Thursday, 11 April 2013

ES File Explorer looks better, needs finishing touch

Ugly duck gets a facelift

The best file manager for Android? ES File Explorer! The best-looking file manager for Android? Definitely not ES File Explorer! It's a prime example of an app that favors function over form.

And it has functions aplenty. It browses the files and folders on your memory card and the internal memory of your phone or tablet. If you rooted your device, ES File Explorer lets you play with every file and folder in the bowels of your operating system. Add integration with all the popular cloud storage providers, an FTP client and an FTP server, access to Samba shares, a bluetooth file manager, and that's just the file management part of the app.

But the app was ugly! But that's gonna change, because its maker is busy giving the app a makeover. There are plenty of rough edges left and the paint is still wet, but if you want a preview you can take a sneak peak in the Google Play Store before the new ES File Explorer goes official.

Clutter to the menu

The first improvement shows right when you launch the app. It used to be a slow starter, but now it launches much faster.

The main screen is a lot less cluttered than before. This comes at a price, though, because what's cleaned out of the main screen now sits in the menu. And the menu doesn't make things easy to reach, because everything is buried in submenus and some entries have rather counterintuitive names.


The old tabs are gone, but not really. There used to be five predefined tabs (local files, ftp, bluetooth, Samba, cloud storage), but now ES File Explorer has windows.

No, not the windows that the Evil Empire ditched for tiles, but a set of up to eight tabs with the content of your choice. You can have a window for the files on your SD card, another for internal memory, a third window for Dropbox, another for Google Drive, one more for your favourite FTP server, whatever you want. This is incredibly useful if you want to move files from one cloud storage account to another, or if you need to copy stuff from SD to internal memory without tapping all the way through your folder structure and back again.

Too bad those windows are hard to identify. They're labeled with tiny little icons so you don't know what's inside until you open them. A Dropbox windows and a Skydrive window have the same icon and there's no text in the tab bar to help you out. The only tab with a name next to the icon is for the currently open window, which is the very window that doesn't really need a name because its contents already stare in your face.

ES File Explorer lets you decide which set of windows it should open at launch (good), but you can't choose which one is selected by default (bad). The app always launches into the leftmost window and you can't reorder them. Maybe that will happen soon, because drag'n'drop sorting should be easy to add.

Making new windows requires a trip to the menu. It would be nice if you could just long-tap a folder, cloud account, or FTP server, and select "create new window" so you don't need to make a top level window and then tap all the way down to where you want to go.

View to forget

Another oversight is the way ES File Explorer remembers your display settings, or rather how easy it forgets them. If I set the view to "small details," then exit the app from one of the "managers" in the tools submenu (more on that later), it switches to "large icons" all by itself. This is probably because the view is not stored per window. Instead, changing the view applies to all windows, but you only notice how everything changes when you relaunch the app.

OK, one more user interface issue. You can toggle the toolbars out of sight by pinch-to-zoom, but you can no longer hide the Android status bar. I wonder if "full screen" will make a comeback someday?

Root browser

ES File Explorer comes with a root browser, but it's not easy to find. Tapping the button labeled "root explorer" doesn't open "/" (the root folder). Instead, it pulls you into a menu full of options, many of them unrelated to exploring the root of your file system. The option that really gets you into the root browser is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

When I finally tapped into the root browser I caught it going online for no apparent reason. When you browse local folders and you have auto-update switched off, ES File Explorer has no business online, but for some reason it generates network traffic anyway. The old version of the app does the same thing. Maybe the developer of the app should explain what's going on here.

Cloud, FTP, hotspot

ES File Explorer talks with eight different cloud storage services, which is more than any other file manager. And you can store multiple accounts per service, so nothing can stop you from pingponging files between your sixteen different Dropbox accounts.

There's an FTP client as well. And an FTP server, but this is confusingly called "remote manager" instead of simply "FTP server."

More weird names: the built-in WiFi hotspot is called "net manager." But crazy name or not, the big news here is of course that tethering now comes built into your file manager. But...

...if you have WiFi switched on, start the hotspot, and then close it, you're left with WiFi switched off. ES File Explorer doesn't return your phone to its pre-tethering WiFi state.

And the hotspot doesn't work without a mobile data connection. You might say "duh!, how else are you gonna tie mobile data to WiFi?" but there's a good reason for running a hotspot without mobile data, or even without a SIM card. Run a hotspot and launch the FTP server and you could share files over your ad hoc network, but only if ES File Explorer learns to play hotspot without data.

Want a shortcut to the hotspot feature? Can't have it. Not yet, anyway. ES File Explorer can put a direct shortcut to its built-in FTP server on your homescreen, but if you want to switch the hotspot on you have to launch the file manager and tap all through the menu to the entry called "net manager."

Unshared download manager

More connectivity: ES File Manager now comes with a download manager. You can paste URLs into it, but for some inexplicable reason it doesn't appear in Androids share menu. That's too bad, because otherwise you could send links straight from your web browser to the download manager. Give Advanced Download Manager a try. It can be summoned straight from the share menu. Maybe ES File Explorer can replace it one day?

The verdict

This story may look like a long list of complaints. That's not because ES File Explorer is a bad app, but because this is a test version with plenty of room for improvement before it replaces the old app. The official release is planned for the 20th of April, so it's reasonable to expect that most issues will be painted over by then. Even with the rough edges of the current beta version it's clear that the new ES File Explorer is a big improvement over the previous version.

ES File Explorer public test version (may disappear when testing's done)
ES File Explorer (finished product)

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