Your turn: Readers choose their 10 favorite Windows programs

Two weeks ago, I published a list of my 10 favorite Windows programs of all time. The response was overwhelming and refreshingly enthusiastic. I had a lot of fun following the give and take in the Talkback section, as commenters offered their recommendations and suggestions and opinions. Collectively, you offered an extraordinary number of alternatives – so many good suggestions, in fact, that I’ve gathered the best from that thread and turned them into this follow-up Top 10 list. What do the readers of this blog consider their favorite Windows programs? Read on to find out.

Two weeks ago, I published a list of my 10 favorite Windows programs of all time.

ReadersÂ’ favorite Windows programs
The response was overwhelming and refreshingly enthusiastic. As the title made clear, that list reflected my personal preferences; I certainly don’t expect all my choices to be essential for every Windows user. In fact, I had a lot of fun following the give and take in the Talkback section, as commenters offered their recommendations and suggestions and opinions. I also got feedback via e-mail and through pingbacks from other bloggers. Collectively, you offered an extraordinary number of alternatives – so many good suggestions, in fact, that I’ve gathered the best from that thread and turned them into this follow-up list.

I’m familiar with most of the programs on this list, but I found a few that were pleasant surprises. I’m convinced you will too. One thing I found interesting was that readers were far more likely to recommend commercial programs instead of focusing on freebies. My original list was weighted in favor of free software; you’re clearly willing to pay for programs that get the job done.

 Image Gallery: I've created a gallery of screen shots from these 10 readers' favorite Windows programs.  
Gallery: Readers' 10 favorite Windows programs
Gallery: Readers' 10 favorite Windows programs

All told, the list of products mentioned or recommended probably numbered more than 100. I winnowed it down and then looked at each one to make sure it did what it promised to do. They all run on Windows XP and Vista, at a minimum (and most run on more Windows versions than that). If I didn’t pick your suggestion for this list, it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, only that I ran out of room!

So, without further ado, I present your list of 10 favorite Windows programs.

Microsoft Office OneNote 2007

Even people who hate Office love OneNote. In fact, the word love kept reappearing in the recommendations for this hard-to-describe program.


This full-featured free program has been in more or less continuous development for as long as I can remember. If you’re a fanatic about graphics, you won’t regret using it.


If you’re a programmer or the kind of old-school webmaster who believes the best HTML is made by hand, this Notepad replacement is for you.


There are free alternatives for dealing with compressed files, but this one is on a lot of favorite lists, and deservedly so.


Do you find yourself doing the same things over and over at work? Would you like to take the tedium out of those repetitive tasks? If so, this versatile utility might be right for you.


There are dozens of two– and three-pane alternatives to Windows Explorer, most of which make you feel like it’s 1993. This slick file manager is a welcome exception to that rule.

Quick Macros

If you’ve got a little programming knowledge, you’ll probably figure out all sorts of fun things to do with this Windows automation tool. But it’s easy enough that a self-proclaimed non-techie recommended it.

Belarc Advisor

What’s in your PC? What software is installed? What are the serial numbers of your motherboard and RAM chips? This free utility can answer those questions and many, many more.


Free PC-to-PC calls worldwide, and cheap calls to mobile phones and land lines. There’s gotta be a catch, right? I don’t think so. This excellent personal communication tool is a favorite of podcasters.

Windows Live Writer

The amount of love for Microsoft in the blogosphere can probably be measured in thimblefuls. So it says a lot that every blogger I know (including me) raves about this excellent tool.

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Microsoft Office OneNote 2007

Info / Download Price: $100 (list); $85 retail, $60 Home and Student (street); included with Office 2007 Home and Student, $149 (list), $120 (street System requirements: Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista OneNote screen shot

On my original list, this was #11. I left it off that list primarily because of the price, which is significantly higher than the rest of my Top 10. But without my even mentioning it, OneNote earned a half-dozen recommendations in the Talkback section of the original list. Here’s a sampling of the comments:

  • byronldowell: “OneNote is a must have for anyone that deals with notes and free form information.”
  • beneaton4: “ I love it!… it's a relatively elegant program that a lot of people will have, but not use.”
  • brittonv: “I Loved OneNote as much as I hate the rest of office. I loved it so much I went out and bought MS Home and Student edition Office for my home computer. I was standing in line in disbelief that I was actually going to buy a MS Office package!”
  • Steven4138: “Well worth triple the price … If you work on a bunch of different projects, YOU MUST HAVE OneNote.”

