Software I use
Both as a computer technician and as a user of computers, I tend to use
a lot of software. Some of the software I've tried works very well, and
some of it...decidedly does not.
On this page, I'm going to set down a list of the software I use
regularly, in a number of different usage categories. I'm also going to
classify the software I use as one of the following:
|Commercial||Software you have to pay for. Buy it in a store, or online.|
|Shareware||Software you can try for free, but you should pay for it if you continue to use it. Usually only available online|
|Freeware||Similar to shareware, but you can try it for free, and continue to use it for free. No payment required.|
|Open Source||Free to use, and if you're a programmer you can get the source code and modify it — or join the programming team and submit your modifications for everyone to use.|
| Operating Systems
|| Web Browser
| Office Applications
||Instant Messaging|| Utilities
|| Disk Utilities
| Software Development
|| Web Design
|| Communications /
So, of the varieties of Windows out there, what are my favorites?
- Windows 7
- Windows 10
- Windows 8
- Vista Home Premium
- Windows 98
I still use XP on my Acer netbook. It's still a perfectly capable operating system. Yes, the latest version of Internet Explorer doesn't run on it — but I don't use Internet Explorer. (And I don't recommend that anyone else use it, either, except on brain-dead websites that are designed to only work with IE.) Even though Microsoft has stopped supplying security updates for XP, people who exercise reasonable caution on the internet should be relatively safe if they (1) don't use IE for their browser; (2) don't use Outlook Express for their email, and (3) use a good antivirus program.
I definitely prefer 7 and XP over Vista — the latter is much larger and slower than XP, and places high demands on system memory. Do not even consider running a computer with Vista (or Windows 7) unless it has at least 2GB of RAM, and the more the better.
As for the Pro versus Home versions of Windows, that's more of a tossup. I tend to prefer Pro because Home historically had a limitation of 5 concurrent network connections at a time — in an office networking situation, this can be a big bottleneck, but for home use it'll be fine. Also, the Pro version includes a feature called Offline Files, which I find very convenient for keeping a laptop in sync with my desktop.
There's another version of Windows XP that I haven't had much hands-on experience with: Media Center Edition. My understanding is that this is XP Pro with some additional software for video/DVD/TV viewing and recording.
Windows 98 is old, but on an old computer it can still do a decent job. Just don't try to run today's software on an old computer — it may run, but it'll run very slowly. If you must use an old computer, use the software that was new when the computer was new.
You'll notice that I've ranked both Windows 7 and Windows XP over Windows 8. The latter seems to have been designed more for touch-centric devices (such as phones and tablets) than for desktop computers. The newer features simply don't work well on a desktop computer or laptop — and I'm speaking from experience, because I installed it on my backup laptop so that I'd be forced to work with it regularly. The familiar Windows Desktop interface is still there, and still usable (mostly), but you have to go through a couple of layers to get to it — and some familiar features from Windows 7 are missing entirely! Third party addons such as Classic Shell can go a long way toward making it usable on a desktop, though, and once that's done it seems to work well. I rank Win8 ahead of Vista only because it contains many of the same improvements over Vista that were present in Win7.
Windows 10 is a definite improvement over Windows 8 — things that take over the screen in 8 and make it hard to get back to what you were doing instead run inside of a window in 10. It doesn't require the sort of add-ons to make it usable that Windows 8 required. If I got a new computer with Windows 10 on it, I wouldn't necessarily revert it back to Windows 7 as I did with Window 8 -- Windows 10 is usable as-is. However, it retains the rectangular, hard-edged and blocking windowing style that Windows 8 pulled out of the past from Windows 3.1. I do not see any compelling reason to "upgrade" from Windows 7 to Windows 10, although I would be inclined to go from Windows 8 to Windows 10 if possible.
|Spreadsheets||Corel Quattro Pro 8 (Commercial)|
|Word Processing||LibreOffice (Open-Source, offshoot of OpenOffice)|
Since building my newest desktop machine in 2009, I've switched over to using first OpenOffice, then LibreOffice as my main office suite for everything except spreadsheets. The word processor is nearly as good as Word 2000 — the only thing I've found lacking in it so far is the mail merge function. (It won't create mail-merge "catalogs" like I used to create our callers' association's roster in 1997.) The spreadsheet is capable, but won't import Quattro Pro v8 spreadsheets (let alone macros). It does, however, open any Excel spreadsheet I've tried, including the new .XLSX format introduced in 2007. The presentation graphics program opens and plays MS PowerPoint slideshows, too, so LibreOffice can function as a good substitute for people whose friends send them documents created with Microsoft Office.
