The Windows Software I Use to Stay Productive
January 1, 2020 by Steven Ng (Updated November 23, 2021)
Welcome to my frequently updated list of Windows software that I use to stay productive. Most of the items on the list are either free or relatively affordable for their functionality.
I will eventually post lists of my favorite hardware and Docker containers as well, but the scope of this document is generally limited to things I use in Windows.
If you don't see your favorite tool listed here (some obvious omissions - Notepad++, Inkscape and Paint.net), don't be offended. I'm not trying to cover all possibilities, this list is based purely on my own preferences, so your mileage will definitely vary.
In addition to a bunch of Windows applications, I use many self-hosted applications to stay productive as well.
This list was inspired by Scott Hanselman's Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows (last updated in 2021), but based on my own preferences.
I highly recommend you check out the link above, as there may be some tools that are not in my list that you will find useful.
With the exception of my "Gotta Have" list, I've grouped the applications by category to make them easier to find. If an application can fall under more than one logical category, I put it in the category that makes the most sense to me.
In no particular order, here's the software that I use on a daily basis that I can't give up.
- Cmder - When I switched from Mac to Windows, my biggest concern was whether that switch would downgrade my terminal experience. Thanks to Cmder, it has not.
- Greenshot - I use this for screen grabs and annotating them. If you miss Skitch, you'll like Greenshot a lot.
- 1Password - Everyone should use a password manager these days. This is on my list begrudgingly. The recent 1Password 8 release finally makes the Windows experience feel like a first-class citizen. Hopefully the Android user experience is next. I can't say I'm 100% happy with the service, but I have yet to see another cross-platform password manager that has a better user experience on the platforms that matter to me.
- Microsoft Edge (Chromium) - I was on Chrome for the longest time, but it's a battery suck and resource hog. The fact that the developer tools are the same as Chrome's made the switch a no-brainer for me. Also, the ability to roll your own PWA from a web site is absolutely fantastic.
- AutoHotkey - I use this for text expansion primarily, but it's a powerful tool that can do much more.
- Visual Studio Code - Since I originally wrote this article, I have switched from Atom to Visual Studio Code. It's not that different from Atom, but it's worth noting that I also run Visual Studio Code in Docker containers as well, which makes mode changing easier.
- TightVNC - It sucks that Windows remote desktop is disabled for Windows Home machines. Since I have a bunch of machines that I use for testing and development, TightVNC is a handy substitute for RDP on machines that don't support it.
- WakeOnLan - If you've got a bunch of computers that you don't need to run 24/7, WakeOnLan is a handy GUI based tool for waking them up.
- Dropbox - This one's probably a controversial one, since Dropbox's new client is a disaster in so many regards, but Dropbox is something that just makes my life easier with respect to my most important data. I miss the "good old days" of Dropbox, when it wasn't trying to do so much, but I do get my money's worth for my subscription.
- 7zip - At some point, everyone's going to need to unzip some compressed archive. I'm not a fan of the built-in Windows zip decompression, and 7zip is an excellent alternative.
- Classic Explorer - I have hated the tweaks to Windows Explorer that Microsoft made after Windows 2000. Classic Explorer lets you change the look and feel of Windows Explorer to feel like older versions.
- Microsoft Power Toys - This is the "modern incarnation" of the Windows 95 era Power Toys you grew to love. It's early days, and it currently only has two genuinely useful features - FancyZones, which lets you create a virtual grid of monitors, and PowerRename, which is a powerful bulk file renamer.
- DisplayFusion - If you've got multiple monitors, DisplayFusion is a godsend. It's not free, but it goes on sale on Steam regularly (which is also the best way to buy it, because of the more relaxed licensing). With the release of Microsoft Power toys, I have slowly started moving away from this utility, but it is still a worthwhile application if it has features you need.
