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Why a Finder Replacement is Still a Good Idea

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Until OS X Mavericks, a replacement Finder application was a must for most power users. Basic features like tabs were missing from OS X’s default application, so to get an improved Finder experience you had to turn to third parties. With Mavericks, however, Apple has finally brought tabs to Finder. In this tutorial I’ll show you what replacement Finder applications are out there, what they can still add to your workflow and why they're still worth getting.

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Why a Finder Replacement is Still a Good Idea

The Importance of Tabs

Just as tabs made browsing the web a much more pleasant and efficient experience, they do the same for browsing files. While once you had to have every folder open in a separate window, that you had to keep track of, now you can keep all your file browsing confined to a single window. No longer do countless windows clutter up your display while you do something as simple as move a few files from your Downloads folder.

For these reasons, power users have been decrying the lack of tabs in Finder for years. Apple has finally given in. Tabs are the one feature that will most change how you interact with Finder. But if you no longer need a third party application to get tabs, why you should get one at all? Do they have any extra features that make them worth the hassle and cost? In this tutorial, I will provide you with all you need to know to make your mind up.

Three Finder Replacements

There are a number of third party Finder replacements available, three of the main options are XtraFinder, TotalFinder and Path Finder. XtraFinder and TotalFinder are aimed at improving OS X’s default Finder application, while Path Finder is a total replacement.

XtraFinder

XtraFinder is a free application available from Tran Ky Nam Software. In addition to tabs, which Mavericks now adds, XtraFinder offers Dual Paned file browsing, a pinned Finder window that can slide in from the bottom of your screen for quick access to your files and a load more tweaks.

TotalFinder

TotalFinder is available from BinaryAge for $18 after a 14-day free trial period. TotalFinder has the same major feature set as XtraFinder however your $18, and the loss of a few minor tweaks, gets you more polish and less of an impact on system performance. It also has better developer support and releases faster updates when OS X has major changes.

Path Finder

Path Finder is available from Cocoatech for $40 after a 30-day free trial period. It is a completely different beast than XtraFinder and TotalFinder. While it has most of the features that the other two do, it also has a lot more. Where XtraFinder and TotalFinder are focused on improving Finder, Path Finder aims to totally replace it.

Path Finder allows you to totally customise the interface. It is built around a series of six modular panels that you can configure as needed. In addition to standard file browsing panels, you can display a number of panels showing information about your files. Path Finder also features the ability to create new files, perform basic image edits or connect to Git and Subversion. On top of all this, you can even include a Terminal window directly into the interface. And I have barely scratched the surface of its features!

Which One to Get

For most users, XtraFinder or TotalFinder are going to be more than enough. Path Finder more than justifies its high price tag if you are severely limited in your day-to-day usage by what Finder can do. If you do not need its advanced features, like connecting to Git or Subversion or easy access to the Terminal, it is simply not worth it. For the rest of this tutorial, I'll focus on how the major features of XtraFinder and TotalFinder can be integrated into your workflow. I recommend you download the free TotalFinder trial to follow along with this tutorial. Once the trial is over, if you decide that the extra polish it offers compared to XtraFinder isn’t worth $18, you can uninstall it and install XtraFinder instead.

Installing XtraFinder and TotalFinder

XtraFinder and TotalFinder are both plugins that are built on top of Finder. They have a nearly identical installation procedure. Whichever one you decide to install:

  • Visit either the XtraFinder or TotalFinder download page and download the application’s .dmg file.
  • Navigate to the Downloads folder and open the application’s .dmg file.
  • Double-Click on the application’s .pkg file to start the installation.
  • Follow the installer’s instructions entering your password when required.
  • Navigate to the Applications folder and open the app that you just installed.
  • Both application’s preferences can be accessed from their menubar icon.

Configuring XtraFinder and TotalFinder

In this tutorial I’ll focus on using Dual Panes, a pinned Finder window that you can bring up with a quick keyboard shortcut and a few other tweaks. To get things set up, I suggest you enable a few things in your application of choice’s preferences.

