The Virtual Toolbox
As work changes, the tools to do that work change too. Here are the tools that I find (or have found) invaluable. All are highly recommended.
Many are available for free download while others require a registration fee. Nonetheless, in an age of ripoff software companies who charge exorbitant fees, these are the software packages that you won't be upset paying for.
Adobe Reader (Adobe)
Acrobat is the global standard for portable documents and isn't likely to be replaced any time soon. This is what you need to read .pdf files. The full (and highly expensive) version of the software includes plugins to create .pdfs from MS Office documents and web pages in Internet Explorer.
AlbumWrap Extractor (Infamus)
Downloading music through peer to peer software may work OK for individual tracks but it sucks for albums. If you can even find all the tracks on one particular album, they're likely to be of different volumes and different bitrates. One solution is to search for 'albumwrap' in the P2P app of your choice and download what is somewhat akin to a zip file. You can play the album as one file or extract the individual mp3s with this tool.
Arles Image Web Page Creator (Digital Dutch)
This is the easiest and quickest way I've found to create online photo galleries. Simply point the software at a directory of images and it'll resize them, set up web pages for each, create index pages with thumbnails and a navigation system. It's not perfect but it's quick and it's efficient.
Audio Catalyst (Xing)
I used this software to rip my CDs into mp3 format for years. Now I use a plugin for Windows Media Player called mp3 XPack but that only works under Windows XP. If you use an earlier version of Windows, Audio Catalyst is still the recommended solution. It can be set to rip automatically when you insert a disc and it can also update your metadata through CDDB.
BBC Ticker (BBC)
I have no clue if this constantly updated news ticker is still available or whether it's an outdated concept in an era of RSS feeds. All I can say is that I used this a few years ago and it did its job seamlessly.
If you need something more than the command line ftp inherent to Windows, this is it. FTP was never the flashiest technology but CuteFTP does its job so well you almost don't even notice it. The only downside is also an upside. GlobalSCAPE tends to pay a lot of attention to how many times you register your software online. As an IT engineer I reinstall operating systems reasonably often and end up having to contact GlobalSCAPE to reenable my software because they think I'm pirating it.
The very last word in audio format conversion. There are plugins for almost every audio format imaginable, including lossless formats like Shorten and FLAC. It integrates into the Windows shell so you can just right click on a bunch of files and choose to convert. It also has the best support I've ever experienced for any software, let alone free software. I'm rarely this impressed.
eBook Reader (Adobe)
Adobe's e-book reading software works far smoother than the kludgy Microsoft Reader on desktops. The audio reader is fun too, though inconsequential to me. I prefer Spacejock Software's yBook but this will work fine for you too.
Folding@Home (Stanford University)
Make your PC useful and fold proteins in your unused processor time. There are a number of distributed applications that use these unused CPU cycles to further the common good. I used to run SETI@Home, which is still highly worthy of your attention, but my current distributed app of choice is this one.
Font Lister (Peter Theill)
I searched for years before finding a font management utility to do everything I needed it to do. I still use it often even in these days of word processors and DTP packages that show the names of each installed font in its own actual font. Its main talent is to compare multiple fonts, installed and uninstalled, using the text of your choice. Make sure you use the Explorer Tree though, which is bizarrely not on by default.
GeT Global Time (IMRG)
I have a feeling this software isn't available any more, given that it was a rare example of the UK government doing something very right. I used it while still living in England to keep track of the time in six different time zones at once, as well as to automatically synchronise my network to the correct time.
Whenever I work on a machine with only dialup access to the net, I end up having problems with downloads. They take forever and I have to start all over again when someone rings up and the connection gets bounced. This is my choice of the various different software packages to keep track of downloads and restart them where they left off.
This is not a cheap product. However it is a wonderful collection of network management tools all thrown together in one package. You can manage users, servers, shares, sessions, processes, or whatever you like, on any machine in the enterprise - all from one piece of software.
Microsoft may not want you to be able to do this properly, but here's how to efficiently remove Internet Explorer. Last I checked it only worked on older versions of Windows but maybe it'll only be time before 98Lite provide us with the same tool for later versions too.
Kazaa Lite (?)
After Napster died and many moved to Kazaa, I switched to Morpheus. When this second generation of P2P apps ceased to be worthwhile I moved to this version of Kazaa with all the spyware stripped out. The whole concept of peer to peer software has changed immensely since the old days, and my needs don't require this sort of software much. If you do have need of finding a particular music track though, this may do the job.
You may question why a text only internet browser should even exist in the 21st century, but it's great for browsing web sites with too much graphic content, especially on a slow web connection. I never did swamp my sites with graphics, but ever since 1998 when I started designing, I've gradually grown more and more minimalistic in my tastes. This personal site of mine is designed to be entirely functional in Lynx.
