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You feel like you’ve tried it all, but nothing seems to work.

I’m talking about productivity advice. There are so many tips on how to organize files, but has it ever occurred to you that those chaotic folders Creating Order From Chaos: 9 Great Ideas For Managing Your Computer Files Creating Order From Chaos: 9 Great Ideas For Managing Your Computer Files It's frustrating isn’t it when you can’t find that file? When you’ve searched every folder imaginable on your computer, and somehow it got lost….or worse, deleted. Now, there are excellent search tools for Windows that... Read More are not your fault? What if your OS is part of the problem?

tagspaces-disorganized-desktop

Of course, users are responsible for establishing a document management system: deciding what to name the files and where to put them. Computers let us organize our digital assets, but this ability is limited by the very system that provides it.

Most modern file managers are based on the traditional desktop metaphor with a hierarchical approach to sorting our files. They conceptualize our real-world experience with physical files: we put a file into a folder, and place it in a filing cabinet. In a hierarchical filesystem, a file can exist only in one folder (just like physical files), which restricts our categorization options. This is where tags can help.

Tag-Based File Management

Tags are content-dependent keywords; metadata that describes the contents of a file. We need them because the world is not one-dimensional, and one file can belong to several categories. A prime example are multimedia files – photos, videos, music – but a simple report from your latest meeting can also require complex categorization (by date, project, topic, client…).

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You could “hack” the hierarchical filesystem by symlinking or copying files to different subfolders, but will you really remember where each and every shortcut is? Will you go back and update the shortcuts when you move or delete the original file? The mess gets even worse if you use some kind of version control Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers Not Just For Coders: Top Version Control Systems For Writers The mention of version control or revision control makes it seem like something for geeks. You will be surprised to know that version control systems have their place not only in academic writing but in... Read More .

tagspaces-folder-structure

A potential solution is tag-based file management. It can be achieved on several levels, starting with the filesystem itself. Tag-based filesystems for Linux exist, but they’re not particularly popular. Windows Vista was supposed to introduce a similar concept, but it was eventually discontinued.

Another level are various implementations of file-tagging, like databases or specialized applications. They don’t directly affect the filesystem, instead acting like an “overlay” that lets the user index, search, and manage files using tags. You’ve probably heard of the “semantic desktop”. KDE’s Nepomuk and GNOME’s Zeitgeist are frameworks built on this idea, but to the average user they often seem like a resource-hogging nuisance.

tagspaces-remove-semantic-desktop

So far the only approach that successfully attracts a wide userbase are desktop apps that apply custom metadata to files. There are plenty of those for Windows and OS X: from Windows Explorer alternatives Replace Windows Explorer With A More Powerful Alternative Replace Windows Explorer With A More Powerful Alternative Read More like DirectoryOpus This Tool Keeps Me From Leaving Windows: 7 Directory Opus Features This Tool Keeps Me From Leaving Windows: 7 Directory Opus Features Managing files is super-boring. Copy, move, delete, blah. And Windows Explorer is no good at it. You're wasting your time! Read More to powerful file managers Elyse - Keep Your Filesystem More Organized By Tagging Everything [Mac & Windows] Elyse - Keep Your Filesystem More Organized By Tagging Everything [Mac & Windows] Once you've played around with tags for a while, you'll really begin to wonder why user data in file systems isn't organised by tag. For the bulk of the file system, folders make sense, but... Read More that let you label files FenrirFS: Manage Your Files By Assigning Labels To Them FenrirFS: Manage Your Files By Assigning Labels To Them Read More . File managers for Linux offer incredibly useful addons Build Your Own Linux Productivity Machine With KDE Service Menus Build Your Own Linux Productivity Machine With KDE Service Menus If you've never taken the time to adjust your file manager's settings, you might be missing out on time-saving tweaks. KDE Service Menus are a perfect example of file manager customization. Read More , but tagging is mostly an afterthought. The exception is TagSpaces, which puts tags in the spotlight.

Introducing TagSpaces

tagspaces-start

Originally a German project, TagSpaces is best described as “Evernote for your OS”. It can manage files, but you can use it to build a personal wiki, collect research material, preview and edit multiple file formats, and visualise your folders as mind-maps or family trees.

Free to Use, Simple to Start

TagSpaces is an open-source application available for both 32- and 64-bit architectures. If you’re a Windows user, don’t stop reading – TagSpaces is cross-platform, and the Windows version works just like its Linux counterpart. Versions for Android, iOS, and browsers (Firefox and Chrome) function a bit differently, but we’ll focus on the desktop app. You can use TagSpaces as a portable Linux application. Download and unpack the compressed package, and simply run the executable tagspaces file. No need to compile or install anything.