|Vector graphics||CorelDRAW! (Commercial)|
|Bitmap graphics||The GIMP (Open Source)|
(Open Source vector graphics package)
FastStone, IrfanView (freeware graphics viewers)
Greenshot (Open Source screenshot utility)
There is an open-source vector graphics program called Inkscape also available. I have it on my laptop and have used it for a few things. It seems to work well, but its CorelDraw import feature doesn't bring in text. Since I have a LOT of CorelDraw drawings, most of which include varying amounts of text, Corel remains my primary choice for my personal use. However, I'm using Inkscape more and more for graphics on websites that I design, partly because it's free (so someone who takes over the website from me won't have to buy an expensive tool to use my graphics), and partly becuse Inkscape does use the open standard SVG (Scaleable Vector Graphic) as its native file format—and most modern web browsers are including support for SVG graphics on websites.
FastStone Graphics Viewer and IrfanView are programs that do two things: display all of the graphics files in a folder as thumbnails, and allow you to convert/resize/rename those graphics as groups. Windows XP (and Windows 7 even more so) has a built-in thumbnailing function, but it's not quite as flexible as these programs. I mainly use FastStone these days, but IrfanView has been very popular for a long time. One of the things I use FastStone for most often is to take a set of pictures from a callers' association event and resize them all for web viewing — just select the pictures, go to the Batch Conversion function, specify a destination folder, and under the Advanced options tell it that I want them to be proportionally resized to 250 pixels high. FastStone and IrfanView can also do rotations and minor editing (like red-eye removal); for bigger editing jobs (such as removing blotches from lens spots) I turn to GIMP. [I've recently started looking at XnView as well -- it's a similar program, but will work within .ZIP files, too.]
I also use GIMP's File/Create/ScreenShot capability quite a bit for capturing on-screen images to send via email or to include with a help file on a program I'm writing. However, sometimes that can be a bit cumbersome -- such as when trying to capture a pop-up menu. There's a very good, open-source (and therefore, free) screen capture utility that makes that a bit easier. Greenshot lets you capture the entire screen, a single window, or any rectangular portion of the screen you pick, and either save it to a file (in just about any standard bitmap format), put it on the clipboard, or even edit it in its own editor. Plus, it has a portable version that you can take anywhere on a USB thumb drive.
|For home use||Alwil Avast! (Commercial/Freeware)|
Security Essentials (Freeware)
|For business use||Eset NOD32 (Commercial)|
If your computer is a home computer and is not used for any business purposes, there's no reason for you to pay for an antivirus program at all. There are several perfectly good ones out there that are free for home use. I recommended the free version of AVG for a number of years, but I'm currently giving Avast! the nod over AVG due to the latter's new version being bigger and slower. Registering Avast used to be a little complicated, as you had to go to a web page to fill out a form and then receive a key by email. Now, all of that is done within the program, so it's easy enough for anyone to do it.
Microsoft has also made a foray into the realm of free antivirus products. Their Security Essentials offering is decent for newer computers, and can be used either by individuals at home or by organizations with 10 computers or fewer. (For older computers, I still recommend Avast, because it's smaller and faster, which is important on older hardware.) Note that Windows 8 and 10 come with what is, for all intents and purposes, this same program built in.
For business use, I had been recommending (and personally using) AVG since 2004. After version 8 came out, though, I had to rethink that — it's not as bad as Norton, but it's still a lot bigger and slower than it used to be, and some of the web protection features of the new version can cause confusion and other problems. Therefore, I started researching again, as I did when Norton AV 2004 became such a disappointment, and found NOD32. It's highly regarded, small, lean and fast. As of August 2012, I've switched over to it myself. (I had been using a product called Vipre which allowed installation on all computers in the household for $50/yr, but the company that made it was taken over in 2011 and the original leader left the company after that, and I lost trust in it.)
