Last year I installed for review purposes, hundreds of utility programs and applications. In the last five years, the number must be in the thousands.
Almost all of these, after review, have been promptly uninstalled. Some were just dogs. Some worked fine but caused problems on my PC. Others were excellent but not as good as products I was already using.
The products that remain on my personal PC today are the survivors of a long Darwinian battle. They are the products that best suit my needs. When I buy a new PC these are the products I install.
Of course the products that suit my needs may not suit yours. For example I consider product reliability to be more important than an extensive feature set. You may think the opposite.
So please don't interpret this list either as a set of general recommendations or a list of the best products in their class. Rather it's a list of products that do it for me. It is my desert island software list and that list is unlikely to be the same as yours.
Some of the utilities and applications in this list also appear on the "Best-ever Freeware List" on this site but not all. That's because my list includes shareware and commercial products as well.
The Desert Island List
Anti-virus scanner: Avira AntiVir Personal Premium on most PCs but NOD32 on two older, slower machines where NOD32's lower resource usage is an advantage. On most independant tests AntiVir has higher detection rates than NOD32 but frankly, on my PCs the performance of both has been flawless.
Firewall: I used to use ZoneAlarm Pro but on two occassions it broke after installing new Windows updates so I decided it was time for a change. I now use the paid version of Online Armor Firewall on most machines and Comodo on others. I prefer the features and execution of Online Armor but both are outstanding performers. That said, neither are suitable for beginners.
Adware/scumware scanner: On my PCs that run AntiVir I no longer use any additional active protection against spyware as AntiVir has excellent spyware proection in addition to its outstanding virus detection. On the two PCs that run NOD32 I use I CounterSpy because of its good detection rates and low resource usage. I also run regular on-demand scans using the free SuperAntiSpyware program but rarely find anything.
Browser: Mozilla Firefox. Safer than IE and has a wealth of free extensions as well. These extensions transform Firefox from a good browser to a great browser. You do have to be careful though not to over-do the number of extensions otherwise you'll slow Firefox to a crawl. Here are the extensions I'm currently using:
AdBlock Plus Filters ads from web pages. Very effective, though some crafy flash ads still get through.
DownThemAll A pretty decent general download manager with the added ability to download everything on a webpage.
Forecastfox Flexibly displays the current weather and forecasts for any location worldwide
Google Tool Bar The most convenient way to search
IEView Opens the current web page in Internet Explorer; good for lame brain sites that only work with IE
McAfee SiteAdvisor. Reduces the chances of accidentally browsing to hostile sites.
Nightly Tester Tools Keeps your extensions working even after a Firefox version update
PDF Download Convenient way of deciding to view or download PDFs or convert to HTML
Reminderfox Never forget a birthday again
RoboForm Toolbar Integrates RoboForm password manager into Firefox
Session Manager Saves tab sessions on demand and optionally when Firefox closes.
StumbleUpon Great way to discover new web sites
Tab Mix Plus Much more control over how tabs work
Safe Browsing Environment: Whenever I need to browse high risk sites I do so within a protected environment so that I can't get infected. On my laptop I use SandBoxie and while it can cause problems on some PCs it works just fine on mine. On my test PCs I use VMWare WorkStation and must say its performance has been flawless; I've been infected many times but nothing has ever managed to leak through to infect my "real" PC.
Mail Client: I've used Outlook XP for years and never intended to upgrade to Outlook 2007 but instead swap to Thunderbird. But I did end up using Outlook 2007 and I'm loving it. People bag Outlook for being fat and slow and it is but frankly overall, it's the best email client I've used. The number of 3rd party add-ins is awesome and they provide great flexibility.
Windows Explorer Replacement: I used to use Directory Opus and it was excellent but since moving to Vista I've taken a different approach. Rather than run a third party file manager all the time with all the possible complications with Windows I now run a portable file manager which I use only when I need specific features not available from Windows Explorer. For this purpose I use the no-install version of XYPlorer. It's OK but at times I do miss the power and flexibility of Directory Opus.
Text File Management: TextPipe Pro. Offers the power of UNIX grep and awk in an convenient Windows environment. If your work involves text management then you are wasting your time if you don't use this tool. Very expensive but worth every cent. One of the few tools on my PC that I truly couldn't work without.
Spam Filter 1: Google Gmail. These days all my mail to firstname.lastname@example.org is redirected to my Google GMail account. I then pick this up using Outlook for local processing on my PC. The spam filtering is excellent with a vanishingly low rate of false positives. The detection of real spam is good but not as outstanding so that's why I use another filter on my local PC - see below.
Spam Filter 2: Cloudmark Desktop. I used to use Junk-Out, an excellent Bayesian statistical filter in the form of an Outlook add-in and but with my high mail volume I found it was too processor intensive. Cloudmark doesn't have quite the extraordinary spam detection rate of Junk-Out but it's easier on processor cycles and virtually never classifies my real mail as spam. As a bonus, it zaps phishing email. Between GMail and Cloudmark I rarely see more than a six spam emails a day which is pretty impressive given the wide distribution of my email address.
