Ranger: speedy file management



I’ve been using Linux as my primary OS for about six years now. When I started out I used Nautilus, which came with Ubuntu. Then I moved to Xubuntu and found Thunar, which was better (read: faster). After switching to Arch and using Openbox exclusively for years I mostly stuck with Thunar, but experimented with Dolphin, which was feature-packed, and later PcManFM, which was basically an even lighter Thunar.

Then some change happened. I started experimenting with tiling window managers and striving for a more keyboard-driven desktop. As a natural consequence of this, I began to rely on file managers less and less. I would open one, browse to the files or directory I needed, and then hit F4 and jam out in the terminal for my real work.

File managers are too slow. Partially for the user (clicking with a mouse is slower than typing for me), and partially because of the system time wasted drawing pictures of your files. My terminal starts instantly. I can open one and type

la | grep zsh

before Thunar can even start up. Copying or moving files is still mouse-driven, unless I want to fumble around with modifiers and arrow keys for half an hour. It’s just not efficient.

And besides, it’s hardly hackable.

Back to the TTY

My CentOS servers don’t have file managers. When I adb shell into my Nexus 10, I don’t have a file manager. My Beaglebone Black doesn’t have a file manager. Why does my laptop need one?

I never understood the draw of console-based file managers. I once had a friend, who was a relative newbie to Arch, tell me he was trying to do everything with the console. To learn more was his reasoning. I wrote the idea off as silly.

Just use ls, mv, cp, etc. in a Bourne shell, I told him. You’ll learn more using fundamental Unix commands than crippling yourself with 80’s anachronisms like mc.

File managers, like photo editors, were just one of those areas where a GUI was the right tool for the job. You couldn’t possibly convince me the horrific fluorescent blue of Midnight Commander was superior to a program with fancy modern features like tabs, file previews, and drag-and-drop.

Case closed. Or so I thought.

Ranger, Scope and Rifle

Then I found Ranger.

It’s a text-based file manager with a vim-like interface written in Python. It is fast and keyboard-driven. Bound to a key, it opens instantly. But most importantly, it does some things better than its GUI-based cousins.

Ranger is what I like to call a modern terminal application, like Vim or tmux or mutt. To outsiders, these kinds of programs look severely dated, like an ancient printing press that requires custom-made blocks for each page. When a Windows user sees you use this software, they often mistake you for working with one hand tied behind your back.

Behind the scenes, however, you’re just using the best tool for the job. What these programs lack in user interface, they make up for in automation and hackability.

The first thing that struck me about Ranger was the file previews. When you highlight a text file, it actually shows some of its contents immediately beside it. For html files, it uses a terminal-based renderer to preview the finished page. PDFs get text-based previews, as well. Even images have a hacky full-color ASCII art preview on display.

Pressing l opens the file in its default program as defined in ~/.config/ranger/rifle.conf, the config file for Ranger’s custom file opener. No mimetypes or .desktop files to worry about, just one simple, powerful mapping from filetypes to commands.

Scope, Ranger’s built-in file previewer, has a similar ethos. It’s just an 80-ish-line Bourne script that attempts some sensible defaults for text-rendering filetypes. It has its problems, like trying to render text/gpg files in all their encrypted glory, but this is forgiven for but one reason:

All of this can be easily changed.

That’s the beauty of this kind of design philosophy. Nearly everyone can hack out a few lines of Python or Bash nowadays, and it’s much faster to do so than digging around in C source files, recompiling, and then dorking around in valgrind for a few hours to figure out what you just broke. In the words of Eric S. Raymond (Whether you love the guy or hate him, I can generally trust him to make good points):

With today’s machines as powerful as they are, this is usually a bad tradeoff — it’s smarter to use a language that uses the machine’s time less efficiently, but your time much more efficiently.

Ranger embodies this attitude. It runs fast, but not suckless fast and it doesn’t try to. Ranger is user-fast. Opening it and moving files around is fast. Teaching it new tricks is fast. It’s my kind of application—it does its job when I need it, and then it gets the hell out of my way.