Default Folder X 5 review: Mac app advances the state of file navigation

Despite new limits in El Capitan, the wholly rewritten Default Folder X 5 not only restores previous functionality, but exceeds it with new options.

default folder x5 mac icon
At a Glance
  • St. Clair Software Default Folder X 5

Default Folder X has long been among the first pieces of software I install on a Mac, alongside LaunchBar, 1Password, and TextExpander. Alongside the public betas of El Capitan released during the summer of 2015 came a concern: A new security mechanism to protect core system files and directories against malware might prevent many kinds of utilities from functioning at all without disabling that protection.

The fear proved short-lived. With minor tweaks from Apple and hard work by developers, nearly all the software that seemed threatened—including disk-cloning tools—was updated or rewritten. Default Folder took the longest, and required rebooting into Recovery Disk, using a Terminal command, and rebooting again to keep version 4 functioning under El Capitan.

The wait was worth it, as Default Folder 5.0.1 isn’t just a rewrite that restores version 4’s features. Rather, it’s a spiffier expanded version with a somewhat crisper interface design that adds features I’d long hoped for. Overall, it’s easier to use, while also having the advantage of not needing to patch OS X while working more robustly within Apple’s limitations. (If you disabled System Integrity Protection, you can now re-enable it with our instructions.)

I’ll start with a rundown of Default Folder for those who aren’t familiar with it, and wonder if it’s for them. Those looking into whether to update to the latest version can scoot down to the new features section that follows.

Navigational beacon

Default Folder enhances OS X’s often rudimentary navigation options, which have advanced only slightly in most respects since…System 7 or so. Whenever you use an Open or Save dialog, or any dialog that relies on OS X’s file/folder navigation system, Default Folder steps in to make it better. (In System 7, I used the late, lamented DiskTop; Default Folder has always seemed its spiritual heir.)

default folder 5 overlay view

Within a navigation window, you can get a preview, navigate deeply elsewhere, and even be told when a folder has no items you can open in that app.

One could argue that it’s sub-menus that define Default Folder’s particular approach. Everywhere you use the app, whether in dialogs, from a system menu drop-down icon, or in an optional Finder toolbar add-on, Default Folder always shows or has an option you can set to show the complete hierarchical set of nested folders below and parent folders above every folder. You never have to use the Command-up arrow and -down arrow to move around, if you don’t want to.

The app primarily functions like a dialog box overlay, rather than replacing features within the window: It surrounds navigation to offer options. It lets you set a default folder specific to the application you’re using, and has a “boomerang” effect—optional, as with nearly every feature—that snaps you back to the last file selected whenever you choose an Open dialog in an app.

default folder 5 utilities menu

The Utilities menu puts Finder and other commands at your fingertips for any file or folder in navigation dialog.

Off to the right side (switchable to the left) sits a stack of six icons that grant core access to Default Folder’s features. The Utility menu—the one at the top with the app’s icon—reveals file and folder actions, including the very useful Open in Finder, which takes the current folder selection and opens a Finder window. I use this constantly. You can also compress, rename, and delete files and folders, among other tasks.

The other five icons provide easy access to different file and folder locations, always with submenus: The Computer menu shows Desktop, Home, and iCloud, as well as all mounted volumes; Favorite shows the current set of folders you’ve marked for routine access (multiple sets are supported); Recent Folders shows just that, while Recent Files shows recently accessed files that the current application can open; finally, the Finder Window menu reveals all open Finder windows. I use Recent Folders most frequently for selection, and with the Option-left arrow and -right arrow keyboard shortcuts, which move you forwards and backwards in the list. I’ve probably saved a week in total over many years through those shortcuts alone—I’m exaggerating only slightly.

Just this would be enough to make the typical OS X user’s life more efficient. Among other things, it eliminates the need to have folders on the Desktop or in the Sidebar, or make use of Apple’s limited Recent Places option in the pop-up. But there is more—oh, so much more.

default folder 5 favorites list

A Favorites tab provides quick access to frequent folders.

For starters, you can navigate to any open Finder window directly with a dialog open by hovering over the window and then clicking. (You can make this less obtrusive by requiring either or both Control and Command to be depressed when you click.) Default Folder also lets you modify the Finder, adding options that provide direct access to its navigation in Finder windows. This symmetry and interaction removes a lot of OS X’s friction, as anything in the Finder becomes accessible from a dialog and vice-versa.

