Finding the right Windows app for your needs among the hoards of options can be tough. In our third annual Lifehacker Pack for Windows, we're highlighting the must-have apps for every occasion.
The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our must-have applications for each of our favourite platforms. If you're curious to see how things have changed this year, here's last year's Lifehacker Pack for Windows.
As always, we have the good folks at Ninite helping us out this year, creating a one-click installer for the 2012 Windows Lifehacker Pack. You can download the entire pack at once, or just pick the apps you want, and Ninite will install them all at once -- perfect for new Windows installations or setting up your friends with a good set of apps. And, just like last year, we have two packs for Windows: an Essentials pack that everyone should have, and an Extended pack, which includes some tools that more hardcore users will probably need around. Download the 2012 Lifehacker Pack Here
Looking for an app in a specific category? Use the links below to jump around.
The days of clicking on the start menu and flipping through programs are over. With Launchy, you can start apps with just a few keystrokes, not to mention open files, folders and websites. Launchy's plugin system makes it even more versatile, letting you perform nearly any action you can think of, from calculations to task management to searching the web. Once you start using it, you'll never be able to imagine life without it. Download Page
Windows' default Notepad app is OK, but it doesn't really offer you anything besides very, very basic text entry. If you're looking for something a little more advanced -- particularly if you're editing config files or other code -- you need something like Notepad++. It'll colour-code your text depending on what language its in, let you search through documents, edit multiple documents at once in tabs, and let you add pretty much any other feature through custom scripts and plugins. If you're editing anything beyond basic text -- and an office suite doesn't really fit your needs -- Notepad++ is essential. Download Page
If you haven't gotten on the text expansion bandwagon, now is the time. It can save you hours of typing every week, from filling out forms to sending long emails to avoiding Twitter spam. PhraseExpress is a pretty good, free option, though we recommend removing its built-in autocorrect features to make it a little easier to use. Download Page
We all have a bit of clutter on our hard drives, but it's impossible to keep everything organised on our own. That's where Belvedere comes in, an automatic file sorter written by our own Adam Pash. You can tell it where to put files based on how old they are, what extension they have and lots more. It'll do it all automatically, creating an organised, automated home folder for you. Check out our guide to automating your documents for more info on how to set it up. Download Page
Who wants to open Adobe Reader just to read a PDF file? No one, that's who. Uninstall that bloated program and grab SumatraPDF, a fast, lightweight and simple PDF reader perfect for those quick documents. It's even got a few keyboard shortcuts for you speed freaks. If you need more features from your PDF reader, though, you can check out the more advanced PDF-XChange. Download Page
Chrome is still our favourite browser around, due to its awesome extension library, mad syncing skills and simple UI. Not to mention that it keeps adding new features like prefetching, that loads previously visited pages almost instantaneously, and offline support for Google services like Gmail and Docs. It may not be the fastest browser around, but it's still our top pick. Download Page
Thunderbird may be done developing new features, but it's still a great mail client for those that need their inbox on their desktop. It's free, extensible, and supports nearly everything we'd want in a mail client. Even if you read your mail on the web, you should have a client like Thunderbird around for local backup, and for those rare occasions when Gmail goes down. If you want something even more feature-filled (and that's still updating), the Thunderbird-based Postbox is a great, cheap alternative. Download Page
For those of you that still make use of instant messaging, Pidgin is our favourite app to do the job. It lets you connect to lots of different IM services, including AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, MSN, Facebook Chat and more, all combined into one simple buddy list. Couple that with all of its awesome plugins, and you have an IM app that can do nearly anything you want, all for the low price of $0. If you don't like Pidgin, you might check out the more polished Trillian, or the social network-focused Digsby. Download Page
We know, we know, no one likes Flash. Sadly, it's still an essential part of the web, whether you're playing videos, using a webapp, or just getting around a simple website. So while it may run up your fans and crash your browser once in a while, it's still a necessity. You can also block unnecessary flash from running with FlashBlock for Chrome and Firefox. Download Page
Music, Photos and Video
VLC isn't our favourite video player for Windows, but it is one that everyone should have. It'll play nearly any video file you run into, not to mention DVDs, and it has lots of cool, advanced features -- like the ability to fix movies that get too loud. Even if you have another go-to video player, VLC is great for those times when everything else is acting up. That said, if you really want to dig into some advanced settings, we recommend checking out PotPlayer as well. Download Page
We all have photos to manage, and we love Picasa for making it simple to do. Just import your photo folders and it'll help you organise them, not to mention watch that folder and add new photos whenever you take them. It even has a few editing tools that are super easy to use so even the most novice photographers among us can make their pictures look a little better. Plus, you can upload them all to the cloud for easy sharing and backup. Download Page
Most of us don't need a full-fledged editor like Photoshop to tweak our images. Paint.NET is a great alternative, offering basic, easy-to-use image editing without coughing up hundreds of dollars. When all you need is a small crop here or a copy and paste there, Paint.NET fits the bill without any fuss. Download Page
Everyone has their own opinion about which music player is best, and it's impossible to pick one that's going to be right for everyone. However, if pushed, we'd pick Winamp, because it's easy to use, but with enough advanced features to satisfy even the geekiest of users. Chances are, Winamp will fit your needs just fine, so if you're on the hunt for a music organiser, it's a good place to start. If you have more specific desires, however, we've included a number of other music players in the Extended Pack below. Download Page
