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Six clicks: My favorite Windows desktop utilities

Who says the Windows desktop is dead? These are the six essential utilities I install on every new Windows PC, and they work with Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or even the Windows 10 Technical Preview.
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1 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

My favorite Windows desktop utilities (2014 edition)

If you're like me, you still do most of your work at a desktop PC running Windows.

These six utilities (most of them free) are essential add-ins that have made me more productive through the years. Several, in fact, are alumni from lists I published years ago. They're still fresh and useful today, and every program on this list is guaranteed to work with Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

Whenever I set up a new PC, these six small programs are the first I install.

See also:

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2 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

RoboForm: powerful password management

Info and download

If you aren't using a password manager, what's wrong with you? I consider a full-featured password manager an essential part of every modern desktop PC. You have several excellent choices, including LastPass and 1Password. My longtime favorite is RoboForm, which I've been using for more than a decade and which just gets better with age.

This utility hooks into your Windows browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox are all fully supported) and allows you to generate strong passwords, save credentials in individual files called “passcards” that can be encrypted, and then recall those credentials with a single mouse click when you revisit that site again and have to sign in again. You can also save personal and financial details (bank accounts, credit cards) and fill those in when needed.

The RoboForm Everywhere product is a subscription service ($10 for the first year, $20 a year after that). You can install the RoboForm add-in for free on as many supported devices as you like, with encrypted password files stored on RoboForm's servers and synced to any of your devices. Decryption is performed locally, using your password.

If the idea of storing your passwords in the cloud makes you uneasy, RoboForm is available as a standalone product ($30 per installation for a perpetual license), allowing you to store your own data and sync it with other devices using any method you prefer, including USB keys.

In a recent update, RoboForm added two-factor authentication, greatly reducing the risk of an outside attacker gaining access to your password stash.

See also:

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3 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

ClipMate: new power for the Windows Clipboard

Info and download

I included ClipMate on my list of "10 favorite Windows programs of all time" more than six years ago. I'm pleased to report that ClipMate still works perfectly with the latest versions of Windows and is still a must-have for me. The following description is from that original review and still applies today.

The idea behind ClipMate is simple: Anything you cut or copy to the Clipboard gets saved in the ClipMate database where it can be recalled any time. This makes it easy to perform on-the-fly backups. If you’re working in a web-based editor and you’re worried you might lose all your editing if you accidentally navigate away from the page, just press Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C. Now all your work is on the Clipboard and will stay there for at least a few weeks (you can configure the default sizes and mark some clips to be spared when others are purged).

ClipMate can also manipulate the contents of the Clipboard, changing formats or cleaning out unwanted cruft. Once you memorize a few keystrokes you can strip away almost any sort of formatting. Ctrl+Alt+B, for example, removes stray linebreaks from the current contents of the Clipboard, and Ctrl+Alt+T removes all non-text formats. Or you can use the Clean Up Text dialog box, which offers a few dozen more options.

The program does magic with multiple Clipboard entries, too. You can copy a bunch of scattered sections from a document, then select the entries in ClipMate Explorer and merge them into a single clip for pasting. Or use PowerPaste to copy a group of items, one by one, and then paste them into a target application in the same order. I use this feature to copy song titles from MP3 playlists and then paste them into a tag editor.

At $35, ClipMate’s price tag might scare some people off. But in my usage over the past decade I figure it’s paid for itself many, many times over. If you’re not convinced, check out the 30–day trial version, and if free is your only budget option then you can sign up for a free offer from a merchant through TrialPay.

See also:

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4 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Microsoft OneNote: now free and multi-platform

Info and download

I've been using OneNote nonstop since the day it was released, more than a decade ago. Today, my collection of OneNote notebooks is securely stored online, in OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, which means I can dig up any snippet of saved information using its powerful search box. And I can access those notebooks from a PC, a Mac, or any mobile device, thanks to the availability of OneNote on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

Some of the things I store in OneNote:

  • Serial numbers and installation instructions for software
  • Important email messages (Outlook includes a Send to OneNote button)
  • Interview notes
  • To-do lists
  • Travel details, including hotel and flight reservations
  • Snippets from web pages

Beginning last year, Microsoft made OneNote free on every platform, including the Windows desktop version, previously included only with paid versions of Microsoft Office.

Warning: OneNote is addictive.

See also:

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5 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

DoNotTrackMe: essential privacy protection

Info and download

As you browse the Web, you are being tracked. Your movements are being recorded and stored by analytics and advertising companies intent on building a profile of you.

If that thought makes you feel a bit queasy, do what I do and install the free DoNotTrackMe browser add-in from Abine. It's available for every popular browser on Windows and OS X, with matching mobile apps on iOS and Android. I have it installed on Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer, where it efficiently and effectively stops third-party websites in their tracks.

The basic utility is free, although Abine also offers some premium services (such as credit card and email masking) that require a subscription. Don't go on the web without it.

See also:

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6 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

VLC: a video powerhouse

Info and download

Beginning with Windows 8, Microsoft removed the files required to play back DVDs and any files encoded using the MPEG-2 standard from a standard Windows installation. Even if you're running Windows 7 or your hardware OEM installed a third-party video player, there are offbeat formats (like MKV) that won't play back properly.

You can mess around with codec packs, or you can just install the free, open-source VLC app and be done with it. VLC plays back just about any video format you throw at it, and it's well supported and regularly updated, with a sleek and customizable interface. (There's also a Windows Store version for use in Windows 8.1 and Windows 10.)

The software relies on a loophole in international patent laws to get around the licensing requirements for MPEG-2 and other software components. (For details, see "If VLC can ship a free DVD player, why can't Microsoft?") That makes it safe for installation on your personal PC, but think twice before making it part of your enterprise Windows images.

See also:

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7 of 7 Ed Bott/ZDNet

TeamViewer: no-fuss remote assistance

Info and download

Sooner or later, we all get a tech support call from a friend or relative. You can't ignore Mom or Uncle George, and you want to help. But there's nothing more frustrating than asking a technically unsophisticated user to describe what they're seeing on their screen. And trying to walk them through a complex configuration change can be a nightmare. Do you really want Mom to be opening Regedit?

Which is why I have TeamViewer installed on my desktop PC. When I get one of those support calls, I ask the person on the other end to go to TeamViewer.com and install the small client program. Then, with a quick exchange of secure login codes, I can view their screen and see the problem for myself. I can also edit the registry, remove or update a misbehaving program, or just explain how to accomplish a difficult task.

There are other remote-assistance programs, but I prefer TeamViewer for its simple configuration and straightforward operation. It's free for personal use.

See also:

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