Make Windows Better with Uncommon Free Apps

Posted on Category: Mods
Stained glass walls of Newcastle from the Industrial arts of the Nineteenth Century (1851-1853) by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt

As a dev-signer, UXer, and accessibility guy, I use a variety of OSes to test, work, and play. My work machine is a Mac. But my home machine is Windows 10 and the experience is… lacking. Here are some free apps (mostly) that have made life on Windows way better.

Set up

Easy set up is essential. Automate whatever you can.

  • Ninite: Choose your apps, download your installer and all updates get applied automatically.
    Pro-tip: Make a shortcut to this app, and put it in your Windows “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup” folder. Will keep those apps up-to-date on every boot-up.
  • Chocolatey: Choose and download whichever Windows apps you want, will also track updates (but not install them by default). Pretty much any app you could want is here. It is a bit slow.
  • CCleaner: Does some clean-up of your machine on boot

File support

Add support for what Windows doesn’t.

General improvements

These apps improve my workflow.

  • A clipboard manager is now natively built in. Press WINDOWS + V.
  • Windows PowerToys – Adds a launcher like Spotlight, native Color Picker, SVG & Markdown previews, on-the-fly image resizing, key remapping, and batch renaming.
  • Stardock Groupy (paid) – Adds tabs to Windows Explorer. Absolutely essential and pretty cheap
  • Barrier – Links my Mac and Windows mouse and keyboard together
  • Dropbox – Keeps my machines in sync
  • KeeWeb – Access to my passwords on all devices
  • Ear Trumpet – Volume control for the system AND each running app
  • WinAero Tweaker – Lots of improvements to default Windows preferences
  • BeefText – Still haven’t found a cross-platform text snippet expander that just works. This is a good one however.

Work applications

Outside the common design and code apps, here are some go-to applications I use on a regular basis.

  • FileOptimizer – Similar to ImageOptim on Mac
  • BlueStacks – Android emulator, can use my app store purchases on my Windows machine too!
  • NVDA – For testing accessibility
  • Lunacy – Rudimentary Sketch support, nice design app
  • Scanning is natively supported now

Visual improvements

I love the way these improve the look of Windows.

  • MacType – Ah. No more ClearType. Makes Windows feel so much nicer. I have yet to run into a compatibility issue yet.
  • WinDynamicDesktop – A clone of Mac’s Dynamic Dekstop. It’s not one-to-one, but its pretty close
  • TranslucentTb – Improve how the Taskbar renders. Its a nice subtle touch.
  • Desktop slideshows are now built in

Closing thoughts

Windows has some helpful tools and apps, but generally speaking it feels pretty out-of-date in comparison to Mac. I still have yet to find a passable font manager. Baking in more modern defaults from the list above could go a long way toward improving the Windows experience as a whole. But these apps sure do close that gap.

Addendum Jan 2021

Windows PowerToys is a beast, and is recently helping fill in the gaps of many cobbled apps I was using in the past. They just added an awesome color picker, batch rename, and image resizing. Feels like it should be part of Windows 10 out of the box!

My opinions & views expressed may not reflect my employer's.

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