Windows has more great programs than we can count, but some are essential to just about every PC setup. In this year's annual Lifehacker Pack for Windows, we're highlighting the must-have downloads for better productivity, communication, media management and more.
The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our favorite, essential applications for each of our favorite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our Windows App Directory.
The Ninite Pack
As always, we have the good folks at Ninite helping us out this year, creating a one-click installer for the Windows Lifehacker Pack. You can download the entire pack together, or just pick the apps you want, and Ninite will install them all at once, no bloatware or toolbars included — perfect for new Windows installations or setting up your friends with a good set of apps.
And, just like every 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. This year we've added a new app or two, removed some to keep the ever-growing pack lean, and moved a few downloads to the Extended Pack where they belong. (This is just a starting point — there are heaps of great Windows apps out there, even if they aren't essentials.)
Note: Unfortunately, the Ninite pack is missing a couple apps from the list — most notably CCleaner (which doesn't want to be in Ninite), Bins and Fences (both of which are paid apps). So don't forget to grab those ones manually after you've installed the rest of the pack with Ninite!
So, without further ado, here is the 2014 Lifehacker pack for Windows!
On the surface, Launchy is an utility that helps you launch programs super-fast, but it's really much, much more than that. Not only can you launch your favourite programs with just a few keystrokes, you can also open documents and folders, perform calculations, kill processes, search the web and perform any number of advanced tasks. It isn't the only application launcher on Windows, but it is our favourite.
ResophNotes and Evernote
Everyone needs a place to store little notes and clippings, but not everyone needs the same thing. So, for our note-taking portion of the pack, we give you two options: ResophNotes and Evernote. ResophNotes is about as simple as they come, syncing plain text notes through Simplenote or Dropbox and letting you get back to work. Evernote, on the other hand, is more of a filing cabinet for notes, web clippings and just about anything else you could possibly need. It may seem like overkill, but once you actually figure out how to use it, it can be indispensable for work and play.
Text expansion is one of the greatest improvements you can make to your productivity. Think of any tedious typing you do during the day — addresses, canned email responses, bits of code or anything else — and imagine being able to type it all with just a few keystrokes. That's what text expansion does, and it can save you hours of typing. PhraseExpress is the best free option on Windows, and while it has its problems, its our go-to for folks new to text expansion. Once you've gotten the hang of it, Breevy might be a worthy upgrade.
More to-do apps exist than we could even count, and which one you choose depends a lot on how you work best. If we had to pick a favourite, it would be Wunderlist. It's free, syncs to the cloud, and exists on just about any device you could want or have. Just start it up and start making your lists. It's incredibly simple to use, which is exactly what you want from a to-do list: make it easy to add and move tasks, so you can get back to actually doing them.
When Google Docs just isn't enough for your word processing needs, you need LibreOffice, the feature-packed, cross-platform, 100 per cent free office suite. When LibreOffice's word processor, spreadsheet tool and presentation creator don't cut it, Microsoft Office will undoubtedly fit the bill (albeit at a price). If you aren't sure which one you need, check out our comparison between the two. And if you just need to view Office documents, you can check out the Microsoft Office Viewers instead.
The first time you go to open a PDF on a new Windows machine, you may be greeted with that ever-familiar prompt to install Adobe Reader. Don't do it! Unless compatibility issues force you into using Adobe's reader, you'd be much happier with something fast, light and simple, like the awesome (and free) SumatraPDF. If you need to edit PDFs, check out our favourite PDF editor, PDF-XChange.
Internet and Communication
The browser wars aren't as close as they used to be, and most power users have switched over to Chrome these days. We can see why too: It's fast, smooth, syncs all your settings, and has an incredible extension library. It may not be quite as customisable as Firefox, but for the majority of people — even us power users — it's more than enough.
Whether you live and die by instant messaging or just need it for the occasional contact, having a desktop client is much easier than using the web. With an app like Pidgin, you can sign into multiple accounts at once (including Google Talk, AIM and Facebook Chat), carry on multiple conversations in one window, and do all sorts of other stuff with Pidgin's fantastic plugins.
