capsule review

Path Finder 5.0.2

At a Glance
  • CocoaTech Path Finder 5.0.2

    Macworld Rating

If you find yourself frustrated by some of the Finder’s limitations, you’re not alone. For example, while the Cover Flow mode is interesting, it’d be more useful to me if the bottom section of a Cover Flow window could be switched to icon or column view. And as I noted in my article on Leopard annoyances, you can’t assign custom colors to the Finder’s Labels feature; you can't set the font size or face, or disable sections, of Finder-window sidebars; and the sidebar and toolbar are linked together—you can’t hide one without losing the other. Finally, I pointed out that Spotlight in the Finder is borderline useless for certain searches, as you can’t show more than the three provided columns in search results.

The bad news is that, given how long these issues have been with us, I’m not sure Apple plans on doing anything about them. The good news is that there’s a program out there, CocoaTech’s Path Finder 5, that does pretty much everything the Finder does, but solves all of the problems I just presented and offers many additional features. If there are features about which you’ve thought “Gee, it’d be great if the Finder did this,” the odds are that Path Finder can already do it. And with version 5, Path Finder (originally known as SNAX) is finally complete enough to replace the Finder for most tasks—I’ve been using it as such since its release.

Because it offers so many features, Path Finder isn’t targeted at new Mac users or those who feel the Finder is more than powerful enough for their needs. It's a complex program, with a slew of settings to investigate and powerful features to put to use. Learning all those settings and features takes time, and some may not find it worth the effort. From my seat, though, version 5 is a must-have program.

Finder basics plus more

One of the first things you’ll notice about Path Finder is that its windows look much like the Finder's. You’ll see a window with a toolbar at the top, a sidebar on the left, and a file browsing area on the right. Even if you never go beyond this standard window, you gain quite a few features over the Finder. First off, all of the Finder limitations I listed above are handled by Path Finder. You can use Cover Flow mode while in list, icon, or column view modes. You can set your own colors (and names) for Finder labels. The sidebar can be turned off while leaving the toolbar visible, and you can choose which sections of the side you’d like to see, as well as the sidebar’s font face and size. You can even create multiple sidebars, each with customized sections, and then switch between them as you wish.

Path Finder windows also support file-browsing tabs, much like Web-browsing tabs in Safari and Firefox; just press Command-T, and a new tab appears. You can choose to use vertical tabs, instead of horizontal ones, and you can save tab groups. I find this feature greatly cuts down on window clutter, as I can simply open tabs within a single window for each of the folders I’d like to use.

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A basic Path Finder window

Among my favorite enhancements is that Spotlight results include not only size, but also date created, date modified, path, and parent directory. And yes, Windows converts, you can cut and paste files and folders from one location to another. (Due to a bug in OS X, however, if you cut and paste from one partition or volume to another, a copy will be made; the original will remain in place.)

The Path Finder Get Info window, seen at right (click for a larger version), is an all-encompassing window showing details you won’t see in the Finder’s Get Info window. The Info section, for instance, contains additional details about the selected objects, or you can choose to view Spotlight metadata instead. The attributes section shows information about hidden and locked status, Spotlight comments, and file type and creator.

Similarly, if you like the Finder’s contextual menus, you’ll love Path Finder’s even more, as, by default, it includes additional options to create disk images, compress and e-mail selected files, and open the current directory in Terminal. But if you don’t like these choices, there’s also a Customize Menu option that lets you add or remove items from the menu.

If that were the extent of Path Finder’s features, it’d still be an amazingly powerful program. But really, this is just the beginning of what Path Finder can do.

Way beyond the Finder

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One of the things I really appreciate in Path Finder is the added control over view options—especially for column view mode, as that’s the one I use most often. Shown at right is a comparison of the view options for Path Finder (left) and the Finder (right); Path Finder offers a plethora of choices, including many sort options, while the Finder’s list is much more limited. You can even customize text, background colors, and background images in column view.

If you use the Finder’s Go: Go to Folder (shift-command-G) feature often, you’ll find even here Path Finder's version is better. As you type, a list of matching folders is shown in the area below the input box; you can navigate these folders, and their contents, using the keyboard.

