Giving thanks: Top 9 Windows utilities

It's the time of year to pay homage to all the things in life we appreciate. This week, I'm taking the opportunity to give thanks for my favorite software with a list of my top 9 Windows utilities.

Writing up a list of items for which I'm thankful is such a cliche at this time of year...that I can't pass up the opportunity to add my own contribution to the Thanksgiving fray. I have very little need for 3D turkey screensavers, but luckily, there are a few more valuable applications listed on CNET Download.com upon which I can bestow appropriate tribute.

In honor of Thanksgiving week, I've decided to serve up a heaping helpful of my nine "most useful" Windows utilities on the Download.com site. Now, notice that I didn't use the word "favorite" or "best." These are simply the nine PC utilities from which I get the most mileage. Your list may of course vary, and if it is, please be sure to tell me about your own "most useful" Windows utilities in the comments.

With little further ado, read on for the list of my most useful Windows utilities. For a better look at each of the applications in the list, be sure to check out this related Download.com gallery.

9. Audacity

Audacity

Audacity

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Imagine: The custom mix you created as a soundtrack for the thundrous entrance of your clogging group is nearly perfect. If only your instrumental version of "Here Comes the Hotstepper" were a minute shorter and faded out near the end to the sounds of a Michael Bufferesque exhortation proclaiming, "Let's get ready to clog!"

While the above scenario might be slightly far fetched, many of us often need to edit audio, whether it's clipping a soundbite from your boss' recent speech or removing the vocals from your favorite rock track so that you can create a karaoke video for YouTube. Audacity is a free, full-fledged audio editor for Windows, Mac, and Linux distros. It takes a bit of practice to become an effective audio editor, but a well-design interface that focuses on the most common editing tasks will have you cutting, mixing, and dubbing in no time.

8. Paint.NET

Paint.NET

Paint.NET

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Quick! Resize those pictures of Halloween at Aunt Dottie's to upload to your photo-sharing site before you leave for Thanksgiving vacation. Oh, and reduce the file size so that each is under 100K. And while you're at it, fix the red-eye in some of the pictures of Mom. Of course, Photoshop is an excellent program for all of those basic image-editing tasks, but it's overkill in many cases. Paint.NET will provide 99% of the editing features most amateur photographers need, use a lot less system resources, and less your wallet much heavier.

The only downside is that the freeware app requires the most recent version of Microsoft's .NET framework. .NET is also free (and even included in the Paint.NET installation), but it has proved to be a minor hassle for some users.

7. OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org Calc

OpenOffice.org Calc

(Credit: CNET Networks)

At Download.com, we pay a lot of attention to OpenOffice.org, and with good reason. For starters, it's an essential tool for anyone who wants to be able to edit .DOC, .XLS, and .PPT files without a copy of Microsoft Office.

That's almost enough to merit inclusion on a "most useful" list, but the addition of a powerful personal-database app and a drawing application for creating graphics and diagrams make the suite quite an impressive package. Personally, I love the ability to quick create shortcut keys for frequent actions that don't have them by default.

6. Pidgin

Pidgin

Pidgin

(Credit: CNET Networks)

The battle of the multiservice instant-messaging clients is far from over. The popular app Trillian is currently king of the hill for Windows on Download.com, and the online client meebo is impressive too. Right now, however, I prefer the open-source program Pidgin, formerly known as Gaim.

There's not a huge difference in functionality--all three of the mentioned multiservice clients work well. However, Pidgin's open platform makes it very easy for third-party developers to provide plug-ins. Based on the limted amount of valuable plug-ins created so far, it's not a huge advantage for Pidgin. If Mozilla Firefox is any example, though, the Pidgin developer community will contribute to some interesting advances for the app. Several features in Trillian that aren't available in Pidgin by default--docking buddies or transparent interface, for example--can be accomplished via plug-ins.

As with Paint.NET, there is a slight barrier of a required install. Since Pidgin is cross-platform, it runs on Windows using the GTK+ environment, which is included in the Windows installation. The installation will also inform you if you need to update GTK+, and then complete the update for you, if desired.

