I consider myself a Windows power user, having used this OS almost exclusively on all my PCs and laptops since I was a student with Windows 95, and now as a professional software developer on Windows 10. Over the years, I’ve found that I like my Windows experience a certain way, and I’ve installed a ton of different apps and utilities. As I prepare to replace the hard drive in my aging Dell XPS 1340 (2009) with a faster SSD (on which I plan to reinstall Windows 7, and maybe see if it can handle Windows 10 too), I’m reminded of a few programs that I’ve found indispensable and will be installing on the new disk right away. Sure, there are plenty of professional applications that are released by huge corporations and have equally massive, sprawling installations over your disk, but I’m most impressed with the little apps that are well-written and just work. So that’s what this list will focus on — tiny programs that just work. Here are my favourites, in no particular order!
Windows Shell Enhancements:
This is obsolete now, but when I think of tiny programs that did their job well, Taskbar Shuffle was the perfect example. Before Windows 7, there was no built-in function to re-arrange the items in your taskbar or system tray. I tried a ton of different programs which offered this function, but Taskbar Shuffle was the best (though I recall liking XNeat’s animation better). Every other program was either non-free or buggy in some way. Taskbar Shuffle was fast, functional, and free. Size: less than 1 MB!
I remember when I first got a Windows Vista laptop after years of using Windows XP, the thing that bothered me the most was the missing “up directory” button in Windows Explorer. Yes, Vista introduced “breadcrumbs” in the location bar, which you could click to jump to any of the parent folders in your path, as well as the Alt+Up Arrow keyboard shortcut, which was welcome. But the up button was so simple, easy to use, and always in the same place. Why remove a perfectly good button? It made no sense. Another complaint was the new Start menu. The type to search box was an excellent addition, but if you wanted to just browse the programs menu, it was awkward and hard to use. With Vista, the changes seemed like two steps forwards, one step back.
Enter Classic Shell. This free application is a Swiss army knife of Windows customizations. The original motivation of this application was to make new versions of Windows (e.g. Vista, 7, and 8) look and feel just like older versions of Windows (e.g. XP), hence the name “Classic Shell”. But it’s much more powerful than that.
Classic Shell gives you two major feature sets: Start Menu Settings, and Explorer Settings. The latter has an option for an Up button and it works perfectly! It’s even the right shade of blue! 😀 If you want, you can also customize the button’s graphic in each state (normal, pressed, hover, disabled), its position (before or after the back/forward buttons), and the size. And that’s just for the up button. This is the level of customization you can expect from Classic Shell for all of its features.
The Classic Start Menu settings allows you to skin the start menu to look completely different, or keep it exactly the same and only tweak one small setting, or anything in between. Do you like the Windows 7 start menu, but prefer a cascading Programs menu? I do, and this app lets me do exactly that. Do you want to change the size of the icons, the animation style/speed, or the way the search box works? You can do that too.
Best of all, this app is free, open source, and regularly updated. The version I have (3.1) is only a 6 MB download.
The first few days after reinstalling Windows 7 on my Dell XPS, I only had the generic mouse drivers installed. My touchpad worked, but I was without the gestures for scrolling. Every time I’d try to scroll a page and it didn’t work, it made me realize how useful this feature was. I did eventually get the right drivers installed, but it only gave me edge scrolling (albeit with the infinite circular gesture, which is ingenious and also very useful). I then found this tiny (< 1 MB) app that provides two-finger smooth scrolling that works perfectly! While the last official version 1.0.6 was released in 2009, another user took that source code and created version 1.0.9, adding inverted scrolling (like tablets) as well as a few other gestures (note: the 3-finger gestures didn’t work for me). Sadly, this user did not release the modified source code, however the app does work very well. Requires a touchpad made by Synaptics.
Update: This still works great with Windows 10, but occasionally a Windows update causes TwoFingerScroll to stop working with a “Class not registered” error when it starts up. If that happens, just follow these instructions to re-register it.
I recommend this app because it can read all the temperature sensors in your computer, and conveniently display it as a single, unobtrusive icon in the Windows system tray. I also love its ability to graph the temperatures over time, which combined with the CPU usage graphs provided by Windows Task Manager, is a great way to find out why your system is overheating, not performing well enough, or why your battery is draining.
Sadly, they still haven’t fixed the graph scaling bug with HD0, but it’s relatively minor. While this application certainly has the ability to control the speeds of your fans (hence the name “Speedfan”), that is perhaps the one feature that I don’t use :). I have been using this app for years (since Win XP for sure), and it’s compatible with a huge number of motherboard/CPU variations, and support for new ones is constantly being added. Size? A mere 2 MB.
If you’ve ever owned a Lenovo Thinkpad laptop, you’ve probably seen their battery widget that goes in the Windows taskbar (called the “Power Manager” toolbar). BatteryBar replicates this, but does it better and with more useful features.
