Tracker Tricks, Part I

The BeOS File Manager's Hidden Gems

Scot Hacker, July 2001

The Tracker is the name given to the BeOS file manager, and is one of two open source components in BeOS. The other open source component is the Tracker's cousin, the Deskbar, which is Be's analogue to Windows Start Menu / Taskbar. Taken together, Tracker and Deskbar are involved in almost every interaction with the filesystem and your collection of BeOS applications.

The Tracker is also the subject of some curiosity for many new BeOS users, who have largely been weaned on Windows Explorer or the MacOS Finder.

File management is a core operating system service, so people tend to make deep mental associations between operating systems and their means of handling basic file and folder management tasks. As a result, new users migrating to BeOS sometimes complain that Tracker doesn't do this or that the same way Explorer or Finder do. Inevitably, though, we see these users "come around" and begin to appreciate the simple power and understated elegance of the Tracker. After using BeOS for a while, it's not uncommon for these same users to complain if they have to return to using Windows file management tools.

If you're using BeOS 5 as shipped, you're not using the latest version of the Tracker and Deskbar. Because Tracker is an open source project, it's updated far more frequently than the rest of the operating system. To make sure you've got the latest, or to monitor or participate in Tracker development, visit You can also obtain precompiled OpenTracker binaries from Peter Schultz' OpenTracker page at BeBits.

Trivia question: What was the Tracker called before it was called the Tracker? The answer is at the end of this column.

Quick Filesystem Navigation

The first lament you're bound to hear from recovering Windows users is that the Tracker does not offer a two-paned hierarchical view. How, then, is one supposed to move around quickly in the filesystem? In BeOS, this is usually accomplished by right-clicking any disk volume or folder icon. At the top of the resultant context menu, that folder's contents appear. Scroll out over any subfolder, and they open in turn. Release the mouse over any folder at any depth, and that folder's contents appear in a new Tracker window. This technique makes filesystem navigation much faster than with Explorer, as it voids the need to either A) open a hierchical view before navigating, or B) drill down by repeatedly double-clicking folder icons. In other words, navigation of the entire system is at your fingertips at all times, without needing to open Explorer or equivalent.

And what if you need to copy or move files or folders to another location on the system? This too can be done without even opening a separate tool. Right-click any file or folder icon and you'll see three additional options: "Copy To...," "Move To...," and "Create Link..." Scroll out over these and the currently selected file(s) or folder(s) can be copied to or moved to any destination without having to first open up that destination's folder. Pretty slick. This is the kind of elegant, stay-out-of-the-way technique that looks interesting at first glance, but that quickly becomes an essential part of your daily workflow. In fact, it's so elegant that once you get used to it, you'll probably be driven nuts by its absence when you end up sitting at the helm of another OS.

An even quicker way to quickly move a file or folder to another location is to hold the object over another folder icon for a couple of seconds (or Shift+drag for immediate results). The target folder's subdirectories will scroll out sideways, letting you drop the object at any depth level.

Already have a Tracker window open? Try left-clicking the status area at the lower left corner -- you'll get a pop-up menu including a line for each parent of the current folder. Select one to open that folder in a new window. This technique makes navigating to folders higher up in the hierarchy a piece of cake. Another small touch that quickly becomes addictive.

If you're a big Terminal user, remember that you can quickly change to any directory by typing "cd", dragging a folder from the Tracker or Desktop into the Terminal session, and pressing Enter. To go the other way and quickly see the contents of the current directory in the Tracker rather than in the Terminal, type:

/system/Tracker .
In fact, I keep this as an alias in my /boot/home/.profile:
alias th="/system/Tracker ."
This way I can type "th" at any Terminal prompt to see the contents of the current directory in the Tracker.

Deskbar Tricks

You probably already know about the Open With... menu you get when you right-click on a document. But much of the time, you've already got running instances of the applications you want to access via Open With... A faster alternative is to drag a file's icon onto running application entries in the Deskbar. As you roll over the various application entries, only those running apps which are capable of handling the dragged file will become highlighted. So if you've got an HTML file on your desktop and you want to open it in a text editor rather than in a browser, just drag the file onto the entry for your currently running text editor in the Deskbar. This is faster and easier than using Open With..., although the technique is limited to currently running apps, while Open With... will find all suitable candidate applications on your system.

