Twin-panel file managers

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Twin Turbo

Feel like you've outgrown Ubuntu's default file manager? Then you might want to try something different. This article covers some twin-panel file managers worth considering.

After a good browser, the humble file manager is arguably the most important tool in your productivity arsenal. Although the stock file manager in Ubuntu is adequate for basic file management chores, occasionally, you might need something more powerful, flexible, and perhaps a little less conventional than the bundled tool. In this case, why not give a twin-panel file manager a try? Several solid tools that fall into that category, and in this article, I'll look at a few worthy replacements for Ubuntu's default file manager.


At first blush, Sunflower [1] looks like a rather simplistic twin-panel file manager. Behind Sunflower's unassuming appearance, however, is a rather capable file management tool that offers several useful features. The project's website does provide a dedicated PPA, but it contains a version that is several steps behind the current release.

Your best bet is to install the file manager using the latest .deb package from the project's website. You also need to install the optional python-vte package, which enables the built-in terminal capabilities (Figure 1) and allows you to run commands directly from within Sunflower. To install the package, run the sudo apt-get install python-vte command.

Figure 1: Sunflower sports a built-in terminal.

Before you start using Sunflower, you might want to tweak its basic settings. To do this, choose Edit | Preferences. All options in the Preferences panel are grouped into several sections. In the Display section, for example, you can enable the command buttons by ticking the Show command bar check box under the Main tab, whereas the options available under Tabs let you configure the behavior and appearance of tabs in Sunflower.

The file manager's default functionality can be extended with plugins, and the file manager comes with several useful modules. Not all of them are enabled by default, though, and you can enable the desired plugins in the Plugins section (Figure 2). At the very least, you might want to enable the Basic rename options, Basic find file options, and Sessions plugins which add renaming and search functionality as well as the ability to handle multiple sessions.

Figure 2: Enabling plugins in Sunflower.

Because of its user-friendly and uncluttered interface, Sunflower is easy to master, and you shouldn't have problems coming to grips with its basic functionality. The file manager also supports tabs, so if two panes are not enough, you can open as many tabs as you need.

When you quit and launch Sunflower, it picks up right where you left off, preserving all the previously opened tabs and current locations. Better still, if you enabled the Sessions plugin, you can save Sunflower's current state as a session. Adding and managing sessions in Sunflower is not particularly complicated. Use the Session button in the upper right corner of the main window to access the Session section and manage sessions.

If you enabled the Show command bar option, you can perform common actions like creating, renaming, copying, moving, and deleting files and directories via a dedicated button at the bottom of the main window. Sunflower also offers a bookmarking feature, which can come in handy when you need to quickly jump to often used directories. Using the History button, you can easily navigate to any previously visited directory.

The file manager packs a few other useful features, too. Using the command bar, you can run commands without leaving the convenience of the file manager. Need to select all .php files in the current directory? Select a .php file, choose the Mark | Choose with same extension command, and Sunflower conveniently selects all .php files for you.

The Mark | Select with pattern command allows you to select files that match specified regular expressions (Figure 3), and the Advanced Rename tool (Tools | Advanced Rename) can be used to batch rename multiple files. Both of these features require a working knowledge of regular expressions, however. Mark | Compare directories is yet another useful command that compares the contents of the directories in the right and left panels and automatically selects files missing in either directory.

Figure 3: The file manager lets you select multiple files matching a specific criteria.

Sunflower can also handle remote servers, and the file manager supports the FTP, SFTP, Samba, and WebDav protocols. The mount manager, which is accessible via Tools | Mount manager, lets you create, manage, and mount remote volumes. Additionally, Sunflower provides extensive support for keyboard shortcuts, so you can perform practically any task without using the mouse. If the default key bindings don't suit you, you can change them in the dedicated section in the Preferences panel.

In short, despite being a lightweight file manager, Sunflower is definitely not light on features. Unfortunately, some of its advanced features have yet to be documented. Even without them, however, Sunflower is still a capable tool for juggling files.

4Pane File Manager

Why have two panels when you can have four? If you think this line of reasoning makes sense, then you'll appreciate the 4Pane file manager [2]. Thanks to its speed and the lack of fancy trimmings, 4Pane lets you focus on what's important (i.e., managing files), while the four-pane interface gives you a lot of room for working with files and directories (Figure 4).

Figure 4: 4Pane file manager in all its beauty.

Although 4Pane is not available through the official software repositories, the project provides its own repository along with downloadable Ubuntu .deb packages for Ubuntu. So, deploying the file manager on the Ubuntu desktop is a rather straightforward affair.

Although 4Pane may look like a bare-bones file manager, it has a few tricks up its sleeve. Similar to Sunflower, 4Pane supports tabs called pages, and you can have up to 26 pages (each containing four panes) opened simultaneously, which should be enough even for the most demanding users. Each tab (or page) can be saved as a template similar to Sunflower's session. Additionally, a bookmark feature lets you save and quickly access often used directories. The file manager even has a dedicated bookmark manager to help you organize and manage bookmarks (Figure 5).

Figure 5: 4Pane features a dedicated bookmark manager.

When it comes to searching capabilities, 4Pane provides a graphical interface to three powerful tools: locate, find, and grep. Although the graphical interface makes it easier to construct search queries, a working knowledge of these tools is helpful if you want to get the most out of 4Pane's searching capabilities. Unlike Sunflower, 4Pane does not have a built-in terminal, but you can launch the default terminal using Ctrl+T (or by choosing Tools | Launch Terminal).

Using the commands tucked under the right-click menu, you can perform a variety of operations on the selected file or directory. Better still, 4Pane lets you add your own custom actions called tools (Figure 6). For example, you can add an action that opens the currently selected file in the nano text editor. To do this, choose Options | Configure 4Pane and switch to the Tools | Add a Tool section. Enter the nano %a command (%a is a placeholder replaced by the currently selected file), give the command a descriptive name, choose the existing menu or create a new one, and press Add the Tool. Then, press Apply and Finish, and you can access the added tool by choosing the Tools | Run a Program menu.

Figure 6: Adding a tool to 4Pane.

4Pane sports the dedicated Archive menu, which gives you access to commands for creating and managing archives. The file manager also offers shortcuts to frequently used editors, and you can easily replace the default editors with your own preferred applications. Choose Options | Configure 4Pane, switch to The Display | Misc section, and press the Configure toolbar editors button. You can then add your favorite applications.

4Pane also is supplied with comprehensive online documentation [3], which will help you to get the most out of this nifty file manager.

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