Everyone knows of Mac OS X’s Finder file manager, but not many know of a third party file manager by CocoaTech called Path Finder. Path Finder is one of the most interesting products that I have come across lately. It’s a file manager, but with a lot of extras. It can reside happily next to Finder, or it can replace it completely, drawing its own desktop, by unloading the Finder altogether.
Description and features
The default window includes the main body and two drawers (a widget found on OSX’s Cocoa API). The drawers can be opened or closed with a click of a small arrow just below the main toolbar of the program.
The left side drawer has three sub-views, the first one is named “Volumes” and includes shortcuts to all your hard drives, optical and disk images and network. Clicking on them, they will open their contents to the main window.
The second sub-view is called “Processes” and it lists all currently running applications, it is literally a taskbar. Right clicking on them, you will get options like “Get Info”, “Show Original in a file manager window”, hide it, quit it etc. Underneath this list, you get the Trash icon, and all its accompanied actions (Empty Trash, view trash for User XX).
The main file manager window has six views, and includes an icon option-rich toolbar, two status bars (!), the Shelf window, the Path Navigator and the main file view. The Shelf includes two sub views, the Drop Stack, where you can drop files and folders in there (copies their path), and then do other stuff, and whenever you feel like moving these objects elsewhere, you can drop them out of the drop stack. The drop stack is a temporary placeholder for files and folders if you want to use your Clipboard for other operations. Underneath the Drop stack you will find the Shortcut Shelf. There, like in the new Finder, you get easy access to widely used folders with a single click. You can create your own sets of shelves, so for example you can have a shortcut set for graphics apps or folders, another set for games etc. Please note that drag and dropping works great, you can move or copy items on any sub-view from any other sub-view. This is how I put my Volumes to show on my Shelf, because I needed them to be accessible at all times, without having to have open the drawer on the left (cause it takes space).
The next view is the Path Navigator, a fantastic idea and innovation: maybe the best feature found on Path Finder. When navigating into a folder, and then into another, and then into another, your path is recorded and displayed in the form of a button, as you can see in the screenshot above the main view. It is the path you followed. By clicking any of these automatically placed buttons you can navigate faster than any “Back” or “History” button or drop-down menu! It is truly such a simple idea and at the same time so outstanding and functional that is beyond description!
The main view of the file manager has all three modes (list view, icon view, hierarchical) and with the help of the context menus you can do all the traditional stuff (copy/move files etc) but also a whole lot more. You can create shortcuts, you can CopyTo and MoveTo (with a file-selector window popping up to guide it where to perform the action), email it, compress/decompress it, create disk images, enable AppleScript’s folder actions, open the current directory on the Terminal, label files, get long and advanced information via “Get Info” (allows “touch”, permissions etc), open with a running or an application from a list or with the default etc.
Path Finder supports spring folders, for all you BeOS and OS 9 users who learned to love it. It also incorporates a “hot spot” (grey rectangle next to the file name) which when single-clicked it loads the default open action for this item. More over, PF supports plug-ins. Version 3.x includes a brand new API where third party developers can write their own plugins and extend the functionality of the file manager. Currently, PF includes two plugins, “Convert Image” and “View as Hex”. At this point we should mention that parts of PF have been open sourced recently. Check Cocoatech’s site for more info.
PF’s Preferences are really vast and it should please many tweakers. It can be told to open folders in new windows or not (spatial mode), enable/disable spring folders, always show file extensions, automatic resolve of shortcuts, change font preferences, terminal preferences, set default permissions for new files and much more.
We should also mention that PF comes with its own terminal application and its own text editor. I found its Terminal pretty lacking for power users, and slow, but the text editor is fine for simple editing and viewing. Other new additions include a simple image editor, PDF viewer, hex viewer, ability to see hidden files, easy access to documents and favorites, etc.
PF also features a 16×16 icon in the notification area with a menu that lets you access the /Applications, the Favorites and the currently running applications. Other features of PF include ability to zoom in and out icons, modify their layout while you can apply color themes to the applications. Unfortunately, except the default Cocoa color theme and maybe the “Black in Black” one, all other offerings are terrible looking or bad in the accessibility area.
Path Finder is a full-featured application, but it doesn’t come without its problems.
Problems include the inability to Undo a move or copy you just made via drag-n-drop, while the kind of labeling PF does is downright ugly. It applies a color to the icon itself (rather than to the filename), making the icon look very alien and unattractive.
A small feature missing is also when using the PF desktop and the Dock is docked on the sides. I can’t place my desktop icons on the same vertical row where the Dock lives. Also, when in icon mode, I would like to have the total sum of bytes for the selected items in the status bar.
Performance is fine for all operations except when opening a new PF window, it takes about 1 second on my Cube G4, while Finder on Panther is instant.
Another small gripe is when you are moving down a file list with the arrow keys and you happen to select an image, PF will try to create a thumbnail for its preview window and that will resort to about 0.5-1 second of application unresponsiveness. This is of course normal, but the application should have the ability to measure how much time a file stays selected (that’s in milliseconds) and only then decide to preview it or not.
But the above problems are not really as important as the following one: Contextual Menu Bloat. Unfortunately, a lot of smaller important options have made it to the main contextual menu and this is PF’s biggest problem. The user has to roll his/her attention through a large number of options when right-clicking a file or folder, which makes using it at all an ordeal. For example, I would personally declare inappropriate for the general context menu –for my day-to-day basis work– 8 items out of the default… 24. Twenty four menu items is just too many for a menu that is accessed all the time. Usability experts advocate that the average human mind can not “process” more than 12 menu items instantly, and anything that is not instant on such generic operations is not well-designed. Options like the “Reports”, Open with Text Editor, Open in Terminal, Copy Path, Email, Compress and Email, Decompress, Compress, Volume Listing, Directory Listing, New HTML file, New Text File and Secure Delete should all move to the Plugins and/or on the menu’s Command sub-menu. While these options are not using the plugin API (so from the developer’s point of view they don’t belong there), from the user’s point of view, these are just extra options that complement the file manager and not part of the core daily usage for most people.
I truly like Path Finder. It has some very good ideas in it. I encourage all Mac users to download and try it, and developers to start developing small plugins for it (get ideas for plugins here). If just not for the Path Navigator feature, I find PF not only innovative, but a joy to use.
File managers should be simple, and as it stands right now, I find Apple’s Finder simpler to use and more inviting than PF’s for new users, but PF gains usage points with advanced users. If PF’s developers cut some of the bloat and move a few options around by “grouping similar items by usage patterns”, I believe that PF can appeal to all users, not just advanced and unix users. When this happens, Finder will have to face much stiffer competition and Path Finder can gain even more prestige and recognition. But even as it stands today, PF is one of the best applications on the Mac OS X platform.
Good points: Path Navigation very clever, Plugin API, terminal integration, many advanced features.
Bad points: Some operations slower than in Finder, UI-loaded default interface, bloated contextual menus.