Home > Blog > File Management Tools

File Management Tools

Posted by henrythe5th on September 17, 2018

People who work in the design and construction industries (along with others like research, law and political commentary) often have to manage big file sets, especially files related to clients and/or projects. Unfortunately, the file manager supplied with Windows is woefully inadequate for this task. If you are a person who has to keep up with a large number of files, we recommend looking into a tool like the one described here.

Windows provides Windows Explorer (or File Explorer or whatever Microsoft calls it this year) for use in managing, copying and moving files. This is an "explorer" style file manager, however, there is a different type of file manager available: the "orthodox" or two-pane manager.

The difference? The "explorer" or "navigational" style is split, with a list or "tree" of folders on one side and the files in the highlighted folder on the other. The "orthodox" style is also split, but each side shows the contents of two different folders—as in "from" and "to." The first is fine for simple "exploring" to locate a file, but the second is much better at "doing" (and a navigation pane can usually be added to the display, too).

It is true that you can accomplish most of what you "need" to do with "explorer" style managers. However, the one that comes with Windows can be a pitiful and under-powered source of frustration for anyone who manages a large number of files organized in multiple folders. This is the case for anyone who deals with construction industry or financial files and their need to be organized by years, projects, clients, etc.

Here is an example of an orthodox file manager, Total Commander (click for larger image):

Screenshot of Total Commander file manager

Total Commander is a shareware product (starting with a brief "click this button" nag screen) but can be licensed for very little money (recommended if you use it, since it gives the author an incentive to improve it).
The image above shows a number of the features:

  • Each side of the display shows a separate folder
  • Just beneath the menu are (left to right) 1) buttons that change the view of the files, 2) special functions buttons, 3) user-definable quick access to often-used programs and 4) on the right, custom buttons that instantly display favorite folders. Most of the icons in use are those of the software program used within the folder (e.g., a publisher program for a publishing project folder). You create the basic folder buttons by simply dragging a desired folder from the file list to the bar. Changing the folder icon as shown here is addressed later in this section.
  • The next row contains buttons giving access to available disk or USB drives.
  • The file panes can use custom color-coding for specific types of files (here, purple = PDF, green = spreadsheets)
  • Near the bottom are constant displays of files selected, total size, etc.
  • At the bottom are clickable buttons with reminders of which function keys on your keyboard will do the same operation. Using the function keys is faster than using a mouse.

There are a number of file managers available and each will have its pros and cons (and its champions and detractors), but you want one with these basic features:



A two-pane layout that shows files on both sides (minimum and absolutely required)

The two-pane format means that any time you are copying or moving files, you can automatically see both the source and target folders at the same time.

Function keys for the most basic operations like copy and move, create folder, etc.

Functions keys eliminate multiple clicks of a mouse to perform basic operations like copy and move. For example, the procedure for copying to the other pane is: Highlight the desired file or files, press [F5], confirm. If file names match, you have options to replace the files or only replace older versions.

Persistent marking of files with a key (such as the space bar)

In addition to the Windows Shift+click and Ctrl+click marking methods, this makes it very easy to mark files without making mistakes or losing all your previous marks. In conjunction with the "copy" and "move" function keys, this eliminates the kinds of mistakes that can happen with File Explorer.

Safer and faster copying and moving of files

The two panes act as "source" and "destination" (whichever pane is active is always the source). Instead of clumsy copying and then moving to the destination folder (or having to open two windows and drag between them), you simply position the two panes, mark the files and then press [F5] or [F6] to copy or move. This eliminates the possibility of dragging and dropping files into an unexpected destination.

Allows you to change "views" of files with a single click or a hot-key

Easy changes of views means you can switch from simple icons to file details like date and time to thumbnails instantly.

Allows single-click access to favorite folders with user-definable buttons

Being able to create buttons for favorite folders eliminates an enormous amount of wandering around the file system just to get to where you already know you want to be, and eliminates the advantage of the "explorer" style in navigating to often used folders. You can assign icons to the buttons that help identify the folder contents.

Allows custom color coding of file names

Makes it much easier to see files based on the file type. For instance, all your PDF files can be purple and all your spreadsheet files can be green.

Allows multi-file rename

Extremely useful in cleaning up files with date-based content that have inconsistent names or punctuation.

Treats zip files just like any folder.

Makes it easier to create and email collections of files and to deal with zip files that you receive. Instead of using [F5] to instantly copy marked files to the other pane, you can use [Alt-F5] to create a zip file in the other pane.

Preserves the Windows behaviors that are actually desirable

Basic things like typing the beginning of a file name to instantly move to it, using [Backspace] to move up to a parent folder are always useful. Right-clicking a file produces the usual "context" menu of options for that file. Drag-and-drop works as expected (which is actually not always true, even in Windows).

In addition to Total Commander, You can find a list of other file managers of this type here.

Tweaking Total Commander

Total Commander is a descendant of a much older MSDOS file manager called Norton Commander. As a result, it retains some of the conventions of that product. To make it respond in a way that is more familiar to Windows users, there are a handful of option settings you should make, using the menu command Configurations> Options:

Color: Select the "Use inverted selection" option, especially if you ever plan to use the "Define colors by file type..." function below it. The inverted selection makes it much easier to see which files you have selected for multi-file operations. However, feel free to play with the settings.

Operation: The important setting here is in the middle: "Mouse selection mode," which should be changed to "Left mouse button." Just above that, the "Select only the file name when renaming" option makes it easier to leave the file extension (file type) intact. I recommend not saving directories on exit (so you start in the same location each time not the "last" one) and to allow it to calculate the space occupied by a subdirectory when you select it with the space bar (very convenient feature).

Quick Search: Change this to "Letter only." This mimics the way Windows Explorer will take you to a file that starts with the letter you press, but works much better, since some versions (or settings) of Windows only respond to the first letter. Here, you can press several letters of a file name and it will home in on the file with the most exact match.

Changing Folder Icons

If you drag a folder to the button bar to create a shortcut to that folder, you can change the icon shown from the generic "folder" icon that is the default. There are three ways to change the icon, all of which start by right-clicking on the button and selecting the Change... option from the pop-up context menu.

  1. You can change the icon to one contained in a program's "exe" file.
  2. You can change the icon to one contained in a Windows resource file, such as a "dll" file.
  3. You can create your own icon using an icon editing utility.

Of these, the third requires a little more expertise than can be included here, but you can search the internet for "icon editor" to find possible choices. If you create your own icon, the most logical place to store it may be in the folder that you want to use it to represent (but you can't change that folder name later without editing the reference to it that allows Total Commander to find it).

For the first two options, the method is much easier:

  1. Right click on the button and select Change....
  2. On the pop-up screen that appears, look for the option labeled "Icon file:" and then click on the [>>] button at the right of it.
  3. Navigate to one of two places:

a) the folder containing a program file related to the folder contents (for instance, winword.exe is the program file for Microsoft Word). Program files are normally located a subfolder of either "C:\Program Files" or "C:\Program Files (x86)" depending on your computer. 


b) to a file containing assorted Windows resources. The best file to try for this option is "C:\Windows\System32\shell32.dll" since it contains dozens of useful icons.

  1. Double-click the desired file to open it.
  2. All the icons in the file will be displayed. Select the icon you prefer to use for your button.
  3. Click on "Okay" to set the icon.
Bookmark and Share