30 Windows Tools You Didn’t Even Know You Needed

I think it’s time to produce some linkable content up in here. I noticed that most of my posts lately have been esoteric rants, reviews of old games and movies and random stuff that has little significance to people other than me. It’s probably a good idea to post something that may be relevant to other people every once in a while.

Let’s talk about small windows utilities that you may find useful (dare I say, indispensable?). A lot of these are self-contained executable that do not require installation and thus are good candidates to put on that USB stick you carry in your pocket. Others do require rudimentary installation but are just too cool not to mention. I’ll start with the bigger applications, and work my way down to the tiny ones.

CrossLoop

I talked about this tool before so I won’t go into a long description here. CrossLoop is my favorite remote assistance tool. It is essentially a TightVNC server/client combo that is so easy even a half retarded chimpanzee could use it. Granted, your co-workers could probably never hope to mach the technology skills possessed by a retarded chimpanzee with most of his brain matter destroyed in a medical experiment – but I can almost guarantee you could probably train them to launch this tool and read off the access number to you by rote. All this tool needs is outbound internet access (yeah, you don’t actually need inbound) so it will work behind most corporate firewalls.

PDFCreator

As the name suggests this tool creates PDF files. It installs itself as a virtual printer on your system, and allows you to “print” documents into PDF format from just about any application. Introduce this to your coworkers for an instant hero status. Before I intervened, the default method of “converting documents into PDF” at my work place involved printing them out, and scanning them in using the big and bulky xerox machine at the end of the hallway.

Process Eplorer

The ultimate Task Manager replacement tool by Mark Russinovich and possibly one of his most useful, and most popular tools. If you are not using it, you should. If you haven’t heard about Mark, let me just say he is the guy who knew more about what is going on inside of Windows than the people who wrote it. Microsoft was forced to hire him, because his sysinternals tools were better than just about anything that they have ever produced in system management and utility department. When you open Process Explorer you wonder why the hell didn’t Microsoft just bundle it with their OS instead of the Task Manager. The tool goes beyond just displaying active processes. It shows you parent-child relationships, the dependencies of each process, the threads it has spawned and etc. It will even tell you which process is holding a reference to a file given a file name – very useful when you are having trouble deleting something because you get the “file is in use” error. A must have.

Autoruns

Another excellent sysinternals tool. This one lists EVERYTHING that is set to start with or alongside windows. It is possibly the most convenient tool to disable all these pesky tray applications, background services and other bullshit that is eating up your resources. Don’t leave home without it.

Cropper

Cropper is currently my favorite tool for taking screen shots. It is small, unobtrusive and supports all the formats I care about. The fact that it only supports taking bounded area screen shots (not full screen or active window ones) doesn’t bother me at all. I consider it a feature. It also has bunch of plugins that allow you to capture animated gifs, automatically upload the captures to Flickr and etc..

Malwarebytes AntiMalware

I’m amazed how many people don’t actually know about this tool. Malwarebytes is currently one of the best malware removal and prevention tools on the market. If you don’t believe me browse online malware removal help forums. Just about every thread beings with “Download Malwarebytes” instruction. The on demand scanning and removal functionality is free and you can use it as long as you want. If you want active protection running in the background you will need to pay though. Most people I gave this tool too were more than happy to purchase the $24 license after they saw how effective this thing was.

Paint.NET

Replaces the very rudimentary MSPaint tool in Windows. It is a full fledged bitmap graphics editor that supports layers, limited transforms and has an unlimited undo history buffer. It is not Photoshop or Gimp but it is simple, intuitive and has enough power to let you do some pretty interesting stuff.

WinMerge

It is a visual diff tool for Windows. It allows you to compare and merge text files, or whole directories and I find it indispensable. The UI is simple clear and intuitive. If you are collaborating on a project with people who are to dumb to use a source code repository, you will totally need this tool to remain sane.

