My toolkit of essential Windows programs

I’ve been around the block a couple of times when it comes to using Windows as a desktop environment (unfortunately). The least I can do is help ease others’ agony by sharing the toolkit of extremely useful Windows programs that I’ve accumulated over the years. Many of these programs you’ve likely already heard of (such as Firefox). Others you will never have heard of, but you’ll wish you’d found out about them years ago. Note, the programs are presented in no particular order.

SpaceMonger is an incredibly useful program that graphically depicts exactly how all of the space on your hard drive is being used. It scans your entire hard drive then displays its contents in blocks, with the area of each block directly proportional to the size of the file/folder. This is very helpful when you’re out of space and trying to come up with something to delete to free up space. I’ve run across multiple DVD images I’d long forgotten about and no longer needed, providing a savings of 4.5 GB each. SpaceMonger serves a dual purpose: finding lost files (the most interesting ones are always large, right?) and reclaiming drive space. What’s not to love?

Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird
Who hasn’t heard of Mozilla Firefox? It’s quite simply the best browser out there. It far eclipses Internet Explorer, and its selection of extensions can’t be beat. Slightly less well known is Mozilla Thunderbird, a mail program. Yeah, I know most people check their mail using a website these days, but I still don’t think they have anything on a real desktop client. I have Thunderbird configured to download mail directly from multiple email accounts. Firefox and Thunderbird are both Free Software (meaning free as in freedom, not free as in price) and available for a huge assortment of operating systems, including GNU/Linux.

Sure Delete
Sure Delete: For when it absolutely, positively has to be deleted. Sure Delete can run in two modes, either targeting specific files and folders for sure deletion or truly cleaning out all of the free space on your hard drive (remember, when you delete something, its data isn’t actually overwritten; the space is just marked as free). No matter which mode you use, it overwrites the targeted data on your hard drive many times, making it totally unrecoverable even with advanced forensic techniques. Sure Delete is great for paranoid types. Some people may claim, “If I don’t do anything wrong, what do I have to hide?” Don’t get caught uttering such utterly naive last words. Protect yourself. If you need to clean an entire drive, like if you’re giving away your computer, step up to Darik’s Boot and Nuke to totally protect your privacy. But if you just need to delete a few files and otherwise keep your operating system intact, Sure Delete is the way to go.

Tor (with Torbutton, Privoxy, and Vidalia)
Tor is the ultimate in online privacy. Your web traffic is routed through a series of Tor nodes all across the globe, and the path taken isn’t known by anyone else. It’s nearly untraceable. Use it when browsing suspicious sites so bad people don’t learn your IP address, and thus, possibly your identity. Just be careful: while the traffic traveling through the Tor network is encrypted, traffic that went into the Tor network unencrypted will exit from the final node in the route unencrypted, and unscrupulous people running exit nodes can snoop on you. Normal web browsing through Tor should be fine, but don’t even think of doing something sensitive like entering a credit card number through Tor unless your web connection is also secure (look for https URLs and a lock icon in your browser).

The Windows download for Tor should also include Vidalia and Privoxy. Vidalia is a nice GUI front-end that sits on top of the command-line Tor and lets you control it in a manner more intuitive for Windows users. Privoxy is a program that turns http traffic into a format that can flow through Tor; Tor acts as a SOCKS proxy and it wouldn’t normally be able to handle web traffic. And finally there’s Torbutton, which is a very simple extension for Firefox that allows you to toggle redirection of your web traffic through Tor at the press of a button. It’s much much easier than messing with the Proxy settings in Firefox each time you want to switch between Tor and a direct connection. Tor is Free Software and is available on a variety of operating systems, including GNU/Linux.

Ever run across a file or folder in Windows that can’t be deleted? Then Unlocker is for you. Windows isn’t the cleverest operating system around. It can sometimes get confused and think a file or folder is in use by a program even when it’s not, and then prevents you from deleting it. The usual fix would be to reboot, but screw that! Just select Unlocker from the right-click context menu on the file or folder and get rid of it without having to reboot. If Unlocker detects a currently running process that has a lock on the file/folder, it will give you the option of terminating that process. Unlocker is also great to have in your toolkit when fighting viruses or malware, which very frequently have locked files that are impossible to delete without something like Unlocker.

UltraMon provides a set of features for multiple monitor setups that really should have been included with Windows. If you don’t have multiple monitors, UltraMon isn’t for you. But I run two monitors and I find it essential. It does so many useful things, so let me just list a few. It adds a taskbar to your second desktop in dual view mode. It correctly lets you set desktop backgrounds that flow between monitors, or set the two backgrounds to different images. It adds a button to windows to shift them between monitors, turning what used to be a multiple-click-and-move process (un-maximize window, drag, then re-maximize) to a one-click process. Windows simply doesn’t handle multiple monitors gracefully; for that, you need UltraMon. And if you don’t have multiple monitors, I highly recommend getting a second monitor. Monitors are really cheap these days, and the extra screen real estate makes a huge productivity difference.

