Thunar vs. Nautilus: Two Lightweight File Managers For Linux

Danny Stieben 10-09-2013

Nautilus, the default file manager in Gnome, is extremely popular among Linux users. Not only is it easy to use, but it’s pretty common to find as it’s on all Ubuntu and other Gnome-based systems. However, Nautilus isn’t the only kid on the block.


Just recently, I took a look at Dolphin, the default file manager for KDE 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 , and found that it offers a lot of extra functionality compared to Nautilus. But Dolphin isn’t the only file manager Nautilus has to be worried about – there’s also Thunar, the Xfce file manager, to complete the big three. Is it better than Nautilus as well?


Nautilus is the default file manager for the Gnome desktop. It has a handful of derivatives, including Nemo MATE vs. GNOME Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Desktop Environments Explained What is the best GNOME-based Linux desktop? We compare Unity vs. GNOME, Cinnamon, MATE, Pantheon, and Budgie to help you choose. Read More found in Linux Mint (Cinnamon), Caja A Review of MATE: Is It a True GNOME 2 Replica for Linux? The world of Linux desktop environments has dramatically changed since then. Gnome 3 was born, Gnome 2 was essentially thrown to the side, Gnome 3 was forked to create Cinnamon, and so on. However, Gnome... Read More found in the MATE desktop environment, and Nautilus Elementary Nautilus Elementary Simplifies File Browsing on Linux Read More , but we won’t be looking at those in this comparison.

The file manager offers a handful of nice features to make navigating very easy. It includes a panel on the left side for easy access to bookmarks and important locations, and the rest of the window is given to an actual view of the files and folders. Nautilus has recently consolidated all of its settings (for the most part) so that you can access all of its advanced features from just one location. For a more detailed look at Nautilus, you can take a look at its comparison against 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 .


Thunar, the default file manager for the Xfce desktop environment XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop As far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. I have previously mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments... Read More , is the third of the major three file managers (derivatives excluded). If you know anything about Xfce, it’s that the desktop environment focuses on using a small amount of system resources (although arguably LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE As Linux is arguably the most customizeable operating system between it, Windows, and Mac OS X; there's plenty of room to change just about whatever you please. Proper customizing can potentially lead to massive performance... Read More is better at this), so you can easily assume that Thunar will follow the same goals and principles. However, can it still compete with Nautilus even with its focus on being lightweight?

In case you don’t have Thunar installed and are interested in trying it out, it should be easily found by searching in your respective package manager for “thunar”. Xfce users should already have this installed, and Gnome users can install it rather easily as both Gnome and Xfce use the GTK toolkit. KDE users should expect to see GTK-related dependencies slated for installation if they are not already installed.


When you first launch Thunar, you’ll discover that it looks very much like Nautilus. There’s a panel on the left side of the window which holds bookmarks and important locations, and then a simple view of your files and folders.

Thunar doesn’t have a single button to access all of its files, but rather maintains the traditional menu bar. The navigational panel is simplified relative to Nautilus, as it only includes back, forward, up, and home buttons as well as the folder path.

It’s similar to Nautilus, however, in that you can change this in the View menu from Toolbar Style to Pathbar Style – which shows the most recent few folders as clickable buttons. Overall, it looks like Thunar offers roughly the same features as Nautilus. Someone has mentioned to me that Nautilus does have a way to have a “split screen” effect to show two folders at once – Thunar doesn’t seem to have this option.

Thunar also offers a way to configure custom actions. These allow you to manipulate the files or folders selected in whatever manner you choose. The window also displays a list of command parameters which you can use in your custom commands.


One curious thing about Thunar is that one window takes up 18MB of RAM. Nautilus, on the other hand, takes about 9MB of RAM, which is certainly a lot less than Thunar. This comparison would even tend to favor Thunar, as I believe Nautilus also has the role of managing the desktop files on Gnome desktops while Thunar doesn’t have that responsibility on Xfce. However, if you run Nautilus in a non-Gnome environment, it has to load Gnome-related libraries – bringing the total to almost 24MB. Generally speaking, neither one has an outright advantage in memory usage – it depends on which environment is being used along with it.