And I will agree with every word in those reviews. This is my primary information gathering utility, an infinitely expandable reporters notebook that handles text, graphics, and handwriting with aplomb. I can highlight a block of text on a web page, hit the Copy to OneNote button in IE7, and it’s on its own page with a link to the source. The full-text search is amazing. And you have to see the real-time syncing to appreciate it. Two people can work on the same page (or you can work on a page from two different computers) and every little change is reflected almost instantly on the remote machine. As a result, the notebooks on my Tablet PC and those on my desktop machine are always in sync, without my having to think about it.


Info / Download Price: Free for personal use, 10 Euro donation requested System requirements: Windows 95 or later IrfanView screen shot

Back in the day, I used this program all the time. It was the only decent way to view the PCX files my then-publisher insisted I use for screen shots. These days, I simply don’t need it. Between Windows Explorer and SnagIt, I have a way to view and edit and copy and transform just about any graphic file I want. But if you like the idea of a single utility that does just about everything with just about any image or media file, then you’ll love this free program.

Beejaybee, who apparently runs a PC repair shop, makes sure that IrfanView is installed on every machine that comes in for service, “as a kindness to [the] customer.” Wolfsoul added this more substantial endorsement:

I don't know how many of you work with pictures and graphics, but I have been using IrfanView for many years. It's a great graphics viewer/editor/converter and has many plug-ins as well. I've used other programs to do what it does but they are usually either more complicated than I'd like them to be or lack the set of simple features it has. I hope IrfanView never goes away, I love it.


Info / Download Price: $33 System requirements: For version 5, Windows 2000 SP4, Windows Server 2003, Windows XP or Vista (32– and 64–bit) TextPad screen shot

Who needs a kick-ass text editor? Programmers and old-school webmasters who believe that real men code HTML by hand. Back before WordPress, I did my share of badly crafter HTML with the help of an excellent editor called NoteTab, which is still around and going strong. (Made me nostalgic to visit the product page.)

These days the real need is for programmer-friendly editors that have a little more oomph than Emacs. The one on this list was recommended by rtbolgeo, who says TextPad “handles HUGE (and I mean Huge) text files without a hiccup. A great editor for scriptors who look at VB, CMD, or other scripts.”

Of all the programs I looked at for this post, this is the one that has done the best job of adapting to the Windows Vista visual styles.

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Info / Download Price: $29 System requirements: Windows 95 or later WinRAR screen shot

I gave up on WinZip a couple years ago, when the product was absorbed into Corel. It was about that time that I discovered WinRAR. I only need it about four times a year, but it sure comes in handy on those occasions. (If I didn’t already own a license for WinRAR, I would seriously consider 7–zip, which has the advantage of being free, even if its interface is a little unpolished and wonky. Or the more obscure IZArc, which gets mad props from people I respect.)

Anyway, several e-mailers made a point to ask why I didn’t include this one. It’s a good addition to this list.


Info / Download Price: $50 (personal license for use on any number of computers) System requirements: Windows 95 or later ActiveWords screen shot

My buddy Buzz Bruggeman has evangelized this program to me for a couple years now. I’ve tried it several times and got some good benefit out of it, but never turned into a devotee. Guess I’m about due to try it again, after reading this recommendation from prdtwin, who calls it “the number 1 most valuable application” on his (or her) PC:

I consider [ActiveWords] the brain and control center of every PC I own. I use it to navigate my PC more efficiently and consider it my secret weapon at work because it allows me to create an interactive/automated knowledge base of re-usable content. … [I]f a customer emails me asking a specific question about the warranty of a product, all I have to do is type the word "Warranty" followed by 2 key strokes, and Active Words automatically pastes in the detailed warranty information into my email message. I literally have hundreds of words I've assigned to various categories that help me quickly and efficiently answer customers, partners & co-workers on anything from product specs, support questions, pricing, you name it. It saves a ton of time and guarantees the accuracy of my email responses on very important business issues.