If you're looking to download some big files, BitTorrent is the way to go, and µTorrent is our favourite BitTorrent client for Windows. It's lightweight and easy to use, yet feature-filled, offering ways to share files directly with your friends, stream videos as you download them, and monitor your torrents from other devices. Just make sure you anonymise all your traffic to keep yourself safe from prying eyes. If you don't like BitTorrent, you could always give Usenet a shot too. Download Page
Few of us use only one computer nowadays -- most of us have a home computer, a work computer, maybe a laptop, and even a smartphone. Unfortunately, that means your files are scattered everywhere. Dropbox fixes this problem, syncing your files between all your computers and to the cloud for easy access no matter where you go (not to mention it's useful for a lot of other things too). You get 2GB to start, but you can get lots of extra space for free. Download Page
Everyone should back up their computer, and CrashPlan is the best tool around to make it happen. It can back up to an external drive, to the cloud, or even to remote computers. Just set it up once and forget it, and your data will be safe and sound even in a catastrophe like a fire or earthquake. Download Page
It's hard to stay on top of all your email, text messages and other important notifications that come through your devices all day long. Growl provides an easy way to consolidate all of those notifications into one unified, customisable place sto you can stay on top of everything without it interrupting you. Download the program below, then check out our guide to how to set it all up. Download Page
Windows requires a bit more maintenance than other OSes, but CCleaner makes it easy to do. It'll uninstall programs, clean up leftover files and cruft, and lots more. Get it, run it on a schedule, and enjoy your faster computer. Note: Unfortunately, Piriform has pulled CCleaner from the Ninite pack, so you'll have to download it manually using the link below. Download Page
Windows' built-in Add/Remove Programs is OK, but it isn't always the best at uninstalling your programs. Revo Uninstaller is a great tool that cleans up the extra files Windows misses. Not only that, but it'll even help you fix your startup items and uninstall programs you can't find with its Hunter Mode. It's a must-have for any software junkie. Download Page
Windows can create and read ZIP files, but when it comes to other archives -- like RAR, 7z and others -- you'll need another program. 7-Zip is our favourite archive manager -- it's super easy to use, but extremely powerful, especially when you use its incredibly efficient 7z archive type. It's also got some handy security features, which are great for sending sensitive info over the internet. Download Page
You don't need to go crazy in order to protect yourself from viruses. In fact, Microsoft's own security program is all you really need. It's lightweight, good at catching viruses, and couldn't be simpler to use. All you need to do is schedule a time for your regular scans and it'll keep you protected, without bogging down the rest of your machine like other antivirus programs. Download Page
The Extended Pack
While we recommend Chrome as your go-to browser, we're also pretty big fans of Firefox. It's more customisable than any other browser out there, not to mention it's making some serious strides in the realm of speed. Whether you want an alternative to Chrome or just a second browser for testing broken web pages, Firefox is a great choice. Download Page
You can do so much on the web today, but every once in a while you just need a true office program. LibreOffice is a great suite that's 100 per cent free, and it's pretty easy to use for your basic word processing, spreadsheet and presentation needs. Even if you don't need it regularly, it's nice to have around for those times you need a real word processor. Download Page
When it comes to more advanced office needs, LibreOffice doesn't usually cut it. In those cases, you'll have to whip out the tried and true Microsoft Office suite, which we've included in the Extended Pack. If you don't need to edit Microsoft Office documents, but you need to be able to read them -- without any formatting errors and other quirks -- the free Office Viewers will do the trick.
Unlike Flash, these frameworks aren't required right away. You probably won't notice until you run into a program that uses one, which is becoming a bit rarer and rarer. However, if you're setting up a new machine, you might as well download them all now so you have them, and don't have to deal with it later on.
Teracopy is one of those apps that you install once and forget its ever there -- but in a good way. Teracopy handles all your file copying and moving, and it does a much better job than Windows Explorer. Not only is it fast, but it can also pause and resume transfers, not to mention recover from any errors that happen. A must have for any Windows user. Download Page
It's not a program everyone will necessarily need, and it isn't as versatile as something like CDBurnerXP, but it's something that every geek will need to have at one point or another. Whether you're copying a DVD, burning a Linux live CD, or just installing a downloaded copy of Windows, ImgBurn is here to help you out. Download Page
Winamp is a great starting point for music players, but if you have specific needs, these players will help get the job done. iTunes, while awful, is a must-have for managing iOS devices, while MediaMonkey is great at organising large libraries and Foobar2000 is insanely customisable. If one of these doesn't tickle your fancy, check out all of the other awesome music players available for Windows. You're bound to find something you like.
Even if you like to keep your music on your hard drive, an app like Spotify is great to have around -- whether for its music discovery capabilities or the ability to create collaborative playlists with your friends. It's also great for testing out albums you aren't sure you want to buy yet. We've stuck it in the Extended Pack for you music junkies that are OK with having more than one player around. Download Page
AutoHotkey isn't a necessity by any means, but if you're willing to get your hands a little dirtier (digitally speaking), it's an incredible tool that can make your life so much better -- whether you want to turn any action into a keyboard shortcut or just give those unused keyboard keys a little love. It may sound scary at first, but it's incredibly easy to use, even if you aren't familiar with scripting languages, so give it a shot even if you're sceptical. You'll never go back. Download Page
Once again, to get the above programs, just head over to the Pack on Ninite and select the apps you want. It'll give them all to you in one, unified, hassle-free installer. If you're looking for more options, or just to see what's changed for 2012, check out last year's Lifehacker Pack for Windows.