This is my current list of software utilities and tools that I use almost every day on my Windows 7 system. Many of these programs are free or low cost, but some (Directory Opus, for example) are somewhat pricey.

Absolutely Essential Tools

The tools in this part of the list are those I install immediately when I get a new system or reformat an old system. Actually, that’s not quite true. The first thing I do is install and run the free PC Decrapifier to remove all the useless bloatware that the PC manufacturer probably installed on the system. The second thing I do is download and install a free antivirus program and a free software firewall. I’m currently using Comodo Free Firewall and AVG AntiVirus Free Edition. Then I install the following programs:

Directory Opus
Windows Explorer is a fairly primitive file manager. You don’t have to be a power user to run up against Explorer’s many limitations. Directory Opus, on the other hand, is the Cadillac of Windows file managers. Unfortunately, it has Cadillac prices both on the initial purchase and for major upgrades. If you can afford it, it is well worth the expense, especially if you are a power-user. Take a look at the Dear Opus web site for a far better explanation of Directory Opus than you’ll find on the company site. If you cannot justify the price of Directory Opus, consider XYplorer. It’s also very powerful replacement for Windows Explorer — and somewhat more affordable. XYplorer is not quite as powerful as Directory Opus and does not have a native 64-bit version, but it is well worth the money — more worth the money that the lite version of Directory Opus. Get the lifetime license and save money in the long run as XYplorer is usually updated monthly. If you want a more powerful file manager for free, there is a free version of XYplorer, XYplorerFree. It lacks some of the power-user features, but is more than enough file manager for the average user.

Take Command
The command line in Windows (cmd.exe) hasn’t really been updated since Windows NT and never was very powerful compared to BASH or ZSH in linux. Microsoft supposedly “replaced” it with the .net based Windows PowerShell in 2007. PowerShell is very powerful but it also has a high learning curve. Take Command is direct replacement for cmd.exe with hundreds of additional commands and parameters, tab auto completion, command history popups, aliases, variable functions,  very complete help for all commands, a powerful batch file debugger, native Internet support, and more — all in a familiar syntax. It’s 100% cmd.exe compatible. It even duplicates the bugs so cmd.exe batch files that unknowingly depend on them will run. Like Directory Opus, this is another program that is not cheap at $80, but is well worth the money. There is also free version with less functionality than the full Take Command (but still far more powerful that cmd.exe). I’ve used various versions of this replacement command line since it was 4dos almost 25 years ago. I wrote a review of version 12 several years ago. I plan to have a updated review of the new Take Command version 19 on this site soon.

True Launch Bar
As Microsoft discovered with Windows 8, a lot of people use the Start Menu despite its poor organization and other problems. True Launch Bar supplements (or even replaces) the Start Menu with a series of user-defined skinable menus which appear next to the Start Menu on your taskbar. If this was all True Launch Bar did, it would be a nice program but hardly a necessity. True Launch Bar however, allows the addition of applets to its menus (and the taskbar), can change the menus when certain programs run, create additional bars, and more. A free version, Free Launch Bar, with a smaller feature set is also available.

Even with my widescreen monitor, I have many more programs that I would like to have on the taskbar than I have space on the taskbar. Bins allows you to group pinned programs so multiple pinned programs only take one “space” on your taskbar. To combine pinned program, you just drag one on top of another, these creates (or adds to) a group. While any number of pinned programs may be combined into a group, the first four in a group will appear on the taskbar as 4 mini-icons. All in the group will display when you mouse-over the set of icons. One program in the group is set as the default. Clicking on the combined icon starts the default program. You start one of the other programs by selecting it from the mouse-over pop-up. Bins is $4.99 and well worth every penny. [My Review]

Dexpot is a deceptively simple virtual desktop program with many powerful features “hidden” beneath its surface for power uses. At its most basic, it creates up to twenty virtual desktops and allows you to move open programs between them and switch between desktops. You can customize things so each desktop has its own name, icons, shortcuts, wallpaper, screen resolutions, etc. You can set rules for each desktop, for example, to open a specific program when you enter a desktop for the first time (or every time if that makes sense). Dexpot also offers some optional “eyecandy” features as plugins: a spinning 3D cube transition effect when you change desktops, an “exposé-like” desktop display, and for Windows 7 users a taskbar button that displays small pictures of your desktops when you hover your mouse over it and change desktops by clicking on one of them. Dexpot is free for private use.