DropBox

Dropbox is possibly the best tool/service I have found in years. It is also the only tool on this list that will require you to register an account but don’t fret. It’s worth it! If you own more than one computer, you will totally love it! Just create an account, and install the client on each of your computers. You will then be able to designate a single folder on each of your machines which will be your “Dropbox Folder”. Whatever you save in that folder will get seamlessly synced to all the other computers on your account. It is like having a central network share between all your machines, but better because it does not require you to be connected to the internet. If you are offline, the changes will get automatically synced up next time you connect. Also, if you are away from your machines, you can access all your files via their online interface.

Granted, you are trusting a 3rd party to host and sync the files for you, so I wouldn’t use it for anything confidential or mission critical. But it is great for my lecture slides, lesson plans and homework assignments. I can create them on my laptop, then open and update them up on my desktop and then download them in the lecture hall as I need them – all without even thinking about transferring, sending or moving these files.

Launchy

You probably know Launchy by now, but I’ll include it anyway. What does it do? It is a Quicksilver like app that allows you to launch application by typing few first letters of their name into a nice, glossy box. Simply press Alt+Space and type in “fi”. At that point Launchy should helpfully suggest Firefox, and you press enter to run it. Of course Firefox may already be in your quick launch, but some other programs probably are not. Launchy lets you run them without searching through the Start menu.

Lita

Lita is interesting, because this is possibly the first useful application that I have seen built on the Adobe AIR platform that is not a Twitter client. Lita is a SQLite database management tool – it allows you to create new SQLite databases or modify existing ones by editing data, changing the table schema and etc. If you ever needed to quickly mess around with the guts of some SQLite file, this is a tool for you.

The app looks very sleek, is responsive and shows that AIR can be used for more than building spiffy Twitter clients.

CPUZ

Imagine this hypothetical scenario – you are staring at a machine running the Very Important Application™. You know it has 2GB of RAM. Without cracking it open, how do you tell whether it is 1x2GB , 2x1GB or 4x512MB and how many DIMM slots are still free? The answer is: you download CPU-Z. It will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about your CPU, Mobo and Memory including stuff like Cache size, FSB latency and much, much more.

Unknown Devices

Another hypothetical scenario – someone hands you a badly infected laptop. You do a clean windows installation and realize that the internal Ethernet and Wifi cards are not recognized by windows. Manufacturer website tells you that these components are optional and gives you a choice of 15 different drivers. Opening the machine and staring at the actual hardware gives you no clues because the devices are not clearly marked with the brand names and chipset info. What do you do?

One option is to install every single driver you can find until you find one that works. Other one is to use Unknown Devices to attempt to identify the problematic hardware. It is not perfect, but it saved me a lot of trial and error installations few times in the past.

HijackThis

Diagnostic and manual malware removal tool. If you have ever visited any security related forums you will probably be familiar with this tool. It makes a list of potentially suspicious registry entries, running processes and services and asks you to delete anything that seems weird. It can generate nice log files, making it a great tool for remote assistance type of situations.

HTTrack

HTTrack is a website mirroring tool for those who are Wget impaired. It has a nice GUI and is actually multi-threaded so it is able to download more than one file at a time. If you ever wanted to copy a whole website to disk, this is a tool for you.

Synergy

Great little app that allows you to share a single mouse and keyboard between many computers. It is sort of like a reverse KVM. Put a laptop next to your monitor – you can set it up so that when your mouse leaves the edge of your screen, it appears on the laptop. Very neat!

Ext2IFS for Windows

A Ext2 driver for windows that supports both reading and writing. You can also use it to mount ext3 drives in the backwards compatible mode. Very nice to have on dual boot systems.

Xming

A free native X server for Windows. Why would you need an X server on windows you ask? Why not? For example you may want to run an X application from a remote linux box.

There are other X servers that work under Windows, but this one is free and open source. It also works pretty well with Putty.

freeSSHd

A free, functional ssh server for Windows. I haven’t really used it much so I’m not sure how stable or reliable it is. You are probably better off using VPN of some sort instead of this. But, alas it exists and someone will probably get some use out f it.