XtraFinder

To enable dual panes, ensure the Tabs checkbox is checked in the Tabs preference pane. To get the most out of it, ensure the Show the second Sidebar checkbox is also checked in the Dual Panel mode section. I also recommend you set a keyboard shortcut for Toggle Dual Panel in the Shortcuts section. I like to use Command-U.

To enable XtraFinder’s keyboard accessible Finder window you need to assign a Show Pinnable Windowkeyboard shortcut. My preference is to use Option-Space but the default is Option-`. Use whatever you think will work for you. You could even use your Caps Lock key!

I’d also recommend that you enable the following settings in the Features and Add items to Finder menus preference panels. In the Features panel, check Cut & Paste and Arrange folders on top. In the Add items to Finder menus panel assign Show Hidden Items a keyboard shortcut. I recommend Command-Shift-Point (.).

XtraFinder's preference panels
XtraFinder’s preference panels

TotalFinder

Dual panel mode, called Dual Mode in TotalFinder, is enabled by default. To make sure it has the correct keyboard shortcut, go to the Tabs preference pane and assign either my recommendation, Command-U, or another shortcut of your choosing.

TotalFinder’s pinnable Finder window is called Visor. To set it up, go to the Visor preference pane. Make sure the Visor Feature checkbox is checked. Assign the keyboard shortcut you want in the Activation dialogue option; as before, I recommend Option-Space. You can also give it the additional shortcut of Option-Option if you’d like. To get the best use out of Visor, I recommend you make sure Hide on ESC and Show on all Spaces are checked, and that the Animation speed is not set too slow, no slower than 0.3 of a second.

In the File Browser Panel I recommend that you check Folders on Top.

TotalFinder's preference panels
TotalFinder’s preference panels

Moving Files With Dual Panes

One of the most useful features of XtraFinder and TotalFinder is the ability to display the contents of two locations at once, side by side. This allows you to quickly move files between one location and another. For example, when installing a new application, you can have your Downloads folder open in one panel and your Applications folder open in the other. Then you can simply drag the new application across. While this might sound simplistic, when it comes to moving large numbers of files between folders it can really speed things up!

To access the dual panes mode, you can either Double-Click on a tab’s title bar when you have more than one tab open to merge it with its neighbour, or use the keyboard shortcut you set up above Command-U.

Quick Access to Your Files

Another great feature of XtraFinder and TotalFinder is their pinned Finder window. XtraFinder calls it the Pinnable Window and TotalFinder the Visor but it amounts to the same thing. It is a Finder window that you can have pop in on top of everything else with a keyboard shortcut. This is my favourite feature that they add.

By placing Finder at your fingertips, you are able to instantly access all your files. I often use this when I am designing in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. I use TotalFinder’s Visor to bring up a Finder window and then drag and drop the files I need into the application I’m working with.

To activate it, use whatever keyboard shortcut you set up earlier. I use Option-Space

Total Finder's Visor displaying two folders in Dual Pane Mode
Total Finder’s Visor displaying two folders in Dual Pane Mode

Extra Tweaks

Both applications also offer a few nice tweaks that can improve your workflow. If you’ve followed the instructions above, folders will now be above all files when you’re browsing Finder. This small little tweak makes digging deeper into a folder structure much easier.

You will also have the ability to show system files with a keyboard shortcut, Command-Option-Point (.). This is really handy on the occasions when you need access to system files and don’t want to use Terminal.

Also, cut and paste will now be enabled using the familiar keyboard shortcuts, Command-X and Command-V. Like tabs, this use to be more of a big deal because Finder could not cut and paste files but since Lion can do using the keyboard shortcuts Command-C and Command-Option-V.

XtraFinder offers many more minor tweaks that you can explore at your leisure, whereas TotalFinder favours polish over having the kitchen sink. If you’re interested in seeing what else they can do, I suggest you spend five minutes exploring their preference panes.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, I’ve shown you that a Finder replacement such as XtraFinder or TotalFinder can still bring a lot of useful features to your workflow, even if they are not as essential because OS X now has tabs built in. I’ve shown how you can use a few of these extra features to make it easier to move files around, access files quickly and find the files you need.

Have I missed any great features? Do you think I’m wrong to write Path Finder off for almost everyone? Let me know in the comments.

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