Useful Windows Tools


Every year, Scott Hanselman posts a list of tools that he uses. After reading this year’s list, I decided to do my own. Why? Because I have many thousands of readers like he does? No. Because some of my readers are techies and would find the list useful? Well, maybe a couple of them. Because those readers who are not techies might find it interesting too? Not bloody likely. The real reason is the same as the reason for the majority of the rest of my postings: just ’cause.

Work Tools

  • 4NT – I use a zillion batch files at work for doing all kinds of repetitive tasks – anything I need to do more than once, I write a batch file for. The Windows batch file language is pretty lame, so Sybase has a site license for 4NT as a command shell replacement and it’s so much more powerful than the Windows one. I don’t think you can get 4NT anymore, but the latest version is called Take Command. Some people at work are using that but I’m still on 4NT. Not for any nostalgic reason, just because I can’t be bothered to change it. Windows 7 will ship with a thing called Powershell which is supposed to be pretty good, but I can’t imagine rewriting all the scripts I already have.
  • ActivePerl – I actually prefer writing python code to perl, but if you’re doing anything involving string manipulation or regular expressions, you can’t beat perl. Over the last couple of years I’ve rewritten a  lot of my 4NT batch files in perl.
  • ActivePython – One of our testing tools at work uses python so I’ve been writing a lot of python over the last few years. I thought the whole whitespace thing was crazy at first, but as long as you have a good editor (see emacs below) that knows about that stuff, it’s not so bad.
  • emacs – We don’t use an IDE at work, so most developers use either emacs or Watcom vi (since we used to be Watcom). Many are switching over to vim rather than vi. I can use vi and did for many years, but I usually use emacs.
  • Thunderbird for both email and news. Our company uses Lotus Notes, but I gave up on that years ago. I used Outlook for a number of years and it was OK, but now and again it would get into a state where it wouldn’t download any emails but wouldn’t give any errors either. I switched to Thunderbird and have been happy ever since. A few add-ons make it complete:
  • VMWare – we have a VMWare server set up on a big kick-ass machine in the lab, and I have a couple of VMs that are running 24/7 on that machine. One is running XP and I use it for network stuff as well as NetWare development (so I don’t have to install all the NetWare stuff on my laptop), and the other runs 64-bit Vista. I used to use actual physical computers for this type of stuff, but this is just so much easier and more convenient. Even from home, I can remote desktop into them and even reboot them.
  • Remote Desktop – comes with Windows, but I had to mention it. I use this all the time for connecting to test machines, our build machines, and my VMWare VM’s.
  • TightVNC for those older (Win 2000) machines that don’t support Remote Desktop, we use VNC. I also have a VNC server set up on a unix machine, so I can use VNC to connect to that and get a Unix desktop on my Windows machine. There are lots of VNC clients / servers available, but I’ve found TightVNC gives pretty good performance, even when I’m at home (and therefore using wireless networking through a VPN).

Blogging

Web surfing and websites

  • Google Chrome – I’ve been using this pretty much exclusively since about May, and I still love it. Still fast, and it has a bookmark editor now. It periodically and silently updates itself so you always have the latest patches. Once XMarks is available for Chrome, it will be perfect.
  • Firefox – I still use Firefox now and again for sites that Chrome doesn’t support. Actually, I can only think of one. We recently started using a tool at work for code reviews which has a web interface that doesn’t play nicely with Chrome, so I use Firefox for that. Required add-ons:
    • XMarks for synchronizing bookmarks. I don’t use bookmarks all that often anymore (I usually use delicious.com), but XMarks will also synchronize stored passwords, which is very useful.
    • AdBlock Plus
    • Gmail Notifier – puts an icon in the bottom corner of your browser with your current unread count.
    • NoScript
  • GMail is the best web-based email around. I get almost no spam that isn’t marked as spam, and being able to tag messages with multiple tags (rather than put them into one and only one folder) is amazing. Being from Google, the search feature is also very good, and filters let you do clever things with messages as they arrive. For example, every time I publish a blog posting, I have it emailed to my gmail account. A filter then tags it with the “BlogArchive” tag and archives it without me even seeing it, so I have a backup of every article.
  • Google Reader for reading blogs and other RSS feeds.
  • StackOverflow – programming Q&A site. Very useful for learning stuff and getting questions answered, but it’s fun to try and answer questions as well. Rather humbling sometimes, when I see a question and think “I know how to do that!” but before I post my brilliant solution, I read another answer saying “You could do this , but that’s inefficient (or slow or dangerous or…). Here’s a better way” and proceeds to explain something that is clearly superior to my idea. There are also serverfault.com (for IT pros) and superuser.com (for general computer questions) as well as meta.stackoverflow.com (for questions about SO itself), but SO is still my favourite.
  • delicious.com – I rarely ever save bookmarks through the browser anymore, I just use delicious. Far easier to type now that it’s delicious.com rather than del.icio.us.