Tweak UI
Tweak UI is an official Microsoft Windows PowerToy (and thus a free download). I suppose the only reason it doesn’t ship with Windows is because it’s too useful. Microsoft has a reputation to uphold. It lets you tweak Windows in all sorts of ways beyond what the Control Panel lets you do. For instance, it allows you to change shortcut settings. Know how shortcuts are automatically generated with the annoying text “Shortcut to …”? You can remove that. You can also remove the ugly shortcut arrow it puts on top of program icons. Tweak UI just does lots of little things like this, but the result is a Windows that is much more customized to your liking.

WinPatrol is a great utility that gives you the kind of control over Windows you should have in the first place. Want to reduce boot times and ramp up performance? Use WinPatrol’s listing of all programs (including services) that start at boot and clean out the junk. Want to get rid of some pesky IE toolbars? WinPatrol lists all of them too. You can also use it to hide/unhide system files and get info on all running programs. Needless to say, WinPatrol is a huge help in removing spyware, malware, and junk from your system. It will even monitor any time a new service is installed or a new program is added to startup, and pop up a dialog box asking to confirm the change.

Process Explorer
Process Explorer
Process Explorer is another tool by Microsoft that should have come with Windows. In case you haven’t noticed, the default Task Manager, which you reach through the Ctrl-Alt-Delete menu, is fairly useless. If you’re infected with malware that you’re trying to cleanse, just forget about using the default Task Manager to try to find it. Process Explorer is way better. It will list all processes that are running, and arrange them in a hierarchical tree view so you know which process is the parent of each running process. You can kill off entire process trees at once. You can also suspend processes, something Task Manager can’t do. And it provides much more detailed statistics on your system.

Azureus is my favorite BitTorrent client. It’s miles ahead of the official mainline client. If you’re doing torrent downloading, you want a good client that handles multiple simultaneous downloads and uploads, and manages the downloaded files to boot. That’s why you want Azureus. Watch out for more recent versions though. They’re trying out this fishy proprietary Vuze interface. Stick with the latest Free Software version, v2.5.0.4.

GnuPG (with Enigmail)
GnuPG is your all-in-one source for encryption. Have you been encrypting files by putting passwords on zip archives or using the Windows built-in encryption? Those methods are the equivalent of hiding your valuables under your bed. In comparison, using GnuPG is like locking up your valuables in Fort Knox. Encryption methods like passworded zip files are ad hoc, have small key sizes, and are easily broken by a determined attacker. GnuPG takes a better approach and uses widely known, provably secure encryption protocols such as RSA that have been published in mathematical journals and are implemented in ways that eliminate all weaknesses. Use the Enigmail plugin for Thunderbird to sign and/or encrypt your emails using PGP. GnuPG uses the same encryption methods that banks use to talk to each other. It’s Free Software. Its export to various countries is banned in the US. What’s not to love?

Zipping and unzipping files isn’t sexy by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s still some pride in being the best at it. That’s where WinRAR comes in. It handles all of the zip formats you’re ever going to see, including the bzipped and gzipped tar archives that I am so fond of making in GNU/Linux. And it’s the native client for handling rar files, the format you most often run across in downloaded media. Eat that, WinZip.

So that’s my toolkit of Windows programs I’ve found to be very useful. Enjoy!

6 Responses to “My toolkit of essential Windows programs”

  1. Cyde Weys Says:

    And just to head off any bitching about GnuPG: Yes, I know my description of it is woefully inadequate. Encryption is a hugely complex subject and it can’t be summed up in a single paragraph. I took a whole course on it in university, so just trust me when I say that GnuPG gives you access to the most powerful encryption algorithms around.

  2. Darmok Says:

    Wow, great list! I’m bookmarking it to explore later, but that SpaceMonger looks incredibly useful and I’m going to download it right now.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    I will admit to putting SpaceMonger first because it’s the program that most often jumps out at people as something they wish they’d known about years ago. It serves as a good lead-in to the rest of the entry. Everything else is unordered, I swear :-P

  4. MrDolomite Says:

    Great list, definitely have used those over the years. Get the older, free version of SpaceMonger, it works fine and, um, it’s free ;) ProcessExplorer goes right on my Quick Launch toolbar for squishing those out of control Windows processes.

  5. Will (green) Says:

    I have pretty much all of the SysInternals apps stuck in one folder because they’re very handy.
    There’s something similar to Spacemonger that offers some interesting features, but I can’t recall its name right now. The pie tree view is particularly interesting.

  6. Dyneus Says:

    Winrar can’t handle 7zip tho…

    You should try RoboForm. Saves me a bunch of time in filling out online forms.