Monday, July 13, 2009

Improve HP Compaq laptop performance

Summary: A couple of things that can help improve your HP Compaq performance.

My company-issued laptop (HP Compaq 6910p) has been sluggish lately. The major problem was the login delay: it took 3-5 minutes for the system to become responsive on every login. I recently cleaned up and defragmented the laptop's hard drive and voila: performance has improved. The login response time now takes a fraction of what it used to be.

If you are suffering from a poor computer performance (and it does not have to be HP/Compaq laptop, but can be any brand of laptop or desktop), try defragmenting the system drive. Before you start defragmentation, uninstall the programs that you do not need, and use the Disk Cleanup tool to delete unnecessary files. To launch Disk Cleanup, in Windows Explorer, right-click the system drive (normally, C:), and select Properties from the context menu.


In the General tab, click the Disk Cleanup button to launch disk diagnostics. Once diagnostics is complete (which may take a few minutes), use the options to delete all temporary and unneeded files.

After cleaning up the disk, switch back to the disk Properties dialog box (or re-open it if needed), click the Tools tab, and press the Defragment Now button.


Depending on how badly your hard drive is defragmented, you may need to run the defragmenter 2-5 times to get the best results. It may take a few hours to complete the first pass, but each consecutive run will take less and less time.

Along with defragmenting the system drive, I also uninstalled the HP ProtectTools software (Credential Manager, Embedded Security, etc), which caused me nothing but irritation (since I use other security solutions, I have no need for HP ProtectTools).

If you are using an HP Compaq laptop and want to get rid of HP ProtectTools, you need to uninstall the applications in the following order (you may not have all of these utilities installed, so just remove the ones that you have):
  1. Credential Manager for HP ProtectTools
  2. Java Card Security for ProtectTools
  3. Drive Encryption for HP ProtectTools
  4. Smartcard security for HP ProtectTools
  5. Embedded Security for HP ProtectTools
  6. BIOS Security for HP ProtectTools
  7. HP ProtectTools Security Manager
I’m not sure if removing HP ProtectTools helped improve my system performance, but at least I do not see the "Embedded security was not initialized" pop-up on every login and my system tray is now a bit cleaner.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Free WinZip alternatives

Summary: Comparison of several free file archivers.

WinZip is a classic file archiving tool. It is a nice utility, but it has a major drawback: it is not free. If your budget for a file archiver is short of $30 (the current price of the cheapest version of WinZip), you can try a number of FREE alternatives, such as:I recently checked these tools looking for the following features:
  • Standard archiving algorithms: the tool must work with archives produced by other archivers, generate archive files that can be opened by other archivers.
  • Encryption: the tools should allow encryption of the new archives and it must be able to decrypt archives generated by other tools.
  • Self-extractor: the tool must be able to generate a self-extracting executable archive file.
  • Filename Unicode support: the tool should correctly handle Unicode characters in file names.
  • Multilingual interface (Russian wanted): not a requirement, but is nice to have.
  • Installer: is also nice to have.
  • Documentation: help file, or at the very least online help, could be handy.
  • Command-line operation: I do not need it now, but being able to compress, update, and decompress files via a command-line interface is a plus.
In short, all of the programs I tried (or considered trying) failed in one or more areas; however, some came closer to my ideal than the others. Before I describe how the tools compared, let me briefly explain my testing strategy.

To test the tools' capabilities, I used a (legally purchased) copy of the Cabo Verde album by Césaria Évora. The album folder contained 13 MP3 tracks. Almost all file names included Portuguese characters. I encrypted the files in the archive using the AES encryption algorithm with a 256-bit key and compared the results with the archive generated by WinZip (I used WinZip v. 12). I tried to open the archive generated by each tool in WinZip and extract a single file from it (the file had to be decrypted). I also tried to open the encrypted WinZip archive in each of the tested tools. I ran the tools on Windows XP SP3. This is what I found.

First, based on the information from Wikipedia and some preliminary test, I determined that some tools on my list did not support Unicode file names. Because these archivers cannot handle Unicode file names, I excluded them from my test (which is unfortunate, since some of these programs looked promising):Among the tools supporting Unicode file names, I still noticed a problem related to Unicode characters. For example, file Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 often appeared normal in the archives opened by the programs that produced it, but its name was corrupted when I opened the same archive in other tools. This is how the archive generated by WinZip appears in WinZip (click to display the original -- bigger -- image):


But look how 7-Zip displays the archive:


Notice the extra folder that appears at the top of the file list. When I expand this folder, I see the file, but the name appears corrupted (letter ã turns into π):


In some tools, Unicode characters appear corrupted only in the GUI, but they were fine in the extracted files; however, most tools -- especially the ones built on the top of the 7-zip compression engine -- actually did corrupt the file names (e.g. name of the file extracted from a WinZip archive in 7-Zip was corrupted). This was a common problem (with slight variations) among the tools.

