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6 Windows desktop utilities every software developer needs

6 Windows desktop utilities every software developer needs

Screen capture, image management, clipboard enhancements, and other handy tools to enhance a developer’s daily workflow

Credit: Dreamstime

Most software developers working on Windows have a pretty standard roster of tools: a code editor or IDE; Git or another version control system; a messaging client (whether Slack or one of its clones), and so on.

And with most developer workflows being online, the web browser has obviated many other tools we might normally install on the desktop.

But there are still a number of desktop apps that programmers can benefit from, whether for managing one’s day-to-day workflow or for creating content that is adjacent to the job of building software (like video walkthroughs or screencasts).

Here are six such tools that deserve a place on any developer’s desktop.

OBS Studio

OBS Studio is as close to an all-in-one solution for live video capture and streaming as you’re likely to get without having to pay for one. This open source application rivals many of its commercial counterparts in both polish and flexibility.

It supports capture from single windows, whole desktops, or fixed regions of the screen, on-the-fly switching between views, and overlays from various sources (still images, pre-captured movies, live video, etc.). And it provides equally flexible support for audio capture.

Every function in OBS Studio can be hooked to a custom hotkey, so you can fire up the program, minimise it, and control your recording without having to pop the program back open (although this does take some practice).

One minor omission: There’s no way to do interactive zooms on a field of the screen as you capture, such as by using some key combination and the mouse wheel. But given how much OBS Studio gives you for the price, it’s all but unbeatable.

Setting up a video capture session with OBS Studio. Multiple capture scenarios can be defined and switched between on the fly, so that you can move from a picture-in-picture with a webcam (as shown here) to a zoomed view of a specific window, for exampleCredit: IDG
Setting up a video capture session with OBS Studio. Multiple capture scenarios can be defined and switched between on the fly, so that you can move from a picture-in-picture with a webcam (as shown here) to a zoomed view of a specific window, for example

Ditto

The clipboard in Microsoft Windows has never been very versatile, in large part because it only stored one clipping at a time. Windows 10 recently added a “history” function to the clipboard, but it still isn’t as powerful as some of us would like (although the “sync clippings across devices” feature is nifty).

Ditto adds a massive amount of additional functionality to the Windows clipboard. Aside from storing as many clips as you want, you can type to search, save common clips for re-use, allow clips to expire after x days, and perform special paste functions like pasting only the plaintext version of a clip.

My favourite feature: If you copy an image, you can open Ditto, drag the image out of the clip list, drop it to a folder, and it’ll be saved there as a PNG file. Screenshots don’t get much easier than that.

Selecting a paste from the Ditto clipboard. You can type to search from all the available clips stored in Ditto. The tooltip shown here displays the full text of the clip in contextCredit: IDG
Selecting a paste from the Ditto clipboard. You can type to search from all the available clips stored in Ditto. The tooltip shown here displays the full text of the clip in context

Unichars

Another longtime Windows pain point is typing special characters—accents, math symbols, etc.—without using a special keyboard or some other contrivance. Unichars uses a powerful metaphor for typing special characters: the compose key (something Unix folks ought to be familiar with).

Strike the compose key—it’s typically one of the Alt keys, but you can reassign it—and you can combine one or more keystrokes in a single character.

For instance, if you compose “O” and a double quote ("), you get an O with an umlaut (Ö). You get live feedback from every keypress so you can figure out relatively quickly how to obtain characters, and some whole alphabets have easy prefixes: for example, use G and g for upper-case and lower-case Greek, respectively.

And finally, Unichars is completely customisable, so you can use key compositions either for your own characters or for entire boilerplate texts. The program itself has not been updated in some time, but it still runs reliably well on Windows 10.

Typing special characters with Unichars. Tooltips pop up as you type to indicate what keystrokes will generate what characters. The compose key (used to trigger a special character sequence) can be customised, as shown in the program’s main window at leftCredit: IDG
Typing special characters with Unichars. Tooltips pop up as you type to indicate what keystrokes will generate what characters. The compose key (used to trigger a special character sequence) can be customised, as shown in the program’s main window at left

KeePass

Word has it that passwords are slowly being phased out and replaced with more elegant ways to authenticate oneself, but we’re still a ways from the passwordless world.

Until then, a password manager will continue to make online life much, much easier, so why not pick a free one? After all, the open source project KeePass remains one of the most popular, widely supported, and broadly configurable password managers available.

KeePass works as a general encrypted repository for user secrets, not just passwords. Entries are versioned, so if you need to dig out an older version of a password, you can find it in your KeePass database history.

Plus, third-party developers have created a slew of useful add-ons—like a pronounceable password generator, or Windows Hello integration. But with or without add-ons, KeePass is enormously useful. For instance, entries can be configured to auto-type into a window with a given caption when a hotkey is pressed.

Multiple incarnations of KeePass exist. Some are for other operating systems, like KeePassX for Linux and MacOS; others are reincarnations, like KeePassXC, written in C++ instead of C#, or KeeWeb, an Electron app version. But the original KeePass remains a great draw for Windows users.

A KeePass password entry. KeePass gives you many methods of generating passwords to choose from, and shows you the strength of the password graphicallyCredit: IDG
A KeePass password entry. KeePass gives you many methods of generating passwords to choose from, and shows you the strength of the password graphically

Irfanview

If you do any work at all with images, you need at least one general-purpose image management and viewing tool—something more than a file explorer, but a whole lot less than Adobe Photoshop.

Irfanview strikes a fine balance. It loads fast enough to serve as an on-the-spot image previewer, but also packs in many other useful features without letting them get in the way.

Thumbnail browsing, mass image conversion, and quick-and-dirty editing are all here. There’s even support for some truly exotic image formats and extensions, like multi-page TIFFs, and a plug-in architecture for everything not included by default. Although Irfanview is not open source, it’s free to use, supported by the donations of thousands of users worldwide.

Viewing images with Irfanview. The thumbnail view at right can be opened from any image, allowing you to readily browse other images in the same folderCredit: IDG
Viewing images with Irfanview. The thumbnail view at right can be opened from any image, allowing you to readily browse other images in the same folder

WinDirStat

“Where did all my disk space go?” is the second most common question developers ask themselves (right after “Is there any more coffee?”). Subdirectories, and sub-sub-directories, can fill up with all kinds of digital litter—log files, temporary files, abandoned downloads, software never properly uninstalled, stale back-ups, you name it.

WinDirStat analyses storage space on a Microsoft Windows system and presents you with a convenient graphical overview of what’s taking up how much space.

The beauty of WinDirStat’s presentation is how you can see at a glance where the biggest and most outlying uses of space are, the better to single them out and reclaim them faster. Its own drawback is it can take minutes on end to scan a drive, but the wealth of insight you get back from the scan process is more than worth the wait.

WinDirStat analysis of a system drive. Each rectangular area represents a directory, giving you a fast at-a-glance view of which directories take up the most space. The highlighted area indicates the contents of the Recycle Bin, which hasn’t been emptied in some timeCredit: IDG
WinDirStat analysis of a system drive. Each rectangular area represents a directory, giving you a fast at-a-glance view of which directories take up the most space. The highlighted area indicates the contents of the Recycle Bin, which hasn’t been emptied in some time



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