Freeware I Use
The freeware programs in this list are outstanding, genuine software gems; they are all indispensable to me. The dedication and the amount of work their authors have put, often still put, into these programs is nothing short of amazing. Indeed, some of these products are better than any commercial alternative money could buy.
A few obvious freeware favourites are missing from my list, the famous OpenOffice suite, for example. This means that I do not use these programs. Not necessarily because I think they're bad… however, something with them is not as it should be, at least in my opinion. I have another page where I talk about a few of these programs and the reasons why I don't use them.
The really indispensable things
AutoHotkey is a marvellous program. It intercepts all keyboard and mouse activity and allows me to define all sorts of hotkeys, hotstrings and macros (it does a lot more besides but these are the most important functions). Hotkeys are used to start other programs, load websites, define menus, customise Windows, invent mouse gestures… Hotstrings, on the other hand, are simple text snippets that are triggered by a short, user-defined prefix. If I need my own website address, say, I can just type “#tlc” and this is automagically expanded to the string “http://thomaslauer.com”. And macros, last but not least, allow all but the most complex of tasks to be automated: I have written a macro that exports my address book in such a way that I can immediately import the email addresses into Google Mail. One caveat: AutoHotkey is a bit geeky… but it's not too difficult to learn the basics.
foobar2000 is a media player. The name is pretty stupid but fb2k is probably the most customisable music player in the world. I use it every day when I am at the computer, to listen to my MP3 collection.
KDiff3 visually compares and merges two or three text files. Sounds utterly boring but I use it pretty often, to compare changed versions of files, own or downloaded. Also does a very good job at comparing changes in two or three folders (recursively, down the tree, if required). This program has saved me hours and hours of extremely tedious work. A worthy runner-up I sometimes use is WinMerge.
PopTray is an email checker. I have about a dozen email accounts and to keep track of them can be a daunting task. Not with this small gem though: PopTray filters obnoxius stuff (spam and other uninteresting things) and then shows me the remaining emails in all my accounts at a glance — and I can, with just a few mouse clicks, inspect, sort and work my whole email.
PINs is a password and PIN manager. This is a pretty simple thing as these programs go, but it does a very decent job and is so small that I can take it with me even on a floppy (not that I still have floppies, nowadays I use USB sticks). The data encryption is very strong, so my stuff is safe… so long as I don't forget the master password!
KeyNote is basically a program to take all sorts of notes, a free-form database. It's a pretty complex beast but then it can do a lot of things. It's much more than a simple notepad for me: a sort of brainstorm-tool-cum-mindmapper. I have all details for my book projects on this, for example: so when I have an idea or want to change a plot detail, I just load KeyNote and jot it down.
IrfanView is a very nice graphics viewer. Supports a ton of formats (and many media files) and even allows simple editing. It also does slideshows and can be used to produce complete web albums. Pretty quick and easy to learn as well. My only gripe is that the thumbnail function is slooooow when there are many pics in a directory (in which case I tend to use FastStone Image Viewer, another freeware graphics viewer: see further down).
SyncBack is a directory synchronisation and backup tool. I do many of my regular backups with this program: I have a complete mirror of my C:\ and D:\ drives on a second internal hard disk (these copies have saved my bacon more than once). I also have two external USB drives for backing up everything: installed programs, my books, all our photos, the MP3 collection etc. Producing a full synchronisation or backup of everything takes me about two hours (and 50GB) and that it doesn't take much more is down to this program.
WordWeb is an offline dictionary and thesaurus. Fast and thorough, so I use this as the first stop. For more difficult cases and as a backup I also have a copy of the Oxford New English Dictionary installed but I rarely use this.
PSPad is my preferred text editor for programming tasks and other complex editing scenarios. It's a complicated program, with macros, syntax highlighting, projects etc., but it can replace a full development environment. Incidentally, I also write all the texts for this website with PSPad's help.
LAME is a small, versatile utility to convert WAV files (the format in which music is stored on CDs) into MP3 files. LAME (that stands for “Lame Ain't an MP3 Encoder”) is a commandline utility, a pretty technical thing, but it's by far the best freeware MP3 encoder around. I use it together with a front-end (see ExactAudioCopy, down in the Audio section) to MP3ify all my music.