Now, let me summarize how the tools stacked up for me.

7-Zip (v. 4.65) is considered a classic free file archiver. I've read lots of praises to 7-Zip, but I did not like it. The interface is not intuitive. It took me a while to figure out the workflow which differs from WinZip-like programs. For example, in WinZip you select File - New to create a new archive, to which you can then add files and folders. In 7-Zip, there is no File - New menu: you first need to select files or folders, and then click 7-Zip - Add to archive in the context menu. The purpose of some menu options and features is unclear (for a novice). For example, what's the point of two-panel view? 7-Zip also does not use standard Windows dialog boxes, such as File Open or File Save. Navigation in the file manager is awkward: there are no shortcuts to standard folders, such as Desktop or My Documents. There are many quirks like these. The interface of the program is really outdated. I would probably tolerate 7-Zip after more frequent use, but it is rather irritating for a beginner. On the positive side, 7-Zip is very capable. It can use many archiving algorithms. The interface is available in many languages. Command-line version offers many options. Help file covers available features (especially command-line options) very nicely.


Summary:If you get used to the 7-zip workflow, can tolerate the ugliness of the GUI, and keep in mind the possible issues with Unicode file names in the archives generated by other tools, 7-Zip is worth considering, but I'll pass.

DesktopZip 2008 does not have an installer. It looks simple enough but I quickly dismissed DesktopZip once I realized that it does not support encryption. I did not find an option to encrypt the archive. DesktopZip also did not prompt me for the password/passphrase when I tried to extract an encrypted file from the WinZip archive and promptly failed.


Summary: No encryption - no go.

jZip (v. 1.3.0.67918), which uses the 7-Zip engine, looked nice on the first run. Although the web site claims that jZip is available in multiple languages, I only found an English version. The application UI looks reasonably modern and simple. Basic archiving and dearchiving operations are intuitive, but there are some gaps. When I tried to encrypt the files in the archive, jZip asked me to enter the encryption password (which is expected), but then it asked me to enter the decryption password. This made no sense to me, since in the AES encryption algorithm, which I used, encryption and decryption passwords must be the same. I did not enter the decryption password, and was able to decrypt and extract a file from the jZip archive using jZip and WinZip. Like WinZip, jZip makes it difficult to archive a folder with all its contents (you can archive contents of the folder without the folder info). The program can run from command line, but it does not provide a help file. Development status is unclear. The major problem I encountered in jZip was related to Unicode. For some reason, jZip changed letter ã in the name of the Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file to a, and it did this with its own archive.


jZip also sneaked a shortcut file Archive created by free jZip.url, which I assume points to the jZip's web site, into the archive. In the spirit of the software trojans, jZip GUI did not show the file in the archive, but I noticed it when I opened the jZip archive in WinZip:


Summary: Sneaky and corruptive - I'll pass.

KGB Archiver (v. 1.2) works as a wizard that lets you perform three operations: compress or decompress archive and change the application settings.


The program offers support for several languages, but not for Russian (and you call yourself KGB Archiver?). Surprisingly, when I opened a WinZip-generated archive in KGB Archiver, it displayed the problematic Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file correctly; however, KGB Archiver changed the name of this file in its own archive (a'la jZip).


KGB Archiver could not extract files encrypted with a 256-bit AES encryption key from a WinZip archive (it kept popping the Password dialog box even after I submitted the correct password; I assume it would work with legacy WinZip encryption). KGB Archiver cannot create a self-extracting executable archive. Command-line execution is available, but offers just basic options. There is no help file. KGB Archiver does not let you make any changes to an existing archive. I am not sure which encryption algorithm the program uses. The wizard does not provide the back button (to go to the initial screen) and the program closes automatically after performing an operation, which I found a bit irritating.


Summary: Limited capabilities, awkward interface, and shaky handling of Unicode files make KGB Archiver a poor choice.

PeaZip (v. 2.6.2) is another program that uses the 7-Zip engine and therefore suffers from the similar problems with Unicode file names. It's a bit worse, though: when I opened a WinZip archive in PeaZip, it did not show the Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file at all (it correctly identified 13 objects in the archive -- 12 files and one folder -- but it only displayed 11 files). In its own archive, it showed that it had changed letter ã in the file name to letter a, but when I opened this file in WinZip, the file name appeared correctly (go figure!).


The PeaZip's user interface supports several languages (including Russian), but no matter which language I tried, it seemed confusing. It took me a while to figure out how the interface works, and I'm not sure I got it all. It starts in the Browse mode (showing the file system), but then I clicked the Options button and the screen switched to the Options mode (the Options button transformed to the Browse button). The archive creation operation are relatively straight-forward, but if you want to change the default settings, pay attention to non-obvious clues. For example, to archive a folder, you need to click a down arrow next to the Add file(s) button, and select the Add folder option. When archiving a folder, I did not find any option to show the archived files. PeaZip claims to support creation of self-extracting archives, but I did not try this feature.