5. VLC Media Player

VLC Media Player

VLC Media Player

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Remember those days when you had to add a new codecs nearly every time you downloaded a video because of the vast array of file formats available? In some cases, you even had to download a separate application just to watch a specific movie file. We certainly haven't settled on one dominant Web video file format, but we do have more applications that can play them all.

My favorite for a while has been VLC Media Player, a smallish program that doesn't look like much at first glance, but includes all of the playback options you need hidden under its surface.

4. FileZilla

FileZilla

FileZilla

(Credit: CNET Networks)

FTP clients seem so 20th century, but I'm willing to bet that most of us need one from time to time, whether we're updating our Web site or downloading a file from a company of friend. One of the most frequent searches we get at Download.com is for "free ftp," so it's not only me.

There are oodles of free FTP clients to choose from, and I'm always willing to listen to recommendations, but the choice is simple for me. FileZilla incorporates an intuitive design with all of the features that I need from an FTP client, most importantly simultaneous file transfers. Simple view buttons at the top show and hide treelists for local and remote directories, the transfer queue, and the message log. A very useful "Quick Connect" bar at the top of the interface lets you connect to another site without even accessing the options.

3. WinPatrol

WinPatrol

WinPatrol

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Of all the possible security software on Download.com, WinPatrol may seem to be an unusual choice at first. After all, it doesn't directly do a whole lot to protect your computer from attacks. What it does provide is a comprehensive information about many facets of your system that are intimately tied to the security of your PC.

For Internet Explorer users, WinPatrol's detection and restriction of browser-helper objects can help stave off the results of an ill-fated click on the Web. The Startup Programs list has proven invaluable to me. Aside from teaching me that QuickTime will try to get in every time I update iTunes, it also provides alerts whenever any new or existing apps try to shove their way into my Windows startup.

There are several security apps that could have made the list (HijackThis is another essential tool that springs to mind). However, for sheer amount of overall application use with minimal time spent customizing, upgrading, or tweaking, WinPatrol earns my commendation.

2. Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox

(Credit: CNET Networks)

It might seems a little unfair to include Mozilla Firefox in a list of the most useful "utilities," but I'm taking a very broad sense of the classifying term. In many ways, Firefox is the ultimate Web utility, opening up the vast majority of content on the Internet to your personal desktop. The browser wars are far from over--Internet Explorer 7, Opera 9, and Avant Browser all have their own positive and negative qualities--and Firefox is certainly running slower and using more resources in its default configuration than ever before.

For now, however, Firefox is still cream of the crop, primarily because of the open environment for developing third-party extensions and themes and the impressive collection of plug-ins that have already been developed. Also, the configuration options are all transparent and customizable. Don't like the Go button? Kill it by opening "about:config" into the address bar, and changing the browser.urlbar.hideGoButton setting to true. Firefox is your own personalized browsing experience; ambitious users can fine-tune it to their hearts' content.

1. Process Explorer

Process Explorer

Process Explorer

(Credit: CNET Networks)

It's certainly not the sexiest of Windows utilities to put at the top of my heap, but it's downright essential for any Windows user who installs and runs a variety of software, i.e. everyone who has read this far. Process Explorer was created by Sysinternals--a software company eventually purchased by Microsoft itself--with a variety of other valuable system tools for filling the diagnostic gaps in Windows.

Very simply, Process Explorer displays all of the running processes on your Windows system, along with a variety of data around those processes, including memory use, CPU share, window status, and directory path. And that's only in the top window. An optional second pane displays either all of the handles related to any selected process, or the relevant DLLs or memory-mapped files. You can also search for any specific problematic handle or DLL and find the related process.

A little running graph in your system taskbar can provide a helpful display of your resource usage, and it's easy to lower the priority of any specific process that might be sucking up all of your CPU. Once you swap in Process Explorer for your standard Windows Task Manager that's accessible from Ctrl-Alt-Delete, you'll likely never go back.

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