AESCrypt

Very nifty tool that lets you encrypt a single file using AES from the windows context menu. It’s quick, no fuss and easy to use. There is also a CLI version for linux. There is not much else to say about this tool, other than it works and it does what it was designed to do well.

Sdelete

There are literally hundreds of file shredders, and secure delete tools out there. I personally like Sdelete the best mainly because it was created by Mark Russinovich and it implements the DOD 5220.22-M standard. Also, because it is a minimalistic command line application that stays out of my way when I don’t need it.

Wget for Windows

Everyone knows what a wget is, right? It is a command line tool you use to download files from the interwebs. Very useful tool, and I can’t personally live without it. It seems that everyone and their mom compiled their own Windows version of Gnu wget so it is sometimes hard to find the good one. I personally like this one because it is fairly up to date and it ships with an installer, too if you are lazy.

PowerCalc

Best calculator tool for windows you can probably find. It is part of the XP Power Toys suite which includes various tools and utilities which were allegedly to awesome to include in Windows XP release. Seriously, all these tools would add some nice features to the OS but were cut from it for some reason. Let’s take the PowerCalc for example. It is much more powerful than the standard windows calculator, including some graphing functionality. Not only that – this is like one of the 3 software based calculators in existence that doesn’t have an on-screen button pad.

I always wondered why do people who write calculator apps insist on using on-screen buttons. PowerCalc does not have one, because it’s creator realized that majority of XP users have a full size keyboard with a numeric pad attached to their computer. This leaves up room for the graphing window, a pane with help commands and a lage display that shows you several previous calculations and result. It’s a damn fine piece of software, and best calculator UI I have ever seen made.

Unfortunately it won’t install on Vista and beyond, and will probably never be updated or even touched ever again. A viable, albeit less powerful alternative is the multi-platform SpeedCrunch which is sadly missing the graphing functions.

PNGOut and PngCrush

Two different tools, one single purpose: to reduce size of your PNG files before you upload them to the interwebs. Both tools offer lossless size reduction by getting rid of metadata and other cruft. See which one works better for you. You may also want to use the registry hack I posted a while ago to add a context menu option for your tool of choice.

Unison

Unison is an rsync like command line file synchronizer for windows. I use it to do incremental backups on my windows box. So far it has been very reliable, and possibly the least intrusive backup tool I have used in years. I highly recommend it.

HFS File Server

I wrote about this tool a while ago, but it is worth mentioning it again. It is a minimalistic HTTP server which allows you to share files with anyone on the network. Just run it, start dragging and dropping files around and watch them become available on the network. Very small and very useful.

Whois for Windows

Yet another great tool from sysinternals – a port of the classic whois command you know from unix and linux systems I always miss this functionality in windows, and I always drop this file somewhere in the path on the Win boxes I own.

PSTools

A great set of tool by Mark Russinovich. This compilation includes command line tools to list, kill and suspend processes, services and logged in users. It also has an uptime command. In other words, it replaces all the functionality that was ripped out of Windows XP but exists in MS Server 2003.

MD5sums

As you may have guessed, this tool is an MD5 checksum generator for windows. There are oodles of them online but most have unnecessary bloated GUI’s. This one is a tiny, unobtrusive command line tool which just does the job and doesn’t care about the bells and whistles. The tool pauses and waits for key input after calculating the checksum so you can actually just drag files onto the executable and have a nice little CLI window with the hash value pop up when ready.

Restoration

A standalone tool that will attempt to restore deleted data from your disk. As with all such tools, it is not perfect and makes no guarantees that the recovered files will be usable. But, it is a nice thing to have for that one special occasion when you delete a unique and very important file that was never backed up.

That’s all I have for now. Your turn. Please post useful, unobtrusive and/or minimalistic windows tools you love in the comments. I’m sure there are tons of nice little utilities out there that I didn’t even know I needed.

