For many years now, most web browsers have included the ability to open websites inside separate browser tabs. Being able to quickly switch between tabbed websites is a big time saver It also reduces the clutter on your desktop by having everything contained inside a single window instead of multiple open windows. Tabbed windows are also found in other types of software, like text editors with Notepad++.
Tabs are also a common feature found in third party file managers like Free Commander or Directory Opus. The built in Windows file manager, Explorer, still uses one single window per folder view. Microsoft has so far resisted adding tabs to Explorer, although this may change in future with the Windows 10 Sets feature. The only current option of using Windows Explorer with tabs is with the help of a third party utility.
Here we list six free tools that give you the ability to integrate multiple Explorer windows into a single window with the help of tabs. All tools were tested on Windows 7 and 10 64-bit.
QTTabBar has been around for over a decade, it is also slightly confusing because there are two separate branches of the program with the same name. The main branch version is currently 1038 from 2015, the other branch (v184.108.40.206b2) is several years older and abandoned. QTTabBar is a multi purpose utility with a number of other useful features besides tabbing Explorer windows.
Once tabs are enabled they will appear below the Explorer ribbon in Windows 8/10 or above the Window Vista/7 toolbar. Tabs can be rearranged and grouped together, you can also simply drag a folder onto the tab bar to open a new tab. The right click menu on the tab bar includes some other useful additions like an advanced rename dialog and a keyboard shortcut finder.
Other features available in QTTabBar include button command toolbars, extra folder views (similar to a dual pane file manager), text and media file preview tooltips, application launcher, event triggers, scripting and even free enhancement plugins (available from the website). The options window has literally hundreds of settings to play with. Luckily, there is a reset to default button on each page if you get lost.
Enabling QTTabBar in Explorer
Tabs are not enabled automatically by QTTabBar and you have to turn the tab toolbar on manually from within Explorer.
Windows 10 (and 8)
After installing QTTabBar, open an Explorer window and go to the View tab on the ribbon. Click on the lower half of the Options button (far right) and select the QTTabBar entry.
If the QTTabBar view option does not appear, close all Explorer windows and try again. Alternatively, logoff or reboot.
Windows 7 (and Vista)
Make sure all Explorer windows are closed and install, open Explorer and hold the Alt key to show the menu bar. Go to View > Toolbars and select QTTabBar to enable the tabs. You may need to close and reopen Explorer again to see the tabs bar.
Note that the Explorer menu bar becomes disabled while the tabs bar is enabled.
2. Clover 3
Users of Google Chrome will feel at home using Clover because it offers a faithful representation of Chrome’s tabs inside Explorer. You even get a bookmarks bar with built in bookmark manager for quick access to your most used folders. The biggest issue with Clover is the installer and a couple of program windows are not translated from Chinese. Thankfully, this doesn’t affect day to day usage.
After install, Clover opens an Explorer window with the tabs displayed and ready to be used. Like a browser, tabs can be reordered, ungrouped, cloned, reopened and bookmarked. The bookmark manager will feel quite familiar with options to add and create subcategories. A bookmarks list can be exported and imported as an HTML file from the Settings window. The bookmark bar can be turned off if you don’t need it.
The developer has thoughtfully cloned a number of browser keyboard shortcuts so they behave the same in Clover. For instance, CTRL+T will open a new tab, CTRL+Shift+T will reopen a closed tab and CTRL+D will bookmark the current tab. The nine available shortcuts are listed in the Settings window. A few checkboxes are also in the Settings window, the most notable is the option to go up a directory if you double click in a blank area of the Explorer window.
Unfortunately, TabExplorer as a product has long since been abandoned. The last update was in 2012 and the developer’s website has gone. TabExplorer still works though, it just means any encountered bugs or incompatibilities will never be fixed.
After install, a single screen wizard will popup where you actually enable the tabs feature. The rainbow tabs and start with Windows checkboxes are optional, the wizard can be invoked later from the tray icon menu. Tabs will appear above the Explorer window where they can be pinned, cloned, rearranged, renamed or reopened.
There is a portable mode that saves settings and data in the install folder and a touch mode. You might as well turn update checking off as there aren’t going to be any upates. The feedback, bug report and website buttons also obviously don’t work. A bug in Windows 10 means a blank tab sometimes opens up that cannot be closed. Killing Explorer.exe, logging off or rebooting seems to be the only workaround.
The good thing about TidyTabs is you can add tabs to just about any standard desktop window. Different windows can also be grouped together, so it’s possible to have two Explorer windows and a Command Prompt as a tab group. The free for personal use version does have some limitations, such as only three tabs can be grouped together and no auto grouping, renaming or ordering.
After install, TidyTabs sits in the system tray consuming around 1MB of memory. The tab is situated above the top left of a window and becomes visible if you hover the cursor over it. If the window is near the top of the desktop the tab will move inside the title bar. To group Explorer windows simply drag and drop one tab onto another for a maximum of three. Drag the tab away to ungroup it again.
From the Settings window, there are options to change tab transparency and turn off single tab auto hiding. A useful feature is blacklisting and whitelisting. With it, you can include or exclude specific programs from being tabbed. Note that TidyTabs does not work on Windows 10 UWP apps such as Edge, the Store or Mail and etc. However, it will work on almost all normal desktop windows.
WindowTabs is quite similar to TidyTabs in a number of ways. It displays tabs singularly or as a group above the desktop window. WindowTabs also has the same type of limitation as TidyTabs in that you can only group up to three tabs together in the free version of the program. However, it is not worth paying the $19 to upgrade as this software is not actively maintained with the last update dating back to 2014.
A good thing about WindowTabs is there is a portable version that you can try out without installing. Upon launch, it sits in the background and when you open a window a tab will be displayed at the top left. Drag Explorer or any other window tabs together to create a group. Amazingly for a program of its age, WindowTabs can group together Windows 10 UWP apps like Edge or Mail.
Tabs can be shrunk, renamed, rearranged, aligned and auto grouped. One issue with WindowTabs is it appears to suffer from the same Windows 10 bug as TabExplorer, which is a blank tab sometimes appears and cannot be closed. The workarounds involving closing Explorer (either forcefully or by logging off) seem to be the only things that work here too.
Instead of simply adding tabs to a standard Explorer window, BrightExplorer wraps its own window around Explorer adding its own tabbed interface. This is noticeable when opening Explorer as a normal window will open and quickly close before the BrightExplorer window opens. It’s free to use although there are a few paid add-ons that can help increase functionality.
There isn’t that much in the way of configuration or setup options, simply launch the BrightExplorer window from the tray icon or by opening an Explorer window. To add a new tab just click the two arrows or open a new Explorer window which will automatically dock itself to BrightExplorer. Right click to restore a recently closed tab, sort the open tabs or undock the selected tab.
There is a favorites panel that allows you to save locations for quick opening later on, but we found this to be a bit clunky and not very efficient. The panel also has restrictions that are unlocked by purchasing some of the paid add-ons. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to hide or remove the rather unsightly and sizeable toolbar area below the tabs.