I assume that the Layout feature allows making changes in the archive, but I did not understand how to use it. Archiving options support most common capabilities, such as encryption settings, but still, they are a bit confusing (e.g. see the Encryption group: the Encrypt option include None and Content; how bizarre; why not use a simple check box or radio buttons to indicate whether to encrypt contents or not; also once the archive is created without encryption, how do you encrypt it?). PeaZip comes with a PDF help file, but reading a manual to understand how to use an archiver should not be necessary.


Summary: PeaZip has some potential, but in current implementation, it suffers from usability issues and problems related to handling Unicode file names.

SecureZIP Express (12.30.0016) is a free and somewhat limited version of SecureZIP made by PKWare. It looks more professional than most tools in this review. The interface is simple and intuitive with exception of security settings pertaining to certificates, which will probably confuse most users. SecureZIP Express handled Unicode file names in a WinZip archive well, but it corrupted the notorious Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file name (changed letter ã to letter a). Two other limitations include English-only interface and no support for command-line execution. SecureZIP can create self-extracting archives.


Summary: I really like the SecureZIP interface, but Unicode file name issues tarnish the tool's reputation (if not for the Unicode problem, I would've overlooked lack of language support and no command-line execution).

ZipItFree (v. 2.10) did not have a good start. During installation, it tried to shove the following programs on to my system: My.Freeze Toolbar, Xobni, SmartShopper, WeatherBug, and Zwangi (I declined every one of these). The tool is kind of a pain to use. For example, to create a new archive, I selected an existing file and changed the name, but the tool asked me if I wanted to override the existing file (the file which I selected first). I had to switch folders to clear the file selection or type in the new file name without selecting a file first. ZipItFree offers several skins, but neither of them makes the application look like a typical Windows program. The dialog boxes and other controls in ZipItFree do not behave like standard Windows controls (e.g. Ctrl+A does not select all displayed files). The windows in the dialog boxes are too small and awkward to use. And you need to pay attention to the instructions (e.g. when archiving a folder, I had to drag-and-drop it from one window to another; I first thought that selecting the folder would've been enough). ZipItFree user interface does not support languages other than English, and I did not find any mentioning of command-line execution. On initial run, ZipItFree displayed a small add in the top right corner of the application window, but after I changed the skin, I did not see the ad (not sure if it is permanently gone or will be back). To my surprise, ZipItFree was the only program that did not have any problem with the Unicode file name. It worked with Unicode file names in both the WinZip and its own archive without a hitch. Wow! After so many disappointments, I'm really impressed. Encryption also worked fine between WinZip and ZipItFree. Unfortunately, ZipItFree cannot make a self-extracting archive.


Summary: I hate the controls, such as file navigation windows, in the ZipItFree user interface, but it appears to be the only free program among the ones I tried that does not have any problems with Unicode file names. If Unicode file name support is important for you, and you understand English, and you do not need a command-line interface or a self-extracting archive, ZipItFree may be a decent option. Just be careful during installation and decline each crapware offer that you do not need.

The bottom line
In the world of free archivers, there is no perfection. All tools I tried had problems, but some were worse than others. Nevertheless, you should be able to pick a tool that is more appropriate for your job, preferences, and tolerance level, as long as you understand its limitations.

If you want to add more pros and cons for the tools that I covered or suggest another application, please leave a comment (just make sure that the tool meets my requirements).

UPDATE (9/1/2010): I recently tried WinMount Free Edition and was quite impressed with its performance. While WinMount is not a full-featured compression utility (it lack such capabilities as file encryption and self-extraction), it does a pretty decent job of basic archiving. It even handles Unicode characters in file names correctly, so if you need a basic compression/decompression tool, I highly recommend WinMount.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Technobrief #8

Summary: Recent findings of software, articles, videos, and more.

