WinNc.net: Let the 80s Rest in Peace

By Joseph Moran
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Back in the days before Windows became the dominant desktop operating system, the PC world lacked a standard file manager — there were lots of third-party products available and everyone had their favorite. Ultimately, and due mainly to ubiquity rather than capability, Windows Explorer became the file manager of choice, but there are still third-party utilities available that aim to replace Windows Explorer by providing more powerful file management tools.

One such utility is WindowsNC.net, a utility that alternately stands for Windows Next Commander (or Norton Commander — more on that in a moment), Network Edition. We found that WinNc.net in fact does many things that Windows Explorer doesn't, but it often does them in ways that will leave many people confused.

An Interface Only a Programmer Could Love
When we looked at another file management utility, Total Commander, a while back, our biggest complaint was a convoluted and difficult-to-use interface. WinNc.net's layout is better, but it also has several peculiarities that negatively affect its overall usability.

WinNc.net starts with a familiar two-pane layout designed to facilitate the copy or moving of files. You can choose to view file and folder information "old school" — in detail and one folder at a time — or you can use a more contemporary hierarchical view instead. You can also apply a different style to each pane.

Selecting local or network drives (we suppose that's what makes this a "network edition") or special folders like Desktop or My Documents is made easy via dedicated buttons and pull-down menus, and there are large button bars that occupy the top and bottom of the WinNc.net window, putting most file operations within easy reach.

The top button bar can be detached and floated anywhere on the desktop, and you can activate most operations through keyboard shortcuts. If you're feeling nostalgic for the days of DOS, you can set WinNc.net's interface to "Norton Commander style," which places a permanent command-line prompt just above the lower button bar.

But along with the high degree of customization, there are several perplexing aspects of WinNc.net's interface. For example, at the bottom of each half of drive panes shows the total capacity and free space of the selected drive, but in addition to numeric values the free space is also displayed graphically in a way that looks almost identical to the progress indicator you'd see when copying, moving or downloading files.

We eventually got used to it, but on several occasions early on, a glimpse at the free-space indicator lead us to believe we had inadvertently initiated a file operation when we actually hadn't.

Another potential source of confusion is the way WinNc.net denotes selected files. When you click on one or more files to select them, instead of indicating this with a highlight bar a la Windows Explorer, the entry text simply changes from the black to blue. This subtle change makes it much harder at a glance to distinguish between files that have been selected and those that haven't.

An additional problem (though not as significant) can be WinNc.net's use of antiquated and inconsistent terminology. Case in point: the utility refers to folders as directories — not an incorrect term to be sure, but also not the one most commonly used by applications. Moreover, while a menu option is called Create Directory, a button bar item used for the same task is labeled "mkdir," in reference to the old DOS command.

On to File Management Duties

Packed into WinNc.net's quirky user interface there are several functions you won't find in Windows Explorer (though you will find some of them in one form or another elsewhere in Windows). These include a built-in FTP client, as well as the abilities to rip MP3s off a CD, compare binary or text files (but not .doc files) and synchronize the contents of two folders.

Like Windows Explorer, WinNc.net can burn files to a CD/DVD, as well as compress files via ZIP. Other compression formats (like RAR) can also be used with WinNc.net, but only if you have a corresponding external utility installed on your system.

WinNc.net includes a split file function — which is designed to help send oversized files as e-mail attachments (since they tend to get rejected by mail servers), but it's designed in such a way that severely limits its usefulness.

For starters, you can't specify the size of the split chunks — rather, you must choose from a half-dozen pre-defined sizes tied to different types of physical media, such as a floppy drives, ZIP disks or CD-R. Since there is no size option offered between a 2.88 MB floppy and a 100 MB ZIP disk, this all but ensures that you'll likely wind up with chunks that are either far too big or too small (and thus have more than you want).

After WinNc.net divides a file into the requisite number of pieces (it actually uses the command-line copy /b function for the task), it generates a 1KB batch file that you can use to reassemble them on any other system. Although we were able to use it to reconstitute a 24 MB TIFF file on another machine, the resulting single file lacked its original extension and thus wouldn't open until we replaced it. Frankly, file compression utilities like WinZIP make file splitting far easier and more convenient than WinNc.net, even if the file is of a type that can't be compressed.

WinNc.net's file and folder encryption capability keeps data from prying eyes. You can choose from a variety of different hash and cypher algorithms (encrypted files are given a .Encrypted extension.)

A few of WinNc.net's menu options seem excessive or don't make a lot of sense. For instance, there's a System Info and Benchmark option that seems anachronistic in this day and age. You can also shut down Windows from directly within the WinNc.net, though with the Start menu easily accessible, we're not sure why you'd want or need this capability.

One of the things we noticed repeatedly while using WinNc.net is that when specifying a destination for a file operation (like copying, compression, encryption, etc.), the default path was almost always the root folder of the C drive — hardly the location most people would choose.

To make matters far worse, there's no browse function, so to specify a new location you must type a complete path manually.

The Bottom Line
WinNc.net runs on every version of Windows from 95 through XP, and you can download a fully functional 45-day trial version of the software at, you guessed it, www.WinNc.net. Purchasing the software after the trial period will set you back 29.95 euros, but since the Euro price is fixed, the price in dollars will vary based on the current exchange rate.

As of this writing, the price worked out to $38.03, though clicking the WinNc.net's buy link actually quoted us a higher price of $40.78. (And dare we say it — whether in dollars or euros, WinNc.net's price tag strikes us as at least $10 too high.)

While there is some valuable wheat to be found among WinNc.net's chaff, we think this utility will likely appeal mainly to hard-core file jockeys for whom ease-of-use is not a priority (or perhaps even worthy of scorn). Ultimately, we don't think the average person (or even a power user) will appreciate wading through WinNc.net's quirky UI and half-baked features.

Pros: Built-in FTP client, file encryption, and MP3 ripper

Cons: Annoying user interface, many features poorly implemented

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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This article was originally published on November 27, 2006
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