I’m on my Windows computer a lot. I’m also the kind of computer user that is always looking for a better way to do things. So I’m always looking out for any free software that can meet a couple of criteria:
- Must solve a real problem
- Preferably automated
- Doesn’t slow down the computer or come with malware
- Free software is great, but be willing to pay for the good stuff.
There are a million lists for the best free software for every year, and they mostly include the same things. But I thought I would give some love to the unsung programs that I use everyday that make me more productive.
Free Software in the System Tray
This nice little free software app is a blue light filter that runs from sunset to sunrise, lowering the light on the screen and applying a red/yellow filter over the screen. It makes viewing at night a lot easier and is my reminder to get off the computer.
Volume control has never been well done in the Windows interface. This nice app can switch which speaker each software outputs to. I can have Spotify on the big Bluetooth speaker, and YouTube videos running through headphones. Each one also gets its own volume slider.
This great little app that turns text messages into instant messenger. Text messages appear on the desktop and let me text back, even upload images. It’s just one less thing I need to check my phone for. All message do go through their central service so you will lose some privacy there.
OK, I pay for the professional version of DropBox, but not until recently. Before that I got along just fine with the free version but I have a lot of love for Dropbox. I’ll have a more in depth review of how I use Dropbox in another article.
You know ninite.com, right? If not, you’re going to love this. This site has a lot of free programs that everyone gravitates to like VLC, Steam, Chrome and much more. You check all the programs you want, and you download a single .EXE file that installs all of them without needing to click Next>Next>Next for each installer. (Hint, you probably don’t need any of the Runtimes anymore)
My list includes some staples, but I do grab all the web browsers for testing purposes
I need a good zip manager, and I’ve recently abandoned WinZip. It’s become bloated and slow, usually taking 30 seconds just to open a zip file. So I switched to 7-Zip because it sticks to one task and doesn’t constantly include features I’ll never use. Also free.
I like IrfanView over Adobe Bridge for quick image display. I love how fast IrfanViewer is for most file types. Big files over a few megabytes tend to take a while to load, especially Photoshop files.
The Windows 10 Metro interface was designed by the devil himself. The old Start menu took one click to open, and one click to launch Photoshop. I remember it taking more than dozen clicks and scrolls to get to Photoshop the first time I used the new interface. I don’t use any of the Tiles, many are just ads anyway. I want to see the full list of software I have in one screen without scrolling. And I need to be in Desktop mode all the time. Working with the tablet interface is really cumbersome for design and coding work.
I just need a list of programs and settings to get to quickly. Classic Shell brings back the old menus from previous versions of Windows with lots of customization. I love being able to turn off options; no tiles, no recent menus, no shortcuts I never use cluttering up the start menu. This is how it should have been from the beginning.
Free Software From the Internet
I have a lot of serial numbers and business information that I need to have access to but need to keep encrypted. The great part about this is that it works with DropBox where I keep most of my files. It lets me keep a password-protected encrypted folder in there that would take years to break into for a hacker, even if they got ahold of the files.
I run this program about once a week; it checks all the software in your computer for newer versions. The free version runs a Google search for the update, while the full version links directly to it. Download the portable version so you don’t have to install it.
I work with lots of files. Sometimes I get 10 folders with photos that all need to be named according to some standard, but they come in as IMG_0005646.JPG. This great utility lets me rename anything in any way I want to.
Pop in a USB drive, and it adds a desktop shortcut. This is basically a clone of a feature that Mac does natively.
Occasionally Acrobat or Illustrator refuses to let go of a file when I want to delete it. This adds a right-click option to all files with an entry titled “What’s locking this file?”. You can see what is preventing the file from being used and unlock or even delete the file.
The volume control in the taskbar is really slow. When a YouTube video starts playing way too loud, getting the volume down fast just can’t be done. The icon is very small, then clicking on it usually has a delay of a few seconds before you can get to the very tiny volume slider.
Volumouse is the free software that solves this for people who are used to keyboard shortcuts.
In Adobe software, I am constantly using CTRL, ALT and SHIFT to access menus and modify tools. I’ve been doing it for 20 years so I keep one hand hovered over those keys and the other on my mouse. I’ve set up Volumouse to respond to CTRL + ALT and the mouse wheel. I hit those two buttons, then scroll up to increase the volume, and down to decrease.
I do find this faster than the regular volume control and even faster than the volume buttons in the function keys. Normally, changing the volume involves hitting the volume decrease button repeatedly, or holding it down while it delays for a second before slowly stepping down the volume. Volumouse is fast and responds to those commands instantly.
Made by NirSoft, which makes all kinds of cool software.
If you develop websites, you need a full webserver running on your computer. Typically you’ll have a L/M/WAMP setup; Linux/Mac/Windows (Operating system) plus Apache (webserver) with MySQL (database) and PHP (an add on language responsible for logins, searches and most functionality). What’s amazing is the AMP parts are all free software. The downside is they can be incredibly annoying to install and properly configure. XAMPP does it for you.
It’s an installer for Apache with PHP, and the MySQL database. It runs all the configurations and get you a webserver running in about 10 minutes. After that, I can install as many WordPress websites as I like on my computer and develop my local copy, before uploading to the live server.
If you’re on a Mac, ImageOptim is the best free software for batch image file reduction. Load in a bunch of images and it will reduce their filesize as much as it can while preserving quality. Great to use for web images to make them load faster. The Windows equivalent is RIOT, and it’s not as good, but still handles JPEG, GIF and PNG as well as batch processing.