ArticlesBlogsEnglishGraphicsjQueryProgrammingQuotes
  • From Sphinx - text search The Pirate Bay way by Ted Dziuba:
    "Before Sphinx, the other option for text search was Apache Solr. Solr, whose name-giver understands that vowels are a scarce resource and must be used sparingly, is a server that sits on top of Lucene. Solr is popular with the enterprise crowd, who love its Java. Being a Java program, Solr includes no shortage of technology whose acronyms contain the letters J and X."
Software
  • CodecInstaller detects the installed audio and video codecs, analyzes files to understand which codecs they require, and suggests which codecs need to be installed.
  • Convert AVI to MP4 converts video files from various formats (AVI, DivX, Xvid, WMA, MOV, H.264, MPEG1/MPEG2) to the MP4 (MPEG4) format.
  • GSpot shows information about video and audion codecs used in a media file.
  • DriverBackup! backs up, restores, and removes drivers.
  • JPEG Lossless Rotator rotates JPEG images without re-encoding and loss of quality.
  • MPEG Streamclip video converter plays, cuts, copies, pastes, trims, exports, and converts video files (MPEG, VOB, PS, M2P, MOD,VRO, DAT, MOV, DV, AVI, MP4, TS, M2T, MMV, REC, VID, AUD, AVR, VDR, PVR, TP0, M2V, M1V, MPV, AIFF, M1A, MP2, MPA, AC3, and more).
  • Postbox email client offers an alternative to the popular Outlook and Thunderbird.
  • Roadkil recovers files from disks with physical damage (bad sectors, scratches, etc).
  • Shrink Pic automatically reduces the size of photos sent or uploaded toemail, instant messaging, blogging, and web galleries
  • Svchost Process Analyzer lists all svchost instances and checks the services they contain making it easy to uncover worms and viruses, such as Conficker.
  • Zimbra Desktop is an email, which can syncs Zimbra, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail email, contacts, and calendars.
  • Zortam MP3 Media Studio includes audio file organizer, ID3 tag editor, CD ripper, WAV/MP3 converter, MP3 volume normalizer, lyrics finder, batch lyrics and cover finder, playlist manager, CD burner, and more.
VideosWeb designWeb tools
  • Color Scheme Designer (page examples are really helpful)
  • SpiderOak provides an easy, secure and consolidated free online backup, sync, sharing, access and storage solution for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux (Ubuntu, Debian & Fedora)
  • Mojo Helpdesk centralizes, assigns and tracks organization requests for customer and tech support, internal tasks management, website maintenance, and so on (free edition offers 3 ticket queues and 2 support accounts)
  • Path 101 provides free career services including personality test, resume analysis, and career advice
  • ProjectLocker offers source control, defect tracking, document management and other services (free account supports 5 users, 500 MB of space, and unlimited number of projects)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Essential freeware for Windows

Summary: List of my favorite freeware tools and utilities.

The lists of my favorite freeware for regular users and developers have been getting out of hand lately, so until I find a better method, I'll use this post to keep track of the FREE Windows tools and utilities that I consider the best for various tasks.

When assessing the tools, I prefer software that:
  • is totally free: no shareware, not limited to home use (although, home-use restriction is fine in some cases, such as for anti-virus software);
  • works across corporate firewalls (for internet connections);
  • supports Unicode (international character sets);
  • offers multi-lingual interface (mostly interested in Russian);
  • comes with an installer (okay, lack of installer will not kill it, but it's really nice to have).
Here is the list of my favorite freeware:

Media Players

Best Audio Player: AIMP
Pros: highly customizable; clean interface; good sound (with enabled equalizer); no ads; Unicode support; multilingual interface; can be minimized to system tray; rips CD tracks to audio files (including MP3); records streaming audio; converts audio files between different formats (MP3, WAV, OGG, WMA, etc); edits ID3 tags (ID3v1, ID3v2, etc). Cons: slight startup delay; some customization options are confusing.

Best Video Player: Media Player Classic Home Cinema
Pros: comes with internal codecs; plays practically any video format; easy to launch video from a file, folder, or CD/DVD; no ads. Cons: May require some external codecs; codec settings may need to be tweaked on less capable systems; cannot raise volume above 100% (some players allow you to do this); somewhat outdated interface.
Alternatives: Splash Lite (great for playing HD videos; does not hog the system; excellent sound; but free version does not play contents of folders, such as VIDEO_TS); KMPlayer; VLC Media Player (somewhat problematic playback of the VIDEO_TS folders); GOM Player; SMPlayer; PotPlayer (forked from The KMPlayer).

Media Editors

Best Video Editor: Avidemux
Pros: converts between various video formats; instant preview of changes; easy to adjust cropping settings; simple to use filters; color/saturation/brightness adjustment; displays file video/audio encoding data. Cons: two versions of UI (GTK+ and Qt4) are confusing; toolbar buttons do not show tooltips; terse descriptions of available options and settings.
Alternatives: VirtualDub.

Best Video Converter: Format Factory
Pros: supports multiple video formats; easy to use; produces reasonably good quality video; reasonably fast; allows conversion of multiple files. Cons: some options are confusion (not clear how picking one option affects other options, e.g. when cropping video it's not clear whether the aspect ratio will be applied to the cropped video or the original video); it would be nice to have simple editing tools (such as exposure, lighting, etc).
Alternatives: Any Video Converter (free version; easy YouTube downloads); WinX Video Converter; MP4Tools (splits and joins MP4 files without re-encoding and loss of quality); MPEG Streamclip (supports trimming and joining videos, but requires you to install QuickTime); Quick Media Converter HD, Kastor - Free Video Converter, Hamster - Free Video Converter; Freemake - Free Video Converter.