The Interface? Not So Simple

tagspaces-folder-options

The first encounter with TagSpaces could leave you puzzled. There are no ribbons or text-based menus; only icons above the file list. The “hamburger menu” icon toggles a sidebar on the left, and the one next to it launches the Options dialog. The sidebar has a drop-down menu at the top that lets you select the active folder, and tabs at the bottom that switch between tag-based and location-based navigation. The triple-dot icon opens the Directory Operations menu of each folder.

tagspaces-group-files

Icons above the files let you toggle thumbnails, select, remove, copy, and tag files, as well as access additional menus. You can choose the view mode from the menu next to the Search bar. Depending on the selected mode (Grid or List), you can sort and group files by different criteria. Visualization options in the FolderViz mode will give you a cool overview of the folder structure.

tagspaces-folder-map

Organizing Your Files with TagSpaces

By default, TagSpaces doesn’t show all your files like a regular file manager. Instead it lets you decide which folders it should manage. You’re free to import your entire /home or just a few folders via the Connect New Location dialog.

tagspaces-connect-folders

Once the desired files are in, you can tag them by selecting files and clicking the tag icon in the toolbar. Alternatively, first add tags and organize them into groups, then just select files and click on tags in the sidebar.

tagspaces-manage-tags

Smart Tags are predefined, time-sensitive tags that help you access recently modified files. TagSpaces supports tagging multiple files at once and it can suggest tags based on file properties. Every tag can be edited and color-coded.

tagspaces-tag-image-files

TagSpaces can open and edit many file types in a preview pane on the right. Supported formats include HTML, plain text, Markdown, PDF, EPUB, and several audio and image formats.

Comparing TagSpaces and Classic File Managers

The strangest, most obvious difference between TagSpaces and classic file managers is the lack of context menus. You can right-click all day, but nothing will happen. All actions and menus are activated with left-click, but you can define a few keyboard shortcuts, which leaves TagSpaces in a weird limbo between being completely mouse-dependent and supporting mouseless browsing Abandon Your Mouse & Click On Links With Your Keyboard Abandon Your Mouse & Click On Links With Your Keyboard Read More .

tagspaces-keyboard-shortcuts

Another impractical difference is the fact that file-related menus are not unified. If you select a file and click the Create New File Menu icon in the toolbar, you’ll get a different set of options than in the File Operations menu that opens when you click the file extension.

tagspaces-file-options

The inconvenience trickles down to basic file operations. Say you want to copy some files. There’s no right-click menu for that, so you have to either click the corresponding icon in the toolbar or access the File Operations menu. Then you have to use a separate dialog to finally copy the files. The classic Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V combo has no power here.

tagspaces-move-copy-files

Similar quirks keep popping up if you try to use TagSpaces as a traditional file manager. For example, it doesn’t let you delete folders that are not empty. It can display hidden files, but if a hidden file doesn’t have an explicit extension (like .bashrc) TagSpaces thinks the filename is the extension, and leaves the filename field empty.

tagspaces-problem-extensions

Tags have their own share of problems. Currently, TagSpaces does not support tag subgroups, and you can’t drag-and-drop tags between groups. What you can do is create duplicate tags in different tag groups, introducing redundancy into your system. And we still haven’t touched upon the biggest issue of all.

The Biggest Issue with TagSpaces

You’ve embraced TagSpaces despite its shortcomings and tagged all your files. But then you open another file manager and notice that files look like this:

tagspaces-renamed-files

No, it’s not a bug. TagSpaces basically renames your files, appending tags to the filename using this pattern:

tagspaces-filename-anatomy

The Options dialog lets you modify this, but the feature is still marked as experimental.

tagspaces-options

The reasoning is that only filenames sync correctly across devices and different operating systems without requiring separate databases and third-party apps to read metadata. However, this approach is not without fault: filenames with multiple tags can be too long for some systems. Tags in filenames make file renaming tricky, and they don’t look pretty at all.

TagSpaces users either love this solution because it’s portable or hate it because they don’t want their files touched. In the end, it boils down to personal preference. If you plan to replace your file manager with TagSpaces, this won’t be a problem because you’ll never see the tags as part of the filename. When you share tagged files, you’ll have to inform the recipients about your file-tagging habits, though.

Hierarchy or Tags?

Most users stick to hierarchical folder structure because it feels “natural” and intuitive, or simply because they’re used to it. But what happens when you have to reorganize it? Introducing new subfolders is not easy with hundreds of files, and I imagine finding a file feels much like searching for a needle in a haystack.

