Software

Software (Other than Games)

Welcome to the software review section of the site. This section is a partial list of the software I use. Mostly, I want to spread the work about some free or low-cost software that I just can't do without. This section does not cover computer games, however. For that, go to the computer games review section.

Must-Have Free Software

Strangely, when I first started using computer software over 30 years ago, virtually none of it was free. Linux wasn't even a thought yet. Word processors really weren't either for that matter. As I was making this list, I realized that with the exception of Windows and the Microsoft Office suite, almost all of the productivity software I use is free. For a living, I do Java software development using Eclipse as my Integrated Development Environment (IDE), which is free. I used to test using the Apache web server and the Tomcat servlet container, both of which are free. Much of my other editing is done using EditPad Pro, which isn't free, but has a free little brother that I did use for a number of years. I browse the web using Firefox (or Internet Explorer when forced to). To maintain this web site, I am using Drupal, which is also free. I use IrfanView to handle the images. For testing this site, I use Apache (running under Xampp. If you don't know what most of those are, don't fret. I won't be asking you to take a quiz. I won't dwell on the programming-specific software. Instead, this section is dedicated to the free software that I use often if not daily, and that I hope you find useful as well.

The List

First, I'm going to start off with a simple list with short descriptions. As I get time, I will do reviews of some of these, but for now, it's just a list.

ALZip - ZIP File Program  Everyone who uses the Internet needs a ZIP file to expand and unbundle files they've downloaded. Windows XP and Vista can open ZIP files if you click on them, but I still prefer a standalone program to un-ZIP archives and to create new ones. There are a number of free ZIP utilities out there, but AlZip is one of my favorite free programs. One thing you will probably want to change upon installation is the preference named "Create new folder." It is found on the Tools -> Preferences -> Context Menu dialog. Uncheck it if you don't like all your new folders to be named after birds rather than New Folder. WinRAR is still a superior program to AlZip, but WinRAR is not free. WinRAR can open things that AlZip can't, however.

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CDex - CD Audio Extraction  There are quite a few audio extraction programs out there to turn your audio CDs into MP3s that you can play on your iPod, in-car MP3 player, etc. WinAmp, listed below, is one of those. So it Microsoft's Media Player. CDex is at version 1.70 beta 2 and has been for years, and it's not clear that any development or updates are being done for it. That said, it has some of the most flexible and extensive configuration of the audio encoder that I've found. The variable bit rate recording even manages to capture the most dynamic, stubborn audio tracks. I've tried others, but I keep coming back to this one.

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CrashPlan - Local & Remote Backup  The adage about backup is there are two kinds of computer users: those with their files backed up and those about to lose their files. To be honest, loosing a hard disk to some permanent failure is mostly just a nuisance. I can get back the operating system and the applications I have. It may take time or even a lot of time, but it's doable. However, the pictures and video I took and my emails - those are mine and can't be found elsewhere. I loose those and they're gone. That's why I'm rather obsessive with backing those sorts of things up. CrashPlan has both free and subscription versions of its software. The free version allows backing up files to another hard drive, another computer (in your house, for example) or even to a friend's computer. The subscription model allows backup over the Internet to CrashPlan's file servers. As the recent victims of superstorm (aka hurricane) Sandy could attest to, it doesn't matter how many copies of those digital pictures you had in the house if the house is gone. At the very least, everyone should make backups of those directories of items they could never replace. Those that are tedious/time consuming to get back should also be backed up. I strongly suggest making offsite backup (even if it means paying money) of those that can't be replaced. Sending a DVD to Aunt Patty is a start, but continuous, automatic backup is better.

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EditPad Lite - Text File Editor  EditPad Lite is a very good, general-purpose text editor. It makes a wonderful replacement for Notepad. It has very good search and replace tools, extensive undo and redo, allows a large number of text files to be opened in tabs simultaneously. The program is perfect for opening readme and other text files that area released with drivers and programs. I used EditPad Lite for a couple years, but eventually found that I needed some of the features only found in EditPad Pro - most notably the regular expression search and replace and the hexadecimal editing. If you're a programmer, the syntax coloring and highlighting in the Pro version makes it worth the $50 price tag, but for everyday use, the Lite version will serve you well.