While you've probably already seen the "Configure Be Menu" menu item in the Deskbar, many people don't know there's an even easier way to quickly add new entries to the Be Menu. Drag any file or folder into the top part of the Be Menu, rather than over the running application entries as above. Scroll down through the Be Menu's folders if desired. When you release the mouse, check your Be Menu again - you'll find that you've now got permanent one-click access to that file or folder. In truth, you've just created a symlink to that object in /boot/home/config/be, which, once upon a time, was the only way to configure the Be Menu.

Deskbar taking up too much real estate? Grab the "grippy dots" on the right side of the Deskbar's tray area and drag upwards. The Deskbar will be squashed into a small module that stays out of the way. To access your now-hidden roster of running apps, click the chalkboard icon.

Hidden Tracker Settings

Until recently, many of Tracker's more advanced configuration options were accessible only by editing a text file located at /boot/home/config/settings/Tracker/TrackerSettings, which looks something like this:
ShowDisksIcon off
MountVolumesOntoDesktop on
MountSharedVolumesOntoDesktop off
IntegrateNonBootBeOSDesktops on
IntegrateAllNonBootDesktops off
DesktopFilePanelRoot on
ShowFullPathInTitleBar on
ShowSelectionWhenInactive on
SortFolderNamesFirst on
SingleWindowBrowse off
ShowNavigator off
RecentApplications 10
RecentDocuments 10
RecentFolders 10
TimeFormatSeparator 3
DateOrderFormat 1
24HrClock off
These days, however, BeOS users can set all of these options graphically -- just pull down Window | Settings in any Tracker window. The new GUI has another advantage -- you no longer have to restart the Tracker after making your changes -- all changes are applied in real time. Whether you choose to use the GUI or the text file, most of these options are fairly obvious. However, a few require explanation.

Prior to BeOS R4, all mounted disk volumes appeared within a special desktop folder called "Disks." After R4, each mounted volume appeared separately on the desktop, Mac-style. If you keep a lot of disk volumes mounted and don't want the desktop clutter, return to the older "Disks" display style by setting ShowDisksIcon to "on." You also have separate control over desktop mounting of network shares and local disk volumes.

The two "integrate" options let you control what happens when desktop folders are found on other mounted disk volumes on your system. For example, you might have R4 and R5 partitions on your system. If you boot into the R5 partition and then mount the R4 partition, the Tracker needs to know whether you want data in the R4 desktop folder to appear on the R5 desktop or not. While some people find this useful, most find it confusing, so the default setting for this is "off."

If you type "ls /" into a Terminal, you'll see that BeOS sees "/" as the base of the filesystem -- all mounted disk volumes are mounted in the root. But when you're using BeOS graphically, which is most of the time, disk volumes appear on the desktop. So which is it? Is "/" the root of the filesystem, or is the desktop? For purposes of convenience, the Tracker creates the illusion that the desktop is the root of the filesystem -- this is one of the Tracker's "conceptual abstractions." However, you can control the way your Open and Save file panels display the root with the "DesktopFilePanelRoot" option.

One of my favorite settings is "ShowFullPathInTitleBar". With this enabled, the full path to the current folder will be printed in the title tab of each open Tracker Window. This is extremely helpful when you have multiple folders with the same name open at the same time.

"SortFolderNamesFirst," "ShowNavigator," and "SingleWindowBrowse" are Tracker options borrowed from Windows Explorer. With the first option enabled, Tracker views will display all folders in alphabetical order, then all files in alphabetical order. With it disabled, files and folders will be alphabetized together.

With "ShowNavigator" enabled, double-clicking a folder will cause that folder's contents to appear in the current Tracker window, rather than opening a second one. This can be useful for keeping your desktop uncluttered, but unnerving if you want a second window opened so you can drag files around. However, this problem goes away as soon as you realize that Opt-clicking (where Opt is usually your left Win key) will force open a second Tracker window even when SingleWindowBrowse is enabled.

"ShowNavigator" toggles on and off display of an Explorer-like set of arrows, which let you navigate browser-style through folders you've viewed previously. You also get a text field, into which you can type any path on your system to jump there directly. The remaining options in this file are for settings related to the Deskbar.

There are so many cool, non-obvious things you can do with the Tracker and Deskbar that I quickly realized I could never fit them all into one column. Consider this to be part one of a series to be continued -- not necessarily next month, but soon.

Trivia question answer: The Tracker used to be known as "The Browser." This name probably derived from NeXTStep, where the file manager is also called the Browser. The name of the BeOS file manager was changed with the DR9 developer's release in June '97 to avoid confusion with web browsers.

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