XTree for Windows: popular file manager gets GUI

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. Originally published in Our Computer Player, November 20, 1992

Windows comes with a collection of basic utilities and programs -- enough to get you going, but all in all, pretty basic stuff. Very few Windows users are satisfies for long word processing with Write, or (yucch!) telecommunicating with Terminal.

Even though version 3.1's File Manager is much improved over the slow, feeble program that accompanied version 3.0, there's still a lot missing. Enter XTREE. Their DOS-based products have a long, solid reputation for power and ease of use. Now they've entered the hot Windows market with (what else?) XTree for Windows.

XTreeWin is an interesting product. It's powerful, but sometimes awkward. It's packed with features -- there are over 50 file viewers. You can easily view word processor, spreadsheet, database, and even graphics documents without opening them. It has the best archive management I've ever seen (ZIP format only, though). It even lets you transfer files between computers connected by serial or parallel cables.

Despite all these features, it is sometimes difficult to use, and confusing to configure. Old-time XTree users are unhappy because it doesn't support XTree (DOS) command keys. But it's not entirely at home with the Windows interface, either. Take deleting a few files, for example. Select the files, press delete (or choose delete from a menu, or click on the trash icon--- so far so good). Up pops a dialogue box. By default, a box labelled "ask before each deletion" is checked. You have to stop and uncheck it if you want all your files to go... and each time you repeat the process, you have to do it again. There's no way to uncheck this by default. Okay, maybe that's a handy safety feature. So now you press Enter, right? Well pressing Enter cancels the process... the opposite of every other dialogue box in the Windows environment. Again, you have to click on the Okay button. Another safety feature? Maybe. But do we all need this much hand-holding? I'd like the option to configure it to my needs.

Similarly, creating a new directory is too difficult. If my C:\DOS directory is the active window, I'm only allowed to make subdirectories of C:\DOS... there's no way to create a C:\UTIL directory without fiddling with the open windows on screen first. Silly. File Manager, and even the DOS command line let me create a new directory anywhere, even on another drive, as long as I type the full pathname.

It is easy to set yp XTW so that it will seem to take forever to load. It is tempting to create one large tree, combining all your drives, and have the program read all your directories every time it loads up. Understandably, this will take a while. Resist temptation, and set it up so that opens with a few directory windows open, and doesn't need to determine the size of a directory until you actually work with it. If you do that, you will find it a quick performer.

I'd like to see drive icons along the top to speed up opening a directory window on a new drive (like File Manager or Norton desktop), and I'm still sometimes unsure whether to use the left or right mouse button.

Despite the version 1.0 awkwardness, what XTreeWin does well, it does very well.

If you often work with ZIP files, its features in this area may make it worth the price. It treats ZIP files as a directory, a very simple, but very powerful idea. Double click on a *.ZIP filename, and a directory window opens up. You can view files from that window, just like any unarchived file. You can copy files from that window to another location, and the files are copied, automatically unarchiving along the way. If you copy files into a ZIP file, they are automatically zipped up... select a group of files, choose copy, select a filename ending in ZIP as the target, and they're automatically compressed. No command line to remember, and you don't even need a copy of PKZIP/UNZIP to use it. Very slick.

The file viewers are equally well implimented. You can select a file and click on view, or you can keep an automatic view window open. If you do, any file that you select will be automatically, and quickly viewed. Spreadsheets will appear in spreadsheet format, word processors as text. Graphics appear as (surprise !) pictures. Over 50 file formats are supported, including most popular formats. You don't need to have the application that created the file in order to view it.

Tie two computers together with a cable, run a small DOS TSR on each, and open XTree-Win on one of them. (You don't need XTW or even Windows on the other). The drives on the second computer will appear as drives on the first (as long as you've set the LASTDRIVE= command in config.sys to provide enough letters). Copying files between the two computers is as easy as copying files between two drives on a single machine (though a bit slower).

XTree for Windows is a partial competitor to the popular Norton Desktop for Windows. Both provide an alternative to File Manager, both include file viewers. XTW is less ambitious, however. It doesn't provide a wide range of utilities, or attempt to replace Program Manager as a way to launch programs. Unlike NDW, it doesn't want to be your Windows 'shell'. For many users, this modesty is a blessing. XTW is cheaper, faster, and takes much less hard drive space.

Its strengths... ZIP support, file viewers, and file transfer between computers are extremely well implimented. Put its sometimes awkward moments down to adolescence, and you've got a contender-- a strong program that still has room to grow.

from XTREE Company
4115 Broad Street, Bldg. 1
San Luis Obispo, CA
93401 USA

Requires Windows3.x compatible
computer (286 or better) with
at least 2 meg RAM, 4 meg free
hard drive space.

Cost $49.95 (will soon rise to $99)

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1992, as a review of XTree for Windows. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from XTree fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of XTreeWin or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of XTree or any other product. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com. If checking to buy a copy of XTreeWin, you may also want to look for PC Tools File Manager for Windows. Central Point, who produced PC Tools purchased XTree shortly before being themselves purchased by Symantec, and the PC Tools File Manager was really a renamed version of XTreeWin (with an interface more similar to the Windows 3.1 File Manager than to the classic XTree). Here's a link to my 1994 review of PC Tools File Manager. The XTree Fan Page website is a worthwhile resource for any fans of XTree (DOS or Win versions) and includes download links for a number of modern programs designed to appeal to XTree fans.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan