I’m not sure why, but I just about always use the Explorer to do file manipulation in Windows and always use the command-line in Unix. I don’t think that it’s just because the Unix shell is more powerful than the NT equivalent, although it is a factor. Let’s face it, some things, such as moving a number of files that have unrelated file-names, are much easier using a mouse.
It could be that I’ve not found a reasonable file manager in Unix yet. While the X-Tree like programs, FileRunner and the like, can be quite nice they just don’t seem to be a huge improvement over the command-line to me. Then, at the other extreme, you have the big, GUI packages. Click here; drag over there. It’s all point and click, often with no keyboard alternative.
I guess SFM sits in the middle. It uses the GTK+ tool-kit to display itself and, while you can click files a get a short-cut menu, the intention is that you do everything using the keyboard. An unusual approach, but does it work?
I usually stay clear of GTK+ applications. It’s not because I don’t like GTK+ — in fact I think it’s one of the best looking and most functional of the many alternatives — but because there are so many versions in circulation that I always seem to have the wrong one and have, historically, ended up breaking just about everything on my machine by installing or upgrading it. SFM was quite simple by comparison. I chose a behind-the-bleeding-edge version because it claimed to work with GTK+ 1.0. It did, and what’s more I managed to leave the rest of my computer completely functional in the process.
The first thing that struck me when it loaded was how minimal SFM is. I know it claims to be the simple file manager, but you can take some things too far. In the middle of the screen is a list of files and directories, at the top is a panel displaying the current directory and at the bottom is a status bar (which is usually blank). There’s no menu, no tool-bar, no buttons, no hints.
So far is could quite easily be a character based application, but there are some concessions to GUI. One of the most noticeable is the use of colour. Colour-coding is used to good effect, with directories in blue, links in cyan, and regular files in grey. It makes it easy to tell which is which without resorting to obscure hieroglyphics that the command-line is so proud of.
And when I said that there was no menu, I mean that there on no standard on-screen menu. You can get a ‘context’ menu by right-clicking in the window. The menu has fairly simple options such as ‘up directory’ and ‘down directory,’ rename, delete and quit. Further down are its concessions to Windows terminology: you move files by cutting and pasting them. I actually quite like this way of working in Windows, but I know of a lot of people who think it’s annoying and counter-intuitive.
The sub-menu ‘More’ has a lot of not-very-obvious menu-items. What does ‘precise the action’ mean’? Why should I ‘fast quit’ rather than just exit normally? What does ‘toggle sort type’ toggle between?
Starting a theme
While I’ve started with the things that I don’t like, I may as well continue…
SFM is very proud of the fact that it’s entirely usable by keyboard. What they don’t say is that isn’t not always easy. Let’s see: select a file, press return. A dialog pops up asking what program we want to use to read that file. Only I selected the wrong file. Press escape. Ah. Doesn’t work. What I have to do it press TAB twice to highlight the cancel button and then press return. Neither quick nor immediately obvious. Worse, I select an executable and press return. It asks me what program I should use to run it. I don’t know the answer to that one.
Although I like the colour coding, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to label normal files using grey-on-white. They’re quite difficult to read and there’s no easy way to change them. I guess I could use the standard X method of diving into configuration files, but I think that a dialog is the best place to put them.
In fact it’s the lack of configuration options that annoys me about the whole program. Personally, I prefer not to see the ‘dot’ files in a directory — conventionally they’re hidden files and I’d like them to remain hidden until I say otherwise.
Some thing really benefit by having a graphical user interface, not all of them obvious. If you’d told me that there was a GUI version of ‘vi’ previously, I’d have laughed. But that’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s picked up the good GUI bit like scroll bars, point-and-click and menu’s for when I can’t remember the vast array of keyboard short-cuts.
As the Macintosh taught us, a file manager in a GUI environment can be both simple and powerful if it’s implemented well. Although I have no doubt that technically SFM is very good, as an end user tool it falls short of the mark. It’s neither especially easy to use nor fantastically powerful.