How is BatteryBar better than Lenovo’s widget? First, you don’t need a Lenovo laptop and you don’t have to install Lenovo’s bloated software. Second, if you have the misfortune of clicking Lenovo’s widget, it launches Lenovo’s Power Management app, which is incredibly annoying because it puts up a splash screen during the 2-3 seconds it takes to load, after which you’ll have to waste more time closing it. This is a detriment to productivity and it can’t be disabled (unless you hide the entire toolbar). Clicking BatteryBar has the much more sane (and useful) behaviour of toggling the display between percent charge left and time left.
Third, Lenovo’s toolbar takes up too much space. When the computer is on battery, Lenovo’s toolbar takes just a few more horizontal pixels than BatteryBar to fit in its stylish “curve”. But when plugged in, Lenovo’s toolbar adds a “plug” graphic which takes up a whole icon’s worth of space! BatteryBar simply changes from green to blue to indicate when the laptop is on AC power. When you’re using a small laptop screen, every little bit matters. Together, these little nuisances mean that I almost always disable Lenovo’s toolbar out of frustration. But I’ve been using BatteryBar for months now and I’ve never felt any desire to remove it. In fact, I liked it enough that I bought the Pro version, which adds a battery profile graph and the ability to change power plans from the right-click menu. This was worth it because: (a) changing the power plan is how my Dell XPS switches from integrated to discrete graphics, and (b) I no longer need Windows’ systray battery icon for this purpose.
Download size: 1.2 MB. Cost: Free for Basic, $8 for Pro.
Great for figuring out where all your disk space has gone. A compact and clean UI; the shaded yellow background serving as a bar graph is genius. A close competitor to this is WinDirStat, but TreeSize just looks a bit nicer. There is a Pro version, but I don’t use it. Size: 6 MB.
A relatively hidden tool that comes with Windows, but does a surprisingly good job. A very useful feature is the ability to remove the install/backup files used by Windows Update. These are kept in case you ever need to rollback or uninstall an update, but in practice you will probably never use them, and you can recover a lot of free space this way. To access those files, you’ll need to hit the “Clean up system files” button which requires Administrator rights. Size: N/A (pre-installed with Windows 7).
Media Player Classic (MPC) is still my preferred media player after all these years. It’s a lightweight player that mimics the look and feel of Windows Media Player (WMP) 6.4 from 1999 — the last simple version before Microsoft made a complete monstrosity with WMP 7 and that horrible blue skin :P. Despite its minimal and simplistic UI, MPC:HC has a ton of features, including subtitle support, audio time-shifting, aspect ratio adjusting, custom hotkeys, video shaders, and lots more. The original author stopped working on MPC (last version was 184.108.40.206 — it even had the same numbering system as WMP 6.4), but the open source project was forked into Media Player Classic: Home Cinema. Size has grown recently — last MPC was 2 MB, while MPC:HC 1.6 was 6 MB in 2012, and the latest is now 13 MB.
This little plugin (<5 MB download) decodes a huge number of video formats. Just install it and any DirectShow-compatible media player (e.g. Media Player Classic) you have on your system will automatically be able to decode all the videos supported by ffdshow. Highly recommended instead of those other big “codec packs”, and you’re not bound to any one media player either. The original author stopped working on it years ago, but a fork from the original source code is maintained as ffdshow tryouts, though it hasn’t been updated since 2014.
To be honest, as media players have added more built-in support for codecs, I’m not so sure if ffdshow is needed any more.
Adds thumbnail support to Windows Explorer for media files that aren’t supported by default in Windows. For example, MKV (Matroska Video) and FLV (Flash Video) files don’t have thumbnails in a fresh install of Windows 7 SP1, but Icaros solves that. Size: 6 MB (version 2.3.0).
Software and Web Development Tools:
This is an open-source FTP client that has a very similar UI to the non-free BulletProof FTP, which was my favourite client back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The interface is just perfect; with the quick connect bar at the top and the side-by-side directory trees, it’s just really easy to use and looks really nice (as opposed to the poorly named “CuteFTP”). The transfer queue lets you look for other stuff while large files are uploading/downloading, and the log panel shows all the info you need if there’s ever a problem. It’s actively developed, and automatic updates are frequent and streamlined. Size: 6 MB.
Git has taken over as the preferred source control management system in the open source world (with Github playing no small part in that). Git Extensions is a really nice graphical interface for it. It has support for pretty much all of the power of Git, but lets you do it all with a click of the mouse. It’s a C#/.NET program, so developers on other platforms are mostly* out of luck, but it works fantastically on Windows (10). I use this daily at work. Download size: 9 MB – 36 MB depending on which installer.
*There are ways to make .NET programs work on Mac/Linux using Mono, but I’ve heard it’s crashy.
For a programmer, the command-line capabilities of Windows leaves a lot to be desired (and PowerShell is not so hot either). Having access to UNIX commands on any programmer’s machine is a must, and Cygwin provides that with a POSIX-compliant (or close to) environment and a huge collection of installable binaries, all which work just like they do on UNIX, with pipes, forward slashes, and all. I realized this is starting to leave the realm of “tiny” applications now (a full install of all the components can be huge, though the installer lets you pick and choose as many or as few applications as you need.), but it’s so vital that I couldn’t leave it out.
I’ll continue to update this list as I finish my install.