What’s on your desktop?

Whether using Windows, Linux, or Mac, we all tend to customize our desktop and use our favorite tools. Have you ever been curious about what other people use? Ever wonder what life saver you’re missing that someone else uses daily? Well, here are a few tools that I use every day.

EDIT 2017: Originally published in 2008, I’ve crossed out some/most of what is no longer valid and replaced some names with what I currently use.

Thanks to Jeff Grant at Comparitech for noting that Windows Defender is no longer valid … and I haven’t used it in years. He referred me to a comparison of AntiVirus products on his company’s website.


My primary development system runs Windows XP 8.1 Pro You won’t get me to downgrade to Vista for at least another year. I use the TweakUI PowerToy from Microsoft to setup Windows XP with nice default settings. I also use the “Command Open Window Here” powertoy from the same page – it’s very convenient for opening a command window from any directory from Windows Explorer. (EDIT: I still open the command window from Explorer a lot, but now it’s built-in.)

As mentioned in the blog previously I use VMware to contain virtual environments for other development and testing. One of my virtuals has Windows 2003 Server Windows 10 which I use for testing web site development. My clients shouldn’t be deploying a website with XP so I need to test over Windows 2003 Server in order to make sure my code works in their target environment. I used to use Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 (now 2007) but VMware is much more comfortable for me. No, I probably won’t run Vista in a virtual environment either.

For Linux I tend to use CentOS but honestly I haven’t done much work lately that requires that i have a Linux box available here. At some point I’ll probably load a pre-configured VMware image with SuSE and Mono, and then load other tools that I like in there. For D3 I’ll need CentOS, so I guess I’ll need to do another full install in the near future. (EDIT: My interest in Mono was rewarded with C# and .NET eventually becoming a first-class citizen in Linux.)

We use Microsoft Office 2003 (Edit: 2010 now, yeah, still…) for most development and daily use. We don’t use Front Page / Publisher or even MS Access, but pretty much everything else. Why not go with Open Source tools? We’re comfortable with Office. I develop with Office. Despite all of the hullabaloo about FLOSS, I don’t know anyone else who uses OpenOffice on a daily basis. I don’t want to deal with the hassle of using one tool for email and document management but another tool that does exactly the same thing for development. YMMV

What about licenses? We had a MSDN Universal Subscription a couple years ago because I do a lot of Windows / .NET development. That subscription allows us to install Microsoft Office for development plus one for business use. My wife uses the business license and my license is constantly used for development (yes, and I need to do frequent backups). The subscription came with licenses for all Windows products, which we use within licensing terms, and all other development tools that Microsoft provides. When the Universal sub expired we went with the Microsoft Partner program as I was developing tools for sale. I didn’t have time to finish the tools I was developing under the Partner program so we dropped that. Now I need Windows 2008, Visual Studio 2008, and I need to continue development and testing with Office 2007, so at some point soon I’ll need to get a new subscription of some type. (EDIT: I’m still dedicated to MS Office 2010, and Visual Studio through 2017 and many other tools are now free, so no real changes there.)

Skype is great for free calls worldwide and most of my clients tend to get Skype after they’ve heard about it. I used to think there were security issues with it but those fears are gone and now I even use it as a development platform to create communications tools for voice and chat. Need to integrate voice with your software for inbound or outbound calls? Want to send a message to your system and get back information? Talk to me! We also pay for service to call to/from land lines. We use this to make international calls for about 2 cents per minute. (EDIT: I haven’t paid for a phone call in years. 🙂 ) Great value. What about other VOIP tools? I know there are a lot out there and I’m sure I’ll check out some of them for use and development, but for now Skype is the accepted standard.

For chat I also use Trillian. It has its flaws but it allows us to use a single app for MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, AIM, IRC, and others. I don’t chat a lot but since all of my clients use different chat services I’m glad I have one for all of them. I use the free version but I’ve heard the for-fee Pro version is worth the money.

For spam protection I use SpamPal. It was very popular when I started using it. But now it’s very old, and like a lot of freeware it’s not maintained because the one author became ill. They recently announced that a couple people are picking up development but unless I see some progress I need to switch to something else. It makes extensive use of regular expressions, and since I’m not a regexp guru I don’t update it with my own preferences.

(EDIT: In 2017 I am now quite adept with RegExp but between my paid email from Everyone.net and free Avast, spam is much less of an issue. I also rely on Sneakemail.com for anonymous email addresses for all websites, and all of that mail goes to Yahoo or Gmail. So I’m fairly isolated from most spam.)

For other anti-malware I also use the freeware AVG from Grisoft (yes, it’s still there). It helps to protect inbound and outbound email from viruses. I don’t know if the software is maintained but the definitions sure are, the software is stable, and it’s a popular mainstream tool – can’t go wrong here. I also use “Spybot Search and Destroy”. This is one of the first tools I put on someone’s system when they think they have viruses, along with Ad-Aware from LavaSoft. Our systems also run the Windows Defender utility – I find the combination of many tools to be reassuring. I’d rather not go for the Microsoft OneCare stuff. I use a lot of Microsoft products but their reputation with security doesn’t impress me.