Best Audio Editor: Audacity
Pros: many features; easy to use (once you get familiar with the interface); records streaming audio; trims silence; reduces background noise; imports/exports audio files from/to various audio formats; mixes tracks; adds sound effects (bass boost, etc); Unicode support; multilingual interface. Cons: outdated look; does not come with LAME MP3 encoder (must be installed manually); cannot edit MP3 natively (need re-encoding); some menu options are not standard (e.g. Edit - Preferences).
Alternatives: Free MP3 Cutter and Editor (simple tool for basic operations: cut, change mono to stereo/streo to mono, fade in/out).

Best Audio Tag Editor: Mp3Tag
Pros: supports MP3 tags and other metadata (ID3, Vorbis Comments, APE); renames files based on the tag information; supports cover art; works on multiple files; Unicode support; multilingual interface; retrieves metadata from external sources (Amazon, freedb, etc); can convert ID3 tags between different encoding schemes (Unicode, Cyrillic, etc). Cons: populating metadata from external sources is a bit awkward; no control when converting between ID3 encoding schemes (it also changes file name).
Alternatives: MP3Nity (need to try; has adware).

Best Audio Repair Tool: MP3 Diags
Pros: performs diagnostics; corrects problems (wrong song length, etc); can't think of any other tool with the same capabilities. Cons: may be a bit complex for some; confusing interface (where is the Open Folder dialog?); have not been updated in a while.

Best Audio Converter: AIMP 2 Tools (Converter & Recorder)
Pros: supports conversion between multiple audio formats; supports album formats (APE, etc); easy to use; multi-lingual interface. Cons: discontinued.

Codecs

Best Codec Pack: Shark 007
Pros: the only codec pack you need to install. Cons: 64-bit version must be handled (installed/uninstalled) separately; must launch program as Administrator; upgrade requires uninstallation; cannot ninstall from the Add or Remove Programs (must do via the Uninstall button in the application itself); configuration settings can be confusing; installer always installs Bing toolbar.
Alternatives: K-Lite; CCCP.

MP3 Tools

Best MP3 Splitter: mp3DirectCut
Pros: splits, trims, crops audio files; no-destructive cut, copy and paste; automatic track splitting (by timed intervals); keeps ID3 tags. Cons: cannot adjust interval-based auto-cues to fall on to silent pause.
Alternatives: MP3 Cutter and Editor (very simple interface; allows cutting, changing volume, fading in and out, changing from mono to stereo and from stereo to mono; but no Unicode filename support); Wave Editor.

Best MP3 Merger: MP3 Album Maker
Pros: simple operation; reversible merge. Cons: I haven't used it much, so can't think of any.

Best MP3 Volume Normalizer: MP3Gain
Pros: lossless normalization; can be reverted back to the original. Cons: does not support Unicode file names; functionality is a bit confusing; I'm not sure how it handles clipping.

Disk Tools (CD/DVD)

Best DVD/Blu-Ray Ripper/Transcoder: VidCoder
Pros: best tool to convert video disks or folders (VIDEO_TS, BDMV) to video files; supports data compression, re-sizing, and other basic editing features; allows customization of audio tracks and subtitles; automatically detects the correct stream for Blu-Ray media. Cons: does not break copy protection from commercial disks.

Best DVD Ripper: DVD Shrink
Pros: decrypts (breaks copy protection from) many DVDs; removes region code; rips video to an ISO file or VIDEO_TS folder; can compress ripped video to fit on a standard 4.7 GB DVD; allows removing of unnecessary data (audio/video tracks). Cons: cannot decrypt some latest DVDs.
Alternatives: DVD Decrypter (decrypts most DVDs that DVD Shrink cannot); DVDFab HD Decrypter (haven't tried, but seems good); AmoK DVD Shrinker (does not remove copy protection, but claims to "[shrink] DVDs up to one fifth of the original size without any noticeable quality reduction").

Best CD Ripper: fre:ac
Pros: detects album info (song titles, albums, artists, etc); can customize file names based on ID3 tags; writes ID3 tags; built in converter supports many audio formats (MP3, AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and more); full Unicodes support for both ID3 tags file names; multilingual interface.

Best DVD Maker: Windows Movie Maker
Pros: creates videos and slide shows; unlimited video clips and audio tracks; many transition effects; fades video/audio in/out; clips video/audio; brightness adjustment; some video effects; supports H.264 encoded videos (via ffdshow video decoder); video menu (several themes); video chapters; video preview; supports PAL and NTSC; not very resource hungry; built into Windows; easy to learn; useful help and tutorials. Cons: supports limited video formats; does not work with QuickTime (MOV) or Flash (FLV) files; few video improvement features (e.g. no exposure, color correction); few audio adjustment features (e.g. no audio normalization); somewhat crippled Vista version; needs Windows DVD Maker to build DVD menus and burn DVDs (Windows DVD Maker is not available in Windows Vista Basic and Business editions).