- Groupy - This inexpensive utility lets you group multiple windows from multiple apps into a single tabbed window. It will at some point be replaced by a built-in Windows feature, but I've been using it for several months, and Microsoft has delayed implementing that feature into Windows, so I still recommend buying it.
- DirectFolders - This indispensable, inexpensive utility powers up your Windows Explorer experience. It makes it very easy to jump to commonly used folders.
- Easymail for Gmail - If you have multiple Google accounts and struggle with multiple tabs in a browser, this app can help.
When setting up new Windows machines, the first thing I do is install go to Ninite and get a customized installer. You can pick the applications you want to install, and Ninite will provide you with a customized installer executable that will install the latest versions of the software you choose.
- SysInternals Suite - A fantastic suite of utilities for Windows
- Nirsoft - Not one utility in particular, but Nirsoft has some amazing tools for Windows.
- VirusTotal - This is a website, not an application, but if you have a sketchy file you want to check, VirusTotal will check it against multiple antivirus engines.
- SharpKeys - Useful for remapping keys on your keyboard, in particular, laptops with weird keyboard layouts or missing keys.
- Keyboard Indicator - If you have a laptop that for some stupid reason is missing a Caps or Num lock LED, this tool is handy.
- Iconset - A library application for managing SVG icons.
- IconViewer - A shell integrated tool to let you get application icon resources in Windows
- Windows Defender - Defender, which is bundled with Windows, and VirusTotal are what I like to use for antivirus.
- Resource Monitor - Bundled with Windows, is Task Manager on steroids. Great for finding file locks and listening ports.
- Rufus - A tool for creating bootable USB drives.
- Windirstat - Disk space analyzer
- Treesize Free - Disk space analyzer
- PathSync - Compare two directories and show the differences. Lets you choose how to synchronize the directories.
- Snowflake - A great little Swiss Army knife for connecting to remote clients. It has a built in SFTP client and terminal. Great for reducing the number of windows you have open at any given moment.
- WinSCP - FTP/SFTP/SCP client for Windows
- Advanced Renamer - Bulk renaming tool
- Synergy - Share a keyboard and mouse across multiple computers
- Windows File History - Probably not as well known as it should be, this built in Windows tool is analogous to Time Machine on the Mac for backups.
- FAT32 Format GUI - Sometimes you just need to format a disk as FAT32.
- PenAttention - If you are regularly losing track of your mouse pointer, or want to highlight it for a meeting or presentation, this is a great little tool. I do not consider PowerToys' Find My Mouse to be a 100% substitute for this utility, as I use both.
- USBLogView - One of Nirsoft's many excellent tools. If you get frustrated by the USB connect/disconnect sounds on Windows without knowing what the heck the device was, this little application will tell you.
Note taking is a hot issue for me. I have yet to find the "perfect" tool, but here are some tools that I've tried that might be useful for you:
- Typora - A WYSIWYG Markdown text editor. It's currently free while in Beta. It's not exactly my ideal editor, but it's pretty good. My ideal editor would be Visual Studio Code mixed with Typora while maintaining Visual Studio Code's keyboard shortcuts and editing sugar (e.g., multiline edits, etc.). Until that imaginary tool comes to fruition, Typora is my current go-to Markdown editor.
- MarkText - A WYSIWYG Markdown text editor.
- Joplin - A Markdown flavored Evernote replacement. It's pretty good, but not WYSIWYG.
- Onenote - You can get this with Office 365. I have a love/hate relationship with Onenote, but it is a good tool.
- PilotEdit - is a handy tool for examining gigantic text files.
- WinMerge - A great tool for comparing diffs between two texts files. It can also compare the contents of two folders, which is handy.
- Sublime Text - Even though I use Atom as my primary editor, I love Sublime Text. I still use it regularly, and it's good enough that I'll probably buy every major update that they release. It's fast, powerful and cross-platform. Gotta love it.
- LDAPAdmin - Handy for setting up an LDAP server for testing.
- NodeJS - My go-to tool for writing automation scripts.