Autohotkey lets you automate everything in Windows from keystrokes to mice. Think of it as AppleScript for Windows. It’s easy to make hotkeys and macros that expand when you type them, but it has a complete script language that can be used to create small utilities and tools. The really nice thing is that Autohotkey has a large community of users who have created a lot of small utilities and tools and posted them for free in the Autohotkey forums.  Did I mention that Autohotkey is free? [My Review]

Process Lasso
Process Lasso monitors the processes running on your computer and when one starts to hog the CPU, it lowers the priority of that process so your system will stay responsive. When the process stops using so much CPU, it restores the process to its standard priority. Note that it does not slow the process down by reducing its CPU usage, it just lowers its priority so if another process (e.g. you trying to click on something with your mouse) needs the CPU for a bit, it can more easily interrupt the CPU-hogging process. It basically a start it with Windows and forget it program — it does its job without any need for tweaking. The basic program is free to use, but a pro version with extra features is available for purchase.

Find and Run Robot (FARR)
FARR is a free program for Windows users who are keyboard maniacs — it uses an adaptive “live search” function to rapidly find programs and documents on your computer as you type. Press your chosen hotkey to display the FARR window, then just start typing the first letters of the application you want to launch and the results appear instantly. Hit enter to launch the top result, or refine your search with special modifiers and commands. FARR also lets you quickly run web searches, send email, manipulate files, control on-screen windows, and much more. Build and share custom commands or install plugins to add tons of new features, like live search features for your clipboard history and your internet bookmarks; a popup a calculator with history tape and persistent variables; and many more. There are a number of “launcher” programs for Windows (e.g. Colibri, Launchy, Slickrun), but this is my favorite by far. It’s also still under active development.

While there are now freeware clipboard extenders that rival Clipmate’s power and ease of use, I’ve been using Clipmate since the late 1990s and have never seen a reason to change. However, if you are looking for a free clipboard extender, Ditto and Arsclip are powerful and well-supported. If you never used a Clipmate extender, you owe it to yourself to try one. They basically allow you to have multiple items on your clipboard and paste whichever one you need at the moment. Using one will quickly change the way you edit and work — and for the better. This is something that should have been built in to Windows.

Notepad, the standard Windows text editor, it fairly limited. While there are a lot of editors available for Windows, I want something fast and light to simply replace Windows Notepad. Notepad2-mod fits the bill for me. It’s fast, light, and free while having many features Windows Notepad lacks. It can even handle light programming. While it will never replace my programming editors or an ide, it is a drop-in replacement for Windows Notepad: every bit as fast to load but powerful enough to use without cussing.

I use Evernote to store and organize my notes, so naturally it is one of the first programs I install on a new computer or after a reformat.

Think apt-get for Windows. Chocolately is a fast way to install hundreds of applications (mainly open source or freeware at the moment) from the command line. For example, typing “cinst 7zip” in Take Command will download and install 7zip. If you want a GUI interface, typing “cinst ChocolateyGUI” at the command line will download and install one.

I generally have a Linux virtual machine (currently Xubuntu 16.04 LTS) running all the time. It’s integrated into my Windows 7 desktop using the shared folders and seamless features of Virtualbox. I switched to Virtualbox from VMWare Workstation because the latest version of VMWare Workstation dropped support for Unity (Workstations better version of seamless mode) for Linux guests and hosts. Virtualbox does not provide the high level of desktop integration that old versions of VMWare Workstation did, but Virtualbox’s seamless mode is better than Workstation 12’s “no longer included at all.”

AMIDoUS: AMIDoUS is an Android Emulator which allows me to run 95% of my android tablet and phone apps directly on my computer. AMIDoUS 2.0 is a bit buggy in some areas: it will not use my Logitech webcam and the minimize button does not work, for example. However, it runs more of my Android apps correctly than the other freeware emulators I’ve tried. It also allows easy access to files stored on the Windows system. It was been well worth the $15.

Other Essential Tools

While I may not need to load these tools immediately, these are essential utilities and desktop enhancements that I use nearly every day.

Desktop Enhancements

  • 7+ Taskbar Tweaker – allows configuration of various aspects of the Windows 7 (and 8) taskbar. The main feature I use is “Remove extra gap between items”, but it can control grouping, how mouse clicks work, and more.
  • Rainlendar – displays a small skinable calendar directly on my desktop with alarms, events, a to-do list, and more. There’s a paid pro version but the free version does everything I need.
  • Actual Window Manager – gives you total control over the windows on your desktop, handles multiple monitors, and more.
  • Screenshot Captor – is the best freeware screenshot capture program I’ve found. It even captures the aero effects on Windows 7 without problems.
  • Divvy – provides a fast and easy way to resize and reposition windows: pop up a dialog box and drag your mouse on it and your windows moves and resizes as you wish. You can define shortcut keys for different positions and sizes if you don’t want your hands to leave the keyboard.
  • PopChar Win – provides an easy way to view unicode characters and enter them into almost any program.
  • Pop Peeper – sits in the notification area and notifies me when I have new mail in any of my POP3 or IMAP account, as well as on many major webmail services (including gmail). Unlike many people, I do not keep an email client open as I don’t want email to control my life.
  • Pushbullet – allows me to see notifications from my Android phone on my computer and even interact with some of them (emails and IMs).
  • T-Clock 2010 – A better and more configurable clock for the Windows taskbar.
  • NetSpeedMonitor – monitor the current speed (up- and downstream) of your Network Interfaces and the amount of data transferred right in the Windows Taskbar.
  • System Monitor II – a Windows gadget that monitors your system. I know that Windows gadgets are possible vectors for attacks, but I’ve used this gadget for years and trust the author. Just be sure to cancel the .exe download that autostarts and download the zip file.
  • Wunderlist – I use Wunderlist for to-do lists so I have the Wunderlist Win7 app running in my system notification area. Wunderlist has the right mix of features for me and ease of use for my wife which allows my wife to actually add things to my “honey-do” list (without having to learn an app she otherwise has no use for) while I can still use some of the more advanced features for my business lists.