MP3Tag is a program to put ID3 tags into MP3 files: artist, album name, title etc. But this monster does much more than simply filling in a few tags: it can keep collections of thousands of songs up-to-date. It has every imaginable sorting, checking and editing function. And it has macros… so even if something is missing, it can be done on the hoof. An amazing utility.
ActivePerl is a Perl implementation for Windows. Perl in turn is a mighty script language from the *x world: whenever I have a repetitive task on my hands for which AutoHotkey is not powerful enough I get Perl out. I have a Perl script, for example, that goes through my whole music collection and produces the album page in the Music section. Perl is admittedly very geeky stuff with a strange syntax, so most non-programmers would probably be lost.
Another script language I use increasingly often is Lua in its guise as Idle. I like Lua's clean syntax and small footprint. Plus Lua code is much less arcane than Perl's (however, it's also more verbose). It's a great tool for all things that involve text processing or automation: all pages in the different sections of my website are done with the help of a Idle script.
FastStone Screen Capture is a very capable utility to capture all or part of the screen. Does all the usual things (full screen, window, rectangle etc.) and also has an option to capture the full content of windows with scrollbars. [Note: the current 6.x version is shareware. I am using the last freeware version (which is 5.3).]
FastStone Image Viewer is a program similar to IrfanView. Some things are easier with Image Viewer, others with IrfanView: it often boils down to a matter of personal preference. The main reason why I use this as well as IrfanView is that Image Viewer provides a much smoother directory preview as it caches the pictures.
Other audio stuff
ExactAudioCopy is my main CD ripping program. I use it to read music CDs and, in tandem with LAME (see above), convert them to MP3 files. The big advantage of ExactAudioCopy over a slew of similar CD rippers is that this does a superb error correction job: either you get exactly what is on the CD (and no additional clicks, burps and other artifacts) or, if the CD is really beyond the pale, you get nothing at all.
Audacity is an advanced audio editor. I mainly use it to record stuff off my collection of old LPs (via the soundcard line-in) and to clean up the resulting WAV files before converting them to MP3.
MP3DirectCut is a small utility to edit MP3 files directly (ie without having to convert them back to WAV). I use it to clean up MP3 files and also to cut unwanted bits and pieces (some live CDs are a bit over the top with applause). MP3DirectCut also splits MP3 files, which comes in handy when yet another artist discovered that CDs are more than 75 minutes long and that a ten-minute silence in the middle of the last title is really what we all want.
More Internet tools
Firefox is a web browser. For various reasons I can't stand Internet Explorer and this is a much better (and safer) replacement.
Kerio Personal Firewall is a software firewall. I use the rather ancient, but still perfectly viable (and non-bloated) 2.1.5 version, mostly for checking outgoing traffic.
FileZilla is my ftp client of choice. I use this to upload all sorts of files to my web server and to other sites.
SandboxIE is, strictly speaking, more than just an Internet tool: it can run programs such as Internet Explorer (hence the IE on the name) or other browsers in a sandbox, such that malware lurking in a website can't (easily) infect the system. However, SandboxIE will happily isolate whatever program you hand it… this makes it a great tool for testing software and test-driving installations.
7-Zip is a nifty utility to compress and pack files, similar to PKZip or WinZip. This app delivers extremely good compression ratios though the user interface is not especially good. Well, I mostly use it as a command-line tool anyway.
Foxit Reader is a plain and simple viewer for PDF files. It's a quick install and much nimbler and easier to use than the Adobe s[oh][fi]tware.
Robocopy is a command line utility to mirror whole directory trees, for example to a second hard drive. What makes this so special (besides the fact that the software is a freebie from Microsoft (!)) is that the program has many options to tailor its working. It's not the easiest thing to master, but it's powerful and rock-solid (which is not something I would say about all Microsoft products). The link points just to a zipped version of Robocopy XP010, from the Windows 2003 Server resource kit (of course you can download the whole resource kit instead; however, that's a 12mb download).
Finally, we have the ex-System Internals stuff which is now under Microsoft's aegis. This is a collection of about two dozen system-level utilities that can do amazing things, like showing in realtime which applications read or write files, change the registry etc. They're all rather technical, but at the same time indispensable.
$updated from: Freeware I Use.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:24 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$