Best CD/DVD Burner: ImgBurn
Pros: creates image file (such as ISO) from a disk (CD/DVD); writes image file to disk; verifies disk readability; compares disk to image file; checks quality of drive and media (requires DVDInfoPro); lots of customization option (burn speed, etc). Cons: does not offer a single-step disk copy.
Alternatives: Ashampoo Burning Studio Free 6.76 (also version 2009); BurnAware Free; CDBurnerXP; Exact Audio Copy; InfraRecorder; StarBurn Free.

File Tools

Best File Manager: Cubic Explorer
Pros: multi-tab interface; looks clean out of the box; can copy full file path; quick access to favorite folders via bookmarks; natural sort (e.g. 1.txt, 2.txt, 10.txt); file preview panel; built-in text editor; when renaming a file, extension is not selected; multiple skins; file filtering. Cons: cannot undo (rename, delete, etc); crippled search (cannot search for text in a file); access to remote shares (via UNC path) is slow; does not display folder sizes; limited customization options; have not been updated in a while.
Alternatives: UltraExplorer (took me some effort to customize to my liking); FreeCommander (GUI is a bit too busy); and more.

Best File Search: xSearch
Pros: can run ad hoc when needed (unlike integrated desktop search tools); allows searching for text in files (including Unicode text); multiple text search options; fast search. Cons: no installer.

Best Hex File Editor: HxD Hex Editor
Pros: can load really huge files (tried it on ~1 GB files); extremely fast; low memory footprint. Cons: it would be nice to have pure text view (without hex display).

Best File Compression: ZipItFree
Pros: handles Unicode filenames nicely; password protection; support multiple compression formats; intuitive interface. Cons: non-standard UI elements; no command-line support; cannot create self-extracting executable files; installation program offers a number of crapware; somewhat intrusive ads in the main application window.
Alternatives: WinMount Free Edition (handles Unicode nicely; can mount ZIP files as virtual drives; cannot make self-extracting executables; does not support file encryption); 7-Zip (non-intuitive interface/workflow; ugly UI; problems handling Unicode file names); PeaZip (uses 7-zip engine; confusing interface/workflow; problems handling Unicode file names).

Best File Renamer: Rename Master
Pros: file filtering; preview of results; can use file properties (timestamps, audio tags, image tags, etc); scripts for commonly used renaming options; undo changes; integrated explorer. Cons: GUI is not very polished.
Alternatives: Advanced Renamer, ReNamer; Ken Rename; and more.

Best File Synchronization (automatic sync): DropBox
Pros: 2 GB of free space (+ more via referrals); automatic backups; handles corporate firewalls; tracks file changes. Cons: cannot delete old file revisions; works only with one parent folder; does not seem to work with auto-proxy configuration scripts (need to explicitly define proxy URL).
Alternatives: Syncplicity (2 GB of free space; can complement DropBox; manages standard folders, such as My Documents; can customize what get synced); SpiderOak (2 GB of free space); SugarSync (5 GB of free space).

Best File Synchronization (manual sync): Microsoft SyncToy
Pros: It just works. Cons: None.
Alternatives: FreeFileSync.

Best Online Backup: Mozy
Pros: 2 GB of free space; automatic backups; uses encryption. Cons: can't say if there are any.
Alternatives: iDrive (2 GB of free space; similar to Mozy); Zoolz Home (free space is only offered via promotions, but if you manage to find one, you may be able to get 100 GB of storage for free).

Best File Eraser: Eraser
Pros: simple interface; Windows shell integration. Cons: none.
Alternatives: CyberShredder.

Best Virtual Drive Mounter: Virtual CloneDrive
Pros: supports various image file formats (ISO, BIN, ZIP); supports Unicode file names; Windows shell integration; does not require a reboot; can make compressed (ZIP) files; can decompress compressed (ZIP) files. Cons: does not mount compressed archive [ZIP] files.
Alternatives: Gizmo Drive (does not like Unicode characters in file names); MagicISO Virtual CD/DVD-ROM; Total Mounter; StarBurn Free; Pismo File Mount; ISODisk; WinCDEmu; WinMount Free Edition (free edition has severe file size limitations).

Best Photo Duplicate Finder: Awesome Photo Dupliate Finder
Pros: easy to use; fast.

Best Media Thumbnail Generator: Media Preview
Pros: it works.

Graphics and Photo Tools

Best Vector Graphics Editor: Inkscape
Pros: clean interface. Cons: manual does not load; used the program very few times, so can't say much.

Best Image Editor: GIMP
Pros: feature rich; bit editor; editable text layers; photo enhancing. Cons: non-standard menu options; some operations are non-intuitive and/or more complex than they should be.
Alternatives: Paint.NET (does not support editable text layers); PixBuilder Studio.

