Get your phone under control with one of these free file manager apps

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On the surface, Android looks like a visually-driven operating system—its main components are icons, wallpaper and other visual elements. But underneath it all there’s a Linux-based kernel, one powered by the familiar structure of files and folders.

It should come as no surprise, then, that you can manage the files on your Android device much as you do on your laptop. All you need is the right app; something that gives you access to the underlying folders. Of course, the Google Play Store is home to dozens, possibly hundreds, of Android file managers, so how can you pick the right one?

It all depends on what you want to do. While some file managers limit you to basic file operations (copying, moving, deleting, etc.), others let you stream music or movies from external storage. Some afford access to cloud-storage services like Dropbox and SkyDrive, and some aim solely to link you to your PC.

Before you install any of these free apps, a caveat: Messing with your Android’s file system can have unpleasant results. If you delete or relocate or even rename the wrong file, you could end up with broken features or even an inoperable device. And because there’s no easy way to reinstall the Android OS from scratch, you should definitely exercise caution when attempting any file-management operations.

In fact, you might start by asking yourself if you really need a dedicated file manager at all. Google’s Quickoffice app, for example, includes a basic file manager that lets you browse and search the file system, and copy files between folders. If you work mostly with Office documents, this may be sufficient.

In order to test a variety of Android file managers, I used a Virgin Mobile-branded ZTE Supreme smartphone, which has a microSD slot, and a Google Nexus 10 tablet, which doesn’t. I connected a USB On-the-Go cable to the latter, which in turn allowed me to connect a flash drive.

Best in Show - ES File Explorer

If you’re looking for an all-purpose file manager that can do just about anything, start with ES File Explorer. No other app offers quite the same breadth of features. In addition to basic file copying and moving, ES can view nearly any kind of document. It lets you compress and decompress files, share files wirelessly with your PC, access cloud accounts, and even kill tasks to free up memory.

es file explorer combined

While few file managers let you view or play media files directly (most will steer you to a third-party app), ES has built-in supports for photos, videos, and music. For example, you can open any folder containing photos, then start a slideshow with your choice of delay time (1-15 seconds) between each image. You can even cobble together a custom playlist by adding individual tracks or albums to your now-playing list.

However, I can’t profess much love for its interface, which is neither pretty nor intuitive. As a result, if you have specific chores that you usually perform, there are other apps that might work better for you.

Files To and Fro - X-Plore File Manager

Let’s start with something simple: copying and moving files on your device, either within local folders or between those folders and some kind of connected media (microSD card, flash drive, etc.). Any file manager can, by definition, handle these chores, but two in particular handle them best.

x plore landscape

If you’ve ever used a dual-pane, side-by-side file manager on your PC, you know how much easier it makes the process of copying or moving files or folders. X-Plore File Manager brings that dual-pane convenience to Android. Simply choose your file(s) in the left pane, select a destination in the right one, and then tap Copy. (The confirmation box includes a Move option that will delete the source files during the process.) The app works best in landscape orientation, but thanks to a one-tap toggle icon, it’s a simple matter to bounce back and forth between panes.

Mobile to Desktop - AirDroid

If you want to transfer files between your device and your PC—handy for things like copying snapshots from your phone to a desktop image editor—look to AirDroid, an app built expressly for wireless file transfers. As long as both devices are connected to the same Wi-Fi network, AirDroid can quickly and easily establish a live link between them.

airdroid combined

On the desktop side, AirDroid works entirely inside your browser, with no additional software required. In fact, all you do is point your browser to a special AirDroid URL, then scan an onscreen QR code using your phone’s camera. Presto: instant connection between the two.

airdroid desktop

This is actually a great tool for accessing all areas of your Android device (contacts, ring tones, call logs, etc.) from the comfort of a browser interface. And if you still need on-device file management, you can find it by tapping Tools > Files. Alas, the app itself doesn’t seem to recognize external storage such as SD cards and flash drives, even though the Web interface does.

Reach for the Cloud - Astro File Manager with Cloud

It’s the rare user who keeps files in one place, yet few file-management apps can reach beyond internal and external storage. Okay, the aforementioned AirDroid reaches to your desktop as well, but what about the cloud? What happens if you need to pull a file from, say, Dropbox, or upload some photos to an FTP server? What if you can’t remember where you stored an important document?

astro file manager

Astro File Manager with Cloud lives up to its name by adding cloud services to the file-management mix. In fact, the first time you launch the app, it offers to connect to your Box, Dropbox, Facebook, Google Drive, and/or SkyDrive accounts. It also supports FTP, SFTP, and SMB servers.

Once you’ve linked your various services to the app, a simple swipe from the left brings up a menu for selecting the one you want to browse. But you can also choose categories like Pictures, Music and Documents, which will display search results from across all your connected services. And if you’re looking for an individual file, you can run a targeted search.

One File Manager to Rule Them All?

As you can see, there’s not a single file manager that’s ideal for everything. Each has its individual strengths and weaknesses, so it probably makes sense to try a few different apps and see which one best suits your needs.

Standouts here are definitely AirDroid and Astro File Manager with Cloud—both free, both great at handling arguably the most desirable file-management tasks: transferring to/from your PC and accessing your cloud accounts.

However, as I noted at the start, ES File Explorer is probably the best overall choice, if only because it has all those same capabilities (and then some), plus built-in media viewers. Its interface needs work, but in terms of sheer breadth of features, it’s the file manager to beat.

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