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13 Responses to 30 Windows Tools You Didn’t Even Know You Needed

  1. Will Sheldon UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    crossloop – use ammyy.com instead, less annoying.
    autoruns – what’s wrong with good old msconfig? it’s built in!
    Cropper – cool, new to me, thanks!
    paint.net – big thumbs up
    winmerge – used to use it, but bought beyond compare in the end – it’s worth the upgrade, you can compare folders as well as files, then drill down to the files
    Ex2IFS – another golden tool.
    freSSHd – i use cygwin, but then i’m a bash/perl addict :-$
    wget – ditto, also rsync…
    powercalc – used to use it, now use speedcrunch
    pstools, systernals etc – yep, but i found the “WSCC – windows system control center” a while ago to provide a nice frontend
    md5sums – checkout hashtab, it adds a hashes tab to the properties of every file.

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  2. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m not a Synergy fan. There have been some problems on my test machine when I used it. It also seems like an abandoned project. I prefer Input Director. The setup is a slightly more painful experience than Synergy’s, but I love the fact that you can set up hotkeys to jump from one machine to another. You can also setup a hotkey to allow a mouse to move from one PC to another. Moving to the edge will not make your cursor and keyboard input jump to the next PC. Only by holding down a hotkey (I set as RCtrl) will your inputs move to the corresponding PC.

    TrueCrypt is also a nice application to encrypt your whole HDD, a partition or just a spot of data. For the latter, you create a TrueCrypt Container file and will be able to mount it as a drive in Windows. Good for storing, urm, “Questionable Content” (I don’t mean downloaded comic strips from the same name by the way :P ).

    Cygwin, Cygwin, Cygwin! :D Too bad, it still has issues on Vista 64.

    CDBurnerXP has yet to make me a coaster. Nice freeware CD/DVD burning tool. Now with HDDVD and BR support for those rich folks.

    utorrent for a nice lean torrent client. FlashGet for hefty http downloads (with the corresponding unaffiliated addon “FlashGot” in Firefox, you can download flash video). FileZilla for FTP/SFTP.

    Vio Video Mobile Converter handles my re-encoding of video for mobile viewing. Lean and quite easy to use.

    Foxit PDF Reader: huge performance difference from the official Adobe Reader.

    MWSnap is a very old freeware, but good enough for my screen capture needs.

    DVDDecrypter is no longer in development, thanks to threats from you-know-who. But I still find it good to rip my DVDs into ISOs with the region protection removed.

    Notepad++: I’m just a huge fan. :P

    GPUZ is conceptually similar to CPUZ, except that it shows what kind of graphics hardware you’re packing.

    EvilLyrics is a nice tool which auto-starts when you start your media player. It will auto-search for lyrics the moment you play that song. In iTunes, it will also auto-add those lyrics into the track’s iTunes metadata. It’s really an install and forget app.

    I guess that’s it from my Start Menu. XMing + PuTTY rocks! I’m also a big fan of Paint.NET, Dropbox, Launchy and CPUZ.

    PS: I actually provided links to all those but somehow your spam filter rejected it so I had to remove them. I’m sure most of us here knows Google very very well anyway.

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  3. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Good stuff, I’ve used practically all of those, or clones thereof. The new ones on me, that I’ll give a shot, were hfs fileserver, unknown devices, and winmerge.

    I prefer slickrun to launchy, but that’s debatable. I prefer eraser to sdelete, but again, to each his own. I can’t live without virtual dimension either. But most of the other stuff I use on windows is stuff everyone knows about – VLC, N++, revo, foobar, 7z, etc.

    The one I’d add to your list would be windirstat – for visualizing hard drive usage it is awesome. It is basically a kdirstat clone. DriverCollector is nice too – it does what it sounds like, creates a driver installer for any driver you have currently installed. For example, if you’re planningon wiping your computer but don’t have an earlier image or drivers saved, driver collector will save you tons of time hunting down drivers after the fact. Unlocker is nice occasionally too – it finds what process has locked a particular file & offers to delete it (warning – it adds a line to your right click menu).