Best Photo Editor: Picasa
Pros: easy-to use; great for most basic photo enhancing operations; includes photo organizer; collage maker. Cons: some basic tasks, like cropping to certain size or aspect ratio or changing size, require more work than they should.
Alternatives: Photoscape (includes screen capture utility; allows batch editing and renaming; and more); virtualStudio (has a few nice touches; red-eye correction needs improvement); IrfanView (free for personal use only); PhotoFiltre; RealWorld Paint; JPEGView.

Best Photo Cropper: JPEGCrops
Pros: extremely easy to crop for preset sizes (such as 4x6); preview; lossless cropping; batch mode. Cons: none.

Best Photo Resizer: Fotosizer
Pros: simple resizing process for popular formats; batch operation; can lock aspect ratio. Cons: none.
Alternatives: Image Resizer (part of Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP); Photo Magician (will install bloatware if you select the options during installation).

Best Screen Capture: Gadwin PrintScreen 4.4
Pros: easy to use, no-frills program; can capture mouse cursor. Cons: no built-in image editor; no annotation capability; does not detect non-rectangular or shaded windows' borders; development work on free version has stopped.

Best Graphics Editing Plugins: Google Nik Collection
Pros: professional grade tools; work with Photoshop, Lightroom, and Apreture. Cons: looks like Google is abandoning this offering.

Office and Business Apps

Best Office Suite: OpenOffice
Pros: supports Microsoft Office 2007 formats; multi-lingual interface; traditional toolbar (no ribbon); extensions. Cons: not as feature-rich as Microsoft Office; interface is somewhat outdated.
Alternatives: LibreOffice and IBM Lotus Symphony are based on OpenOffice.org source code, but are reported to be better; SoftMaker Office 2006; GoOo (based on OpenOffice, but claims to run faster); Kingsoft Office Suite.

Best Text Editor: Notepad++
Pros: supports Unicode; multi-lingual interface; built-in spell checker; syntax highlighting (for many programming languages); ability to run external tools (for example, when editing a VBScript file, you can execute it directly from the editor); search and replace options (supports regular expressions); text bookmarking; line numbering; multi-document interface; option to set as default text editor; loads huge files fast. Cons: some problems with regular expression-based search and replace.
Alternatives: PSPad (seem to be abandoned; chokes when loading really big files); Q10 (minimalist, full-screen, spell checker, and more).

PDF Tools

Best PDF Reader: Nitro PDF Reader
Pros: fast; light; fills and saves forms; exports text an images; adds content to PDF files; allows typing over PDF documents. Cons: more editing capabilities would be nice; some protected PDF forms (e.g. U.S. Government naturalization forms) fail to open (probably via a custom script).
Alternatives: PDF-XChange Viewer; Expert PDF Reader.

Best PDF Reader (for PDF forms): FoxIt Secure PDF Reader
Pros: allows saving of PDF forms with entered data when Acrobat Reader does not allow it; open documents that other reader fail (e.g. U.S. Government naturalization forms). Cons: does not support typing over PDF text.
Alternatives: Nuance PDF Reader (requires email and registration).

Best PDF Writer: Primo PDF
Pros: converts many file formats to PDF; works as a printer driver; can append and merge PDF documents; works in remote desktop (over terminal session). Cons: text quality of the converted PDF file may be worse than original.
Alternatives: doPDF (does not work in remote desktop).

Best PDF Tool: PDFill PDF Tools
Pros: Can merge, split, reorder, rotate, crop, and do more with PDF files. Cons: Outdated interface.
Alternatives: PDF Split and Merge; PDF Rider; PDForsell.

Language Tools

Best Dictionary: Lingoes
Pros: Dictionary, glossary, and more; translates to/from many languages; pronounces words. Cons: plugin for PDF files does not work with Adobe Acrobat Reader (but it works with FREE PDF-XChange Viewer).
Alternatives: 1-Click Answers; WordWeb.

Security Tools

Best Anti-Virus: Microsoft Security Essentials
Pros: native integration with Windows; light, yet capable; multi-lingual interface (based on the language of the operating system); automatic updates; resident execution. Cons: initial scan takes too long; not as effective as some alternatives (according to some reports).
Alternatives: Avast! Home Edition (if not for the need to re-register it every year, Avast! would be my best choice); AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition; Avira AntiVir Personal.

Best Password Manager: LastPass
Pros: web-based (no need to sync data between multiple computers); integrated with Firefox and IE; form auto-fill; grouping; search; support for custom properties; can import data from other apps (Firefox, KeePass Password Safe, etc); can export data. Cons: occasional connectivity errors in Firefox (when connection is fine); interface could be more polished; problem logging on to my Live/Bing cashback account (I have several Live/Bing accounts and something just did not work; I had to switch from Firefox to IE and not use LastPass).
Alternatives: KeePass Password Safe (for multi-computer synchronization, it can be used along with file synchronization tools).