I guess I also have a soft spot in my heart for this program because it was a favorite of my late and deeply missed friend Marc Orchant, who called it “magic.”


Info / Download Price: Lite version free for home/academic use; Pro version $30 System requirements: Windows 95 or later Xplorer2 screen shot

Years ago – oh, hell, eons ago, I was a diehard Norton Commander fan, and later I used a variety of two-pane file management shells. I gave up on those back before the turn of the century. But other people sure do love the idea. So Cal Guy says it’s “great,” pjustice57 uses it every day and says it “should be #1 on the list,” and deve calls it “totally amazing” and says the free version is “plenty powerful.”

I installed it here and was favorably impressed at first glance. Just flipping through the menus turned up useful commands that sync directories, shred files for extra security, and create folder groups that can be reused. It does multiple tabs in each of ts two panes, and I appreciate the keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+Q) that toggles the preview pane. I wish the new Windows Explorer in Windows Vista had a shortcut like that.

Quick Macros

Info / Download Price: $40 System requirements: Windows 98 or later Quick Macros screen shot

Man, I can think of a million ways I might use this tool. Of course, I remember having that reaction when I first heard about this product many years ago. After looking it over, I think most people will have one of two reactions: “Wow, that’s powerful!” Or “Wow, that’s complicated!”

Commenter bobsterz69 offers this effusive review:

I've been using this for years. It keeps getting better. All the other macro programs I tried seemed to have fatal limitations (though I admit that was about five years ago). Quick Macros seems limitless, and the author and users respond with code you can use to create complex macros when you have a question. I am not a techie, so I've barely tapped into what it can do, but it saves me a lot of time.

I’m definitely going to keep this installed and see if I can find some uses for it.

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Belarc Advisor

Info / Download Price: Free for personal use; corporate and government use prohibited System requirements: Windows 95 or later Belarc Advisor screen shot

For a free utility, this really is an amazing piece of software. You install and run it, and it probes your system to build a complete profile of hardware, software, OS components, and updates on a Windows PC. It saves its findings as an HTML page and displays the results in a browser window.

Be careful, though, when sharing information gathered by this utility! It captures product IDs (for Windows and Office, among others) that you might not want to show the world. And if you think no one would be that stupid, well, think again.


Info / Download Price: Free; some phone calls require payment System requirements: Windows 2000, XP, or Vista Skype screen shot

Reader danielarbib threw this one onto an alternative top 10 list he constructed in the Talkback section. (He also included several security programs and the PerfectDisk defragmenter.) Skype is an incredibly useful took, and I really should use it more. In the past year, I’ve mostly used it to do interviews and the occasional international call, and my one run-in with customer service was so bad that I hesitate to sign up for an account. But it sure is easy to use.

I’m curious: How many Skype users are reading this? Any fans out there?

Windows Live Writer

Info / Download Price: Free System requirements: Windows XP SP2 or later, or Windows Vista Windows Live Writer screen shot

This free utility was one of the first to come out of Microsoft’s Windows Live division. Within a half-hour of my original post, I had three e-mails in my inbox asking why I didn’t include Windows Live Writer. Duly noted. It’s an excellent all-around editor and blog manager that works with most popular publishing platforms. It handles images better than any other editor I've seen on any platform, and it has an extensible architecture that third-party developers have already used to create some cool plug-ins. I love the fact that you can create drafts and save them locally instead of trusting in web-based editors, where a post can disappear with one stray keystroke.

It should come as no surprise the Writer was excellent from day one. The team that developed it for Microsoft is led by J. J. Allaire, founder of Allaire Corp., which developed ColdFusion and HomeSite (my very first website editor). After selling Allaire Corp. to Macromedia, he founded Onfolio, which delivered the first version of what had the potential to be a great web-clipping application but then was purchased by Microsoft and has languished in an untouched beta since 2006. Oh well. I only wish I knew what this team was working on next.


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