Let’s face it: Windows comes pretty barren by default. Thankfully, there is a plethora of freeware applications available to complement it. The following is a list of choice productive applications that I typically install on my own systems. This is similar to my now-obsolete list for Mac OS X.
Before I begin, allow me to say that creating any list of top freeware applications for Windows is bound to invoke the wrath of certain individuals. There are two reasons for this:
- There are A LOT of freeware applications for Windows, of varying quality.
- It is impossible to please everyone.
That said, it is only with trembling, fear, and trepidation that I post this list. 🙂
About my choices
I had a few stipulations in mind when selecting each application:
- The application MUST be free, as in “free beer.” Open source is welcome, but not required. If an application has a “paid” upgrade available, that is acceptable, provided the “free” version is not purposefully crippled.
- Each application must allow for productivity of some sort. This eliminates all security tools, such as antivirus and spyware scanners. Those are (hopefully) preventative tools, not productive ones. Games and other entertainment packages are ruled out for the same reason. Yeah, I’m fun at parties.
- Bonus points are given to those applications that “do one thing and do it well.” That’s the UNIX junkie in me.
- In most cases I tried to avoid the overly obvious. For instance, there is no point in listing a “productive” web browser or e-mail client. Plus, if you have not heard about Firefox, Opera, or Thunderbird, it’s time to crawl out from under your rock.
- Every application must of course work with Windows XP. They probably work with Vista, but since I don’t own Vista, I can’t vouch for any of them.
Ok! Let’s get started. The following applications are in random order.
Similar to Quicksilver on Mac OS X, Launchy is a neat little utility to launch files and programs. Once installed, simply press ALT + Spacebar to bring up the Launchy window. Start typing the name of any program in your start menu and Launchy should find it.
You can also easily browse your filesystem or add specific files and folders (such as MP3s or pictures) for indexing. Once you get used to it, it saves a lot of time.
Paint.NET is a very sophisticated image editor and photo manipulator that supports layers, unlimited undo, and a multitude of other features. No, it is not meant to be a Photoshop killer, but it can easily handle most people’s image editing needs. While The GIMP is also free (and more powerful overall), Paint.NET is significantly smaller, has a great interface, and loads much faster.
If you have not heard of OpenOffice, where have you been since the turn of the century? If you need an introduction, let’s just say that OpenOffice is currently the best free replacement for the MS Office Suite. I write all of my papers for graduate school with it. In fact, I own a copy of MS Office 2000, but have used Openoffice exclusively since 2003 and have no plans to ever switch back to MS Office.
Want a free way to “image” your drives and partitions? Look no further than Driveimage XML, a program that can create “hot” images of your drives and partitions and restore them later.Not sure how to use this program? You are in luck. I wrote a tutorial on Ghosting Windows XP for Free.
Ah, I remember the days when most everyone had a shareware version of Winzip installed, but not registered. Fortunately, there are many more compression utilities available today, and it is possible to run into archives now in any number of varying formats. No worries, IZArc can probably handle it. As quoted on its website, IZArc can support:
7-ZIP, A, ACE, ARC, ARJ, B64, BH,
BIN, BZ2, BZA, C2D, CAB, CDI, CPIO, DEB, ENC, GCA, GZ, GZA, HA, IMG, ISO, JAR, LHA, LIB, LZH, MDF, MBF,
MIM, NRG, PAK, PDI, PK3, RAR, RPM, TAR, TAZ, TBZ, TGZ, TZ, UUE, WAR, XXE, YZ1, Z, ZIP, ZOO
IZArc also supports 256-bit encryption and the conversion of CD image types, such as BIN to ISO, and NRG to ISO, both of which are extremely handy.
Need FTP software? Way back in the day I used WS_FTP extensively, but as I saw future versions continue to bloat, I looked elsewhere. Most people’s FTP needs are simple: upload stuff, download stuff, save server settings, possibly rename files, and perhaps change file permissions. FileZilla does all of these easily and intuitively. Hint: combine FileZilla with Notepad++ for easy editing of text files on the server!
What good is doing productive work if you have no way of backing it up? Mozy is a backup software package that offers two gigabytes of free remote storage. Simply create an account with them, install the software, choose which directories you would like to keep archived, then forget about it. I wrote a more thorough review of their service here.
Love them or hate them, those little virtual post-it notes can be quite handy. I’m a fan of Stickies on Mac OS X, so I’ve been happily using Stickies for Windows. Just type whatever note to yourself that you want, and it will automatically be saved.