System Enhancements

  • CascadePoint – is an automatic file backup/versioning system. It will automatically create backups of selected file types when you save a new version. It’s not a replacement for a real version control system like git, but it works well for file types that git does not handle well (e.g. MS Office files, images, etc.). CascadePoint is no longer supported by JPSoft, but they’ve made the last version freeware and it works just fine.
  • DFX Audio Enhancer – improves windows sound quality across the board, especially if you use small or cheap speakers instead of expensive speakers or a stereo amplifier.
  • Nero Burning ROM – I know there are a number of free programs to burn CDs and DVDs (and Windows 7 has a fairly basic burning system builtin), but I’ve been using Nero Burning ROM for ages and don’t want to change. ImgBurn and  CDBurnerXP are free alternatives.
  • priPrinter – a virtual printer that one can print to and view and modify the result then send it on to a real printer. This is fantastic for previewing the actual output and saves a lot of wasted paper. priPrinter can also be used to print PDFs and to print multiple pages to one sheet of paper, print booklets, posters and more.
  • Startup Delayer – optimizes the Windows startup sequence by allowing you to control the order startup programs execute and prevent windows from trying to start several at once. I use the free version.
  • VirtualMIDISynth – a software MIDI synthesizer implemented as a Windows multimedia user driver. MIDI on Windows isn’t really great out of the box. VirtualMIDISynth fixes MIDI on Windows.
  • WinMount – allows mounting ISO files and Virtual machine drive files as devices on Windows. Also acts as compression/decompression software for zip/7z files, although I do not use those functions.

Media Software

  • Spotify – I have several gigabytes of mp3s on my system, but I don’t play them much any more. I finally tried Spotify in late 2012 and streaming music from Spotify now handles most of my music needs. Between playlists I design, playlists shared by others, and Spotify radio stations, Spotify handles 95% of my music needs. Even better, if Spotify doesn’t have a piece of music in its huge catalog (some 20 million tracks as I write this) but I have it in my mp3 collection, it seamlessly plays the copy on my hard drive. As I don’t listen to music on portable devices, the free version of Spotify works great for me. I use the Windows player, although their new web player works well. Unfortunately, Spotify is not yet available everywhere in the world and Spotify Free is quite limited in some countries.
  • Foobar2000 – While Spotify is my main source of music, I also have a number of midi and mod music files that Spotify will not play. Foobar2000 was my major music player until Spotify came along and I still use it to play my collection of midi and mod files. It’s a very nice, very customizable free music player with a large number of plugins.
  • Google Play Music – Google Play Music lets you upload up to 20,000 tracks for storage on the Internet for free — and you can stream them on any system or device with a modern browser. It’s a great way to back up your music files. Be sure to download and install their Music Manager software as it makes uploading your collection easy.
  • PotPlayer – As I’ve never cared for the popular VLC video player, I used PowerDVD for years, but it finally got too bloated and too expensive for me. After trying every free video player I could find, I settled on PotPlayer. PotPlayer can play just about anything you can throw at it without having to hunt up and install strange codecs and it has more user controls than any player I’ve seen. Playback quality is great. The main PotPlayer site is in Korean, so the link is to the download site of the English version.
  • Windows Movie Maker – I don’t do a lot of video editing, so Microsoft’s free Windows Movie Maker actually has more power than I usually need. If you are just editing short videos for friends and family, it’s great. If you need more power and don’t mind a high learning curve, consider the free VSDC Video Editor.
  • Video DownloadHelper – This is a plugin for Firefox which will also easy downloading of videos from many websites. It will also handle some audio downloads and picture galleries. There are similar extensions for Chrome but Google will not allow Chrome extensions to download Youtube videos which makes them far less useful.

Last Update: 15 June 2016.