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Firefox - Web Browser  Firefox is by far my favorite web browser. My favorite extensions make it indispensable. My list of must-have extensions is:

  • Ad-Block Plus
  • Download Statusbar
  • IE View
  • No Script
  • PDF Download
  • Tab Mix Plus
  • United States English Dictionary
  • Xmarks (formerly Foxmarks)
  • WOT (Web of Trust)
Thumbnail of EditPad Pro

 

Must-Have Free Software (Continued)

The List (Continued)

IrfanView - Image Editor  IrfanView's author describes it as an image viewer. That it is, but he's being modest. IrfanView can be used to crop, resize, rotate (even lossless JPG rotation), annotate (with standard paint tools), brighten, sharpen, recolor, resample, convert to grayscale, and just about anything else you can imagine you'd ever want to do to a photo or other image. Specifically for photos, it has red-eye reduction. It can use a scanner to get and image and the latest version can grab text from an image using OCR provided by a plug-in. It has the ability to batch rename images in a directory or batch convert them (such as to resize all images at once). It has a thumbnail tool that can be used to quickly create thumbnails, contact sheets and even a set of HTML to allow the contact sheet to reference the full-size photos. If that weren't enough, it has one of the best screen capture capabilities of any program I've used. Suffice it to say that if you see an image on this site, IrfanView has probably processed it in some way. Be sure to download the main program and the plug-ins. They are separate downloads.
Thumbnail of IrfanView
PlainText  PlainText is a very small, simple System Tray application that serves a very singular and useful purpose. It pastes whatever is currently in the screen buffer as plain text. This is wonderfully useful when grabbing text from a highly formatted source like a web page or Word document. If you've ever grabbed text from a web site to stuff into an email and got all the undesired HTML formatting with it, this is the app for you. PlainText doesn't have a screen to really capture; it works by pressing Windows-V rather than Ctrl-V when pasting.
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Process Explorer  This is another recommendation that's borderline "nerd-only." That said, it is useful to almost any user at some time. If you've ever found yourself in the situation where something is using all of your memory or all of your CPU, but didn't know what or why, Process Explorer can help. It can also answer that question about what processes are holding onto which files/folders that's preventing you from deleting them or ejecting that USB flash disk. It takes a while to get a feel for what it's telling you, but once you have the basics, it can help a lot with figuring out what your system is up to.
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TCP View - Network Connection Tool  This recommendation is another possible "nerd-only" one. It's called TCP View and hails from the same source as Process Explorer (namely Mark Russinovich who now works for Microsoft). Even if you don't particularly need to do a lot of network monitoring and testing, this little tool is great for investigating why your network may be running slow. This tools ties network connections to the tasks on your system that are using them. It's good for discovering connections you may not have been aware of and you can see the relative amount of activity on those connections.

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TreeSize Free - Disk Space Tool  TreeSize Free from Jam Software is a tool to show where all the space on your hard disks (and disk partitions) has gone. Jam may say this best on their web site when they say, "Every hard disk is too small if you just wait long enough." They are right. You can easily drill down into folders and ferret out where all the disk hogs are. You may not be able to do anything about some of them, but it's amazing how many times one can make a copy of the same file and not notice or have backups of files that haven't been needed for years. It often just turns up some surprises.
Thumbnail of TreeSize Free

 

Must-Have Low-Cost Software

The best things in life may be free, but occasionally, paying a little bit of money scores you some good stuff, too. One approach that software companies use is to put out a free version that and a for-pay version with additional features. This approach worked with me in the case of EditPad Pro. I'd used EditPad Lite for a year or two before I ran into a situation were I just needed a couple of the additional features. By that time, I'd used it so much that I really didn't mind paying for the "Pro" version. I almost felt like I owed them that much. Another approach used is to put out the software with a fairly long "free" period to get users hooked. WinRAR gives users 40 days before it "requires" users to pay for it. However, in WinRAR's case, it still works as before, but reminds you that you should pay for it.

The List

Beyond Compare 4  CSDiff is a good free file comparison tool, but Beyond Compare 4 is the tool for people that need to compare files and directories in a serious setting. It integrates with Windows Explorer for easy comparison and has incredibly flexible matching. It also can create a variety of reports for change reviews. The standard version is fine for most people, but I use the Pro version for its 3-way text merging and source control system integration.
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EditPad Pro - Text File Editor  EditPad Pro is the big brother of EditPad Lite. The "Pro" version adds to the very competant Lite version with some features that are pretty hard to do without once you get used to them. Some of these are mostly of use to programmers, but others would be useful to anyone that edits text files. One is the coloration of the files based on their extension (such as .htm or .html). The already good search and replace tools are beefed up with regular expression searching and named grouping replacement. Those who edit huge text files would appreciate EditPad Pro's ability to open files even larger than 2GB. JGSoft has a web page that outlines the differences between the two.

Thumbnail of EditPad Pro
WinRAR - Archive (ZIP and RAR) Tool  In my must-have free software section, I tout AlZip as a good free tool for handing ZIP files and it is. However, I occasionally run up against a file (especially those that are self-extracting .exe files) that steadfastly refuses to open properly in AlZip. WinRAR just opens them and life goes on. $29 US for a single copy. $21 USD for 2-9 copies and further discounts for more copies.
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