You can even synchronize Stickies across multiple computers using the Amazon S3 service. Slick! Note: both Stickies and Paint.NET require the .NET framework 2.0.
The original Windows Notepad is a pretty wimpy text editor, and there are a number of good replacements. I like using Notepad++ since it does everything I could ever want it to do. Here are some features:
Syntax Highlighting and Syntax Folding
Regular Expression Search/Replace supported
Real coders just use VIM, right? 🙂
I admit, I’m not much of a coder, but if you need free development tools, it is hard to beat Microsoft’s Visual Studio Express Editions. There are tools available for web development, C#, C++, VB, J#, and SQL development. You must register with Microsoft for a free registration key in order to use the software.
Like it or not, the ability create PDFs is essential now. Windows by default cannot create PDFs, but it can with the addition of utilities like PrimoPDF, which installs as a virtual printer. Once it is installed, you may “print” to it from any application that can print. Though there are many similar applications, I like PrimoPDF for its ability to “merge” PDFs together. For those interested, it also allows for file security, such as limiting viewing and printing unless you supply the specified password.
I recommend using PrimoPDF in conjunction with the free Foxit Reader, a PDF viewer that runs circles around Adobe Reader in terms of installation and loading speed.
Audacity is a free, crossplatform audio editor. Want to splice two audio files together? Or maybe trim the applause from a live recording? Or maybe record your podcast? Audacity performs all of these tasks with aplomb. There is also a nice “noise” removal plug-in that I have successfully used to remove background hum, such as from an air conditioner.
I make my living in the music world, yet I often find myself turning to Audacity for simple audio tasks rather than launching one of my larger, more “professional” programs.
What is MPEG Streamclip? It is a video converter. No wait, it’s more than that. MPEG Streamclip is an editor: you can cut, trim, or join videos. It can convert MPEG files between muxed and demuxed formats. It can open and encode videos to a number of formats. You can even download videos into the program from YouTube and Google Video simply by entering the URL.
Note: you need Quicktime (or an alternative) installed in order to fully harness MPEG Streamclip.
Supported input formats:
MPEG, VOB, PS, M2P, MOD, VRO, DAT, MOV, DV, AVI, MP4, TS, M2T, MMV, REC, VID, AVR, M2V, M1V, MPV, AIFF, M1A, MP2, MPA, AC3
Deepburner is a simple, free CD/DVD-burning package. It’s so simple a drunken cockroach could use it. Launch the problem and you will see three choices: Create data CD/DVD, Create audio CD, Burn ISO image.
Oh, there is also a free “portable” edition available in case you would like to run it from a USB drive. If you have trouble, find a drunken cockroach.
Mathematically-minded people will find this program useful. Graph will draw graphs of functions on a coordinate system. It supports standard, parameter, and polar functions. When your graphs are drawn you can save the results as an image or a PDF.
Because sometimes you just need to draw a graph! 🙂
You probably already know about Google SketchUp. If not, then here is an introduction:
SketchUp is a 3D-modeling program that combines a suite of powerful drawing tools with a hefty amount of intuitiveness. You start with basic shapes, then mould and modify them into whatever creation you can imagine. As Google so succinctly puts it:
Design anything from a shoebox to a skyscraper.
Sketchup can seamlessly interface with Google Earth, allowing you to place the models you create using real-world coordinates, which you can then share with the world. Pretty cool stuff.
Speaking of building things, another entry into the creative realm is DAZ|Studio. What is it?
DAZ|Studio is a free software application that allows you to easily create beautiful digital art. You can use this software to load in people, animals, vehicles, buildings, props, and accessories to create digital scenes.
In other words, DAZ|Studio is 3D figure posing and animation software that comes with hundreds of megabytes of figures and scenes, though you can buy more from their online store if you desire. The software even includes OpenGL preview, custom lighting, scripting support, content management, Poser project import, and much more. It is truly remarkable software.
Along the same lines, you may also want to try Blender if you do not know about it already.
Sure, there are a lot of applications that “rip” CDs. iTunes is one that I use frequently, but if you just want to rip or convert some music, iTunes is a bit on the excessive side. Plus, its formats are limited in comparison to FreeRip.
Using FreeRip, you can currently save audio tracks to WAV, MP3, WMA, OGG and FLAC. You may also easily convert from one format to another. I really like FreeRip, but hope to see them add AAC in the future. (Aside: the FreeRip installer gives you the option to install the MySearch toolbar, but you can opt out easily.)