NOTE: I recommend getting JUST the antivirus program from any of these companies, and not the full-fledged "internet security suite." The antispyware and antispam components of the suites are generally not as good as standalone programs, and you can cause numerous problems on your computer with a software firewall if you don't know exactly what you're doing. I generally recommend sticking with the firewall built into Windows, and supplementing it with a home router if you have a DSL or cable internet connection — the router will act as a firewall and block any incoming probes unless you specifically configure it to allow certain ones through.
- MalwareBytes Anti-Malware (Commercial/Freeware)
Spybot and Ad-Aware are the venerable longstanding entries in the field, but they have been somewhat outdistanced by the others over the last few years. And, there are some other tools available for removing things that even MalwareBytes has trouble with, but they're generally things that only an expert should be using except under strict supervision.
MBAM is BOTH commercial and freeware. The free version is generally an on-demand scanner only — you have to tell it when to run, and tell it to remove what it finds when it scans. To get automatic protection, you have to pay for the commercial product.
- Mozilla Firefox
|AdBlock Plus||Removes most of the annoying multimedia/Flash ads that pop up on web pages|
|Download Status Bar||Shows the status of any files I'm downloading on the browser's status bar, rather than in a separate pop-up window|
|FEBE||A backup program for saving your Firefox bookmarks, configuration and extensions in case of disaster|
|FlashGot||Makes selecting multiple download links at a time easier, and allows downloading and saving flash video files (i.e., YouTube)|
|IEView Lite||For the occasional page that won't work in Firefox — right-click it and choose "View in IE" to open it in Internet Explorer|
|Linky||Does for regular links what FlashGot does for downloads — select a bunch of links, right-click, "Open in tabs" and bang — you've got each link opened in a new tab.|
|Tab Mix Plus||Lets you customize how Firefox reacts when you click or double-click on a tab, and how tabs are displayed. (This replaces TabClickingOptions and Tab Utilities, which are no longer updated for newer versions of Firefox.)|
There are, of course, other browsers available. I've tried most of the ones that run on Windows — Opera, Safari, Google Chrome — but I keep coming back to Firefox. The only one that gives FF a run for its money is Chrome. However, every time I use it, I keep running into little ways in which I like Firefox better, even though FF is slower than it used to be.
|Mozilla Thunderbird (Open-Source)|
I used Pegasus Mail almost since I first got an Internet account, up until about the end of 2014. It's a free program from New Zealand, and it was among the first programs to have the ability to filter incoming mail into different folders based on the source or content of the mail — very useful when you subscribe to Internet email lists. It has a very good trainable spam filter — meaning that you show it what messages you think are spam and what you think aren't, and it uses that to learn to classify incoming messages to your preference.
The downside to Pegasus is that setting it up tends to be a bit complicated, so I don't recommend it for casual users. Also, there have been very few updates for the past several years, and some people (notably GoDaddy's tech support mail system) had problems with the format in which it sends email. So, to start 2015 I moved over to Thunderbird — it has many of the features of Pegasus (including a trainable spam filter), but is easier to configure and is a little more modern overall.
An email checker is a convenience, not a necessity. I used to use MailWasher and then PopTray for this purpose. Over the last couple of years, though, I've stopped using a separate checker entirely. Instead, I've set up my mail client to access my email accounts through the IMAP protocol (which leaves the mail on the server until I specifically move it to my computer) and leave it running minimized in the background. It checks for new mail every 10 minutes and will notify me when there is any waiting to be read -- just like the separate email checkers I used to use. I do the same thing with the email client on my cell phone.
- Pidgin (Open-Source)
- FileZilla (Open-Source)
- PuTTY (Open-Source)
|VLC Media Player (Open-Source)|
Traditionally, square dance music has come on 45RPM records; to get that music onto a computer, you have to connect a turntable to the computer, play the record, and record the audio to a computer file (using Audacity, in my case). In recent years, however, a lot of producers have been releasing music on CD and as downloadable MP3 files, and CD looks like it will eventually become the "hard" distribution medium of choice due to the low cost of producing a CD relative to the cost of pressing a vinyl record. CDs are easier to bring into a computer as a MP3 file, too — all you need is a "ripping" program. There are many available, including many free ones. I've settled on fre:ac (formerly called BonkEnc), partly because of its ability to fill in the song titles automatically when the CD is in an Internet database (not the case with square dance CDs), and partly because of its ability to use several different encoding formats. Now, if I could just get it to automatically insert 3 seconds of silence at the front of every MP3...well, it won't, but MP3 DirectCut will let me paste a sound clip directly into the front of any MP3 file, so that works well enough for my purposes.