With a tag-based file system, you don’t have to worry about the location – just make sure to tag the files with appropriate, relevant keywords. It’s entirely possible that tags are the future of file management on Linux.

Still, not all users will be ready for the switch. A 2005 study asked fourteen participants to replace their folders with a simple search tool. Thirteen declined, stating they can’t rely only on search and that they prefer to actually see their files grouped in folders. However,

All of the participants said they would be happy to have search utility that helped them to find their personal information better.

Jones, W., Phuwanartnurak, A. J., Gill, R., and Harry Bruce. Don’t Take My Folders Away! Organizing Personal Information to Get Things Done. The Information School, University of Washington, 2005.

Could TagSpaces be the utility they need? We’ve seen it’s not perfect, but it’s a young app, still in development with plenty of time to improve. Compared to CLI-only tag-based file managers like Tag and TagFS, using TagSpaces is a piece of cake, and the interface is much more appealing to beginners and ex-Windows users. The notorious tags-in-filename issue certainly needs attention, perhaps in the form of editing extended file attributes or storing tags in an existing metadata format.

For now, the solution might be to compromise, and let TagSpaces and traditional file managers complement each other. Keep Dolphin or Nautilus Which Linux File Browser Is More Productive: Nautilus or Dolphin? Which Linux File Browser Is More Productive: Nautilus or Dolphin? Wsers of competing desktop environments will notice that they're using different file managers -- an important part of desktop productivity. Surprisingly, there are a lot of things that can go right or wrong with a... Read More for your daily file management tasks and switch to TagSpaces for specific file types. You could use TagSpaces as a photo collection manager Top Linux Photo Software for Managing & Editing Snaps Top Linux Photo Software for Managing & Editing Snaps Do you remember where you saved your holiday photos last year? How quickly can you find a particular snap from August 2007? If you don't know, then you could probably use a new photo manager! Read More , a digital notebook, or an e-book organizer.

What do you think? Have you tried TagSpaces or any other tag-based file manager? How do you organize your files? Share your advice and experience in the comments.

Image Credits:Filed Under “Folders” by Domiriel via Flickr, TagSpaces screenshots, Folder Structure via Wikimedia Commons, Desktop – before by Lindsay Evans via Flickr.

  1. vanilla
    February 23, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Using Version 2.1.1 (2272.76) on Mac os x 10.11.3,

    The great news is that in my tests, when using TagSpaces to copy or move items to non-HFS fat32 usb-sticks, the destination does *not* have extra mac-cruft items created on it, such as .DS_store, and one ._.* file per item, etc. (Similar to cp -X from command line).

    However, the experimental tab is gone, and cannot find any menu letting you adjust filename delimitters, even in developer tools (View -> F12).

    I put in a feature request for an Undo or at least an optional warning when a drag-and-drop or move would move a big folder-tree, to guard against inadvertent drag-and-drop. Right now, you have to figure out where you dropped it, go find it, and move it back.

    The source code is available on github, so it is probably only a matter of time before someone adds option to store tags in posix-1e extended attributes instead of changing filename. That would be cross-platform for mac-linux. Just hope that when that happens, an option is also added to still inhibit creation of ._.* files for non-hfs destinations on the mac. If you were using tagspaces with a fat32 filesystem, for example, you probably would prefer storing tags in filenames, rather than in "fake" extended attributes files that may not be portable, and might not get copied to other locations when you copy the original file.

    Also note that, at least on mac, it looks like dropbox is using extended attributes for each item. So if tagspaces were using extended attributes, Dropbox might preserve them across mac and linux platforms (this needs testing).

  2. Tadya
    January 1, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    There aren't a lot of great Tagging applications out there and TagSpaces uses a pretty clever and versatile idea for tagging in a world of no tagging standards. While the idea is great the implementation is abysmal. The developer needs to higher a programmer - the software is a buggy mess and the UI is painful.

  3. Chris Emery
    October 20, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    I was deeply disappointed in the decision by Micro$oft to halt to the Longhorn (?) file system improvements (as I was when they discontinued using Outlook for a file manager) arghhh.
    It could be done by using a fork in the file to store the tags.
    Their used to be a way to extend the File explorer and add tabs to work with file fork data.
    I prefer hierarchical tagging, but this could be simulated with "/" separators (e.g. TaggingSystems/Hierarchy/Separators).
    Both systems can not deal with files which do not have write access allowed.
    For that reason I would prefer a database manager which would handle all user directory actions.
    That way all user file changes can be tracked with minimal impact on the directory itself.

