Reinstalling Windows

When I landed my current job a year and a half ago or so, I was given a desktop machine to play with. A desktop machine with a whopping 512MB of memory. Although I was new and was somewhat reticent to rock the boat, it was 512MB so I had to say something; I just couldn’t develop with that kind of horse-, um, anemic-hamster-power. So I said something and within a day or so I had 2GB. Much better.

Feeling bold, I made another request. Because I like my work, I do a fair amount of it at home. A laptop would make that much easier. It took a little longer, but I eventually got that, too. At first blush, it was a nice one. A Dell Latitude D600 – the same model as my personal laptop at the time. I was pretty enthused. Then I booted it up and my enthusiasm waned. Turns out that we buy some kind of business machine that has a woefully underpowered graphics card. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a gamer and I wasn’t disappointed because I woudn’t be able to rock the frame rates necessary to support online first person shooter games. I was disappointed because the maximum resolution of my card was 1024×768. Oh yeah, you heard me. In the year 2007, I was getting a late model laptop that still only supported 1024×768 resolution. Max.

Since that time – about a year ago now – I’ve been begging, cajoling and greasing palms for something better. In addition to working from home, I’ve been traveling a decent amount, sans external monitor, of course, and at the risk of sounding like a whiner, that kind of resolution is intolerable for development purposes (arguably for any purpose). Yesterday our MIS department hooked me up. A shiny, new Dell Latitude D820 with 2GB of memory and a wide screen with a maximum resolution of 1680×1050. So, so much better. I’m a happy camper.

While I plan on dual booting back into Linux, I wanted to get the Windows partition at least to a point where it’s usable and, for me, that means utilities.

Since I get a lot of questions about what I use from folks who see me working, I thought I’d document the most indispensable utility applications I’ve found for Windows. Those little applications that do one thing (more or less) and do that thing vastly better than the default handler, assuming a default handler even exists.


Launchy My lifeline. Anything that keeps my hand off the mouse is, by its nature, good and Launchy keeps my hands off the mouse more than any other piece of software I can think of. After installing (and launching) Launchy, I immediately tweak the preferences to my liking by clicking on the gear icon in the upper right corner of the interface (alternatively, if no gear icon is present, right click somewhere near the upper right corner) and selecting Options. I usually tell Launchy to add the following directories to its catalog:

  • c:\Program Files and the *.exe files it contains.
  • c:\WINDOWS\system32 and the %(technical)*.cpl files it uses (this gives me access to the items in the Control Panel).
  • c:\Documents and Settings\myusername\My Documents. Sometimes I keep stuff there and it’s handy to have this kind of access to it.

I also ensure that the Weby plugin is checked. Weby won’t index Firefox 3 bookmarks automatically, but in a previous post I explained how to make it do so.

Did I mention that it’s free?


TaskSwitchXP If you’re fan of the Alt+Tab keystroke – and you should be – then this is for you. TaskSwitchXP puts Windows’ default task switcher to shame. It also adds the ability to minimize applications to the system tray by right clicking on the minimize button. This keeps those applications from cluttering up the taskbar. I use this feature all the time for those applications I keep open all day, but use only occasionally.

TaskSwitchXP…also free.


Ever tried to delete or move a file only to have Windows indicate that it’s in use? Annoying, right? Problem solved. Unlocker will present an interface that specifies what application has the file locked and offer the ability to unlock it and perform the action you requested in the first place.

Yep, Unlocker is free. Is there a pattern developing here?


KeePass KeePass is an open source password manager and it’s very good. There are ports for other platforms (Mac, Linux, mobile, etc.) and all use the same database format, so it’s a trivial thing to sync the same database across multiple systems and devices.

Being open source, KeePass is free, of course. It’s variants are also free.

Foxit Reader

I find Adobe’s Acrobat Reader to be one of the single most annoying pieces of software ever created. I love the PDF itself, but the software Adobe created to read it is absolutely abysmal. I spend more time waiting for it to load than I do actually reading the document. On top of that there are the upgrades and updates. The constant upgrades and updates. And then there’s all the crap that they like to sneak into their upgrade packages. No, I don’t need the latest toolbar of the month, thank you.

Foxit Software’s reader is just want the doctor ordered. Lightweight, fast and not even a little bit annoying. Oh yeah, and free. Brilliant.

Honorable Mentions

The following utilities may not make the first cut, but they’re definitely on the short list.


I don’t need it often, but when I do, there’s no better way to visualize how much space on a drive any given directory is taking up.



A great utility for reclaiming hard drive space. Free.


Hands down the best visual diff tool I’ve ever seen for the Windows platform. Certainly the best free diff tool. For those who write code or edit configuration files in a Windows environment, this is a must have. It even integrates nicely with TortoiseSVN for Subversion users who need to perform diffs against a repository.

This only gets honorable mention status because I rarely develop in Windows and, when I do, am usually in Eclipse which has it’s own visual diff tool that’s pretty solid.


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