When playing back those music files at a square dance, I use the free WinAmp player, or a program that I wrote specifically for playing music while calling. Pacemaker is a plugin for Winamp that allows the user to control pitch and tempo while the music is playing.
When I'm calling, I usually use a Snapstream Firefly remote control device to control my music playback. Girder allows me to assign various commands to keys on the remote, so that I can kick the pitch or tempo up/down, skip to the next song, pause the music, or change the volume by 1% or 10% increments. It's a commercial product with a 30-day trial version (although it was shareware when I first started using it), but it does a great job and is pretty simple to configure.
With Winamp, I don't really need the VLC media player — except that it tends to do a better job playing Flash videos (downloaded from YouTube) than Winamp does. It will also play the RealAudio clips which are given for records listed on the Hanhurst Music & Tape Service website; not many players other than RealPlayer will do that.
Disk Wizard (Freeware)
- Acronis TrueImage (Commercial)
- Macrium Reflect
It's VITALLY important that you have current backups of all of your data. If you don't already have one, run out and get a USB external hard disk at least as large as your computer's internal HD. ("You say it, but you won't do it. Do it NOW!" -- Blanche Bickerson)
There are two types of backups (for different purposes), and two types of backup programs:
Creates an exact bit-by-bit copy of your entire hard disk, which
then be used to get your computer up and running again with a new
disk if the old one fails completely. Seagate
Disk Wizard (free, but only works with a Seagate hard
disk in the system) and Acronis
TrueImage (same program, without the Seagate limitation,
but not free) do this. Another option is Macrium
Reflect, which comes in both free (for home use only) and
commercial versions. And, Windows 7 includes an image backup
Creates copies of each file on your hard disk, which can then be
back to your hard disk if the original becomes lost or corrupted.
type of backup generally CANNOT be restored directly to a new hard
to get a working system, as important files held open by the
system while it is running can't be backed up reliably. However,
very good for making backup copies of your documents and data
image backups. Cobian
is this type of backup program — very reliable and completely
but it lacks the capability of backing up directly to a CD or DVD
drive. (Works great with an external hard disk, though.) Windows 7
also includes a backup feature built-in, but I prefer Cobian.
Hard disks can be divided up into partitions — basically areas on the hard disk which get assigned their own drive letter as if they were separate disks. Sometimes when a system is partitioned in this way, we run into a situation where one partition gets filled up while another is nearly empty — and something else absolutely HAS to go into the first partition. Wouldn't it be great if we could adjust the sizes and make the first partition bigger and the second smaller? That's just what these programs do.
I used to use a program called Partition Magic for this — it was the program that created the entire category of on-the-fly partition editors. Then Norton/Symantec bought the company out, and because of my disenchantment with Norton I never tried it again. For several years, Acronis' Disk Director Suite was a good substitute, as are the two open-source packages listed above. However, I've recently settled on MiniTool's product — it's very capable, and it's free for non-commercial use.
Error Detection and Repair
- SpinRite (Commercial)
|This is a must-have for anyone who is used to older versions
of Windows and gets a new computer with Windows 8. It adds the
Start Menu back into the Windows 8 desktop, and sets the computer
boot directly to the desktop instead of the Start Screen. (The
Menu may seem like a small thing, but so many parts of Windows are
accessed through it that productivity goes WAY down when it's
missing!) NOTE: I un-select the
"Classic IE" and "Classic Explorer" in the installer when
installing this program—I only use the Classic Start Menu.