Music and Video

  • iTunes – Gail has a Sony Walkman MP3 player and uses Windows Media Player to set up playlists and stuff. iTunes is just so much easier. It makes it easy to view any MP3 tags on your songs, and also makes it easy to select multiple songs and change attributes of all of them at once. You can set it up to detect a new CD being inserted in the drive, automatically rip it and add it to your library, and then eject it, so you can rip new CDs and sync them to your iPod just by putting the disk in the drive.
  • Videora iPod Converter converts (hence the name) video files from whatever format they’re in into the appropriate format for your iPod, and automatically adds it to iTunes as well. Very handy for downloading TV shows that you missed. I have a dock for my iPod that connects to the TV, so we can watch stuff through the TV rather than on the iPod or computer.
  • CDBurnerXP – Windows Vista has built-in CD burning support, but I prefer CDBurnerXP. It gives you the whole drag-and-drop interface for selecting files, tells you how close you are to filling the disk as you add stuff, makes it easy to erase rewritable CDs / DVDs, writes both audio and data CDs as well as data DVDs, it does everything.

General Utilities

  • Jungle Disk – backs up all of our digital pictures and stuff online using Amazon’s S3 service. I paid $20 for Jungle Disk originally, which gives me free upgrades for life, and I can install the software on as many machines as I want. I pay Amazon directly for the S3 storage, which for me is under $5 a month. (I wrote about this last summer.) The data is fully encrypted and the encryption key is not stored on the Amazon servers. Restoring is even easier – set up a network drive and just copy whatever files you want.
  • DropBox – you install the (free) software on multiple machines and point each of them at a directory on a local drive, and the software keeps the directories synchronized. To copy a file from one machine to another, just drop it into the DropBox directory and it’s instantly copied to whatever other machines are synchronizing. Couldn’t be simpler. There’s even a web interface so you can access your data on a machine that doesn’t have the DropBox software installed. I use this with…
  • KeePass – for storing and generating passwords. I created a KeePass database file in my DropBox directory on my work machine and it keeps track of my eBay, Paypal, Twitter, Linked In, banking etc. passwords, plus my router’s WPA key. DropBox then syncs the file with my DropBox directory at home. I can change a password in either place and it gets synced with the other. When I set my password for a site, I use KeePass to generate a random password, then I modify it in a way that only I know and store that. I also have a text file in my DropBox directory that holds the unmodified passwords, in case I need a password in a place where I can’t install KeePass. When I double click on the entry, KeePass copies the password into the clipboard so I can paste it into the browser. KeePass automatically clears the clipboard after 15 seconds so I don’t accidentally paste it anywhere else later.
  • FileZilla – The best GUI FTP client I’ve used. I don’t do much with FTP; updating my lacrosse pool website is about it, but FileZilla makes it easy.
  • Foxit Reader – got this one from Scott’s list above. I got tired of Adobe Reader continually getting bigger and bigger. All I want to do is read PDF’s, I shouldn’t need tons of software to do this. Plus I kept hearing about security problems with Adobe.
  • µTorrent makes downloading torrents brain-dead easy. Set up the directory where the downloaded files should go, then whenever you click on a torrent, it just does the right thing. It even stays in the background and does everything silently.
  • Microsoft Money – Microsoft is killing this product, which sucks because the alternative is Quicken, which I tried earlier this year and wasn’t too impressed. I have a pretty old version anyway, so as long as it keeps working, I’m fine.
  • IrfanView – the best application for image manipulation. Allows you to specify a directory full of image files and do a batch rename/conversion/both, which is useful for taking 10 MP images and scaling them down for displaying on a family website, for instance.
  • QuickTax – I buy this every year during tax season. Asks you all the relevant questions and fills in your forms for you, or you can enter stuff directly if you want. Gives you tips on saving tax, copies relevant data from last year’s forms, can print out the forms, and can give you all the information you need to submit electronically. Well worth the $40.

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