Although I haven’t used this feature, Default Folder lets you create folder sets of favorites and, literally, default folders assigned to applications. If you work regularly on projects that require interacting with lots of folder locations, switching sets lets you keep your lists short while also redirecting apps to open right where you want them for that particular task.

Default Folder’s navigational overlay has two other areas of interest. With any file or folder selected, the bottom shows a multi-tab interface that includes Preview, Information, Tags, Comments, and Permissions. Preview is a frame-constrained Quicklook view, although you can still use OS X’s Command-space option within a dialog to see a full-sized version.

On the left, a new Drag Zone into which you can drop what I’d call super-favorites: Files or folders that you need so frequently that it’s useful to have them always at your fingertips. The same items can be shown in a drawer in the Finder by setting a preference in the app.

Default Folder should be a great enhancement for anyone who interacts with multiple file locations in OS X. Some people do organize themselves entirely around the Home directory with little nesting. But with more than a handful of folders, this app smoothes away so much of the tedium of regular navigation. The latest version tries to help you understand how, too: In the General tab of its preferences, it shows you how many times you’ve invoked it over a period of time.

Version 5 is more than a facelift

For previous Default Folder users, this latest release is a solid update with a fairly large variety of new features. The developer promises still more to come—his wish list of things to add still has items left to cross off. The installation process can copy your version 4 settings and remove the Default Folder preference pane that was previously required. The new app is one of those semi-apps: mostly accessed through its system menu bar item, with a sort-of-floats-above preferences window you can invoke. (I really do hate a window that I can’t reliably stack or access among other app windows, though.)

Most notable is the addition of a Recent Files menu, the ability to add a Finder toolbar icon, and the Drag Zone, where you can place frequently used files and folders—and opt to display as a drawer in the Finder.

default folder 5 finder drawer

The Drag Zone drawer can be added to the Finder for even faster access to frequent items.

A minor frustration that came with the addition of tabbed windows in the Finder has been partially resolved: You can now select among tabs in a navigational dialog from the Finder Window menu. This alone will save a lot of my monkeying around to make sure the right tab is frontmost. While you still can’t hover over Finder windows and select among tabs by clicking, you can right-click and a pop-up menu appears for all open tabs in that window; you can also Control-click unless you’ve set Control or Command as required for hover-over selection.

Default Folder always had a lot of keyboard shortcuts; now it has even more, and you can set the key combinations for them, too. This includes navigation in the Finder for next and previous most recent folders—very handy and bringing more of the same kind of symmetry between dialogs and the Finder that the app already offered.

The Utility menu now neatly differentiates features available for the current folder view and selected files and folders. This context helps. The app also has interface themes, so you can opt among light, dark, and compact overlays.

For those who want this, can opt to sort all folders above files in navigation views. This feels very Windows-y to me, and I don’t prefer it, but it’s something a lot of people like. This is the first release to enable it.

default folder 5 menus prefs

Default Folder's Menus prefernces let you adjust sub-menus and sorting.

The new Default Folders features within Folders preferences lets you associate apps and their initial or permanent default folder. For Save dialogs, the new version can also map file extensions to specific folder locations, too, if you’re always saving image file formats to one folder, for instance.

St. Clair didn’t provide a comprehensive list of removed features and new ones. But I miss only two. OS X picked up a feature I always loved: In a Save dialog, click a file in the list and it’s copied into the name field. Before that was an OS X feature, Default Folder let you do the same, but you could add modifier keys to avoid clicking accidentally. That’s been removed. And there was an Option-key bypass that let you override an application’s filter for only opening file types it knew. This was helpful when you had a file with the wrong or missing extension or attributes, and you could force an app to open it this way.

Default Folder’s polite OS X integration comes at a slight price on both Macs I’ve tested it on. There’s a brief lag when it’s invoked, instead of the nearly instantaneous appearance with version 4. In some cases, the keystrokes I type are lost or misinterpreted if I don’t pause to wait the second or so for the interface to snap fully into shape. It’s a slight annoyance, and I’ll re-train myself soon enough to wait.

Stronger, better, faster

I’ve already been a fan of Default Folder for years, and version 5 is a significant step forward, and one that puts its developer on a solid footing for future releases of OS X. For those who have never used it, I previously recommended it tip-top on my utilities list; now, I just say the same thing louder. Existing users shouldn’t give a second thought before moving to this new release.

Default Folder X 5 is $35, although owners of any previous version can pay just $15 for an upgrade. Those who purchased version 4 starting June 1, 2015, can obtain a free upgrade. St. Clair software offers a free 30-day trial, as well.

At a Glance
  • St. Clair Software Default Folder X 5

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