line "It’s a Unix system. I know this."

The scene showed Lex Murphy navigating a 3-D representation of the directory tree on an SGI workstation. Believe it or not, this was a real program.

Given that these kinds of file managers are rather gimmicky and that it’s much faster to use regular file managers, 3-D file managers remain a curiosity.


Each of these file managers has its own style, quirks, advantages and disadvantages — there is no single "best." However, the file manager that's best for you all depends on you — your business, your individual working style as well as what types of files you use and how you use them. No matter how you like to work with your files, there’s a file manager out there that suits your style.