Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 149 / FEBRUARY 1993 / PAGE S8

How to manage your files with Windows. (Software Review) (Compute's Getting Started with Windows Utilities) (Evaluation)
by Dan Gookin

One of Windows' sore spots is file management. It's understandable since Windows, in all its graphical ease-of-use glory, sits atop DOS--which is itself a poor file manager.This puts constraints on how you can use Windows, because everything goes back to the common denominator: DOS's file system with its limited 8-character filenames, subdirectories, and the rest of the cryptic cauldron. This doesn't exactly make for the computer of tomorrow.

Yet, while it's common to complain about the File Manager in Windows, few people bother pointing out exactly why it's so cruddy. The answer is that file management is more than just copying, renaming, deleting, and moving files. File management also deals with the contents of files.

A file is actually a bundle of information stored on a computer disk. How it's stored there, the technical details and mumbo jumbo, isn't important to most people. What is important is knowing what's in the file and being able to use that information. This is the key element missing from Windows. It's also the reason for many exciting and useful alternatives to File Manager, among them Norton Desktop for Windows and XTree Windows.

Basic Duties

The fundamental function of a file manager is what I call hard disk housekeeping. This is common file-management stuff: copying one or more files, moving files, renaming files, deleting files, and working with files in groups. It's the same stuff you can do at the DOS prompt, though made much simpler thanks to the graphic environment of Windows. All three file-management packages, Windows' own File Manager, Norton Desktop, and XTree, carry out basic file-management duties with ease. File selection, moving, copying, and deleting is accomplished using the mouse or keyboard; multiple files can be selected and manipulated as a group; and full use is made of dragging and dropping. The three packages do differ, however, in their graphic presentations.

File Manager in Windows 3.1 is much improved over File Manager in Windows 3.0. Multiple child windows now present views of different disk drives and directories. The left side of the window contains the directory tree, and the right side displays the files found in the highlighted directory. You can open a new drive or directory window by double-clicking on a disk drive button or directory folder, and you can minimize windows for easy drag-and-drop copying or moving.

Norton Desktop (Symantec, 10201 Torre Avenue, Cupertino, California 95014; 800-441-7234; $179) is more than a File Manager solution. It's really meant to be a combination Program Manager and File manager. instead of just seeing the file manipulation window in a File Manager-like application, the window floats over a background that contains Program Manager-like windows; drag-and-drop icons for printing, deleting, viewing, and backing up files; and program icons on the desktop. This works out nicely, since it gives you more options for drag-and-drop than you have with File Manager, Program Manager, and Print Manager in plain old Windows.

Desktop's file manipulation window comes with the standard directory tree on one side and files on the other. You open the window by double-clicking on a disk-drive icon that floats on the desktop. Once it's open, you can log to other disk drives using a drop-down menu and manipulate the files using a customizable button bar attached to the window. To open another file window, you double-click on the drive icon again. And, as you'd expect from the company that works with Peter Norton, there are a variety of file tools--including the famous UnErase.

If you're familiar with XTreePro under DOS, then XTree Windows will make you feel right at home.XTree Windows (Executive Systems, 4115 Broad Street, Building 1, San Luis Obispo, California 93401; 805-541-0604; $99) is more of a File Manager replacement than an all-in-one solution such as Norton Desktop. The program contains directory tree and file windows, as many of each as you want. In fact, you can always open a new window by double-clicking on a subdirectory or drive icon.

At the top of the XTree application window, you'll find a button bar containing common file-manipulation commands. Dragging and dropping buttons, as well as marking and selecting buttons, are represented with the proper icons. Everything makes sense. And unlike File Manager or Norton Desktop, you can easily manipulate a file's attributes--even the date stamp--in XTree. All XTree needs is an undelete tool to round out its basic housekeeping duties.

There's only one minor peeve I have with XTree--it shows both disk drives and subdirectories as folder icons.This fits into the XTree metaphor well; the directory tree shows all your drives and subdirectories. While I like that, it would still be nice to have some kind of folder-icon to identify RAM drives, CD-ROMs, network drives, and the like.

Information Please

Files are really about information, which is where File Manager fails miserably. Even if you're clever at putting complex meaning into an 8-character filename, a true file manager should be able to tell you what's in a file or to which application it belongs. It also should be possible to search for text or other information in a file. All three of the file managers can find a lost file. Both File Manager and XTree do this in their own windows. Norton Desktop comes with the SuperFind tool, which even lets you search for bits of text in a file or over an entire disk. File Manager lacks that nugget, and XTree will let you scan a file for text only if that file is opened for viewing.

