Monday, September 14, 2009

Giving Up On Windows Explorer

I've mentioned before that my one great disappointment with Windows Vista has been the Windows Explorer.

First, the name sucks. How many times have you told someone to open the Windows Explorer and they instantly opened Internet Explorer? Okay, go to My Computer. File Manager. Whatever.

More importantly, Windows Explorer (My Computer, File Manager, Whatever) used to be very usable. In my opinion it is more trouble than it's worth in Vista and W7. It used to be (XP), that I would define the view I wanted, apply it to everything, and then it just stayed like that forever.

With Vista, you can kind of control that. But it stays for a few minutes, doesn't get applied universally, and SUCKS. Every directory has a massive amount of meta data so that every directory looks different. If there's one mp3 file, the directory stops displaying details and you have to go reset it so you can see your freakin' files!

I'm not sure who that's supposed to appeal to. I know it doesn't appeal to people who are comfortable using a computer.

What do you use Windows Explorer for? Three activities represent 99% of all Windows Explorer tasks:

- You browse through folders to find a file. It is extremely annoying when the view changes with every click. When you're looking for something you want to focus on one set of characteristics so you can quickly go through folders and find what you want. That's impossible when those details disappear all the time.

- You copy items from one place to another (or move them from one place to another). This does not require that extensions come and go, file details disappear, or that the background change. What's the point of all that?

- From inside a program, you browse for and open programs. Even if you've worked really hard to overcome the annoying default behavior for folder views in the regular Windows Explorer, all of that is lost when you call Windows Explorer to open a file from within Word or Excel.

Now I might be a power user. But I can also tell you that lots of regular users also hate this.

People aren't stupid. They fundamentally understand the folder/file structure. Even if you tell them that their desktop is just another folder, they understand.

This is not rocket science.

When you frustrate people so they can't find their stuff, you have not improved the product!

At a minimum, there should be an option to turn off all that crap and just browse files and folders with the details of choice.

I don't need a colored background.

I don't need a different picture on each of the 247,852 folders on my server.

I don't need dancing bears and elevator music.

I need a tool to manage files and folders that just works. This is no longer available from Microsoft!

(Susan Bradley and I exchanged several messages about this the last time I mentioned it. There are "fixes" for this stupid behavior. But because stupid behavior is now the intended default, the fixes only work until some Microsoft update replaces a .dll and resets the behavior back to stupid.

You think I'm alone in this? Google "make windows keep folder settings" and you'll come up with eleven million hits. Eleven million. The so called fixes all involve hacking the registry to remember a much larger number of folder settings, verifying that you've set the folders to remember the settings on each folder, and then manually setting every folder you touch so that it will be the way you want it next time -- unless Windows Update has "fixed" it all back to the way someone at Microsoft thinks it should be.)

- - - - -

The Fix is In

After much wailing and grinding of teeth, I have finally done something I haven't done in more than twenty years. I have replaced the Explorer that ships with my operating system with third party explorer.

This was pretty common in the day of Commodore 64, Amiga 128, and even the Apple II.

The file explorer function is absolutely central to the useful operation of a computer. Not just for techno-goobers, but for every user.

When a user says "Where did my stuff go?" that's a sign that file explorer has failed one of its most basic functions.

Don't get me wrong: I make no apologies for being a power user. I don't want the file management interface to slow me down. Its role in life is to make me work faster so I don't go to the alternative. The most obvious alternative is a competing operating system. But that's not the easiest alternative for lots of reasons.

The easiest alternative is to simply replace the Explorer called by the Windows Shell command.

I suffered through a bad Windows Explorer experience in the Vista era. The Windows 7 explorer is pretty much the same with a few additional annoyances thrown in for good measure (e.g., collapsing the folder view on the left by default).

There are two kinds of programs that ship with the operating system. There are lightweight programs that do a very basic job, such as Wordpad and Paint. They're fine. And if I were on a budget I could get by with both. But they're not intended to replace MS Word or Photoshop.

Then there are full-blown products that make the O.S. much more usable, like Internet Explorer. There's nothing "lite" about that product.

I expect the file management tool to be a full-blown, world class product. But there are text editors and $29 FTP tools that have more robust features.

So I downloaded xplorer2 from $30 USD. License allows one person to install on several machines.

It's not perfect. But it is full featured, it replaces Windows Explorer, and it is a great file management tool.

Note: If you're unsure about making it the default file browser, just don't check that box at install. Later, when you realize how much better it is that Windows Exlplorer, just rerun the setup and check the box.

The really sad thing is that Microsoft could fix this very easily. But after millions of pages have been posted to address the problem, they have clearly made a decision that that's not the direction they want to go.

- - - - -

I am definitely NOT the person who downloads every little utility or widget that comes along. In fact, as we point out in our most recent book, our company has a penchant for using Microsoft product and utilities whenever possible on Microsoft operating systems.

So the only reason downloading this utility and installing it is blog-worthy is that it represents a serious departure for me.

I've heard the argument that you should invest a good sum of money on your keyboard and mouse because they are really your primary means of interacting with your computer. I agree. I have a KeyTronic keyboard that will never die.

Well, I feel the same way about the file manager. It is my primary means of interacting with my computer. The applications I have open at all times are my file manager and Internet Explorer. A close second tier of programs includes Outlook, Word, and Excel.

It should just work.


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  1. I gave up on Windows Explorer years ago when I started using PowerDesk. However, recent changes to that program and its licensing forced me to make a switch and it was to Xplore2, also. Another option is XYplorer, but I find Explore2 very easy to use and very powerful.

    Welcome to the club, Karl!

  2. Save yourself a lot of grief and buy a Mac.

    I'm two months into the switch and never looking back.

  3. Paulie,

    I'm not sure whether you missed the point of Karl's blog completely or are simply a Mac fan boy. Either way, your comment failed to add anything of value to this conversation.

    Those of us who are IT consultants and who support clients in a Windows environment are not about to purchase a Mac to address a file management issue in Windows. For a few dollars we can simply purchase a quality third-party utility program and go about our business. In the meantime, I hope you and your Mac live happily ever after. Apple makes a very good product and freedom of choice is a hallmark of our society.

  4. when i was switch to a windows vista and using windows explorer it gives me error and stop working the navigation to the different programs are not working as smoothly as in windows xp.

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  5. The two issues in Windows Explorer that bug me the most are the way the "+" signs in the navigation pane disappear when the mouse moves out (my EYES still want to see them) and the way any folder with graphics files shows idiotic columns such as "ratings" and "date taken", when I'm actually looking at business graphics, not family photos.

    Windows Vista is in general way too animated, including the + signs disappearing in Explorer. For me, animation slows me down all the time, and especially slows me down when I'm working over a remote connection.

    I'm afraid there are too many "works on my machine" developers for us to do anything about them.


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