A large proportion of PC users who want to try out Windows 8 have probably done so by now with the Release Preview freely available. It’s certainly split opinion with its radical new start screen, Metro interface and other sizable changes. One of the new features is the addition of a ribbon toolbar to Windows Explorer which users of Office 2010 or previously 2007 will know all about. Microsoft did start introducing the Ribbon UI elements into Windows 7 with the built in Paint and Wordpad utilities sporting a fresh new look, but this is one step further with integration now in the Windows interface itself.
The ribbon can be quite useful as it displays several buttons and options for whatever it’s being used in, but quite a few people are not terribly fond of it. Some users find it can have a rather messy and confusing look with the non uniform buttons and tabbed layout. One thing Microsoft seemed to do in Windows 7 was to go a bit backwards with a rather lacklustre Explorer interface and the usability of a functional toolbar similar to that found in XP was sadly all but missing. Bringing back a number of the most commonly used Explorer functions into an easy to click toolbar could be a welcome addition.
An open source utility called Better Explorer aims to bring a close copy of the Windows 8 ribbon toolbar to Windows 7 users. Another useful function is enabling tabbed windows like most of today’s web browsers, meaning you don’t need several different Explorer windows open cluttering up the desktop. The Quick Access toolbar is also present as is the option to collapse the ribbon if it isn’t needed for a period of time.
A couple of things that need mentioning are; Better Explorer has just moved from an alpha to beta release so is by no means a completely stable product. A few bugs and issues are possible although there have been a number of fixes for the beta. I didn’t really encounter too many issues although it did hang on trying to access a network drive. Do bear this in mind if you decide to try it out. Secondly, it doesn’t replace Explorer but runs as a separate program which is good in this case because any beta issues won’t have an effect on Windows Explorer itself.
Better Explorer needs .NET framework 4 to function and when you install will offer to download .NET if you don’t have it.
Most of the main part of the window is pretty self explanatory and behaves like Explorer would including the breadcrumb bar and search box. A couple of additions though are the Up button next to back/forward and the more interesting tabs bar. If you’re used to using tabs in your browser, you will know how much easier tabs are than separate windows. To create a tab either use the buttons in the ribbon or double click the tab area.
The primary area of interest is the ribbon itself with a number of useful buttons on the ‘Home’ tab you might actually use such as cut, copy and paste, multiple selection options, copy to and move to, new folder, rename, delete and also an open with option. The ‘Share’ tab has options to map a network drive, share the selected items and a ‘Create Archive’ wizard. A number of different viewing options are found in the ‘View’ tab. The ribbon can be closed at any time using the arrow button top right.
There are a few options in the ‘File’ tab allowing the changing of the default starting folder, choosing a different ribbon colour and restoring previously opened tabs.
When you click on certain items such as drives, folders or certain filetypes, an extra tab will appear giving you options specific to what is selected. Clicking a drive for example, will show a drive tab with defrag, format and drive cleanup options or an executable will show an Application tab with run as administrator or pin to taskbar options etc.
As I have said, this is not a final stable release and there are bound to be a few changes or fixes before it is truly ready for permanent use. As it stands, I think Better Explorer looks pretty interesting and could potentially be a viable alternative if you like the idea of a ribbon in Explorer but are in no hurry to use Windows 8.
Compatible with Window 7 32bit and 64bit