Thunar also includes other nice features, including:

  • Customizable appearance
  • File properties
  • Manage actions for removable media (auto run programs, warn about unwritten data, etc.)
  • Mouse gestures
  • Keyboard shortcuts (no surprise there)
  • Hidden settings
  • Plugins (includes “Send To” menu, bulk renamer, custom actions)


So which file manager is ultimately the better choice? I’d have to call it a draw. There are simply too many areas where both file managers are on par. While Thunar may benefit from a few extra minor features, it doesn’t get the same love by third-party developers that Nautilus does. There are tradeoffs by using either of them. Ultimately, I’d have to just recommend to use the file manager that comes with your desktop environment unless there’s something that you absolutely like in the other one.

Which file manager do you use? Which feature is most important to you? Let us know in the comments!


Image credit: King Penguins

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  1. DavidH
    April 11, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    The only thing I care about is a tree view in the sidebar like Windows Explorer offers. It boggles my mind that so few (if any - the last time I bothered to do research on this, I came up with nothing) file managers for Mac and Linux offer this, since it's obviously so handy for quickly jumping from one deep spot in the file system to a different one.
    Nemo doesn't offer it and I suspect neither does Thunar.
    So... I don't really care about either one...

  2. Tom Tee
    December 19, 2013 at 6:46 am

    SpaceFM, is my choice file manager.

    I have used all the above except, Gnome Comander and Ranger.
    Also have used Rox.
    Right now I use Thunar as a backup, just because I like the bulk file renamer.
    And for everything else I use SpaceFM it has less dependencies than Thunar.
    Up to four split screens, if you wish. Multi-tab.
    Tree panel, toolbar, device mount/unount.
    Designer mode i.e.- make your own menu items
    Root terminal, Root window
    Built in task manager- showing file transfers, time left etc.
    Bookmarks, Plugins, and on the menubar under Help>
    FAQ, Manual, Home page, SpaceFM news. How many file managers
    do that?
    Most importantly mount/unmount works flawless.
    Comes in gtk3 or gtk2 flavors.

  3. jony
    October 30, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    for me : having split screen is a must in a file manager

  4. Ryan J.
    October 9, 2013 at 1:16 am

    Nautilus and lightweight doesn't match, at all.

  5. Nick
    October 8, 2013 at 12:58 am

    I been using XFCE for about two years now and I come to like thunar as a file manager for its nice simplistic interface and speed to find my files. I tried other ones like dolphin and nautilus but, I feel thunar for me so far is the best I will try out some of the ones suggested here though in the comments suggestion to see if the can beat my favorite.

  6. dragonmouth
    September 11, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Since I like KDE, I use Dolphin and Konqueror.

    Installing a file manager that is not native to the desktop environment you are using means installing hundreds of megabytes of extra files. Might as well change the entire desktop environment (replace XFCE with Gnome or KDE or KDE with Gnome)

    Midnight Commander is another very light file manager.

  7. scapeborglists
    September 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I really like Gnome Commander. It's list oriented, highly configurable and light-weight.

  8. Jimbo
    September 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I like Ranger. It's really fast to navigate anywhere, it has three panes and file previews, and I can easily modify the rules that choose which program opens which file, going far beyond just file extensions. I can also easily define bookmarks and macros. I'm not sure how much memory it takes up, but why should you worry about the file manager?

  9. TechnoAngina
    September 10, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I'd have to second pcmanfm as a lightweight manager. I find that if you're looking to shed weight though the file manager isn't usually where you want to do it. I just find that I need a lot of the features of Nautilus. If I go lightweight it's generally to the console. I think like Firefox, it's the extensibility that I like.

  10. Daniel Lim
    September 10, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I use a gnome based distribution, so nautilus, i like the minimalist look and the the fact that all the settings are located in one place, also on lxde there is pcmanfm, you could write an article on that