For another type of protection I use HostsXpert and Homer from Funkytoad. (Yeah yeah, funky toad…) HostsXpert is a Hosts file manager and allows me to maintain a very large hosts file which prevents my browser and other apps from going to sites that I prefer to avoid. This completely isolates us from sites that collect cookie data, serve ads, host adult content, or serve up all kinds of malware. Homer is a tiny web server, so if there are images being served from one of those funky sites my localhost system gets the request and replaces the ad or image with whatever I want, like a simple white box. Homer lets me know when a page I trust linked to one of the sites that I don’t like.

(EDIT 2017: HostsXpert and Homer served me well but I haven’t felt a need to use them for a long time. I now use ad block plugins for Firefox, and combined with Avast I get the same protection/functionality without an extra tool.)

I use OneNote a lot, one of the Microsoft Office apps. Most people don’t really know what this is but I’m addicted to it. It allows us to keep lots of notes well categorized in folders, subfolders, sections, and pages. It’s just like a digital notebook. I know a lot of people still print out interesting web pages and forum postings but this is great for organizing online information like that. I copy/paste a lot of things that I find interesting – just in case some website should disappear someday or if I forget where I read some great tidbit. Honestly the first version in Office 2003 is a bit feature deficient but it does get the job done. There are many other tools out there like it, freeware and otherwise, and I’ll be taking a close look at OneNote in Office 2007. (EDIT: I still use OneNote through 2017 every day. It’s now available as a free installable, separate from MS Office.)

I use two monitors, one primary one and then I use the monitor of my laptop as a secondary. For this I use MaxiVista. I used to use Synergy freeware to allow me to use my one mouse and keyboard to control both my primary system and laptop. I went to a commercial offering to get that KVM feature plus allow me to extend my desktop to both screens. Once you get hooked on using two or more monitors it’s tough to go back to one. (EDIT 2017: I’ve said before, once you get two monitors you’ll never go back to one. I’m still using two monitors but my primary system is now a laptop and I no longer need extra software.)

A recent edition to my collection is PhraseExpress which monitors keyboard entry and allows unique keystrokes to be expanded into phrases. It’s like macro expansion where typing “xyz” turns into “The XYZ Company”. It’s very convenient but doesn’t quite work in all apps or all the time. It also launches applications and web pages, and can execute programs – but this interaction with other programs is a bit limited IMO. PhraseExpress is written by the same people as MaxiVista. (EDIT 2017: I’m still addicted to PhraseExpress.)

I use FileZilla for FTP transfers. I’ve been through a lot of these programs and this one is absolutely the best for many reasons – most of all it’s stable and doesn’t fail with large volumes of data or with flaky servers. (EDIT 2017: I’m still addicted to FileZilla.)

Related to files, we also use WinRAR as a compression alternative to something like WinZip, and automating the archiving of data. I’ve written a backup system around this but I never seem to get it to the point where I’m completely happy with it – I’ve tried a lot of backup tools and I find all of them lacking for one reason or another. (EDIT 2017: I now use FreeFileSync for comparing files from my system to a 4TB external HD. I never did get my own tools to do exactly what I wanted but this is adequately close.)

To search for files, every system I install gets Agent Ransack. It completely blows away searches with the default Windows search. Is it the best on the planet? I dunno but I haven’t found much need for anything beyond the freeware version of this tool. Then again, FileLocator Pro is the for-fee competitive offering, and the feature comparison list is quite compelling. Again, YMMV. (EDIT 2017: I’m still addicted to Agent Ransack. I also put it on client systems but there now is a non-Pro version of FileLocator, which is Agent Ransack, just more appropriately named for commercial acceptance.)

My systems start out very fast after a fresh Windows installation (which I need to do about once per year), but they quickly get to a point where they start operating very slowly. Boot, program execution, and shutdown all start to drag. I know this is largely due to the registry size increasing as I install and uninstall programs, and as I do my own testing with dozens of versions of the same programs. I’m terrified of anything that can touch my registry but I need to do something. So on one of my systems I’ve started to use the Eusing Free Registry Cleaner. The more I use it the happier I am – but I’m still terrified of using it on a primary system. It seems to find a lot of junk that I’m happy to delete. (EDIT 2017: Microsoft has never fixed this “bit rot” issue. These days I still do cleanup of registry and files with WinPatrol and Avast.)

