Test Drive: PowerDesk Pro 5.0

By Eric Grevstad

So you think alternative file managers are just for nerds – power-user geeks who miss the days of DOS batch files and Norton Commander? Well, you can stick with Windows Explorer. It really isn’t as lame as it used to be.

Windows’ built-in file manager gives you a nice two-pane view of your PC’s drives and folders (a.k.a. directory tree) alongside the files within a folder. Of course, it can’t show the contents of two folders at once unless you open a second copy of Explorer.

Explorer lets you hover over an icon with your mouse to see a pop-up tip listing a file’s size or graphic image’s resolution, or click an image to see a thumbnail preview. Of course, you can’t preview other documents without opening them, and adding comments or descriptive notes to files requires a Ph.D. in the Details view and Properties dialog.

Want to rename a bunch of files? Clicking and typing one at a time will do you fine. Looking for a missing file? You can tell Windows XP’s cartoon dog to fetch. Wish Explorer could convert images from one format to another, edit MP3 playlists, or create compressed archives with more flexibility than the minimal “Add to Zip” function? Of course you don’t. So you can skip this Test Drive.

The rest of us, however, may be tempted to spend $30 for PowerDesk Pro 5.0 from Ontrack Data International – a file manager that combines slick, up-to-date time-savers with good old-fashioned organizing muscle. (One PowerDesk option even mimics the keyboard shortcuts those DOS diehards learned with Norton Commander.)

Drag-and-Drop Dynamite
The 15MB download (a boxed version is $33) is built around an alternative to Windows Explorer (a click of a Preferences checkbox replaces Explorer with PowerDesk for viewing My Computer), with extra features everywhere you look. The press of a key switches between an Explorer-style split screen and a doubly split, four-pane view, letting you click, drag, and drop among two directory trees and folder windows at once.

A fixed or floating preview pane lets you view the contents of over 200 types of files, from images to formatted word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, or Adobe Acrobat documents, without opening the applications that created them. (Ditto for compressed archives; PowerDesk has a full-featured zip manager, able to create archives that span multiple floppies and self-extracting distribution packs.) If you’re too lazy to click even once on an icon, the file tips that appear when you hover over one contain image previews and any notes or comments you enter by right-clicking and choosing “Edit Note” from the PowerDesk menu. If you’re bored with Explorer’s identical folders, you can change folder icons to any of eight colors.

You can listen to MP3 and other audio files, or watch AVI video clips, in the preview pane; a separate playlist editor helps arrange and save MP3 lineups. An FTP client is part of the directory tree, so you can upload or download files (with support for resuming interrupted downloads) or drag and drop items between your PC and a Web site; most recent digital cameras also appear as drag-and-droppable storage devices. Select multiple files – say, digital camera images named IMG001, IMG002, and IMG003 – and you can rename them – say, to Party Pic, Party Pic (1), and so on – in one step (though it’s up to you to remember to include the file type extension), or convert ’em among 30-odd image formats.

You can festoon the top of the screen with drive icons, customizable program launch buttons, and a command line for typing DOS commands without opening a DOS window (though PowerDesk can naturally also do the latter, in whichever directory you’re browsing instead of defaulting to the root folder or My Documents). You can delete files to Windows’ Recycle Bin, delete them right away, or “destroy” (overwrite) sensitive files so they can’t be recovered. And switching among icon, list, detail, and thumbnail views and ascending and descending sort orders takes just a click of the toolbar.

While PowerDesk kicks sand in Explorer’s face, other modules in the package add insult to injury. A Size Manager helps you prune deadwood with a graphical display of the fullest drives and most-space-occupying folders on your system, although it takes a few moments to scan your hard disk and takes some poking around with expanding tree views and setting search or filter (size and date) parameters.

A Folder Synchronizer works like Windows’ musty old Briefcase, only better, to update and backup copies of files in a designated folder views – making sure your notebook PC always has the most recent versions of files kept on the office server, for example, or safely stashing backups of just the Word and Excel files from your My Documents folder.

PowerDesk’s File Finder lets you cast as wide or narrow a searching net as you like, from simply searching for a word or phrase in a file’s contents to specifying a range of dates or file sizes or zeroing in on one file type, from DOC or JPG files to applications (many of which offer other search filters, such as the program name Solitaire to find SOL.EXE).

A nifty Dialog Helper customizes other applications’ File/Open and Save dialog boxes, adding tiny icons to the top bar for pull-down lists of the last 20 documents and folders accessed in that program, or even adding the PowerDesk preview pane to applications that lack their own preview options. (Microsoft Office is notorious for breaking Microsoft’s own Windows interface rules; the folder and document histories worked in our tests with Word and Excel 2000, but the preview pane didn’t.) Perhaps coolest and simplest of all, Dialog Helper makes most File/Open and /Save boxes resizable, so you can drag the bottom right corner to get more files to choose from.

Finally, Ontrack’s Toolbar utility lets you dock a customizable toolbar to the top or side of your screen, add a rather puny one to the Windows taskbar, or drag one just about anywhere (setting it to “always on top” or letting other windows hide it as you prefer).

In addition to an analog or digital clock and customizable buttons to launch your favorite programs, a toolbar can (space permitting) have buttons for Start menu program listings; a running gauge of CPU activity or free memory or disk space; an icon for monitoring or configuring your printer; a line for typing DOS commands; or one-click buttons for changing screen resolution or logging off, restarting, or shutting down your system. Equally neat is the ability to click among virtual desktops or screens with different active applications.

Our main gripes with PowerDesk Pro 5.0 are a couple of interface issues. The program’s so packed with features you can get lost trying to find them – the File menu? the View menu? right-clicking a file icon? Toggles for viewing things like the preview pane and pop-up tips are under Options, not View; to change a folder icon’s color, you don’t choose View or its Properties, but the File menu and Change Folder Icon.

Also, PowerDesk’s right-click menu offers an Open With command that’s, uniquely, more complex and less friendly than Windows Explorer’s – instead of a short list of suitable applications (such as your word processor, Notepad, and WordPad for a text file), there’s the full-boat dialog box with scrolling list of all the applications on your system.

Otherwise, the program earns a thumbs-up as well worth the $30. None of PowerDesk Pro’s features is truly essential or indispensable – let’s face it, millions of people plod along with My Computer and Explorer every day – but most are convenient enough to become habit-forming, especially if you spend more than minimal time in file managing and PC housekeeping.

Reprinted from Hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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