|A small, free program for viewing PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files. Faster and smaller than Acrobat Reader|
|Gives information about the computer's processor chip, motherboard, and memory. Useful if you aren't sure what speed memory to buy — PC-2700? PC-3200? PC2-5300? This will tell you.|
|Lets you view all the tasks that start automatically when your computer starts, and selectively turn some of them off.|
|Shows all the processes running on the computer, and gives information about each, plus system memory usage. Like Task Manager, but LOTS more (and more useful) info.|
|Clock synchronization software. Windows XP and later have synchronization built in, but this is more flexible and has more time servers preconfigured. (I sync with the Naval Observatory, tick.usno.navy.mil, once a day.)|
|File compression and decompression utility that handles many different formats — not limited to just ZIP|
|Utility that deletes unneeded temporary files and browser cache files from your hard disk, and searches the registry for deadwood.|
|Aids in recovering deleted files that have passed out of the recycle bin.|
|If you're worried about someone recovering sensitive files you've deleted, Eraser will either do a military-level scrub on a file before deleting it, or do that same military-level scrub on all the empty areas of the hard disk.|
| PDF Creator
|Installs as a printer in Windows, and allows you to create PDF files by printing to it instead of your printer. (NOTE: the installer WILL try to install some unnecessary add-on software; make sure you opt out of or cancel that!)|
|Very good text editor, with features for programmers and web designers.|
|A system information tool for Windows — gives all sorts of information about Windows, your installed programs, and your computer's hardware. Like CPU-Z, this will also tell you the speed rating of the RAM installed on your motherboard.|
(Freeware / Shareware)
|Good program for synchronizing files and subfolders in two folders. Basic version is free, more elaborate version is paid.|
(Freeware / Shareware)
|Analyzes how much space is being taken up by each folder's contents. Basic free version; more elaborate version is paid.|
|Does a better job than the defragger that comes with Windows. Under Vista and Windows 7, it automatically sets up tasks to run a quick defrag every night and a thorough one once a month.|
| Stefan's Tools
|Some good Windows Explorer add-ons and standalone utilities from one of the principal authors of TortoiseSVN. I use GrepWin, CommitMonitor, StExBar, and SKTimeStamp.|
- KompoZer (Open-Source)
As you can see from the footer at the bottom of this page, all the pages on my website are created in KompoZer, or using a combination of KompoZer and PSPad (the latter for hand-editing the HTML code directly).
Development on KompoZer has slowed to a crawl, as its author has moved to a new job that occupies most of his attention. I've looked at some other similar products, such as BlueGriffon (written by the author of NVu, on which KompoZer was based), but I still keep coming back to KompoZer.
So, I'm not what you would call a heavy user of programming tools. Still, there are a number of things that I use on a regular basis and that I would unabashedly recommend.
- Jedi Component
- Jedi Visual
Component Library (Open-Source)
Component Suite (Freeware)
- InnoSetup (Freeware)
- Beyond Compare (Commercial)
- IcoFx (formerly Freeware)
I use SVN both to manage my programming projects and to manage my web work. Every change I make to one or the other gets committed to the SVN repository for the project in question, so that I: (1) have a history of what I've done; (2) can easily revert back to an older version; (3) can create two different versions and switch between them [not that I do that very often!]; and (4) have a secondary copy that could function as a backup in an emergency.
TortoiseSVN is a Subversion client that integrates into Windows Explorer (the interface for managing files on your computer, not the web browser — that's Internet Explorer). It allows you to do all of the standard source control operations on files by right-clicking them and choosing options from the pop-up menus. It can operate either with or without a server; until 2009, I'd been operating without a server with the repository stored in a separate location on the same computer I was working on. However, that's now changed.
Visual SVN Server is freely available and built mostly from open-source parts (the Subversion server software and the Apache web server), but contains some parts that are not open-source. However, it is free, and it is extremely simple to set up and start using. I decided to install it on a whim in 2009 so that I could put my website files under version control (I work on my website on a different computer from the one I do my programming on), and it literally took me less than ten minutes to install it, import all my old repositories, and create a new one for the website. Another 5 minutes to install the TortoiseSVN client on my main machine and import the website into the repository, and I was done!
Both phones synchronize easily with my Google Calendars and address book, and do email well (my biggest criterion). Both have pretty decent cameras; the Phoenix had no flash, and the Galaxy's camera is definitely a step up.
When I switched from my Blackberry to the Phoenix, my Internet data usage went up quite a bit, from an average of 20-30MB per month to about 150MB. With the Galaxy, it went up again, averaging 200-300MB per month. Still well below my account limit, but I'm obviously using it more. In fact, I've entirely stopped using my Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go wireless modem for my laptop, because the phone does almost everything I need to do when I don't have access to a WiFi hotspot.
