Total Commander: File Management Power Behind a Beastly Exterior

Tuesday Aug 22nd 2006 by Joseph Moran

Total Commander has persevered as one of the more powerful file management utilities available for Windows. While it retains a loyal following, will new users be able to look past a drab interface to its solid feature-set?

When we first heard the name "Total Commander" we thought it might be a character on the Sci-Fi channel's new reality show Who Wants to be a Superhero? It turns out that Total Commander isn't some middle-aged guy in tights, but rather a file manager utility designed to take the place of Windows Explorer.

Total Commander harkens back to the early days of Windows (or the heyday of DOS) when there were many third-party file managers available and everyone seemed to have a favorite. Of course, Windows Explorer eventually became dominant, and while it is competent, Explorer's not particularly powerful nor does it afford much flexibility in performing file operations.

In contrast, we found Total Commander to be a fairly powerful file management utility with a few truly handy features. However, its usefulness is marred by an unconventional and extremely dated user interface that will likely turn off many people.

An Interface from Yesteryear
The first sign of what we were in for was when we installed the program and saw that the program icon is a 1.44 MB floppy disk. Indeed, Total Commander has a very "Windows for Workgroups" look-and-feel that's reminiscent of the time when 3.5-inch floppies were in fact the dominant method of file transfer.

One positive aspect of Total Commander's interface is its two-pane layout, which lets you copy or move between folders without multiple open windows. We also like how Total Commander displays compressed files as subdirectories, which makes it easy to manipulate one or more individual files inside an archive. (You can also compress and decompress files in a variety of formats without any external utilities.)

Our overall impressions of the interface, however, are mostly negative. We could probably live with a dated appearance, but Total Commander seems to avoid following any of the modern tenets of interface design.

For starters, Total Commander uses unorthodox menu headings and toolbar icons that don't give much hint as to what they do (fortunately, the latter do offer tooltips). But what's worse is that you can't interact with the program in the way that most people experienced with Windows are accustomed to. For example, to select a file, instead of simply clicking it you must right-click it. If you want to call up a context menu for an item, you need to hold the mouse button down for a second, which is awkward.

Another annoying characteristic is that unlike Windows Explorer (or most third-party file managers, for that manner), Total Commander doesn't offer easy access to special Windows folders like Desktop and My Documents via the disk hierarchy. You can still access these folders, but you must do so through a menu bar option (in the case of Desktop) or else drill down through the logged-in users Documents and Settings folder to get to them, and both options are highly inconvenient to say the least.

To help you get the hang of the program's vagaries, the Total Commander Web site provides a tutorial that offers step-by-step instructions for — along with an animation of — many common tasks. It helps, but we'd argue that a utility like a file manager should be intuitive enough to not require a tutorial in the first place. (There's also a fairly detailed help file provided.) Keyboard jocks will appreciate the fact that you can perform many operations in Total Commander via countless keystroke combinations — of course, the catch is that you have to learn them first.

Total Commander Features
Assuming you can get past the utility's old-school appearance and behavior (and frankly, we think that's gonna be tough), you do find that it offers a number of handy capabilities you don't get in Windows Explorer. One nice feature is the ability to compare the contents of two different files — Total Commander displays the files side-by-side and highlights the differences between the two in red (for text files) or blue (for binaries).

You can also easily synchronize the contents of two folders. Total Commander also includes the ability to rename multiple files in batch mode, though this feature takes some time to figure out. And people who spend a lot of time downloading files from FTP servers will find the Total Commander's built-in FTP client helpful.

Not all of Total Commander's features are particularly compelling. For example, Total Commander lets you transfer files between systems via a direct cable connection. That could be useful were it not for the fact that the feature doesn't support USB connections, only parallel cable ones. While the parallel port was a perfectly legitimate way to move files say, a decade ago, we don't think that too many people would care to use such an antiquated transfer method today.

There's also a built-in search tool that lets you search for files using lots of customizable parameters. But while this feature could have been somewhat welcome several years ago, it's much less necessary in an age of powerful (and free) desktop search utilities from the likes of companies like Google and Copernic.

Pricing and Availability
Total Commander runs on every version of Windows from 95 through XP. You can download a fully-functional version of the utility for a 30-day trial, and registering the software after that will set you back $34. (If that price seems odd it's due to being tied to the exchange rate of another currency — the Franc — which is used where the program's author is based, which also means the price is subject to change.)

Total Commander's author puts you on the honor system to delete the program after the trial period if you decide not to buy it, because it will continue to work past that point. Unfortunately, from the very first time you run Total Commander you must click one of three buttons to dismiss a nag screen before using the program, and the button is different each time you run the program.

While we understand the need to dissuade those who would keep using the unregistered program after 30 days, we don't think it's necessary to subject those who are legitimately trying to evaluate it to these annoying measures. We'd much rather the author simply disable the software after trial period ends, or at the very least wait to turn on the nag feature at day 31.

Total Commander seems to have one foot in the present and the other in a bygone era. It has a few genuinely useful features, but we don't think they make up for a highly unorthodox and rather confusing user interface. People with the time and patience to master Total Commander's UI will probably find it to be a powerful tool, but most folks will probably be better served sticking with Windows Explorer or trying another file manager.

Pros: Dual-pane folder view, handy file compare and folder sync functions, built-in FTP client

Cons: Archaic and cumbersome interface, several outdated features, nags during eval period, majority of functionality now handled by Windows Explorer

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