What's more important than finding lost files or text in those files is the ability to see a file's contents in context--just as you'd see the file if you loaded it into the application that created it. Norton Desktop does this by opening a special view panel on the bottom of the file manipulation window. If the Desktop recognizes the file's creator, the view panel displays a file's contents in its native format. Otherwise, the file is displayed in a generic text or hex-dump format. A separate tool, Norton Viewer, lets you look at multiple files and their contents, and drag and drop multiple files into the viewer from a file window.

XTree also can show a file's contents in context. However, unlike Norton Desktop, XTree puts the display in its own child window. This is a much better solution in my opinion, since it lets you keep several of the displays on the screen at once, or it lets you show the same file using different viewers indifferent windows.

Another, often overlooked, part of information management is the archive or ZIP file. Archive files are collections of several other files, all compressed and combined to form a single file. The most common format for these files is the ZIP format, created by Phil Katz's PKZIP program. These files are used to store applications downloaded from electronic BBSs and online systems, and they're often found on shareware distribution disks. Some people use ZIP files to store seldom-used information in a compressed, yet still handy format. Because of PKZIP's popularity, dealing with ZIP files has become an important part of any file management tool.

File Manager thinks a ZIP file is just another file on the disk, so you have to associate it with PKUNZIP or some other ZIP management tool to deal with the file's contents. Under Norton Desktop, you can use Norton Viewer to check out the contents of a ZIP file, but you can't examine the files stored there, extract them, or create a new ZIP. XTree for Windows, on the other hand, is a ZIP-file paradise.

XTree treats ZIP files as volumes--like just another disk drive. You mount a ZIP file, and it becomes a folder in the directory-tree window. Once there, you can open the ZIP volume as a file window just as you would any other disk drive or sub-directory. From the ZIP-file window. you can view, delete, move, and copy files to and from the ZIP archive using the mouse. This is perhaps the best way I've seen of dealing with ZIP-piles.

Going Direct

Working with directories isn't a problem for any of the Windows file management tools. All three can move, copy, rename. or delete subdirectories as easily as they can manipulate files.

Surprisingly, only Norton Desktop was stubborn about changing a directory's attributes. While you can easily hide a subdirectory in File Manager or XTree (or even using DOS's.ATTRIB command), Norton Desktop just didn't catch on to the idea.

Another tool I've long wanted but have yet to see in any program is a directory Undelete command. The only thing I've seen that comes close is a technical description offered with the Norton Utilities, However, no easy recovery tool exists for resurrecting a zapped subdirectory.

Disk Doctoring

All three Windowsfile-management tools can format a disk, and each can mount or unmount network drives. Only XTree lacks the ability to do a diskcopy. However. when comparing disk copies between Norton Desktop and File Manager, I found that File Manager could do it in about half the time.

For specialty items, Norton Desktop was the only application to offer complete backup and virus scanning utilities. Yet while Norton Backup for Windows and Norton Anti-Virus are actually two separate products bundled with Norton Desktop, I still believe these functions are important to file management in general and should be a part of any decent file manager.

XTree offers a specialty program called XTreeLink. It allows two PCs to be connected using a null modem cable for file exchange. Once connected, the other PC's drives appear in XTree's window.

What's Left for the Future?

Of the three file management tools, Norton Desktop for Windows has the most to offer. You can't argue with the solid integration between the program's File Manager and Program Manager features, the nested program windows, and the abundance of utilities and tools (including the best icon editor I've seen). However, Norton Desktop may be a bit much for most people. It's complex and, even though version 2.0 loads taster than version 1.0 did, it still takes longer to start (and quit) Windows with the Desktop as your shell than it does when you use the Program Manager.

If all you need is a capable replacement for File Manager, then XTree Windows is your choice. Not only does it include a button bar, multiple windows, and in-context file viewing, it also sports the best ZIP file manager I've seen. In fact, XTree Windows comes the closest to replacing my much-beloved Magellan for DOS as the ultimate file information tool.

Windows' File Manager is the least capable of the three, but still a practical way to shuffle files around. In windows for work groups, the network version of Windows, File Manager has been upgraded to include common file commands listed on a button bar. That would be a welcome addition to the Windows 3.1 File Manager, but it still does nothing to improve information management.

Even with these File Manager competitors, there are still some features I would like to have when dealing with files under windows. For example, I'd love a utility that would let you rename a file by dragging the mouse over the filename and typing in a new name. Further, it would be nice to have an iconic view, of the files on the disk instead of the gussied up icons-next-to-text descriptions you get now with Windows file management. (Of course, we really don't want a Macintosh, do we?)

The good news is that there's hope. Exciting and useful tools, such as the. Norton Desktop and XTree Windows, didn't exist a few years ago. Perhaps there will be a brighter future for Windows file management as these products evolve, and newer, better file management tools appear.