Of course, the phone also runs applications, or apps. I don't load my phone down with a lot of these, but there are a few that I've found to be very useful.
Included with the phone
- Browser (Web)
- Email and Gmail
- Google Search
- Maps and Navigation
The calendar is pretty good. It'll display month, week, or day views. You can link it to multiple Google calendars on your Google account(s), and it'll synchronize automatically -- but only up to a year in advance. One thing to watch out for, though, is that Google Calendar stores its appointment times as UTC, or Greenwich time, and adjusts the displayed time according to the time zone you're in. I took the trouble of entering all of my calling slots at the 2011 National Convention in my Google calendar at home, and when I got to Detroit I found that they were all off by three hours! (Solution: Enter or edit the entries using the full Google Calendar on your computer's web browser, rather than the phone, and you'll have the opportunity to specify a time zone for the appointment. Set the time zone to the proper zone for where the appointment is taking place. Then, it'll look like it's wrong when you're in your home time zone, but it'll all be correct when you get to your destination!)
I use email a LOT, and the email client has done well for me. The regular email client checks my Pacific Internet account via IMAP every 15 minutes -- it'll do POP3 as well, but I'm using IMAP. The Gmail client supposedly gets its mail "pushed" out from Google rather than polling; I use that for my firstname.lastname@example.org email address.
In 2010, I never would have thought I'd be on Facebook, but I am now. The Android app lets me "check in" at places I visit, and it posts that status to my Facebook wall. It also lets me take a photo and upload it directly to Facebook.
Why use a Google Search app when you can just do it through the built-in browser? Specifically because I can talk to it. It'll use the Android's speech recognition software to allow you to speak a phrase, and then do a Google search for that. Very handy in places where you don't want to use your hands -- such as stopped at a traffic light. (And often better than trying to type one-fingered on the virtual "keyboard.")
Google Maps and Google Navigation work just as you'd expect. Navigation is equivalent to a car's GPS navigator, and will speak directions to you -- including through your Bluetooth headset, if it supports being used as a media earphone as well as a phone headset. (It does seem to cut off the first word or two through the headset, though.) You can also speak your destination to it, like the Google Search app.
Downloaded from the Android Market
- Sound Hound
- Wifi Analyzer
- Cool Reader
- Battery Notifier (Big Text)
- Gas Buddy
SoundHound is a program that will listen to music through the phone's microphone, and attempt to determine the title. Works well, even with me humming a tune. There are both free and paid versions; I use the free one. (Thanks to Joe Saltel for the suggestion!)
Wifi Analyzer is a handly little program that tells you what wifi networks are in the area, what channels they're using, and how strong they are. Handy when setting up a new wireless network, although it's not a spectrum analyzer -- it won't show you interference sources that AREN'T wifi networks.
Cool Reader and Kindle are two ebook readers. Kindle, obviously, is the program from Amazon; it'll sync with your Amazon Kindle account and give you access to whatever books you've purchased from them. Cool Reader reads just about everything else -- specifically, I use it to read ebooks in the MobiPocket format from Baen Publishing's promotional CDs bound into some of their books (and available, legally, for free from Joe Buckley's website.)
Battery Notifier corrects one of Android's shortcomings -- it shows the remaining battery charge as a percent on the status bar, rather than just a segmented green battery thermometer (with only 3 segments).
GasBuddy is the app that goes with the gasbuddy.com website. Start it up, and it will query gasbuddy.com for the gas stations closest to your location and show them either by distance from you or by the price (as reported by GasBuddy users). VERY handy!
SubDroid is an app that shows Subversion source-control logs on the phone. I use Subversion source control for most of my web work, so this lets me see the list of changes I made to the callers' association website when I make my report at the meeting.
CalRoadReport gets highway condition info over the internet directly from CalTrans. Very useful if you have to be travelling in the mountains during stormy weather and want to see if chains are going to be required ahead of you.
ES File Explorer is a program that lets me browse all of the files on my phone's SD card. It also lets me view network shares on my regular computers over WiFi, and transfer files over the network without having to plug the phone into the computer. It also has built-in ZIP file support, so you can view the contents of ZIP archives and extract files.