Reading Ed Bott’s postings about his and his readers’ favourite Windows programs of all time I was surprised to note just how many of the programs on the list had an associated price tag rather than being free (as in beer). In particular, what attracted my attention was that had I been asked to guess which were free and which were not I would probably have failed miserably. For example, a text editor for $33, a note taking tool for $60 and a screen capture utility for $40, but a complete news aggregator for free.
I work, mostly, in a Microsoft environment and so the majority of my main software development tools for that platform are either purchased or licensed through an (expensive) subscription but, like most readers, I like to adorn that environment with utilities that make for a more agreeable working experience. Sometimes those utilities relate directly to work tasks and sometimes less so, but what I notice is that most often those utilities are free (or effectively so – more on this later).
I constructed a list of the utilities that I use on a regular basis at work and at home and very quickly the list grew well beyond 10 in size. As it doesn’t seem sensible to attempt to order them in any way (because such an ordering would make an assumption about your motives for having them in the first place) I leave them unordered. Likewise, as I don’t feel comfortable choosing my top ten, I describe more than that number here but the real list is much longer and growing.
TrueCrypt is disk encryption software which allows either an entire disk partition to be encrypted or else a virtual encrypted disk to be created from a file and then mounted as a Windows drive. The software is Open Source, well documented and thoroughly well thought out. I haven’t had the courage to get to encrypt a real partition yet but do use it to maintain a number of well protected virtual drives that I can mount when I need access to the documents that I store securely inside them. A drive can be mounted once the required password (or password and key file, or correct encryption keys) are provided and once mounted it can be used just like any other Windows drive. The contents of a TrueCrypt drive are never stored in their decrypted state on disk they are only ever held temporarily in RAM. TrueCrypt drives are a great place to store that collection of documents that you know should really be kept secure.
For software developers, like me, who were brought up in a Unix environment the lack of a real command line in the Windows environment can be stifling. Now I know (the awfully named PowerShell) is now available, but what made the Unix environment so complete was the rich set of commands that could be glued together with whichever variant of the Bourne shell was in vogue. Cygwin provides that same environment but hosted under Windows. The choice of programs is truly massive: editors, shells, compilers, interpreters, text and document processors, libraries, windowing systems. Most things GNUish can be found there courtesy of the GNU C compiler and friends too. Integration with Windows through the filesystem means that all of these tools can be used to process files and media residing on any Windows drive.
TimeSnapper quietly records your activity by taking snapshots of your computer screen at regular intervals through the day. The interval between snapshots can be configured to a given number of seconds and the recording is achieved without any noticeable pause or flicker. This is really handy on those days where you have moved from one task to another and have not been as meticulous about recording your exact timings as you should have been as it allows you to replay the day a snapshot at a time or to jump quickly to a particular time of day and see what you were working on at that point in time. You provide TimeSnapper with a folder it can use to store the snapshot images and chose the format (.png, .jpg, .gif, .wmf, .tiff, .bmp, .emf) and the resolution of the stored images as a percentage of the full screen resolution. TimeSnapper will also manage the archiving of the snapshots if you provide it with an age beyond which you wish it to delete old images or an upper limit to the amount of space you would like it to allocate to storage. Multiple displayed are handled too. This is a tool you can forget about until you need it, and then its a lifesaver.
Copernic Desktop Search is one the many similar search products but what I really like about this program is its intuitive interface. Of course, it is packed with all of the features you would expect from any such search tool and, of course, it indexes a myriad of document and media file formats inspecting meta data inside the files for rapid lookup. It also understands, and so can index, email and contact information from Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Mozilla Thunderbird.
The using interface, rather than relying on a web browser as some search tools do, reacts dynamically as you type, homing-in on the information being sought. Indexing happens on-the-fly and only when the machine is not heavily loaded (and this is configurable). Copernic confirm on their web site that you can “Rest assured that the data indexed by CDS stays on your PC and on no account will it be transferred to us or any of our partners”. The licence only allows for non-commercial use. A separate licence exists for commercial application. That said, I know people for whom this has revolutionised the way they use their PC and I recommend this as a productivity tool.
As a software developer I find that I am often presented with application software in ISO format. It is always a pain to have to burn a DVD just so that it can be mounted in a Windows drive and then discarded and probably never used again (probably never even labelled) once the installation has been completed. Most of my MSDN software arrives this way. SlySoft’s Virtual CloneDrive allows these images to be mounted directly from the ISO file on the file system. Several other formats are supported in addition to ISO.
If you have ripped your CD collection to MP3 or other digital format you will almost certainly have found errors in the track and album metadata that the music files contain or inconsistencies in the naming conventions used by each of the different people who have provided this information. MusicBrainz Picard comes to the rescue by applying the accumulated knowledge from the very well moderated MusicBrainz database. MusicBrainz is a community music metadatabase that attempts to create a comprehensive music information site and you can use the Picard tagger to automatically identify digital music and then tag it and to clean up the existing metadata tags in your digital music collection. I used Picard to correct the Windows Media Player created tags in my own music library when I ripped my entire CD collection to mp3 format and use it regularly each time I purchase music.
Pidgin is a multi-protocol messaging client that handles a large number of instant messaging protocols: AIM, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, Google Talk, Groupwise, ICQ, IRC, MSN, MySpaceIM, QQ, SILC, SIMPLE, Sametime, XMPP, Yahoo!, Zephy. I can really only claim to have used the MSN and IRC protocols but the reason for turning to Pidgin was to allow me to communicate with my family members on MSN without having to endure advertisement hell. Pidgin supports away messages, typing indications and file transfer between clients.
