X-Plore File Manager (Android)


This is what passes for file management on Win 8

This is what passes for file management on Win 8

File management is not a part time gig for me. If there is a storage medium attached to the device I’m using? I want the most power possible in accessing and manipulating it. It doesn’t matter if it is a local drive, flash drive, network drive, FTP site, Google Drive … if it stores files, and I have access to it – I want the best experience possible.

Let me start off by saying I am not a typical user. Not a typical cell phone user, not a typical tablet user – and certainly not a typical computer user. For you to understand this review from my point of view, you’ll need to understand my feelings on file management. If you are in a hurry, you can jump down to “Enter X-Plore” below.

If you don’t feel the same, this review may not be for you. Typically, however – I’ve found people need file management; good file management. Maybe they don’t realize how it can improve their experience or maybe they are doing things The Hard Way(tm) still and that is simply the way they have always done it. They aren’t aware that a better process exists.

That’s how I feel about file management. Plenty of solutions, but chances are likely that there is a better process out there and if you’re willing to put a little time and effort into it – the rewards of streamlining your file management process will pay for themselves over and over.

On the PC, there is simply no better file manager than Directory Opus. I’ve reviewed several versions of it. I’ve made myself a personal spokesperson for the product. I’ve even written training curriculum and conducted classes on it. Yes, it’s that good.

So when you start splitting your time more and more with another device – such as a cell phone or tablet – wouldn’t you want to take the very best tools and processes with you? Sure – and that’s why I’m compelled to write this review.

The Three U’s of File Management

There are three words that I apply to any file manager I evaluate – a failure of any of them typically results in an uninstall; UI, Usability and Ubiquity.

I know what you’re thinking; isn’t UI and Usability the same thing? No … they can be in other contexts, but not in file management.

This is where it started ... Norton Commander DOS

This is where it started … Norton Commander DOS

When it comes to file management, UI is primarily about one thing; dual panes – that is two locations on the storage device. Typically these are referred to as “Source” and “Destination”, and their roles tend to change based on which one currently has focus of the user. To navigate to a location, COPY a file – then navigate to a totally new place and hit PASTE – is possibly the most archaic, time-consuming wasted effort possible. This is how most file managers work. If you’ve used Windows Explorer on a PC, you know what I mean. If you search for the top file managers on the PC, you’ll find that every single one of them offers a two-pane approach to file management. There is a reason for this – it is simply the best way to do it.

There is no reason you should have to settle for less on Android.

Usability when it comes to file management is all about “less is more”. Less actions to get to the desired end result. When building web sites and applications – my goal is “two clicks to anywhere”; it’s a proven usability technique. The less tapping, clicking, interacting you have to do to accomplish your task, the more usable the program is.

Finally, the most important U; Ubiquity. What does that mean?

File systems are all around us in technology. Hard drives, flash drives, Dropbox, Google Drive, FTP … the list goes on and on … file storage and retrieval.

The ability to access all your file systems via the same, consistant, usable interface is what Ubiquity is. These technologies like SkyDrive, Samba and the above mentioned are all examples of file systems. Why on earth should your file MANAGER treat any of these differently? Ubiquitous access consistantly to ALL your file systems. That’s file management heaven.

So now that I’ve spent all this time telling you what a file manager SHOULD be, let’s discuss why X-Plore meets and often exceeds even the biggest demand of file management.

Enter X-Plore

Browsing in left pane on a phone

Browsing in left pane on a phone

X-Plore isn’t a file manager you’ve probably heard of. There are “staple” file managers that manage to snake all the press; like Astro, Root Explorer, ES and several others. I know, I’ve looked at them all: http://tinyurl.com/androidfilemanagers

Some of these file managers are excellent tools; but they are almost all what I would call “casual” versions of a file manager. Just like Windows Explorer; it does the job in a pinch, but if you had to use it every day it would wear you down.

You can have “advanced features” and still be casual in a usability sense. That’s where X-Plore really is different than the others.

X-Plore comes to you as a free download with no advertising or other obnoxiousness installed. A means to donate is buried deep in the menus – never once showing it’s face during use. The app itself is a scant 2.7MB in size, making it one of the smaller file managers out there. The donate system uses Google Play’s billing system, so that permission is required. Other than that, all the permissions required are on par of what a file manager would ask for.

On first run, you’ll get a default theme and layout. The layout respects and best utilizes your screen’s resolution and orientation. More on that in a minute.

Okay, the standard theme … isn’t what I would call gorgeous. The colors aren’t horrible, but they don’t appeal to me, personally. A quick trip to configuration will allow you to check mark Use Dark Theme and you will probably be a lot happier.

If you’re on a lower resolution device or are in portrait orientation, you’re probably only seeing one pane. Swipe right and you’ll see there is another pane over there.

