Back when Windows Vista was but a twinkle in Bill Gates’s eye, Microsoft had some extremely ambitious plans to rid computer users of an outmoded concept called “files.” But alas, WinFS (as the company’s project was called) turned out to be too ambitious, and eventually it got canceled before it could overthrow the file-based order. Since that time, Vista has come and gone, Windows 7 has arrived and lingered for a while, and we’re beginning to see demos of Windows 8. Through all of this operating-system evolution, files have remained with us; but as hard drives grow ever more capacious, you may sometimes feel as though you’re drowning in them. Here are a few utilities that can ease the pain.
When I think of “file management,” the first utility that comes to my mind is Total Commander ($46). This do-it-all wonder has been my constant companion since the days of Windows 2000. It lets me effortlessly select all .exe files in an entire folder tree (that is, a folder and all of the folders that it contains), rename multiple files according to complex schemes, and navigate in seconds to any destination in my extensive folder hierarchy. I can do all that, and much more, without ever reaching for the mouse. Some people might say that the dual-pane look is outmoded; but to me, its power is unparalleled (and besides, I like combining a faintly retro feel with my sleek all-glass Windows 7 desktop).
If you’re looking for a powerful all-around file manager but Total Commander just isn’t your cup of tea, take a look at Directory Opus. Available in 32-bit and 64-bit incarnations, this celebrated file manager has a graphically richer interface than Total Commander’s, but it is also much more expensive ($85 in Australian dollars, which converts to $92 U.S. dollars at current exchange rates.
If spending any money on a file manager is out of the question, but you’re still intrigued by the idea of multiple file panes, freeware Q-Dir might serve as a gentle introduction to the concept (though the program is not without its flaws).
Not all files are created equal, and a general-purpose utility can’t solve every file management issue. Many PC users have gigantic music libraries that take up lots of disk space. To tag and sort my music library, I use MusicBrainz Picard. This free, open-source application plugs into the MusicBrainz music database, and can accurately identify and tag just about any song I throw at it. MusicBrainz employs a voting and moderation system for user-submitted album and track data, so the output tends to be high-quality, consistent, and typo-free. After identifying a track, Picard can edit its internal metadata (tags), rename it, and file it according to whatever filing scheme you select (I go for artist/album/track).
Music files may not be the primary space hog on your system. Perhaps you have a folder (or several folders) containing tons of random files, some of which may be needed. Folder Axe (free) can make short work of any such gigantic folder by splitting it into multiple subfolders according to several criteria. Once you’ve divided your folders, you can conquer them by moving through each subfolder, handling each file (or file type) as needed.
If you’re unsure what is filling up your precious hard-drive space, WinDirStat (free) may hold the answer. This free utility uses a novel visualization method called treemapping to identify what files and directories are taking up disk space and how much of it they are claiming. The maps show files as pretty rectangles, color-coded by file type, in sizes that reflect the amount of space each occupies. Hovering over a rectangle shows you the file in question, and you can delete storage-space gluttons from within WinDirStat.
Cleaning your hard drive doesn’t have to be an arduous, manual process. Instead, you can use Digital Janitor (free) to periodically move or delete files that meet certain criteria within a folder, such as “delete all EXE files from my Downloads folder.”
Once your hard drive’s house is in order, you may find that files you need to keep are filling up most of the drive, and perhaps–as is often the case for laptop users–you can’t easily add hard drive space. In this case, a good compression utility may alleviate the problem. 7-Zip (free) is a fantastic open-source compression utility that can also serve as a file manager in a pinch. It can pack and unpack a wide range of compression formats, including .zip, .tar, and .gzip, but its main claim to fame is its .7z compression format which boasts an excellent compression ratio (often better than .zip) and strong encryption. As an added bonus, Gmail does not look into .7z files, which means that you can zip and send executable files to Gmail addresses (something you can’t do with .zip files).
No discussion of file management software would be complete without mentioning Oops!Backup ($37, 30-day free trial). This fantastic backup utility bills itself as a “time machine for Windows,” and that’s an apt description. Oops does double duty as a file management utility, because you can use it to selectively roll back a single file to a previous version, even if it’s several months old. It’s like having effortless versioning across your entire system.