Navigational Man versus his Evil Archnemesis Dr. Spatial

When in the 2.5 builds the GNOME project changed directions of the ever infamous Nautilus to make the interface spatially oriented I was one of the skeptics. Yet, over the years I have used almost every type desktop configuration imaginable with very few that I found not to like or learn from at least at some points. With this in mind I was bound and determined to find the positives of the spatial file paradigm and, glean what I could from it.

Before I begin, I would like to make an apology. After years of reading mountains of opinions on all my favorite news sites I was sure that my first contributions to the community would be something solid and factual rather than another spot of drivel to heap on the pile. Alas, I cannot resist myself so if you are looking for a insightful, well researched article you can cease reading here. Now back to the subject at hand.

Click for a larger view In the spirit of paradigm shifts, let me turn the rules of writing on their head just for this editorial and start with a conclusion. The one thing that I have learned almost irrefutably is that if you approach this change with a goal of trying to find out how it can enhance your current file management techniques I think you will be sorely disappointed. This system is simply not navigational at all. In fact, I think it is hardly compatible with a navigational approach altogether. Rather, if you change your goal to be "How can this paradigm change my file management techiques" I think you will learn a good deal if you don’t stick with the spatial approach completely. Now that we have the conclusion out of the way we are ready for some of the observations and, of course, I will end with a thesis statement.

Firstly, and most obviously, I have found, as many others have, that as I use the new Nautilus I, almost without exception, have a slowly shallowing directory structure. Many people use deep directory structures as a pseudo-metadata system often with folders that contain only one other folder simply for the sake of description. While I wouldn’t qualify this to be a bad thing the overhead generated by having to walk through another window to get to your files is a frustration in the new mode. I get the feeling most people give the spatial Nautilus a short try and after they realize that they cannot do things the way they always have they give up not wanting to risk or change their current organization. I can certainly understand this hesitancy, but I still feel that if one makes the investment it will pay off. Addionally, I should add, since my files have become more organized I have not had the problem many have complained about which is the glut of windows that can occur with the spatial mode. This has slowly improved since I set out to use the new Nautilus and has steadily improved. At this point it is a nonissue for me. I think with a few improvements to Nautilus and Metacity over time this could be even better. I am not a taskbar user so if I can work with the windows anyone can.

Secondly, I found I have quietly been deleting hundreds and a hundreds of megabytes of data since using the spatial view. This, in fact, I have found to be one of the biggest indicators that something is working right. My organization is better now than ever before. With the spatial mode it is now much easier for me to see what I do and do not need right on-the-fly, in fact, in my normal work flow. This has been a great blessing since I have neglected the need for a massive cleanup for a few years and now there is no need to have one. I find myself merging, cleaning, and removing folders almost subconsciously throughout the day.

Nextly, I can get to my files faster than ever before. I can honestly say in the old Nautilus, Windows Explorer, and Konqueror I spent more time folding and unfolding the tree on the left than I ever did manipulating the files in the right panel. When I first started using navigational file management I thought it would revolutionize the way I worked. It did; and looking at it retrospectively I am unsure as to whether it increase my productivity or just my clicking. Along those lines I have heard several complaints that the new Nautilus no longer lends itself to keyboard navigation; however, in my experience it has been quite the opposite. I am able to perform almost any file management operation in a few keystrokes. My only request would be something that does both "Close Parent Windows" and "Close Windows" all in one keystroke and I understand that GNOME 2.7 has a "Close All Windows" of some sort which should be satisfactory.

Finally, and I feel most importantly, this is the first file management system that has ever "clicked" in my mind. Over the years I have understood the design of many file management systems and used them competently; however, this is the first where I feel like that is almost an unnecessary step. It is simply me and my files. It is almost like Nautilus, in many ways, no longer exists. If you can get that feel it is fantastic. It is almost like you are living and working right inside your disk. I think this feel is especially important for less experienced users, yet it was amazing liberating for me as well.

Click for a larger view Several months ago I put my parents on a $200 Microtel PC with GNOME 2.4, just as it was released. After having used it for about 8 months their modem was damaged by lightning. I took it to my apartment to order the parts and ensure that everything else was working. During that time I noticed that they definitely did not understand how to use Nautilus to keep their home directory organized. There were obvious signs of an attempt to keep track of things, but in the end there were duplicate folders for the same purpose, and many documents that were part of the same project scattered in different folders. I opened Nautilus and almost immediately I could see the new Nautilus is the solution to this problem: spatial mode. Also, using /apps/nautilus/preferences/desktop_is_home_dir would make things even easier. The user doesn’t even have to know or understand that they have a home directory or ever even look for their files. They are always right there at their fingertips. It also encourages organization because without filing your documents your desktop becomes cluttered.

I switched to this configuration a few months ago and I certainly won’t be going back anytime soon. Yet, many if not most users will probably continue to use the navigational mode. If it just will not work for you, then by all means, don’t use it. But I must say, it going back to check out the navigational Nautilus again I have found that my files are even better optimized for using it with the tree view than they were before. With this in mind I can wholly imagine a user combining both modes. Using spatial mode to manage their home directory while preserving the navigational mode for trekking into the root filesystem. I have found the new Nautilus satisfactory for both occasions, though most of my folders are tuned a bit differently from the defaults outside of my home directory.

Here are a few tips that I have compiled after a long period of trial and error:

  • Spend a few hours cleaning up your home directory and any other major directories that you do a lot of file management in. Eliminate old files and folders; combine folders where possible.
  • At least try desktop_is_home_dir if you can get your home directory down to a handful of folders.
  • Make extensive use of the .hidden files, especially in your home directory.

    I use it to hide mbox, Templates, bin, Mail, and evolution. All directories or files that I really would never use Nautilus to manage anyways and would almost never open.

  • Customize every folder including size, position, and default view.
  • Make a drawer of launchers to all of your most used places in your filesystem or a folder on your Desktop full of links.
  • Get used to using Ctrl-L when you have to go "off-road".
  • Use the terminal for certain types of file management; it is far more powerful than any file management system no matter the mode.
  • Make good use of gnome-vfs. Being able to share files with machines running SSH without having to setup any kind of filesharing is fantastic. Yeah, I know this one has nothing to do with spatial Nautilus, but try it anyways.

Now on to the thesis statement I promised: In years past I felt like finding my files was like climbing a tree, but now, thanks to the new spatial Nautilus, everything is right at my fingertips. Cute, eh? "Climbing a tree." I’m sure glad I’m old enough to feel ways about things.

Before I go I want to issue a bit of a challenge. All the navigational fans have been making their points about the pluses and minuses of each mode in the comments to all these spatial stories. I want to see a whole editorial. Anyone, tell me why you love the navgational system, how it has helped you, and some tips for the best usage. It seems more often than not with navigational file management everyone assume that it is the defacto and that everyone understands why it is so great. Convince me. I want to learn.

About the Author:
Ryan Stutsman has worked and schooled in the hi-tech state of Indiana for years on end now. He is returning to school at Purdue University this fall where he will be majoring in becoming a career student. He has been using GNU/Linux for about 8 years now and tries to participate in the community where he is tolerated.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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