There are several good freeware file-browsing alternatives out there. In the past, we've written about both free and shareware alternatives such as 2xExplorer Z1, Xplorer2 Lite, and others. However, none of them come close to the voluminous feature set of UltraExplorer.

UltraExplorer combines customization and a wide range of useful features. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

UltraExplorer overhauls the file-browsing experience. Many things will seem similar, yet several key features have radically different work flows from the Microsoft file navigator. It also combines the best aspects of Windows Vista's explorer with those from XP, and then throws in a few spices of its own to come up with a delicious meal of file management.

The tricky thing about describing the UltraExplorer interface is that it's entirely customizable, from the Toolbar menu to the icons, tools, and options that live below. You can permanently hide any of the 17 toolbars and nine windows that come with the program, so you never have to deal with more clutter than is absolutely necessary.

Two of the most useful toolbars are the address bar, standard in Windows Explorer for XP, and the breadcrumb bar, standard in the Vista version. Here, you can use one or the other or both, and even choose to have drop-down navigation included with the breadcrumb bar. Being able to easily access the absolute location of a file is important for me when sending files to co-workers or uploading images, but being able to easily go up three folders is important, too.

UltraExplorer's address bar and breadcrumb bar. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

The Favorites section can live as a left-navigation window or as a toolbar, and both files and folders can be added with a simple drag and drop. Each window contains its own mininavigation for maximizing and minimizing, and its own toolbar for enacting changes without having to figure out where the tool controls are in the main toolbar. In Favorites, by clicking on the ABC button you can edit the otherwise locked lists.

Staying with the navigation windows for the moment, one great innovation in UltraExplorer is the Drop Stack. This is a scratch pad, a secondary clipboard, for quick editing. For example, if you know you want to move a folder somewhere, but you haven't decided where, drag and drop it on the Drop Stack and drag it back over to the file tree when you've figured where it's going to live. Of course, if the work flow for using the Drop Stack doesn't make any sense to you, hide the window and you never have to see it again.

The basic Windows Explorer interface, for comparison. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

I prefer the Details view when I'm file navigating, although setting the permanent view can be a bit hard to find. Under Tools/Options/Listview, there's a choice in the middle of the options to set the Default View. It might be hard to find because most of the Options menu is laid out with check boxes, not drop-down menus, and is indicative of one of the minor flaws in the program. The entire Options menu needs an overhaul: most menus start off with the most generic at the top and the more specific choices at the bottom, but UltraExplorer uses the opposite methodology.

For those who don't like the Details view--understandably so, too, as it's the OCD of file viewing options--this program has a neat surprise for you icon viewers. The Action toolbar has a tool called Stretch. It appears as a slider tool, and is used to quickly and smoothly magnify and shrink your icons. Next to it lives the Quick Thumbs tool, so if you don't like a standard icon view, but need to examine the very pores of your icons, you can easily switch over with Quick Thumbs, Stretch as need be, and then jump back before anybody realizes you were using the decidedly unedgy icons.

UltraExplorer also has a dual pane view, allowing users to view two file trees simultaneously. This FTP-style view features the same level of customization that your main view possesses. You can have different view settings, transfer files from folder to folder as you would in an FTP client, and link the scrolling mechanism. Two other minor but useful features include tabbed navigation, so you don't need to use the dual view to have multiple file trees going, and user-defined mouse gestures.

Get FTP-style file browsing with UltraExplorer's dual view. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

There is very little in this program that can't be user defined, from hot keys to displayed folder size to themes--it comes with eleven. There's a built-in external program launcher, and UltraExplorer supports most Total Commander plug-ins, not only making it extensible but giving it the power to be positioned as your main go-to program.

All this makes a good argument for UltraExplorer being the best file manager out there, but it's not a no-brainer. Two major flaws hold the program back: the file searching sucks, and UltraExplorer doesn't auto-replace Windows Explorer.

The built-in filter only indexes the folder you're looking at, not your entire hard drive, which makes it shockingly difficult to search more than one folder. I like the concept behind the filter, where users can create savable searches, but the single-folder limitation is a major drawback. UltraExplorer features a fast installation and runs on about 20MB of RAM, but I'd be willing to sacrifice some of that for an drive-wide indexing.

By not automatically replacing Windows Explorer, or at least having an option for that, UltraExplorer will be forever competing against Microsoft's native file manager. You can activate a hot key under Tools/Shell Extensions/Win-E Hook--hit the Windows key on your keyboard with the E key--that will open the program, but it's an imperfect solution. Half the time it opens Windows Explorer with UltraExplorer, and it doesn't really address the fact that other programs still recognize the default navigator as the primary program.

The creator of UltraExplorer has indicated that he's rewriting the entire code for the program, so hopefully these features will be included in the near future. Until then, UltraExplorer remains a very good, but not absolutely necessary, replacement.