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  4. Rob UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    freesshd blows. I used it for a little while and the connection kept dropping off.

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  5. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It’s almost scary how many of these I already know about/have installed/have on my USB stick.

    I was going to add Unlocker to the list, then saw jambarama beat me to it. Very useful tool that… one correction though, the line added to the context menu is optional during installation – just untick the “Explorer Extension” box.

    For a whole bucketload of useful portable apps, look up “WinPenPack”, I downloaded the 1GB pack then added all my other portable apps into the system because it organises them nicely under a launcher thingy.

    It has portable versions of GIMP, Firefox, VLC, OpenOffice, an FTP client and server, a couple of p2p clients (although I prefer uTorrent), Miranda IM, VNC, InfraRecorder, Audacity, Virtual Dub, ClamWin Antivirus, Truecrypt, 7-zip… and the proverbial “many more”.

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  6. ST/op DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Great post Luke, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention a portable Vim :) (there are a few ones around).

    And yes, Mark Russinovich is an awesome guy!

    I tried Ext2IFS some time ago, but had issues with it accessing ext3 partitions created with Ubuntu, which seems to use 256 bytes inodes by default. Ext2IFS only supports 128 bytes.

    @Matt: portableapps.com has also a nice collection of open-source apps, with an optional launcher.

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  7. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I have to second Mart’s listing of Foxit’s PDF Reader. What a great little program. Sits on a memory stick – it takes up between 2 and 3Mb. Unlike Adobe’s over 50!

    I just downloaded a free tool from Anchorfree called Hotspot – it’s a free, secure, and private VPN. Lets me watch those Super Bowl commercials over on Hulu or NBC without being in the US.

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  8. Mart UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Steve: Thanks for HotspotShield! I’ve been searching for a nice and easy way to watch Hulu and other US content site from my country.

    Now to try if I can buy tracks from Amazon… :D

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  9. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Mart: Were you using HSS when you posted that other message? Your flag shows as the US :) Cool, eh? I hate getting that freaking message…stupid content providers and regional blackouts piss me right off :)

    Oh, I love Putty too. Excellent little tool. I also still use DVDDecrypter and DVD Shrink (?)…great apps those ones. I use it to burn copies of my kids’ DVDs so they don’t use the originals…and scratch the crap out of them. I burn copies without the menus, etc. Very nice.

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  10. Mart UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Steve: Hehe yeah. Was watching Hulu just now. However, I couldn’t get the normal client to work on Vista 64. Some problem with getting the TAP driver to work. I tried installing an updated version but was unable to use it. Anyway, there is a post detailing how one can use the “Hotspot Shield for iPhone” service on a PC.

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  11. Zack UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    My personal new favorite program is LogMeIn…including the Free client. For all those that can’t figure by the name, it’s remote desktop software for PC and MAC, although you linux guys are out of luck.

    It’s easy to setup, just run the executable and set it up. Login to your account on their site and bam, you can connect. You don’t have to mess with forwarding ports or configuring firewalls! Plus the 256 bit encryption is always a big plus. For basic remote support, it’s a life saver!

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Wow! So many good suggestions! I love it. I will probably incorporate all of this into the post!

    @ST/op: I’m surprised myself! I guess I figured that most people already know and use vim so no need to bring it up. But a portable version – that’s a good idea.

    Any recommendations?

    @Steve and @Mart: Oh wow, really? You can’t watch that crap from outside US? What is the point of that anyway?

    Oh, wait – I think I know. Their sponsors don’t ship outside of the country so they probably figure that making the videos available to foreign visitors is waste of bandwidth. Sigh…

    Also, I bet the reason why Amazon doesn’t sell digital music in your country is some silly tax or accounting gotcha or some “import/export” stipulation that makes no sense for digital goods but nevertheless is still in effect for them.

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