Skype may not be our favourite video chat program, but it's definitely the most popular. Chances are you have at least one or two friends and family members that will want to use Skype with you, so it's a good program to have in your pocket, even if you don't use it as part of your regular telephony. Just make sure to disable the auto-start feature so it isn't always running.
Music, Photos and Video
Windows Media Player can play the most basic file formats, but when it comes to playing DVDs, files you've downloaded from the web and more, you'll need something that can do more. VLC plays every file format under the sun, and it does it well. It isn't our favourite video player — that honour goes to the amazing PotPlayer — but VLC is incredibly simple to download and use, so we're substituting PotPlayer for VLC in this Lifehacker pack. It's the app we'd recommend to just about anyone. If you want something more advanced, PotPlayer is a great alternative.
We don't usually feature media centre programs in our Lifehacker pack, since they're really designed for media centre devices, but Plex has one feature we absolutely love: it's the best program out there for streaming video to other devices, whether it's a home theatre PC, a Roku or your smartphone. Plex can stream across the room or across the country, whichever you need — so it's a great program to have on your PC.
Picasa may not be the ultimate professional photo editing and storing tool, but it's a fantastic app for keeping photos organised. It scans your photo folders and will automatically update your library if it detects anything new, ensuring it never misses anything. It also has great editing tools that are easy enough for even beginners to use, and it syncs with Google for cloud-based backup. Of course, if you aren't a fan of photo management apps, you could just skip Picasa and use Dropbox instead.
Unless you're a professional designer, you probably don't need something as advanced and complicated as Photoshop to edit the occasional images. For the rest of us, there's Paint.NET: a basic, free, easy-to-use image editor that fills the basic needs you'll encounter on a regular basis. If you want something a bit more advanced, check out GIMP.
Picking a music player is one of the more personal choices you can make when it comes to apps, so we recommend trying a few things and seeing what fits you. If you aren't sure what you want, we'd recommend MusicBee as a good place to start (replacing our former choice, Winamp). It's customisable, lightweight and easy to use — a hard combination to find. It has heaps of options to tweak the interface, install extra plugins and otherwise get everything working just so. If MusicBee isn't your cup of tea, check out the extended pack below for a few more options.
MusicBee might be our pick for music player, but we still recommend having a streaming music player on hand — even if it isn't your main player. Spotify is a great app to keep around. It helps you discover new artists, try them before you buy, listen to different streaming radio stations and create awesome collaborative playlists — among many other hidden features. Plus, it has some pretty cool plugins that make discovering music even easier.
These days, lots of us have more than just one device. Maybe it's a work computer and a home computer, or maybe it's three computers, a smartphone, a tablet and a time machine that runs Linux. Whatever your span of devices, Dropbox is absolutely essential for keeping all your files (and other stuff) in sync. You get 2GB of free space to start, but it's really easy to load up on extra space for free.
When you have to download a large file, BitTorrent is almost always a better alternative than a slow direct download. When it comes to Windows, uTorrent is still our tried-and-true BitTorrent app of choice. It's full of useful features, but it keeps itself lightweight and easy to use, a balance few programs can truly say they've struck. It has a few ads, but they're easy to disable.
Everyone needs a backup plan. There's no worse feeling than having your hard drive crash and having to start from scratch. Enter CrashPlan. While you could always back up to an external drive, that won't save you if you lose your computer in a fire, burglary or other disaster. CrashPlan backs your computer up to the cloud, using either CrashPlan's cloud service or a friend's computer, keeping your data safe no matter what. Plus, it's really easy to set up. Set it, forget it and relax.
Every computer needs a bit of maintenance every now and then to keep it running snappy, and CCleaner is our favourite tool to get all those tasks done. CCleaner cleans temporary files and cookies from your browser, temporary files and documents from Windows, cleans up junk from your other installed programs, and will even securely wipe your hard drive if need be. Set it to run on a schedule for truly automated cleaning.
When you uninstall a program with Windows' built-in tool, sometimes it leaves behind extra files or registry entries that it can't find. Revo fixes that problem: Not only does it uninstall every trace of the program in question, but you can also uninstall program via its "Hunter Mode" just by clicking on the program you want to get rid of. It's a must-have for any Windows user, especially those that like to try a lot of software.