Another cause of system degradation is disk fragmentation. Again, I’m terrified of defragging because the hard drive is key to everything we do, and there are horror stories about issues during defrag that completely trash systems. The Windows defrag is considered generally stable but even “generally” isn’t good enough for me. So again on a test system I’ve been using AusLogics Disk Defrag, and again I’ve been very pleased with it so far. For registry cleaning and defragging there are a ton of tools out there. I’ve been looking around for years and so far, for free, these are the best I’ve found yet. For fee there are many alternatives, but I really don’t want to spend a lot of money to find out which one of those is best either. AusLogics also has something called BoostSpeed which is their for-fee offering for improving performance. I might give that a shot – I really need to improve performance in these systems because a complete reinstallation takes days to get through completely. (EDIT 2017: This is another constant issue but I’ve accepted the stability of the built-in Windows defrag … with a prior backup.)

I have a problem organizing webpage favorites/bookmarks so I’ve been using NetVisualize Favorites Organizer. It doesn’t look like it’s maintained anymore so I think I’ll stick with the limited free version than the more featureful for-fee version. It identifies dead links, allows us to put comments on links, finds links quickly, displays a thumbnail of pages for a link, shows which links get re-directed to other pages – and yes, much much more. (EDIT 15-mar: I’ve had exchanges with the author, and like all of us he’s just been busy but plans to get back to the software when he can.) (EDIT 2017: I’m less intense about bookmarks these days. The built-in manager in Firefox is adequate and I keep telling myself I’ll use Pocket and Diigo more.)

For creating PDF’s I’ve been quite happy with PDFCreator. It works great and it’s FLOSS too – can’t beat that. We have it setup as a network printer and use it to convert invoices and other documents from Word and Excel to PDF. (EDIT 2017: Office has PDF generation built-in so this PDFCreator isn’t key tool for us anymore, but it would be my go-to app if I need the functionality. For commercial, high-end solutions, I integrate with PrintWizard.)

For reading newsgroups, I don’t go directly to google groups. I use the Forté FreeAgent newsreader application for “real” usenet, and I only have Google Groups email postings to their proprietary forums. Call me a luddite but I prefer to separate usenet from the rest of the threaded discussion world. (EDIT 2017: IMO, usenet is dead, Google Groups is the current standard. But this changes over the years with tools like Reddit and Discourse.)

For keeping track of projects and tasks I use the ToDoList. This is really good stuff because it helps to organize tasks by priority, category, status, due date, and other factors. It tracks estimated time and actual time and accumulates totals up from tasks to provide project-level numbers. I’ve recently integrated a new tool with this called the Work Break Timer. (EDIT 2017: WBT is a dead project.) This tool was created to help people work better by scheduling work activity with break time. While I use it more for tracking minute by minute work activity, it’s helping me to work “better” too. To keep better track of project progress (an area where I do need some work), I’m starting to export ToDoList schedules into GanttProject. (Note, GanttProject.org got cybersquatted – don’t bother to ever go there.) This tool generates Gantt charts so that we can visually see where all projects are and when they’re expected to be done. That is of course only useful if we actually put all projects in there and give them reasonable estimates and schedules.

In that area too, and while this isn’t a desktop app, sorry, we keep track of bugs and enhancements for products using Mantis. It’s a common webserver-based OSS package. I’ve tried other desktop apps for this, and Mantis does need some work, but for what we need to do Mantis does the job well. (EDIT 2017: I’ve tried Bugzilla and other apps but none of them are robust and highly configurable. For GitHub the issue tracker there is adequate. BitBucket is another good alternative for both public and private projects.)

Everyone has some editor that they like. I used to use Context an before that there was something else. These days I use PSPad. (EDIT 2017: NotePad++.) It has all of the editing tools and toys that people expect – and more. Unlike Crimson and Context, it’s well maintained. If this one goes the way others have into the death throes common to many FLOSS projects, then I’m sure I’ll be able to find something else easily. I’ve been through a bunch of them. For now, I use and recommend PSPad.

Want to see what processes are running and consuming resources? Check out pslist and a ton of other great utilities which used to be from SysInternals, but the author and software moved to Microsoft

For Outlook I wrote my own macros to remove excessive headers from Outlook email. I published a helpful macro that cleans up Outlook email subjects (yes, I eat my own dogfood). I have a macro to find duplicate emails, another to extract attachments to a defined folder to keep my PST file smaller, another to do the braindead task of telling me how many items I’ve selected in a folder. I have another that I use to put mail from specific people into specific folders based on data in their contacts record. Sure, you can find macros like this on the ‘net but do they do ‘exactly’ what you want? Mine do simply when I click a button in the toolbar. In this case the mantra holds true – if you want a job done right do it yourself. (EDIT 2017: I wrote a much more sophisticated email filtering add-in for Outlook but never finished or published it. I’m dumb like that.)

Again, I think most people have their own personal toolkit. I put all the stuff I like into a directory and when I install a new system I install all of this stuff right with it. If you use a real gotta-have-it killer utility, let us know in a comment below!

(Edited 15-mar-2008 with update about NetVisualize)
(Edited 12-jun-2008 – I realized the title was mis-spelled, changed “deskop” to “desktop” – duh…)
(Edited 2017 – It was fun to re-visit the topic.I have a lot more tools but not much inclination to blog about them at the moment.)

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