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Tools, toys, and being productive

23 Jun 2020

I've been using Windows in the workplace for nearly 20 years, and have had it as my main home OS for longer than that, right back to when Windows 3.1 on my 286 required a dozen floppy disks. In that time, I've found a whole manner of utilities and such that I use on a daily basis to make my life easier. Some of them are well known, others less so, but I thought I'd blog about each of them a little bit and give them their time to shine.

Chocolatey

The first tool is an important one, as it's one that facilitates getting most of the others!

When I was introduced to the world of Linux, I found the concept of the package manager really clever. A central repository of tools, applications, everything, that was all available a single command away. Coming back to Windows, the concept of needing to find an installer, download it, run it, maybe even reboot just seemed so involved.

I wasn't alone. The team at Chocolatey thought similarly, and created the fantastic choco tool, describing it as "The Sane Way to Manage Software on Windows".

Nowadays, if I want to install anything at all, the first thing I do is open a powershell window (in Windows Terminal, obviously) and try choco search thingiwant. Most of the time, someone has already packaged the thing I'm looking for, and so with a slightly different command - choco install thingiwant -y - I can have choco download that package and install it for me, whilst I go and focus on something else.

I currently have 71 different packages installed on my system via chocolatey, and the number grows regularly. On the odd occasion that I am asked to restore a broken machine, one of my first tasks after restoring Windows is to install chocolatey, and then just throw a list of packages at it and walk away. When I return, I return to a machine with everything installed and ready to go.

In recent times, Microsoft have announced their own package manager for Windows - winget - but it's going to be a while before I'm convinced that it offers me enough improvement over Chocolatey to switch.

It's an awesome tool, is Chocolatey, and it's available here.

Everything

I genuinely cannot remember what I did to find files before I found Everything. Searching in Windows is notoriously dreadful, but Everything makes it an absolute breeze. Know part of the filename? Or maybe you just know the file type? Or maybe you want to find every file in a particular tree? Everything can do it for you.

Once installed, the Everything service takes over and indexes your file systems in the background, invisibly. As a user, all you need to do is open the window and enter whatever search term you have and you will get instantaneous results (a good example is how I discovered the name of HP's Recovery tool).

More complex searches such as regular expressions are possible, as is the ability to filter your results to specific kinds of file - not just file types such as *.jpg, but everything that is a kind of image - jpgs, pngs, gifs, whatever.

Everything is available here, and can be installed via chocolatey with choco install everything.

Ditto

Microsoft have introduced their version of clipboard management in recent builds of Windows; but way before they thought of that, Ditto was managing my clipboards.

If you have ever copied something, moved elsewhere in a document, copied something else then immediately realised that the first item is now gone, Ditto is for you.

Ditto says goodbye to that hassle and changes the way you work. Now you just copy whatever you need to - images, text, whatever - and when you need to paste, hit the ditto shortcut key and select the item you need. With special paste commands - transform the text as you paste into various different cases, paste formatted text as plaintext, paste images as text, etc - and the ability to group your clips into sensible collections, and to assign shortcut keys to specific clips, Ditto keeps your clipboard organised and your useful information a keypress away.

You can even share your clipboard between devices over a local network connection, if you ever need to keep more than one device's clipboard synchronised with another.

Ditto is available here, and can be installed via chocolatey with choco install ditto.

Windows Powertoys

I remember installing the Powertoys for Windows 95, waaay back in the day, so was delighted when MS announced that they were being resurrected for modern life.

Described as "Windows system utilities to maximize productivity", the modern Powertoys collection is an expanding suite of tools that expand upon and add features to Windows. Starting with a simple shortcut key guide, the collection has now expanded to include enhancements to the rename process and file previews in Windows Explorer; an image resizer; "Fancy Zones" - an tool that allows you to define custom screen layouts that suit you and your workflow best; a keyboard remapper and most recently "Powertoys Run", which is the beginnings of a true Windows keyboard launcher. Press the shortcut to invoke it, type a few characters of what you need, and it is offered up to you, much quicker than a search through the start menu, or finding something in Explorer, or similar.

The Powertoys are open source, and the Github repository can be found here. They can be installed via chocolatey with choco install powertoys.

Windows Terminal

In my first tech job, I spent a large part of my day logged into multiple HP-UX systems that we accessed via Pericom Teemtalk, which was a no-frills terminal. I got tired of it, and sought a wrapper or similar that would modernise my workflow, and I found cmder and ConEmu. I used ConEmu for years, then when I switched jobs the importance of tabbed terminals became less, and I reverted to settling for the command prompt or Powershell terminal when needed.

In recent times, where you might need a command prompt, a Powershell prompt, an Azure cloud prompt, even a Linux ssh session (whether remote or on Windows with WSL), the need for a decent terminal has returned - but this time, Microsoft have stepped up and created Windows Terminal, which can contain all of the previous in a nice tabbed interface. Windows Terminal is my new default for any console activities.

Windows Terminal can be installed via the Microsoft Store, and the GitHub repository is here. It can be installed via chocolatey with choco install microsoft-windows-terminal.

Vscode

For years, I used Notepad++ as my default text editor, with a suite of extensions installed to make my life easier - a spell-checker, an FTP manager, various transform utilities, etc. Then Microsoft did something that was very out of character at the time - they announced that they were making an open-source, cross-platform editor. I didn't pay too much attention at first - installed it, tried it for a bit but didn't feel it offered me a better experience than my precious Notepad++ did, so never switched full time.

Then, in a perfect storm of activity, a few things happened. Notepad++ had a series of dodgy updates in the transition from 32bit->64bit, and I found all my extensions gone (along with the extension manger to restore them). I found myself losing confidence in a tool I'd used for as long as I could remember. At the same time, VSCode continued to improve, and I found myself doing more web development and less documentation and configuration in my job roles. Putting all this together made me realise that I could try making the switch to VSCode, so I tried it out, seriously for once, and have never returned to Notepad++ since.

VSCode offers me the same flexibility to customise my install the way I want to with extensions, of which the choice is huge, much more so than I had available to me in Notepad++, and it offers it to me cross-platform. I'd been able to run Notepad++ in Wine under Linux but found myself preferring Geany when on Linux. Now the option to use the same application - wherever I am - exists, and it works just as I'd expect. With modern "Remote-" add-ons, I can even directly access my Linux machines and edit config files and code there, natively. Coupled with the fact that it also serves as a fully functional debugger for supported languages - such as C# via .Net Core - and it really does become a required install.

The GitHub repo for VSCode is here, and it can be installed via chocolatey with choco install vscode.

Paint.NET

I'm far from a capable digital artist, but I know how to mockup the odd screen or similar. The problem is, my skillset and requirements are somewhere above MS Paint, but below Adobe Photoshop.

Paint.NET fills that hole. It is a very capable image editor that has been my default on Windows for years now. All the expected tools - a paintbrush, a fill bucket, selectors etc - are present, but there's also another level that isn't too complex to understand - layers, or various additional tools such as blurs and transforms for example.

Whilst other options such as Photoshop exist, they aren't free for starters, even if you rule out the learning curve of such a capable tool. The Gimp (or Glimpse) exist but are both much closer to Photoshop than MS Paint. Paint.NET fits in just perfectly for most people's needs.

The Paint.NET homepage is here, and it can be installed via chocolatey with choco install paint.net.

There's more to this list, but I'm going to stop for now at this point, save this becoming more of a wall of text than it already is.

More soon!

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