If you are anything more than the most casual of Firefox users or if you create any kind of HTML content or even if you are simply interested in the structure of the HTML page that you are viewing in Firefox you should be interested in the Firebug extension to Firefox. Firebug integrates with Firefox to enable rich examination of a web page structure including:
- an interactive and graphical identification of the effect of individual sections of HTML on the resulting display going from both HTML to display and from display to HTML.
- an indication of the CSS rules, and the order in which they have been applied, that determine the final appearance of a screen element.
- the ability to change elements of the CSS or HTML source and immediately see the resulting effect on the display.
Firebug was written by one of the original Firefox developers and the slickness of the integration is evident. If I could only keep one Firefox extension it would be Firebug.
Its difficult to get to excited about a file archive tool, especially one that performs well is unobtrusive and just gets the job done. 7Zip is just that kind of tool, integrating well with the Windows explorer shell context menus but providing more functionality and better performance than the native Windows archiver (Compressed folders). When writing an archive, 7z, ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2 and TAR target formats are available and when reading an archive any of RAR, CAB, ISO, ARJ, LZH, CHM, MSI, WIM, Z, CPIO, RPM, DEB and NSIS formats are available. 7Zip can optionally apply AES-256 encryption when creating 7z and ZIP format archives.
Gimp, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is as close as you will get to a tool like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro without spending a lot of money. For most of the image related tasks that I need to perform it is overkill (by a long shot too) but if you are prepared to put some time into learning the basic techniques some impressive results can be obtained. There are quite a lot of helpful web sites within reach of Google that contain hints, tips and tutorials for those who make the effort. Also take a look at paint.net, a relative newcomer but receiving a lot of praise.
JungleDisk is a tool that puts a user-friendly front-end on top of Amazon’s S3 Storage Service. S3 enables inexpensive off-site storage of files up to 5GB in size to an unlimited capacity. Storage costs are of the order of $0.18 / month per GB with data transfer rates of between $0.10 and $0.20 per GB. JungleDisk itself is not free (in spite of my claim in the title of this post), it costs $20, but can be used on as many PCs as you like with the same Amazon S3 account. I include it here because compared to the cost and worry of on-site storage the combined cost of JungleDisk and Amazon S3 is effectively free, at least as far as I am concerned. JungleDisk can perform on-the-fly encryption of data as it travels from the PC to S3 and decryption on its return journey, it can make the S3 storage appear as a mapped local drive and it can perform scheduled backups from the PC to S3.
Launchy is a smart search program which tries to guess which program you are looking for and will launch it with the minimum number of keypresses required to satisfactorily identify the desired program. It is designed to help you forget about your start menu, the icons on your desktop, and even your file manager.
This is a utility that I didn’t expect to survive my move from Windows XP to Windows Vista because at first glance it appears to provide much the same functionality that is now found with the search facility that is built into Vista’s Start Menu search box. Indeed, to begin with, I survived without it for a couple of months but then I began to miss the fact that Launchy is started with only a hot-key combination and requires no mouse movement or clicks. Launchy lurks in the background and responds to the Alt-spacebar key sequence by opening a small input field to accept keyboard input. On typing, Launchy searches its indexed list of known programs for the closest match, the search being refined with each additional keypress. When the desired program is identified a hit of the enter key is all that is required to launch the program.
Launchy can be customised to search specific locations for commands and to recognise additional files type, or to provide additional arguments or accept user supplied parameters to commands and it can also perform online searches with google, msn, yahoo, live, weather, amazon, wikipedia, dictionary, thesaurus, imdb, netflix, and msdn.
SharpReader is an RSS feed aggregator created by Luke Hutteman and is the only RSS reader that I have ever been completely comfortable with. The application is infrequently updated but (possibly as a result) runs without faulting and simply does the job well. In addition to allowing a collection of feeds to be browsed it also presents a stacked list of alerts up the right hand edge of the display whenever new items arrive. The lifetime of these alerts can be adjusted to allow just enough time to quickly scan them without them becoming too much of a distraction to the job in hand. At the time that I started using SharpReader the only other utility that I felt came anywhere close to it was FeedDemon. FeedDemon is now also a free product and I have been dual running it alongside SharpReader – the jury is out, but SharpReader still has the edge.
Vi was one of the first Unix visual text editors, taking its name from the two character command that switched its predecessor ex into a, so called, visual mode. Ex, in turn, is a descendent of ed which was written by Ken Thomson back in the 1960s as part of the Multics environment and contained one of the first implementations of regular expressions. Vim was created in 1991 for the Amiga computer as an extended version of the vi editor and gVim is the graphical variant of vim. The expressiveness of regular expressions combined with the rather terse but necessary and sufficient approach command driven editing that this family of editors supported went on to fuel many of the ideas in other important Unix commands, notably grep, sed and later awk (which you could argue was responsible for the creation of Perl). The lineage continues with Rob Pike’s sam and acme for the Plan 9 and Inferno operating systems.
You could argue that Vim is part of Cygwin which I have described elsewhere but I think it deserves to be singled out here if for no other reason than for the fact that on a Windows system it allows you to replace the hopeless notepad with something that at least allows you to perform some useful tasks and, if you are prepared to make the effort to learn its command syntax, become more productive too.