When you think of tools for file management, you probably think of applications like Windows' own Explorer tool. The Explorer metaphor is the one we've typically become most comfortable with for file management (aside from the command line, of course), but there are other file management systems that deserve attention.
Depending on the type and volume of files you deal with on a daily basis, something other than the usual Explorer-type system might work better. Consider the following alternatives:
Replacements for Explorer
Several companies market replacement applications for Explorer -- programs with roughly the same metaphor and appearance, but greatly expanded functionality. For instance, VCOM PowerDesk Pro lets you handle FTP sites as if they were local folders (far more transparently than Explorer does), synchronize the contents of directories and work natively with more than 30 file-archiving formats. It also supports direct previewing of dozens of document types. A good non-commercial Explorer alternative is freeCommander, which has several user-customizable options.
One of Explorer's limitations is that the way you organize files is entirely dependent on their physical placement in the file system. A program like Advanced File Organizer performs "meta-organization" -- it creates catalogues of what and where your files are, whether they're on your hard drive or on removable media. Instead of searching through the file system itself, you can search through the catalog, which is far faster. Advanced File Organizer also lets you search for commonly recognized metadata, such as MP3 ID3 tags.
Automatic file organizers
Many admins wish for an application that automatically sorts and classifies files according to internal criteria -- such as naming convention, metadata and dates. But few programs seem to fit this bill. One that does is Series Sorter. Series Sorter was written primarily for managing image directories (which tend to have fairly predictable naming conventions), but it could be used to sort other varieties of files. It also does not recognize metadata within files -- not even EXIF image data, for instance -- but this might be added as a feature down the road.
Indexing services crawl the contents of a drive and index the results for fast searching and reporting. If you want to deal with the file system as little as possible and just want to concentrate on pulling out files that match certain criteria, this is the best way to do it -- you don't have to worry about what's stored where. Google Desktop Search and Windows Desktop Search are two ways to do this on a computer.
Indexing, searching and tagging in Windows Vista
Although Windows Vista did not contain Microsoft's long-heralded next-generation file system, it does contain something that's immediately useful and powerful: a built-in indexed search system. Most regular document types, from Microsoft Office files to plain text files to email, are indexed when the system is idle and can be searched through a single unified view.
Windows Vista also lets you add searchable metadata to most any file. The most common example would be photos and EXIF data, but this can work with most any file type. The search engine itself can also be extended by third-party programmers to support any other document type, too (e.g., PDF).
Editor's note: This article was updated on July 5, 2007.
Serdar Yegulalp is editor of The Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!