Review: Path Finder

If you’re a real tech power user, then there are times when you’ve just got to get really geeky. I mean, so geeky as to even be rebellious. After all, you can’t just keep doing everything the way everyone else does because that’s the only option presented to you. Well, if that describes you, or if it doesn’t but you’re simply in the market to try something different this summer, I present to you Path Finder.

Path Finder is a fully-functional, incredibly geeked-out replacement for the Finder. That’s right, the Finder, the program that you use to browse the files and programs on your computer. The Finder has been there since the very first Macintosh in 1984, represented by that faithful, smiling blue screen sitting on the left side of our Docks. But let’s be honest: the Finder is a relatively simple little program, and although its capabilities have increased as Mac OS X has progressed, it certainly doesn’t qualify as the most powerful program that we use every day. Well, if you’re interested in a bit more power and flexibility in your browsing, Path Finder is definitely worth a look.

It’s Not an App, It’s a Swiss Army Knife
Path Finder is not intended for the faint of heart. The program packs more functionality into one desktop window than you would believe at first glance. Up front, Path Finder is reminiscent of a typical Finder window, with a toolbar on top, a sidebar on the left, and the main area designated for browsing your files. Your same three browsing views are there–icon, list, and column view. Cover Flow is also there, but unlike Finder, you can enable it in any of the three other views if you like. (Personally I’ve always found Cover Flow to be superfluous anyway.)

But that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the bottom of the window (where the item/free space counts are), and notice the buttons on the lower-left. Using them you can toggle the sidebar, a dual browser view, and a preview bar from the bottom of the window. And if the window itself wasn’t enough space, you can enable drawers to pop out of the window from both the left and the right, and even pop out a third drawer out the bottom to have access to the shell if you’re feeling a bit like using the commandline.

Path Finder also gives you a Safari-like Bookmarks Bar, a breadcrumbs bar (shows you the folder path), and a tab bar. That’s right, you get tabbed browsing right in Path Finder, with the ability to drag files between tabs. And each of these bars can be oriented at the top or bottom of the window–really, however you like.

No Shortage of Functionality
One of Path Finder’s biggest stand-out features, in my opinion, is called the Drop Stack. The Drop Stack is represented by a little target icon above the sidebar, and you can drag individual or groups of files onto it, where it serves as a nice temporary holding area for those files. You can then continue browsing your drive in Path Finder and then drag them out to another place when you’re ready to finish moving/copying them. You can even drop multiple items in the stack and cycle through them; it’s really an ingenious little feature.

Path Finder has lots of other little tools like that built-in. Of course the Finder’s Quick Look feature is baked right in and works as you’d expect. But Path Finder also has a TextEdit-like text editor built-in that supports plaintext, rich text, and Microsoft Word formats. Path Finder also has the StuffIt Engine built-in to support compressing and uncompressing a wide variety of formats. Path Finder also includes an application launcher that you can activate with a hotkey, then type the name of the application to open it. And if you’re a big commandline fanatic who uses Terminal frequently, Path Finder has Terminal built-in as well.

Have It Your Way
Of course, the main draw of Path Finder is the ability to customize its interface up the wazoo. You have dozens of controls over how you want your files displayed, with what data, in what order, etc. If you want a more Unix-like view to see folders listed before files, you can do that. In fact, Path Finder has a smart sorting feature you can enable where it picks the best sort order based on the type of folder you’re browsing.

Path Finder’s search features are also quite powerful. Of course you can do Spotlight searches (system wide) within Path Finder, but you can also use Path Finder’s own filename-based search functions for a faster search. You can also ask Path Finder to merely filter the files in your current view with your search query, or even use the filter query to merely select the files that you’re seeking, suitable for a quick move or copy.

And finally, you have a lot of control to customize all those extra views. In the sidebar, for instance, you can adjust the display font, or even remove specific sections entirely (not just hiding them with their disclosure triangles).

Each of those drawers contains a couple of areas that you can use to display or list information, and you have control over what is shown where, and how big the areas are. These options include:

  • Attributes: Change the filename, apply a label, and adjust other metadata for a selected file.
  • Cover Flow: Why you’d want it in a drawer is beyond me, but whatever…
  • Hex: If you’re geeky enough to want to see the contents of a file in hex code.
  • Info: The contents of the Get Info panel, but with a LOT more info.
  • iTunes Browser: Yes, you can browse and control iTunes from within your Path Finder window.
  • Permissions: Enjoy UNIX-specific control over your file’s permissions.
  • Preview: Essentially a Quick Look-type preview of your file.
  • Processes: View a list of open applications and recently-opened applications. Single-click on one to switch to it or open it.
  • Recent Documents: Single-click on a document to open it.
  • Recent Folders: Single-click on a folder to open it.
  • Selection Path: View a descending path on your hard drive of the open folder or currently-selected item.
  • Shelf: In case the sidebar wasn’t enough, another place to organize frequently-accessed or favorite places on your hard drive.
  • Sidebar: Another view of your sidebar. Great if you prefer it in a drawer, and not, you know, as a sidebar.
  • Size: Shows the size of the selected item. Really handy for folders as Path Finder calculates the total size of the folder’s contents.
  • Subversion: If you use source control, Path Finder’s got a built-in Subversion client.
  • Terminal: Ahh, the shell.

On Replacing the Finder
Path Finder is of course marketed to be a replacement for the Finder, but as you might imagine, it’s kind of difficult to completely replace a program so central to the core of Mac OS X as the Finder is. Well, Path Finder does attempt to help you by offering a few tools.

First off, Path Finder can actually quit the Finder for you if you ask it to, but I don’t recommend doing so. A number of other apps on your computer rely on the Finder being open and present. Instead, you can configure Path Finder to open automatically at login, and define it as the default file browser on your computer. Path Finder can also install a plugin on your computer so that any “Reveal in Finder” commands actually open Path Finder, although I found this to only work some of the time. However you can also create a hotkey that when pressed, will reveal the selected item in Path Finder.

You can also enable the ability for the Finder to be removed from your Dock via the Path Finder->Finder submenu. This will restart the Dock, after which you can right-click on the Finder in the Dock to remove it from view. (Most of the time you would then move Path Finder’s Dock icon to take its place.)

Path Finder is an insanely full-featured replacement for the Finder, and it has scores of more features that I haven’t even come close to covering. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I give it my wholehearted support. While you get a lot of functionality in this product, you most certainly lose the drop-dead ease-of-use that the Finder is famous for. Effectively replacing the Finder entirely is also fairly difficult to pull off, and when I tried I still often found myself back in a Finder window inadvertently for some reason or another. Also I’ve also found that the Path Finder window is a bit slower to pull up on-screen than Finder typically is.

Path Finder wound up being a bit too geeky for even me to stick with, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad product. However, unless you can get really personally committed to the notion of fully replacing the Finder, I recommend using it more as an addendum to the Finder from time to time. Certainly if you have to do a lot of work with moving and copying files at any particular time, Path Finder includes some really nice power features that will give you a big hand with those tasks.

Nevertheless, Cocoatech certainly delivers kudos for daring to reinvent one of the most ingrained aspects of the Mac user experience, and their product undoubtedly packs a big punch.

The Nitty-Gritty
Path Finder Version 5.7.4 by Cocoatech
My Rating: ★ ★ ★
Price: $39.95 (30 day trial available)
Download: Cocoatech Website

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.