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
Once again, we have the awesome 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 unnecessary ones to keep the ever-growing pack lean, and included links to more Lifehacker guides on getting the most out of each app. (And, of course, this is just a starting point -- there are tons 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 (because they don’t want their software 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 2016 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 favorite programs with just a few keystrokes, but you can also open documents and folders, perform calculations, kill processes, search the web, and perform any number of advanced tasks (like start an SSH session). You might need to create some special shortcuts for "Modern UI" apps in Windows 10, but it's still our favorite.
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. Simplenote’s native Windows app is now available, but ResophNotes is still our pick, letting you sync plain text notes through Simplenote or Dropbox so you can 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.
The same can be said for Microsoft’s OneNote, which goes toe-to-toe with Evernote in most features. And OneNote has become especially appealing for Windows users after Evernote bumped up the prices of their paid plans and added more limitations to free users. Fortunately, you can swap over all of your Evernote notes in a snap if you feel like making the switch. OneNote is not included the Ninite one-click installer, so make sure you grab it at the link above if that’s the route you want to go.
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 though, 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 favorite, though, it would be Wunderlist. It’s free, syncs to the cloud, and exists on just about any device you could want or have. And there’s now a plugin for Microsoft Outlook that makes it easier to share to-do lists, turn email into actionable to-dos, and set reminders based on emails and requests in your inbox. 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% 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, and it may use a lot of RAM, 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 (like Google Talk, AIM, and Facebook Messenger), 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 honor 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. Plus, it can do a lot more than just watch video files, which makes it a good app to have around no matter what.
Our previous pick for easy-to-use photo storage and editing was Picasa, but Google has retired the service to make way for the new and improved Google Photos. Google Photos uploads all of your photos from all of your devices for free, organizes all of your photos for you, and makes it easier than ever to share your photos with friends and family.
The Desktop Uploader just makes it easier to automatically back up all of the photos on your desktop, cameras, and other devices. Of course, if you aren’t a fan of photo management apps, you could just skip this 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. We’re also including the slightly more advanced but still free GIMP, since its such a staple in any casual image editor’s arsenal.
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 customizable, lightweight, and easy to use—a hard combination to find. It has tons 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, music isn't the only think you can listen to on Spotify. There are audiobooks, radio dramas, language lessons, famous speeches, poetry and even guided meditation.
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 2 GB 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 keeps itself lightweight and easy to use, a balance few programs can truly say they’ve struck. It’s got a few ads, but they’re easy to disable. Once you’ve got it set up, make sure it’s optimized for speed and privacy.
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.
F.lux is a genius little app that sits in your system tray and change the color temperature of your monitor based on the time of day. As the sun sets, it gives your screen a slightly orange tint so you aren’t taking in all that blue light that can disrupt your sleep and cause eyestrain. And research suggests that reducing your exposure to blue light at night will help you sleep better. It’s a little off-putting at first, but trust us: give it a week and you’ll never be able to go back.
Every computer needs a bit of maintenance now and then, and CCleaner is the perfect way to free up hard drive space if yours is getting a little full. 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. You can read more about how to use it effectively here.
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’ll be lightweight enough that you never notice it, but strong enough to pick up any infection that comes your way.Our previous pick, Avast!, has been scoring lower in antivirus testing according to both AV Comparatives and AV-Test than in previous years, so Avira is our new go-to for free antivirus on Windows. Avira was the top free option in both the AV Comparatives and AV-Test tests, and it’s easily one of the best options in terms of usability.
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 (like if you’re a Netflix user, which requires Silverlight), 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.
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.
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 favorite phone or tablet, and more. Best of all, it’s 100% 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 $5, 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. And now Fences supports high DPI displays and is totally compatible with Windows 10. 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 here).
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 customisable 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 ton 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.