  4. Stephan Huebner
    October 10, 2015 at 7:25 am

    I've discovered TagSpaces some time ago and it sounded rather interesting at first. But the "renaming of files" is a big no-go for me. I think their argument about it being a portable method is very, very flawed if not outright false. Actually I think it is even quite the contrary.

    - As you say yourself, different filesystems might have problems with these filenames. Not only because of length-issues but also because of special characters in the filename.

    - Even if one were to use TagSpaces on one system only, the user were more or less restricted to using TagSpaces from now on, because dealing with these files in another app would be simply horrible. I imagine choosing such a file in a file requester or simply looking at them in a regular folder-window... Or what about trying to rename them in a shell? Just horrible.

    Some kind of export-method for an internal database (maybe to xml or whatever) would be far more portable, imho. If there were other tagging-systems, one could probably write some conversion-script.

    As it is, TagSpaces makes a mess out of ones' filenames and thus makes it far more risky (and difficult) to work with them outside of TagSpaces, let alone outside of ones home-system. Therefore I would say it is far *less* portable than most other solutions I could think of.

    • Ivana Isadora Devcic
      October 10, 2015 at 7:16 pm

      Great comment, thank you!

      Everything you said makes sense, and honestly, I don't understand why there isn't an option to manage tags differently; a choice between renaming files and something else. Perhaps it was too difficult to implement? I think it's safe to say that the file-renaming issue will be a dealbreaker for many potential users.

      On the other hand, I can understand those who don't mind it. At this stage, I wouldn't use TagSpaces as my default file manager, but I wouldn't mind using it to manage, for example, my stock photo collection. Those files are all named 123blabla.jpg and I don't intend on renaming them manually, and I don't really care what they're called. If I used TagSpaces to add a few descriptive tags to their filenames, they wouldn't be too long, and it would be much easier to find a photo when I need it. Of course, I could achieve the same thing with any file renaming tool, but their interfaces are usually less convenient than TagSpaces.

      • Dan Dascalescu
        August 5, 2016 at 10:27 pm

        For images in particular, the JPG format already supports tags, and there are great tools, e.g. XnView, that handle image tags.

  5. fcd76218
    October 9, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    "It’s entirely possible that tags are the future of file management on Linux."
    Not if it is implemented like TagSpaces. If I was the developer I would be ashamed for having released TagSpaces into the wild.

    "Could TagSpaces be the utility they need? We’ve seen it’s not perfect"
    "Not perfect" is an understatement. From the problem descriptions in the article, I wouldn't call it even an Alpha version. These are not some minor bugs that need fixing, these are major problems. Some of the more important features either don't work at all or only "sort of" work. Would you accept this level of problems from an office suite or a media player or a regular file manager?

    • Ivana Isadora Devcic
      October 9, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      As I understand it, this is a work-in-progress project, despite the 1.12.0 version number in the name. I chose to review it because I found it interesting (more specifically, its approach to file management), and I think it has potential (if it actually improves in future versions). Of course, you're free to disagree.

      If a media player or another file manager had a particular feature that I really needed and couldn't find elsewhere, I would be prepared to use it despite the problems (provided that the app was stable enough for everyday use). But that's just me. Problems do get solved - you report a bug, file a complaint, propose a new feature. Remember KDE 4? It was a total mess when it was released, and many people thought the developers should be ashamed. Yet today it's one of the best DEs out there.

  6. A. Hutsona
    October 9, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I don't see any Linux install instructions, or an I missing something from the TagSpaces site.

    • Jon Glass
      October 9, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      Try your distro's package manager or software installer app.

      • fcd76218
        October 9, 2015 at 8:36 pm

        TagSpaces is not in the repositories of most distros. tagspaces.org does not seem to have the install instructions.

        • Jon Glass
          October 10, 2015 at 11:07 am

          I certainly hope I did not come across that way, but rereading it, I can see how it sounds abrubt. Sorry for being abrupt

          Bummer that it's not in the repos, but it seems that the binary does download, and can execute--on Linux, at least. I tried what what the author suggested in this thread in my VirtualBox, and yeah, that works. Just extract the gz file, and find the extracted folder and file, and double-click to launch--works in Lubuntu, at least. :-)

    • Ivana Isadora Devcic
      October 9, 2015 at 9:12 pm

      You're right, there are no instructions on the official website for the Linux version. You can download the tar.gz file, extract it, and run the tagspaces executable file (either from the terminal or by double-clicking it) to start the application. That's how I did it, and it worked. Hope this helps.

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