Best Disk Encryption: TrueCrypt
Pros: treats a virtual partition (encrypted file) as a disk; works with flash (USB) drives; can encrypt full or part of a disk. Cons: cannot auto-grow encrypted partition; need to read instructions to understand how to encrypt removable disks (such as flash drives).

Desktop Tools

Best Screen Saver: Analogy
Pros: fascinating; elegant; simple; shows current time. Cons: none.

Best Screen Saver Disabler: Caffeine
Pros: temporarily disables screen safer (e.g. when watching videos). Cons: no installer.

Best Clipboard Manager: Ditto
Pros: keeps track of text and image-based clipboard entries; allows pasting plain text with one key press; single step to access clipboard history menu; permanent items; under active development. Cons: none.
Alternatives: ArsClip; ClipX (may require a hack); xNeat Clipboard Manager (supports text only); CLCL (hasn't been updated in a while).

Best Taskbar Sorter: Taskbar Shuffle
Pros: supports drag-and-drop; light-weight. Cons: none.

Best Task Manager: SystemExplorer
Pros: displays full paths of the running processes; shows command-line parameters; checks suspicious processes against the VirusTotal database; passes process information to Process Library; shows network connection information (which processes are connected to which addresses over UDP or TCP/IP); displays startup data (which applications are loaded at start-up); displays list of open files and file owners (which process holds open handle to which file); displays loaded DLLs and their host processes (press CTRL+F and enter the name of a DLL in the SystemExplorer Search window); can export info from every tab; can be configured as a default task manager. Cons: when configured as default task manager, cannot start Windows Task Manager; cannot show threads per process; Performance window shows a single graph for multi-CPU systems; controls in the Performance window do not get resized correctly.
Alternatives: AnVir Task Manager Free (shows prompts when new applications are added to Windows startup); Process Explorer.

Best Program Launcher: Launchy
Pros: automatically detects new applications; small footprint; clean interface; plugins; skins. Cons: defining catalog filters is a bit confusing.

Best Sticky Notes: Stickies
Pros: elegant by default; appear on desktop; can auto hide; transparency effects; rich-text support; hyperlink support. Cons: none.
Alternatives: Sticky Notes.

Best Volume Control: MKN VolWheel
Pros: controls volume via mouse wheel. Cons: no option to mute/unmute; spotty Windows 7 support (sometimes works, sometimes does not).
Alternatives: Volume2; Volumouse.

Best Desktop Organizer: HideDesktop
Pros: hides all icons on desktop when desktop is not in focus. Cons: no installer.
Alternatives: AutoHideDesktopIcons.

Communication and Collaboration Tools

Best Chat Application: Google Talk
Pros: minimalist (in a good sense); uses Google account info; takes fewer resources than other apps (such as Skype); informs about incoming Gmail messages; can transfer files; works across corporate firewalls; multi-lingual interface. Cons: none.
Alternatives: Meebo (web-based, Firefox add-on, and Windows app versions; supports AIM, Yahoo!, Google Talk, MSN, ICQ, and other protocols; consolidates all chat applications and account in one; clean interface).

Best Video Chat Application: Skype
Pros: everybody is using it; works well; user discovery. Cons: annoying sounds (always need to disable); runs at startup by default (always need to disable).
Alternatives: Google Video Chat; Microsoft Messenger.

Best Desktop Sharing Tool: Team Viewer
Pros: easy set up; can run on-demand; authorization is based on session secret (session ID and password); works on Vista; auto-update. Cons: none.
Alternatives: Ammyy Admin; Microsoft SharedView (per Privacy Statement: "This Service may only be used within the United States of America"); Adobe ConnectNow (web-based; no installation; organizer must have an Adobe account, participants do not; max of 2 participants + organizer).

Internet Tools

Best RSS Reader: Feedly (web-based)
Pros: web-based (stays in sync across multiple computers); quick preview of unread posts; nice interface; mark as favorite. Cons: no integrated search.
Alternatives: FeedDemon (some people swear by it); The Old Reader (outdated interface).

Best FTP Client: FireFTP (Firefox add-on)
Pros: light-weight; works across corporate proxy servers; easy to set up. Cons: requires Firefox.
Alternatives: FileZilla; net2ftp (web-based).

Best Podcast Receiver: Juice
Pros: automatically downloads podcast audio files; easy to set up; multi-lingual interface. Cons: cannot be minimized on startup; development work seems to be halted.

Developer's Tools

Best .NET Decompiler: ILSpy
Pros: works as promised. Cons: No installer.
Alternatives: dotPeek.

Best Java Decompiler: JD-GUI
Pros: works as promised.

If you have suggestions for applications or categories, please leave a comment.

See also:
Scott Hanselman's 2014 Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows
LifeHacker: Windows APP Directory
Gizmo's Freeware Editors' Choice List