- Insomnia REST Client - A tool for testing REST API calls. I prefer this over Postman.
- Atom - While there are better and faster editors, I find the overall functionality of Atom to outweigh its many negatives. While I have since replaced Atom with Visual Studio Code, it's still a great editor.
- ngrok - A tool that can expose a local machine to the Internet. I use this for testing webhooks.
- Sourcetree - A GUI for Git. I don't use this anymore, as Visual Studio Code has a built-in Git client, but this is a good client for those who don't want to use the CLI.
- Vagrant - Useful for spinning up reusable VMs for development
- Windows Subsystem for Linux - Available with multiple distributions, this handy tool from Microsoft lets you have access to real Linux without having to deal with VMs.
- LICEcap - This oddly named application records a region of your screen and saves it as an animated GIF
- Steps Recorder - Another built in Windows feature that will record a bunch of screenshots and save it as an MHT file. Great for documenting reproducible bugs.
- extractMHT - Useful for extracting screenshots out of a Steps Recorder MHT file.
- DBVisualizer - Available as a limited free version, I like this cross-platform database querying tool.
- DBeaver - A free cross platform database querying tool.
- Pentaho Data Integration - A free ETL tool. It's a little crufty, but it works.
- Scriptella - A file and command line based ETL tool.
- Flyway - A database migration tool that's easy to use.
- Treesheets - This is an interesting tool that's not easy to explain. It's like a hiearachical spreadsheet.
- Office 365 - For interoperability of "Office" type documents, I find that nothing beats Microsoft Office. The 365 service has some annoying quirks, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
- SumatraPDF - A nice lightweight PDF reader. It also supports eBooks, CHM and comic book formats.
- Drawio Desktop - A free alternative to Visio
- Affinity Photo - An affordable alternative to Photoshop that goes on sale regularly
- Affinity Designer - An affordable alternative to Illustrator that goes on sale regularly. This is the first app that I've used that can open Illustrator files reliably.
- DxO Photolab - A reasonably priced, non-subscription alternative to Lightroom for RAW processing. This gets heavily discounted around Black Friday and Christmas every year, so I wouldn't recommend buying it at other times of the year unless you absolutely need it.
- SVG Viewer Extension for Windows Explorer - If you want to see thumbnails of SVGs in Windows Explorer, this is a must have. Unfortunately the installer is unsigned, which could result in some warnings. If you're feeling unsure, check the binary in Windows Defender and VirusTotal after you've downloaded for some peace of mind.
- IconSet- If you use icons in your development workflow, this is a great tool for managing them.
- Slack - Slack is still my preferred collaboration tool.
- Skype - I have a love/hate relationship with Skype, but it's still a very useful tool in my repertoire.
- Teamviewer - Not a huge fan of the tool but in a pinch, it's handy for remote sessions.
- Musicbee - A good audio player for your music library.
- PotPlayer - A good media player for music and videos.
- Handbrake - A useful tool for recompressing videos
- Audacity - A free multi-track audio editor
- [Video Editor] - Included with recent versions of Windows, this is a "modern" version of Windows Movie Maker. It's not that powerful, but good for quick cuts. While I have purchased various non-linear video editors, I have yet to encounter something that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
- OBS Studio - OBS Studio is a passable free tool for screen recording. It has a quirky user interface that takes getting used to, but it works.
- ScreenToGif - Like OBS Studio, except hat it records to an animated GIF.
- MyAudioBookReader - A rudimentary player for listening to audio books.
- FutureTax - I only use this Canadian tax software once a year, but it's great for the price.
- Joy2Key - Allows you to map functions to a game controller. This has more practical applications than you'd think, especially if you're doing things that involve repetitive keystrokes.
- ZeroTier - Lets you create your own private networks (like a VPN) without a lot of hassle. If you've ever used Hamachi back in the day, you'll like ZeroTier. Their free tier is pretty generous.