Windows can create ZIP archives for you right out of the box, but when you stumble on a less familiar file format — like the much more efficient RAR or 7Z — you'll need an archive tool. 7-Zip is the tool you want, allowing you to not only create and open archives of other formats, but also encrypt them for safe keeping, all right from Windows' context menu. Chances are you'll need this one day, so you might as well install it now. It's perfect for compressing a bunch of files or sending sensitive information online.
No matter how careful you are, every computer should have a good antivirus program installed. If you pick the right one, it will be lightweight enough that you never notice it, but strong enough to pick up any infection that comes your way. For us, that balance is almost perfectly struck with Avast. It's free, light and fantastic at catching infections. It's replaced Microsoft Security Essentials as our favorite antivirus because MSE's virus detection skills have gone downhill. We were nervous about trying something else, but Avast is everything we could have hoped for — just make sure you disable its annoying sounds and popups.
The Extended Pack
So you've got the basic essentials that every computer should have, but there are other programs we've found ourselves installing time and time again whenever we boot up a new Windows installation. That's what the extended pack is for — they aren't essentials, but they're very useful apps that deserve to be part of your toolkit.
.NET, Silverlight and Java
.NET, Silverlight and Java are three frameworks that you might not always need right away, but you may somewhere down the line. If you know you're going to need them in the future, go ahead and download them right now. If you aren't sure, it won't hurt to hold off. Just make sure to disable Java in your browser.
Most of you probably don't use desktop email clients anymore, so we've removed this from the regular pack and put it down here with the extended pack. They may not be popular anymore, but desktop clients are still very useful -— they'll handle multiple accounts like a champ, give you offline access and provide a backup for when Gmail goes down. Thunderbird may have slowed development, but its great extension library and level of customisability make it a great choice of desktop client (not to mention its $0 price tag). If you're looking for something a bit more advanced, we love Postbox (which is based off Thunderbird) as a paid alternative.
Handbrake isn't a must-have for everyone, but it's very useful for anyone ripping, encoding or otherwise working with videos. Not only is it the perfect program for ripping a DVD to your computer, it can also convert big Blu-ray rips, encode videos for your favourite phone or tablet and more. Best of all, it's free and open source.
Bins is a great little app that combines multiple icons into one stack in the Windows taskbar. It's perfect for grouping together your music players, creating a stack of your less oft-used programs, and otherwise cleaning up your messy taskbar. It's $US5, and one of the Windows programs that's well worth paying for.
If you have more than a few icons on your desktop that are in a constant state of clutter, Fences is for you. Fences divides your desktop up into a few little groups, letting you place icons in each one individually — by category, file type or however else you want. You can even create fences based on folders on your PC, and swipe between multiple pages of icons. It's everything you need to create a clean, organised desktop and keep it that way. Fences is $US9.99, but you can get a free trial before you buy (or grab the old, free version of Fences).
iTunes, MediaMonkey and foobar2000
If MusicBee isn't for you, it's a good thing you have so many other choices. We've put a few other music players in the Extended Pack that should fit almost any needs. iTunes, while far from perfect, is ideal if you have any iOS devices to sync. MediaMonkey has a ton of advanced tagging, organising and syncing features, and can even sync to iOS with a bit of work. Foobar2000 is more customizable than anything else out there, and while it's a bit advanced, it can really become anything you want it to be. Try one of these and you're sure to be satisfied.
Whether you're a hardcore programmer, occasional web developer or just a mild tweaker, Notepad++ is miles beyond Windows' built-in notepad for editing code. It's lightweight, stores open documents in tabs, highlights syntax and has a lot of plugins for customising your experience. Even if you only edit the occasional INI file, Notepad++ will make you happy.
What can be said about our favorite little Windows utility that hasn't already been said before? AutoHotkey basically turns any action you can imagine into a keyboard shortcut. It requires a little bit of code, but even the most basic users can grasp it in an afternoon—and you can do anything from simple shortcuts to build full-fledged programs with AutoHotkey. Use it to add your own shortcuts to Windows Explorer, create a customised boss key, put your computer to sleep, and lots, lots more. If you haven't tried AutoHotkey yet, now is the time — you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.