Those with higher resolution devices may see part of the other pane.

Two Panes

Dual panes on a 10" Tablet

Dual panes on a 10″ Tablet

Those that have never ventured outside of Windows Explorer may not get the concept of the two pane approach. Nicely enough, you can use X-Plore like a single pane manager. Find a file, long press it – select an action like COPY – then navigate to a destination – long press, hit PASTE.

Dual pane managers are best utilized as a SOURCE->DESTINATION solution. That is, make one pane (say the music folder on your SD card) the destination and a network SMB share (the MP3 folder on your computer) as the source pane. You neatly tuck the destination location on the right pane, while you work effortlessly on the left pane. You don’t even have to SEE the right pane.

Now, as you navigate through your MP3 folders, you highlight one or multiple songs, hit COPY and they are sent to your destination pane, that is pointing to /SDCARD/Music.

It is considerably more efficient, right? The destination remains the same, while you’re slamming songs across with minimal effort on your part!

Imagine doing it the “old way”. Go through it in your head – it is a huge difference in time and complexity.

Dual panes also allow for easy visual comparisons of two locations; just rotate your tablet into landscape and poof – bring the folder up on each side and compare.

The efficiency and usability assumes multiple actions on one side, with a common destination on the other … and it works.

Whatever pane you’re looking at is source pane. If you’re looking at both panes in landscape, color highlighting (and an arrow in the middle) will show you the source pane.

File Operations

Copying files to Network

Copying files to Network

As with most file managers of dual pane nature, a toolbar sits between the panes; showing no favoritism in action to one pane or the other. Standard file operations are there; copy, delete, rename, new folder, sort by, etc. are easily accessible. This toolbar (like a lot of the app itself) can be customized to your liking.

If you’re entrenched in the mobile device way of doing things, these actions (and more) can be had by LONG PRESSING the folder or file in question.

You’ll find everything you need here – from the basics (copy, delete, etc.) to the advanced stuff like zipping, hex viewing, sharing, etc.

The app has full functionality as a “root explorer” (provided your device has root access) and you enable it in the configuration. This also allows you to change permissions, etc. This isn’t for everyone, but not every file manager is a ROOT file manager.

The basics are covered.

Configurability

Few apps give you really deep levels of customization; letting you make the application your own. Directory Opus on the PC is the greatest living example I’ve seen of pure customization and configuration. Things like themes are all nice and well, but when it comes to pure customization, that’s where you get left out on most apps (including file managers).

Customization starts at the toolbar in the middle and works it’s way out. You can control how wide the gaps are between entries in the pane (sounds trivial – but you will be in love; especially high resolution device owners) – making it easier to select things.

Since you can have ALL your file storage sources in a single pane view, you can customize the nature of file stores on each pane independantly. What does that mean?

Simply put, you can turn on or off the file stores for each pane. You can have your LEFT pane always be “local” storage (your internal memory, your SD card) and use the right pane for cloud services like Dropbox, Drive and others … or maybe put all your Samba shares, FTP and other network stuff on that side. Use a combination. The choice is yours.

If your device has a keyboard, you can take advantage of hot key shortcuts; even use

Configuring the toolbar

Configuring the toolbar

hard buttons like VOL UP and DOWN. No matter how you want to work, X-Plore gives you the freedom to do so.

Another nice little slice of the configuration is the ability to set a password on the app.  Sure, there are other apps out there that “protect” apps from being run without a password, but if you’re looking to protect X-Plore only (and if you have credentials stored in there to your cloud services and network shares?  You probably ought to be) – this is a nice solution.

Favorites and Ubiquity

As with any good file manager, X-Plore supports favorites or bookmarking of commonly used folders and locations on your local storage mediums.  Unfortunately, X-Plore doesn’t support favorites across SMB, FTP or cloud services which is unfortunate.   However, the favorites system is a great example of ubiquity in this file manager and I’d like to discuss that.

Regardless of where you want to go; local, network, cloud … everything exists in your tree view.  Cloud services like Drive are treated the way they should be; as file stores.  X-Plore brings all your file stores into a single tree view – a consolidation feat I haven’t seen done on any other browser; ever.  Even the great and powerful Directory Opus doesn’t open Google Drive in a folder for me (well, your local repository if you’re syncing with your PC, but that’s not what I’m talking about here).  Being able to access Picasa, Drive, Box — all the same way with minimal effort (Drive authentication, for example is fast and integrated) — is something you have to use and experience to truly appreciate.

Sure, sure – other file managers give you access to cloud services, ftp, et al – but nothing as SEAMLESS and easy as this.

This ubiquity of file stores is the top reason that X-Plore is my go-to file manager.  I use FTP.  I use cloud services (several).  I use Picasa.  I have Samba shares on my network.

