The best file manager for Linux: The search for proper sorting

Ever since switching permanently to Linux, Ubuntu specifically, I have felt like something was missing from the experience. Unlike some of the criticism launched at linux distributions based on feelings, this was a measurable fact. There was something actually missing from Linux: A file manager of the same quality as the one on Windows.

One of the attractive features of using Linux is the customizability, so installing a new file manager and setting it up as the default is just as easy as installing any other program from a pacakage repository. Just install another, you might say. Unfortunately, for quite a while, all the alternatives to the default Ubuntu file manager were also lacking the single feature that I was looking for:

What I need most from a file manager is the ability to properly sort: Folders before files, then files by type, then within types by name.

I am easily satisfied. If the file manager is built using Qt while I use Gnome, it won’t look good, but as long as it sorts properly, I am happy. Now let’s look at which file managers succeed in this, seemingly simple, goal.

Nautilus

Nautilus is the default file manager that comes with Ubuntu. It is nicely integrated with the desktop environment, using the Gtk-toolkit on Ubuntu’s Gnome-shell. It nicely follows the themeing of the desktop and has nice, configurable shortcuts on the left-hand side.

On the downside, Nautilus is focused on keeping the file-managing experience as simple as possible. In the Ubuntu 20.04 release, finding the Preferences menu was fortunately made a lot easier, but the number of settings available is still a bit lacking. Most importantly: Nautilus does support changing the method of sorting files, but with some gripes. First off, there is no global setting for the way files are sorted available in the UI1Yes, I know that it is possible to change the setting using gsettings, but why is this a thing? Also, my other gripes with the sorting stand.. This means that for every folder, you must change the setting from the default, a default you may not like. On top of this, even though the sorting method used is stable, that is to say when sorting sequentially on multiple properties the order of the previous sort is preserved, it only allows sorting by one property upon entering a folder.

So, if you sort on ‘Detailed Type’, as Nautilus calls the MIME-type, a file starting with a ‘W’ may very well end up in the file list above a file of the same type with a name starting with ‘A’. Worse: Folders are then no longer sorted alphabetically! Clearly, sorting by file type is a mess in this file manager. Let’s move on to something that the more civilized among us might have given a spin: Dolphin, KDE’s file manager.

Dolphin

The appearance of Dolphin on Ubuntu 20.04 using the default theme has definitely improved since 18.04. True to KDE, Dolphin has a lot more options that can be configured to the liking of the user. Unfortunately, Dolphin does not allow itself to be run as super-user for the rare occasion that you wish to view a protected folder in a UI file manager.

On the plus side, it does support proper sorting by file type. The sorting algorithm is not entirely foolproof, as I can give an example of a ZIP-file with multiple ‘%’s in the filename being sorted first of all ZIP-files, but it is definitely good enough. So, on this, Dolphin gets a pass.

What isn’t so great about Dolphin is that it uses Baloo for file searching. This powerful search engine can also search through the contents of files, which is awesome. Less awesome is the disk space usage you might be looking at. Especially if you have lots of files on multiple disks the index file can balloon – pun intended – out of proportion, which is especially annoying if you run your system from a smaller SSD with all your files stored on mechanical disks.

Baloo can be disabled, but then you haven’t got functional file search at all. Perhaps this is less of an issue with the new version, in which a related bug was fixed, but only further testing will prove whether Dolphin is worth giving another chance. For now, let’s move on to xfce’s file manager.

Thunar

Right off the bat Thunar makes a good impression by showing the size of files in binary format rather than decimal, which I just like, YMMV. Thunar also manages to get the sorting right without any problems: Just click the ‘Type’ column header and you’re in file sorting heaven.

Thunar also remembers the view method set in the folder previously visited and automatically applies the same settings to the new folder. It lacks a global setting to allow for faster per-folder changing, but with this combination of features and a path bar that can be set to behave like the one on Windows2That is, buttons by default and an editable path whenever you click on empty space. Use the View->Location Selector->Pathbar Style setting to achieve this., Thunar is an awesome file manager that is worth giving a spin.

Yet, it still lacks a feature that Dolphin did have: Recursive file searching. Or does it? In any case, it requires additional configuration, thus for the ideal file manager we must look elsewhere. Perhaps LXDE’s PCManFM can satisfy all our needs.

PCManFM

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by how PCManFM looks under Gnome. The last time I tried Lubuntu, at the time of 14.04, I found that even though the distribution is very light-weight, the eye-candy leaves to be desired, if you find it important. Yet, PCManFM looks just fine under Gnome/Gtk. As it happens, there are two different versions of this file manager: pcmanfm and pcmanfm-qt. They are shown side-by-side below.

The Gtk-version of PCManFM is on the left, while the Qt-version is shown on the right.

Picking a winner is easy when using gnome-shell, but your preference may be different on a different operating system. Both versions support an easily usable tab-function, but when opening a new tab it becomes apparent that view settings are not carried over. Luckily, the default is easily changed in the Preferences. Sorting by file type, which in PCManFM-Gtk is called ‘Description’ while it is ‘Type’ in the Qt-based version, does carry over though, in both versions. Settings are not shared between them, so you can use them side-by-side with different settings.

File searching is supported, even in sub-directories, though a separate window has to be opened to use the functionality. The keyboard-shortcuts for opening this dialog differ between the different versions, but the functionality of searching itself is without a doubt great. Regular expressions are supported and, even more useful, there is searching within search results! It may not be the best looking of the file managers available, but its functionality is unmatched so far.

Nemo

Even though I had found an amazing file manager at this point, why not try another? Linux Mint is a very popular Linux distribution right now, particularly as a free and open-source alternative for Windows-users. As I must say that I have missed Windows’ file manager since switching, though I cannot speak for the Windows 10 incarnation of it, I decided to also try Nemo, a fork of Nautilus intended for Cinnamon desktop.

Though Nemo does not look quite like Nautilus, some things are still recognizable from the original. There are a lot of features that are absolute improvements though. There are more settings available, it features support for plugins and custom scriptable actions. Also, if you do not mind installing some development libraries3build-essential gnome-common libgpgme-dev libdbus-glib-1-dev libcryptui-dev libgcr-3-dev, you can even compile4Depending on your distribution, it may be available in the package repositories. a SeaHorse extension for it, giving you built-in GPG support like Nautilus has. I think I’m in love with a file manager.

Closing Remarks

The choice of a file manager is a deeply personal one. You may be satisfied with the one that comes with your distribution by default, which is absolutely fine. If you want more features, than as is appropriate for Linux, there are plenty of alternatives to choose from if the default option does not suit your needs. There are many great file managers that I haven’t mentioned, like Caja, which has nearly everything I like about Nemo, Konquerer, also from KDE and loads more. Some feature version management, git integration or are terminal-based. Every single one of the file managers that I have mentioned have many more features than I can put in a reasonably-sized blog post.

Really, this post is more of a recommendation for everyone to try some file managers. After all, depending on your usage, a file manager may very well be the most-used program on your computer. Just as you might spend time picking the distribution you like best with the desktop environment that works for you, the file manager is an equally integral part of your Linux-experience that deserves the same amount of attention.

Lastly, I want to say this: I absolutely do not understand how Nautilus gets file sorting so wrong. There are more gripes that follow from the algorithm it uses, which may drive you absolutely nuts or are just another thing to shrug at, depending on what kind of person you are. In any case, Nautilus should provide more options, but luckily that is exactly what Nemo is for. A fork done right, it doesn’t get more Linux-y than that.

 

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