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What the Zuk: an ode to Total Commander


What the Zuk is a (very) occasional feature, in which I review software that I have been using for many years, and which is instrumental for my work. These are the first tools I install on every new system, the reliable work-horse applications I turn to for every need. In every installment I will try to explain what makes this particular program special, and why I find it so vital for my computing experience.

The first program I'd like to review is none other than perennial classic, Total Commander. Now, this review isn't aimed at the hardened geeks who use FAR and other file managers; rather, it's aimed at most Windows users, whom, I assume, use plain Explorer. And while Explorer has made tremendous strides over the past few years, it still doesn't come close to what you can do with Total Commander.

So if you've looked at the screenshot and wondered what could you possibly get out of such an "antiquated" interface, keep on reading to find what you can do with Total Commander that you can't do with Explorer.

Complete keyboard control: To say that Total Commander is keyboard-centric would be an understatement. There is factually nothing you can't do with Total Commander using the keyboard.

Portable: Total Commander is completely portable; you can have it save any settings in an INI file in its own folder, and take it with you on a USB disk. Have your own customized file manager, with your own keyboard shortcuts and custom configuration, anywhere.

Tabbed interface: Probably the first thing most people notice about Total Commander is the two-pane interface. A two-pane interface is great when you have a "Source" folder and a "Destination" folder, or just two folders you're working with at the same time. But when you take that and add tabs, things really go into overdrive. By hitting Ctrl-T, a new tab opens in the currently active pane. You can then switch between tabs (for that pane) using Ctrl-Tab, as you would expect. You can also drag-and-drop tabs from one pane to the next (and I'm sure you can set up a keyboard shortcut for this, too).

Copy current file path or name: One very handy keyboard shortcut I configure is Alt-Ctrl-C for copying the current folder path to the clipboard, ant Shift-Ctrl-C for copying the currently selected filename with its full path. This means that I never have to navigate Windows' annoying File Open or File Save dialog!

FTP: Total Commander has its own integrated FTP client, which is far more robust than Windows' clunky FTP integration. You can easily set file permissions, relegate operations to the background, and carry on your work regardless of whether you are on FTP or a local folder.

Horizontal layout:
If you're working with longer filenames, a single keystroke – Alt-C – flips the entire interface around, so that instead of a left/right layout you get a top/bottom layout. I rarely use this, but it comes in handy when working with smaller monitors or long filenames, and I love how accessible it is.

Configurable color scheme: With Explorer, you are pretty much stuck with the default Windows look. And while Windows certainly became more fetching over time (just compare 7 to XP), it's all so ... white and anemic. Total Commander lets you configure colors very easily, as you can see above.

Configure all keyboard shortcuts: Virtually each and every operation that can be done using Total Commander can be assigned a keyboard shortcut. Above you can see the dialog for finding command names; it features a built-in filter since there are so many commands. But this is a one-time operation: As you use the program you will find some operations you perform more frequently, and you may want to assign your own shortcuts. For example, I use a single keystroke on the RIGHT arrow for going into folders, and a single keystroke on the LEFT arrow to go back out.

Reliable file operations: Have you ever tried copying a folder with 5,000 files somewhere with Explorer? When such an operation fails, you don't always know why. Total Commander's error messages show you exactly what file failed, and why. You can then select whether you want to retry, abort or skip this file. Again, Windows 7's explorer is starting to catch up in this department, but it's not quite there yet.

Change file display details:
Explorer limits you to a handful of details you can see, even in Details mode. And what's more, you can only see them formatted the one way deemed "correct". Take dates, for example. What if I want to see file modification date as YYDDMM, with no separators? Total Command lets me do that very easily. When trying to find a file modification time in a list of hundreds of files, these formatting niceties can really make a difference.

RAR, BZ2 support: Windows has had built-in Zip support for ages. But when you use Total Commander, RAR files become just as easy to use as folders. Add a free plug-in, and you get to use BZ2 archives. Unix TAR and GZ files are not a problem either, and additional plug-ins let you use 7z, ACE, or any number of exotic compression formats, many of which are superior to Zip.

Quick file selection:
How do you select all files of a certain type in Explorer? Easy! Sort files by type, scroll down the list until you see the file type you're looking for. Click the first one. Scroll down some more. Shift-click the last one. Is that slow, or what? In Total Command, just hit the Numpad + button and enter *.jpg. Simple! But here's a neat trick: If you want to select all files except the JPGs, just hit * one time, and selection inverts. This is something you simply cannot do with Explorer.

Quick selection in list: Start typing any file or folder name, and the cursor jumps to the first name starting with those characters. Not very impressive – Explorer can do this too. What Explorer can't do is use wildcards. For example, here I am quickly navigating to a file starting with E, that has a "c" anywhere in the name. Also, Explorer by default does not feature a textbox for start-of-filename searches so you have to type quickly if you want anything after the first letter (you can install Listary if you want this sort of functionality in Explorer).

Integrated command line:
I have seen any number of utilities, hacks and tricks that add a "console here" entry to the overcrowded right-click menu in Explorer. With Total Command, you get a slim command line right at the bottom of the window, which executes any command within the currently selected folder. So opening a console in any folder is just a matter of typing "cmd" and hitting Enter. Of course, if you have just one command to execute, you can enter it right there. By pressing Ctrl+Enter, you can feed the currently selected filename into the command line so you don't have to type it.

Quick folder size calculation: Put the selection over any folder, and hit Space. The folder becomes selected, but something else happens: Its size is calculated and instantly displayed in the list. If it's a large folder containing thousands of other folders and files, the size calculation happens in the background, so Total Commander remains just as snappy and responsive. If you do this for several folders, the status bar shows you the accumulated space they all take together.

Quick View: When you're working with a bunch of text files and want to quickly see what they contain, just hit Ctrl-Q, and the "target" pane becomes a viewer. As the selection goes over each file, the quick-view pane instantly shows its content. This works with images too – although if you're browsing a folder of images, Explorer is clearly a superior choice; the UI just works better for that kind of work.

"Flattening" folders: Let's say I have a folder with ten subfolders. These all contain a mix of files, but also some fonts. Now, I want to quickly go over the fonts only. With Explorer, I would have to do a search. And then if I want to see some other files, another search. With Total Commander, I simply hit Ctrl-B and the hierarchy "flattens" -- suddenly I am looking at a long list files, just as though they were all in one folder. Nothing changes on the disk -- it is just the display.

Speed of operation: Total Commander itself is simply faster than Explorer. I am referring to computational operations here – file copying, calculating folder size, etc. Add to this the speed you get with keyboard-centric operation, and when you know what you're doing you can be a real speed demon with Total Commander.

Gradual learning curve: Some software (read: Vim and Emacs) is insanely powerful, but is almost impossible to get started with. Once you know what you're doing, you're hooked – but getting there can be a big problem. Total Commander is nothing like that. You don't need a manual or a screencast; just take it, start playing around with it, and pretty soon you're bound to fall in love with it.

Bottom line: There are a ton of other features I haven't touched on, but I hope I managed to pique your curiosity about using Total Commander. If you are already proficient with FAR or Directory Opus, Total Commander probably doesn't have much to offer you; but if all you've ever worked with is Explorer, I highly recommend trying Total Command out.

Tags: explorer, filemanager, opus, shareware, totalcommander, zukerlist