Clipboard Manager: KeyText. My clipboard management needs focus on easily creating and inserting text snippets. KeyText allows me to do this easier than any other product I've tried. Occasionally I need to collect clips from multiple documents and KeyText does that as well. A gem. Mind you if was choosing a product today I'd use Phrase Express. It's almost as good as KeyText and is free.
Download Manager: I used GetRight for years and loved it but in my recent move towards simplification I now rely on the Firefox extension DownThemAll. It's not quite as good as GetRight but it does 95% of what I want and that's fine by me
Registry Cleaner: I've been using JV16 for a couple of years but development seems to have slowed so I've switched to Registry Mechanic with excellent results though I don't like their annual licensing approach. It works without problems which is all you can ask.
File Zipper: For years I used WinZip as my primary zipper because of it's excellent integration with Windows with WinRar as my backup for archive types not handled by WinZip. However the latest version of WinRAR now has such good Windows integration I've now dropped WinZip.
Text Editor: EditPad Pro. It's a Notepad replacement, a full featured text editor and a pretty passable program editor as well. Does what it is asked with total reliability. There are probably better choices for individual jobs but this is a great all-rounder.
Disk Defragger: I used to use DiskKeeper but today I just use the freeware program JKDefrag. It's very effective, simple to use, doesn't need installing and is free, so why pay? If JKDefrag is too plain vanilla for you try JKDedrag GUI which adds a more friendly user interface.
Disk Partitioning: For years I have used Partition Magic It's slow and clunky but the most reliable product in its class and with this kind of product reliability is everything. However it doesn't work with Vista so I looked for alternatives. First I tried the open source GParted Live CD but it had Vista issues as well. Eventually I used Paragon Partition Manager and it worked fine but I haven't used it enough to feel comfortable with is long-term reliability.
Disk Imaging: True Image. Easier to use than any of its competitors, can be scheduled and does incremental and differential images. My favorite version was V8 as V9 onwards suffer from feature bloat. That said the latest version of TI has never failed me.
Data Backup: Genie Backup. I use True Image for my major backups but in between, Genie protects my critical files. The best home data backup program on the market.
File Search When searching for files or folders by name I use the wonderful free program called Everything. It's fast, and has tiny indexes that are created in seconds. It's a true wonder. For searching contents I normally use X1 Search. It indexes the contents of all the data files on your hard drive including email and allows you to find anything instantly regardless of where it is stored and in what format. It's speed and presentation of search results are the best available. I use the full commercial version. At the moment I'm using Windows Desktop Search on my Vista personal laptop and am truly hating it.
Search Bar: Google Tool Bar. Yahoo Search Bar has more features but I need the Google web page rank information that's only available in the Google Bar. Besides I prefer to search with Google not Yahoo.
PopUp Stopper: I use the stopper built into Mozilla FireFox. The performance is exemplary.
Ad Blocker: AdBlock Plus. A free FireFox extension that virtually eliminates all types of ads.
FTP Client: I've used FileZilla for years but since someone pointed out to me that it stores all my FTP passwords in easily-viewable plain text I've switched to the free CoreFTP LE. It provides similar functionality but with better security. I like it.
Digital Image Editor: Adobe Photoshop. It takes years to learn to use it properly but once you've mastered it there's no need to use anything else ever again.
BitTorrent Client: Vuze (AKA Azureus) A freeware product that is very full-featured though this comes at the cost of program size and speed. I also use uTorrent on another PC which continues to impress with it's speed and compact size. I use the older V1.6 though, which predates the sale of uTorrent to people I don't trust.
Screen Capture: I use the paid version of FastStone Screen Capture. It does everything you could ever want including capturing scrolling screens. It also has an excellent set of image annotation tools . A true gem.
HTML Editor DreamWeaver. Expensive but totally capable. For quickies I often use FrontPage 2003. People bag FrontPage but it's an excellent editor just as long as you don't us Microsoft's proprietary features. Since this site went to CMS I do hardly any html coding.
Registry Editor: Resplendent. Many times faster than Regedit, more full featured then Regedit but most importantly, totally reliable.
Web Log Analyzer: Weblog Expert. Amazingly fast and powerful for the price, well ... any price. Makes WebTrends look hideously expensive. In recent times I've been using the free Google Analytics webservice and found it to better than any standalone log analyzer.
Password Manager: RoboForm. Integrates seamlessly with FireFox to provide everything I want in a password manager. The fact that I can still access the same passwords from Internet Explorer is a bonus. There's a free version but you'll soon exceed the 10 passwords allowed.
File Re-namer: Lupas Rename Allows me to mass rename files with ease. I can't understand how a product this good can remain free.
Search and Replace Utility: The freeware program BK ReplaceEm. Awesome power and flexibility provided that is, you read the instructions. (No longer being developed.)
KVM Software I use two computers at the same but control both PCs and screens from the one keyboard and mouse by using the open source Synergy program that connects both PCs seamlessly using my network. I can even cut and paste from one PC to the other. Another gem.
CD/DVD Burner: Nero Needs a re-write as the current interface is a kludge. It works well enough but its main strength is that it's main competitor Easy CD Creator, is so flawed. I use V7.10 as later versions have become ever more bloated. That version works fine with Vista.
Well folks that's it for now.