Favorites appear as their own folders under all the other folders and services on the tree; again, ubiquitous to all your other file store sources.

Cloud Services and Network Access

Portrait on the 10" Tablet

Portrait on the 10″ Tablet

All the basics are covered here: Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync, Box.net, SkyDrive, Webdav, Yandex.disk, Dump Truck and Picasa are all supported and are ready to use.  Google services log in easily – while others may require some credentials from you.

Samba (Windows sharing) is built in, along with FTP (FTPS is also supported, but not S/FTP).  Samba is fully featured; allowing credential based access, server discovery (no need to remember IP addresses) and more.  Access is clean and reliable – and remarkably fast.  You can use X-Plore to pass files to your favorite app (that supports SMB sharing) – watch streaming movies, listen to streaming audio all without any copying locally.

Built In Viewers / Archive Support

Typically, we all have our own apps for viewing content – but sometimes it’s nice to be able to edit a text file or create a new one right from the file manager.  X-Plore’s viewers aren’t going to replace your dedicated apps, but it does the job for quick viewing tasks.  Viewers are included for images, audio, video and text.  These can be used by other apps too, as X-Plore’s viewers are registered with the OS.  For files with no known means of viewing, you can use a generic HEX editor to look around.

You can create simple ZIP archives – but also extract and “look inside” ZIP files as if they were folders.  If you try to view or execute something inside the ZIP, X-Plore will copy the file transparently out of the zip to a temporary location and run/view it from there.  Very handy.

While you cannot MAKE RAR archives within the file manager, you can open them similar to ZIPs.  You can also option to treat APK (Android Package files) as ZIPs automatically so you can look inside and inspect the contents.  Handy for hackers and developers.

Developers will appreciate access to SQLite databases (view only).  Very nice.

If you use Picasa to store your photos (I’m a big fan), you can directly access your photo albums and perform all your operations – including editing captions.

Other Extras

Check out the search ...

Check out the search …

Some file managers load the app up with TONS of extras – not exactly related to file management.  X-Plore doesn’t have these things (I miss my FTP server from the excellent File Expert; my runner up file manager) – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without some nice extras.

One thing about files; they are never where you put them or remember putting them.  Being able to quickly search your device for the file is useful.  Throw in some nice pattern matching and the ability to pick a starting folder – and you have a very nice search tool.  Plus, much like Directory Opus – the search results are ubiquitously integrated into the UI.

Extended Media Info

Extended Media Info

If you turn it on, you can also see extended information about media files.  For example, MP3s show some of the ID3 tags with the entry in the pane.  A nice touch.

As you move around through your file system, it keeps a running history – allowing you to quickly jump back to somewhere you’ve recently been.

Did I mention it has a really decent text editor?  When you need one in a pinch – you got it.  It even has spell checking.

There is a multitude of sorting options.  Sure, you probably want to have things in standard file system order – but maybe you need to change it up?  Sort by extension?  Size?  No problem.  You can even treat images differently that files; allowing you to sort oldest first for that folder of chronological pictures of your kid from birth to 18.

Sometimes, the subtle niceties make all the difference.

What’s Missing

As much as I love this file manager, it is my responsibility to tell you what might be missing from it.

A lot of power users use SFTP and it is missing – as is any sort of native Bluetooth file operations (you can send via SHARE, but that’s about it).

If you’re a big fan of themes, skinning and the like – you don’t have a lot of option here.  If you’re more into flash over substance, this probably isn’t your file manager to begin with.  Still, being able to have something other than Dark or … Aqua … would be nice.

Oddly enough, some people don’t like “boring lists” – they have to see everything represented by an icon; even if it isn’t a picture or an MP3 with album art.  This is a “list view” only file manager – there is no “grid view”.

I mentioned it above, but it would be super to be able to make ANYTHING a favorite; an FTP folder, a Google Drive folder, a network location.  It would save me a lot of work.

In Closing

If you have a tablet or a bigger high resolution device – I think this is the best possible file manager out there; even if you don’t follow the Three U philosophy.  It looks and feels like it was designed for your device.

If you’re a power user on the PC (Dopus, Total Commander, et al) – this should be your first stop for file management.  This is the closest I’ve found to a PC equivalent.

If you do file management once in a blue moon?  You should stop here first; then check out the competition.  There are at least 5 other ones that deserve your scrutiny including Solid Explorer, FX File Explorer, File Expert and ES File Explorer – some are free, others will set you back.  New ones pop up all the time so if you don’t like ANY of them – just wait. 🙂  Take a look at my comprehensive grid of file managers: http://tinyurl.com/androidfilemanagers … It isn’t super up to date, but it’s a great place to start.

I try every single file manager I come across.  This it the one that eternally stays installed on my devices and I’m not certain I can give it any higher rating than that.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+