You Don't Need a File Manager

by at 2023-04-08T20:17:32.000Z

A file manager feels like an essential part of an operating system. In a blog where I talk largely about using terminal applications instead of GUIs, you might think I'd spend this article exploring some terminal-based file managers.

Not so. Spare me a moment of your time, friend, and I will endeavour to illuminate why you, master of command-line secrets, have no need for such a petty thing as a "file manager."

Replacing Functionality

Let's walk through the different things traditional file managers do and figure out new ways to do them with regular terminal commands.

Listing Files

If you know anything about the terminal, you should know this command. (If you don't, I pick it to pieces here.)

$ ls

Creating Files

If you want to create an empty text file, you can do this easily with touch:

$ touch ~/notes/

To create a directory, use mkdir:

$ mkdir ~/notes/top-secret

If ~/notes doesn't already exist, this will throw an error. To create all necessary folders (and not just the final one), use the --parents/-p flag.

$ mkdir --parents ~/notes/top-secret
$ mkdir -p ~/notes/top-secret

If you're wanting to create files from templates, that's also pretty easy. First, create a folder to store your templates in.

$ mkdir ~/templates

Whenever you have a new type of file you want to make a template for, create a file that's a starting point for the type in this templates folder. Then, when you want to create a new file with that template, do it like so:

$ cp ~/templates/ ./

Opening Files

This one seems a bit tricky, but it's easy once you have it figured out. If you want to open a file in the default program, use xdg-open, from xdg-utils.

$ xdg-open <file>

Setting the default program for a file type is a bit trickier. xdg-mime is the standard way to do so (see man xdg-mime), but I prefer to use a utility called mimeopen.

$ mimeopen <filename>

If you already have a program set to open the file in, it'll just open it. If not, it'll ask you to pick the program. If you want to force it to ask you even though you've set the default application, use the --ask-default/-d flag:

$ mimeopen --ask-default <filename>

I set an alias for this to make it even easier:

alias open="mimeopen"

Now running open <file> will open <file> with the default program, asking which to use if you haven't set it.

Moving Files

Moving files and directories is pretty easy.

$ mv ~/downloads/download.pdf ~/documents

This will move download.pdf from ~/downloads to ~documents.

Renaming Files

This solution is actually the same. You can use mv to rename files and folders.

$ mv

You can even move and rename at the same time:

$ mv ~/downloads/ ~/notes/top-secret/

However, you'll often want to rename multiple files in the same directory. There are a lot of tools for that, but I've settled on edir, myself.

~/folder]$ edir 

This will open a list of the files in the directory in my default text editor:

1	./untitled
2	./untitled (1)
3	./untitled (1) (1)
4	./untitled (1) (1) (1)
5	./untitled (1) (1) (1) (1)
6	./untitled (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
7	./untitled (1) (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)

Not very pretty, huh? Now that it's in my text editor, though, I can edit the names of any of those files here.

1	./cool-file
2	./secret-plans
3	./birthday-present-ideas
4	./cookie-recipe
5	./ultimate-brownies
6	./short-story
7	./public-speaking-notes-03-31-2022

When I save and exit, edir will apply the changes for me!

~/folder]$ edir
Renamed untitled to cool-file
Renamed untitled (1) to secret-plans
Renamed untitled (1) (1) to birthday-present-ideas
Renamed untitled (1) (1) (1) to cookie-recipe
Renamed untitled (1) (1) (1) (1) to ultimate-brownies
Renamed untitled (1) (1) (1) (1) (1) to short-story
Renamed untitled (1) (1) (1) (1) (1) (1) to public-speaking-notes-03-31-2022
~/folder]$ ls
birthday-present-ideas  cookie-recipe  cool-file  public-speaking-notes-03-31-2022  secret-plans  short-story  ultimate-brownies

How helpful this is will depend partly on what text editor you use. For me, in neovim, editing filenames this way is far easier than repeatedly using mv.

Deleting Files

Deleting files is easy.

$ rm ~/unwanted-file.pdf

Or delete all the files in a folder.

$ rm ~/downloads/*

Deleting a directory is a little trickier. rmdir will do the trick if it's empty.

$ rmdir ~/junk-folder/

You can also use the --parents/-p flag, like in mkdir. However, if you want to remove a directory and everything in it, you'll need rm again, this time with the --recursive/-r flag.

$ rm --recursive ~/junk-folder/

Now, rm permanently deletes files. While this can be what you want, this isn't what a file manager usually does; it would move deleted files to the "trash." Well, so can you, with trash-cli, a suite of commands to help you manage your trash!

I'm going to give some quick examples below, but for full instructions use the manpages for the commands.

Trash files or folders

trash <path>

Empty trash older than days

trash-empty [days]

You'll want to do this fairly regularly or you won't be saving any storage space. I personally run trash-empty 7 once every couple days.

Restore trashed files


This will walk you through the process.

Advanced: Mounting Drives

Now, I could go into the mount command and how to use it, but if you want something that complex and nuanced, you can read man mount yourself. I already went into a complicated command in-depth recently and I don't feel like doing it again here. (The mount manpage is 80% longer than the tar manpage.)

Instead, I'd like to point you to udisks2. It provides the handy udisksctl utility.

Once you have udisks2, though, you have an even easier simpler solution: udiskie. Install it, set it running, and any drives you attach will automatically be mounted to your filesystem. Find the results in the /run/media/<your-username>/ directory.

Your desktop environment might already be set up to automatically mount drives, in which case you can ignore this section. If you're using a barebones window manager like me, though, this could come in handy.

Honorable Mentions: Terminal-Based File Managers

Despite all this, there are some great terminal file managers out there. Here are some I've heard of, in no particular order.

I don't use any of these, so I don't make any guarantees of quality, but I have heard good things from people who do. Consider giving them a shot, but at least try to go terminal-only first; you have what it takes!


Surely by this point you have been convinced. You, discriminating command-line magician that you are, have no need for the crutch that a file manager is.

Unleash your inner terminal nerd and manage your files with your terminal only! (At the very least, you'll get some sweet, sweet, nerd cred.) Go forth and be awesome.

Benjamin Hollon

Benjamin Hollon is a writer and citizen of the world with far too many hobbies. Besides writing for his blogs, he codes, plays and composes music, writes poetry and fiction, and more. He is currently studying Communications and Professional Writing at Texas A&M.

He is active on Mastodon.

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