If you read my recent article Boot Camp Installation Tips, you know that I currently have a dual-boot OS X and Windows XP Intel Mac setup. I generally blog in my Mac realm but I was a full-time Windows user for over a decade, so I will discuss some of the applications I have loaded on my new XP installation. Feel free to leave a comment at the end if I am missing some application you can't live without.
The MCE Theme - XP Energy Blue 2
I was ecstatic when Microsoft released the theme that their Media Center Edition version of Windows uses, XP Energy Blue 2, as I can't stand the default Windows XP theme. It features a slicker menubar with a seemingly Web 2.0 dual-color glare effect as well as a slightly retooled color scheme for Explorer. It makes the task of computing in Windows much more tolerable.
Adobe Acrobat Enterprise Edition
Everyone knows that the standard version of Adobe Acrobat is pretty much bloatware. It takes a long time to load when opening a PDF and can cause your system to feel like it's 10 years old. Adobe realized that not everyone fully utilized the extraneous features of Acrobat so they released a lightweight version with the Enterprise Edition suffix. You can download the Enterprise Edition here. Alternatively, you can ditch Adobe's offerings all together and opt for Foxit Software's Foxit Reader. It promises to be a small and fast PDF viewer.
Not everyone can justify spending several hundred dollars on a professional image editing application such as Adobe Photoshop when all they want to do is occasionally crop something. There are two free alternatives: the GNU Image Manipulation Program and Paint.NET. If you are familiar with Microsoft Paint, you shouldn't have much of a problem becoming familiar with Paint.NET's interface. It is based upon the .NET architecture to provide for a more robust image editing experience. Some Paint.NET highlights include layer support and an unlimited history.
For those pursuing a more feature-rich application, GIMP is the way to go. The only downside to GIMP is that the menu system is nothing like Photoshop or Paint, so it definitely takes some getting used to. GIMP has a nifty feature for taking screenshots which can come in handy.
The capabilities of GIMP are up there with the current Photoshop, although slightly less. However, GIMP is open-source and free making it a massive bargain compared to Photoshop. If you just can't get anything done in GIMP due to the foreign menus, Scott Moschella has taken the GIMP source code, made the menus more Photoshop-user friendly and released it as GIMPShop. Download GIMPShop for XP.
This probably goes without saying but Mozilla Firefox should be your browser of choice. Follow this guide to get the most out of your Firefox browser. Mozilla Thunderbird makes a great email client and Open Office is a fantastic open-source productivity suite.
As far as simple text editors go, the standard Notepad leaves much to be desired. Some great and free solutions include Notepad 2 and the spiffy Notepad ++. Both offer basic amenities such as line numbering and colored text. Notepad ++ is slightly more advanced with tabs, syntax highlighting and auto-completion. Either of these are fantastic upgrades for those that dabble in HTML all the way to advanced coders that want a simple and lightweight editor. Alternatively, if you like to do a lot of HTML and web coding, the Nvu web authoring suite is for you.
Spyware Removers/System Performance
Since we are talking about Windows here, you will need some form of protection and defense against spyware. I have already dedicated a guide to this. Some of the more mainstream spyware removers include AdAware, Spybot Search & Destroy and Microsoft AntiSpyware. CCleaner also helps speed up your system by getting rid of superfluous crap as they put it.
The standard defragmenter gets the job done, but it is bereft of features and uncanny. I prefer Power Defragmenter (freeware) or the full-scale Diskeeper application. Power Defragmenter provides a GUI for the Sysinternals defragmentation engine allowing for faster defrags, higher efficiency and increased ease of use.
After you have cleaned up your hard drive, start focusing on running applications and system resource hogs with Sysinternals' Process Explorer. This application provides you with extensive information that the Task Manager can't - The unique capabilities of Process Explorer make it useful for tracking down DLL-version problems or handle leaks, and provide insight into the way Windows and applications work.
Now it's time to benchmark your computer to see if your tweaks have done anything. The SiSoft Sandra benchmarking suite is a great way to track system performance and compare it with other computers. Futuremark's PCMark and 3DMark series of benchmarking applications are slowly becoming the industry standard. AquaMark used to be a great GPU-intensive benchmarking application, and still is, but their publisher isn't in existence anymore.
I'm not one to web develop on my PC but when there comes a time that I need to edit something on my server, I use either WinSCP or FireFTP. Both are small and free FTP clients with FireFTP integrating into Firefox. WinSCP can handle SSH activities but when you really need a terminal, there is no replacement for Putty. WinSCP's terminal is emulated but Putty's terminal is the real deal - colors, tab-complete, etcetera. This helped a great deal last year whenever I had a Java coding question; my CS guru neighbor would stop by and fire up Putty, login to his Linux box and write and compile programs remotely.
The ChatZilla Firefox extension lets me hop onto IRC quickly and easily, but if I want a more feature-rich IRC environment it's always been XChat or mIRC. My other messaging duties are done with Google Talk and Gaim. Gaim is a big step-up from AIM, boasting an ad-free IM client with support for several instant messaging protocols as well as tabs and chat logging.
When thinking about BitTorrent clients for Windows, several come to mind: Azureus, uTorrent, BitComet and BitLord. Azureus has all the features and extensive plugin support but is slowed down considerably by its use of the Java VM. uTorrent is quite the opposite with a lightweight application that doesn't hog system resources. You can find out more about other BitTorrent clients with this detailed comparison chart on Wikipedia.
WinRAR with its support for folders, unlike WinZIP, is a well-needed upgrade from Windows XP's compressed folders. UltraISO is also a nifty application strictly for dealing with ISO images. Great if I want to edit or add a file to an ISO image rapidly. WinISO doesn't seem to have as many features as UltraISO but is still a solid application.
I know I am leaving some spaces open such as media players, but I would like to hear what you guys can't live without on Windows. I know I am a big VLC and iTunes proponent when it comes to media.