Nero Burning ROM (Ahead)
Most of the data burning world is split between those who use Nero, those who use Adaptec and those who have no clue whatsoever. To me, if you want to backup disk images or data onto CDs or DVDs, especially using esoteric formats, Nero is both the most versatile and the most robust solution.
Newsgroups are great not just for following discussions but for downloading files (known in the newsgroup world as binaries). The catch is that large binaries tend to get split between many different newsgroup postings and you need software to put all the pieces back together again. That's where NewsShark comes in. NewsShark can download all the binaries in a list of newsgroups and reconstitute them into files for you. Just point it at the list and go about your day. When you get back you'll have files.
I do a huge amount of work in Notepad, which is so fast and efficient because it deliberately has no features whatsoever. However I do like a very small amount of features, such as decent word wrapping, multiple windows and the ability to switch between real fonts and raw text at the click of a button. If Notepad has too few features and WordPad has too many, try Notepad+ which may be the best Notepad replacement on the market.
As a web developer I work with many browsers but this is by far my favourite. Most of the great innovations that get credited to Firefox actually came from Opera and they continue to innovate steadily, while keeping their browser small and manageable. Beyond the standards that IE still hasn't caught up with, such as popup blocking, tabs, mouse gestures and the like, Opera has the F9 button to quickly enable or disable types of content and many others. I used Opera even when I had to pay for it. Now it's free you have no excuse left to avoid it. Firefox may have all the buzz, but Opera is a far better browser.
Paint Shop Pro (JASC)
OK, PhotoShop is nigh on impossible to compete with at a high level but Paint Shop Pro is cheap, flexible and quick to learn. I've used it for years doing photo manipulation, web graphic design and avatar creation. If you can afford both the purchase cost and the time to invest in attacking the learning curve, buy PhotoShop; if not buy Paint Shop Pro.
I prefer other software by far to the kludgy experience of reading e-books on PCs in Microsoft Reader, especially as each version seems to get worse and worse. However I still believe that it's the smoothest e-book software for PocketPCs.
This attempt to analyse large amounts of radio data from space in search of extra-terrestrial intelligence was my previous distributed application of choice. While I now run Folding@Home, this project is still a highly worthwhile one to be part of.
This isn't the complete compression solution, but it's the closest I've ever found to it. If you want more than the ability to just zip and unzip files, then this may well be what you need. I find that it handles compressed files on a grand scale very efficiently indeed.
Sygate Home Network (Sygate)
Far better than Microsoft's ICS, especially the early versions before Windows XP, this is a means to
share a single internet connection securely throughout your network. It also has many more in depth features.
TClockEx (Dale Nurden)
Windows XP does a good job of providing date as well as time in the Taskbar. However I still use Windows 2000 a lot and that really doesn't. The fix is to use this enhancement for the standard Windows Taskbar clock and customise to whatever degree you like.
Teleport Pro (Tennyson Maxwell)
I keep finding new applications for this powerful web retrieval tool: offline browsing, file retrieval, site duplication, you name it. I'm especially enjoying it while temporarily stuck with a 28k AOL dialup connection, as I can download a site overnight and use it locally as reference.
Tree Size Pro (JAM)
Wondering where all your hard drive space has disappeared to? This software that turns hard drive usage into coloured pie charts is how to find out. It also works on remote machines across a network.
Other media players like Sonique, or even Windows Media Player, may be more customisable and pretty, but I've used Winamp since 1998 and I've not had any reason to switch to anything else. Version 5 is a slick and versatile media player with a small footprint.
WinRAR (Eugene Roshal)
This may not be the only archival/compression utility with integrated recovery volumes so that even if you're missing part of the archive it can be regenerated, but it's the only one I know about. Think RAID for compressed files. It's almost a required addition to anyone using NewsShark.
The standard file compression format that it's pretty hard to live without. At least until Windows XP came along and integrated much of it into the operating system.
Xtractor Plus (Harmony Hollow)
This is yet another compression tool but it extracts data from large batches of compressed files in various formats very well indeed.
More than just an e-book reader, this is a fully fledged paperback emulator. It has become my favourite package for reading e-books on a PC. It works with raw text files and formats them in a very readable way, and is nicely customisable.
Zone Alarm (Zone Labs)
In an era when firewall technology has become a requirement for home users, especially those on a broadband connection, this is a free general purpose firewall package that works.
ACDSee, Maxthon, VirtuaWin, RealAlternative, QuickTimeAlternative, Codec Packs, xPack, MS AntiSpyware