Path Finder also provides a quick-access area, just below the window's toolbar, that looks much like Safari's Bookmarks Bar. Drag-and-drop any folder onto this bar and Path Finder will turn it into a navigable drop-down menu—a click on any folder here lets you navigate however far into that directory you wish, or you can choose the Open in Tab command to open that folder in its own tab. And a drop stack at the top of the window's sidebar lets you drag-and-drop items for later access; your items remain in the drop stack until you’re ready to act on them (for example, drag them into a new folder, burn them to a disc, or compress and e-mail them).

Drawers and panes

There are a ton of additional features that I just don’t have room to cover here without turning this Gem into a novella. To list just a few: smart sorting of files, an integrated image editor, an application launcher, a "select" filter, invisible-file viewing, package navigation, creation of new files within a given directory...you get the picture. But one feature—Path Finder's extendable windows—deserves a bit more coverage.

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A row of buttons, shown in the image at left and located at the bottom of any Path Finder window, provides access to a good amount of Path Finder's hidden power. Each of these buttons toggles a section of the Path Finder interface on or off. The blue highlight on the first button at left indicates I already have the sidebar showing. The remaining buttons enable a dual-pane file browser; a file-preview area; and left, bottom, and right drawers.

The dual-browser button splits the file-browsing area of the window into two panes. Each pane can be set to its own view and have its own tabs (though the panes share the toolbar and folder-shortcut bar). If you find tabs limiting because you can see only one at a time, the dual-pane browser lets you view two distinct directories within one window, making short work of (for instance) any drag-and-drop tasks you may have.

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The options for a drawer

But Path Finder’s drawers and preview area are my favorite features here. Each of these areas provides two sections for displaying various tools. (The exception is the bottom drawer, which is always a drop-down Terminal display. This drawer, which also supports tabs, keeps me from having to launch Terminal whenever I have something quick and simple to do in the Unix side of OS X.)

Exactly which tools you use is up to you: the image at right shows the tools available for each drawer and preview areas. Any of the six areas—left drawer, right drawer, and preview area, each with two sections—can contain any of these listed tools, and each Path Finder window can have its own configuration. This lets you really customize Path Finder to match your needs. (Don't be confused by the name of the preview area. It offers the same options as the left and right drawers; it just extends into the window space, rather than out from it.)

The main downside to all these drawer options is that they work best on a widescreen display—with everything opened up, a Path Finder window can be quite wide. As an example, the image below was snapped on a 1920x1200 monitor (click for the very wide original version).

A Path Finder window with all drawers open

In that image, there’s a dual browser window with column view on the left, and Cover Flow with column view on the right. The six numbered sections are my customized drawers and preview areas. Just below the main window is the drop-down Terminal display. While this particular window is quite wide, I can open all these drawers and panels even on my 15-inch MacBook Pro's 1440- by 900-pixel display—I just have to keep the drawer widths somewhat narrower than I do on my Mac Pro's LCD.

Wat do I choose to put in each drawer and preview area? I keep a list of running processes and the path to the current selection in the left-hand drawer; file info and file attributes in the lower preview area; and a drop shelf and a list of recent files in the right-hand drawer. However, as your needs probably differ, you can use whatever setup works best for you.

A good substitute?

As much as I liked previous versions of SNAX/Path Finder, there were always a few things the Finder did better, or things the Finder did that Path Finder couldn't do. Path Finder 5, though, comes close to being a full Finder replacement. Standard Finder features such as Quick Look and shared servers in the sidebar work, and you can access the Finder’s contextual menu items in Path Finder's own contextual menu. You can even configure Path Finder so that most applications that interact with the Finder will instead work with Path Finder. (Unfortunately, this isn't the case for programs, such as iTunes, that don’t use Cocoa to manage their Finder integration.)

If you want to try using Path Finder instead of the Finder, you can even quit the Finder directly from within Path Finder. The one hitch I ran into is that you can’t enter Time Machine’s spacey restore interface unless the Finder is running. So I’ve taken to simply launching the Finder when I need to use Time Machine; the rest of the time, the Finder is not running.

If you feel the Finder offers everything you need in a file management tool, then Path Finder is probably not for you. And the sheer amount of things Path Finder can do can make its interface and preferences screens somewhat confusing. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re fighting the Finder every time you use it, or you wish the Finder offered more control and features than it does, Path Finder is well worth a look. At $40, it’s not cheap, but for that price, you get an amazingly full-featured Finder replacement that can probably handle any task you throw at it.

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At a Glance
  • CocoaTech Path Finder 5.0.2

    Macworld Rating
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