Here's our list of all-time favorites, the tools installed first after format C: ... stuff that changed our computers and you should at least know about :). The best, promise. And constantly under revision...
Context Viewer - image preview and more in rightclick menu
Context Viewer lets you preview various files in the context menu (doesn't support .gif natively). The best part is that the user can define which files are to been seen in the context menu. That opens up a few doors for tweaking. Text files work absolutely fine. The app is in Japanese, but did send us a translation, which was made available at the homepage
(!). But homepage is down, no clue on its future. Since we intermediated, it seems safe to provide (english) download.
For .gif and more extensions you can use susie plugins, available around. Just create a directory somewhere, put the extracted plugin in, run context viewers control panel applet. At the plugins tab, browse to your directory, restart and you're done.
Get the file here
(336 kB), a working plugin for .gif here
and find much more (links to) plugins (.png and more) here
Eppie - minimalistic window skinning
Amazing how such a little thing can change the look of Windows so dramatically. Eppie does a couple of things. It lets you put a bitmap on the startbutton, but also enables you to change a window's controls: the min/max/close buttons - normal, pushed and disabled version. Latest version, for 9x/Me, also does the scrollbar arrows. And maybe you're to C++ developer willing to make it work in 2k/XP (please) ?
Hawkeye ShellInit - full desktop control
Hawkeye ShellInit is a small, scriptable application that "creates any number of margins on the screen that maximized windows wont cover (much like the taskbar). In these margins, you can put applications that you always want visible, for instance Winamp, SysMeter, console, chat window, or whatever." Can run automatically at startup, doesn't need to stay in memory, has transparancy options and more, advanced tool. Plus, free.
IconPhile - free icon changer
A free iconchanger in a field dominated by shareware applications. IconPhile is a match for any of them, and has some unique options. Store your scheme, with the icons, in one file. Toggle options to display a generic icon, or icon inside file for several filetypes. Import any scheme/folder with icons and it will try to build a scheme based on icon names. You need it!
IconShop - icon manager & converter
Talking about icons, one more thing you need here. IconShop is an icon librarian. But it does more! Extracts icons from Windows resources, but imports a lot of graphic formats too. Best, imports and converts OS/2 icons, Mac icons and other formats on the Mac too. Takes the pain out of all icon conversion, really.
Get it here
(pick latest beta)!
IrfanView & XnView - graphics handling, completely
IrfanView is a great, free image viewer/converter, supporting a lot of formats and batch conversion! Another one is XnView, just as great, supporting a huge list too, and free; have these two installed and you can handle almost anything any graphic format, from any platform, so you'll never left with empty hands.
kewlpÄd - skinnable notepad replacement
Yep, there's a couple of these around. Just few are resizable, which is kind of a needed option. And kewlpÄd gives you control over look and feel of scrollbars and cursors too. As we speak, the most convincing project amongst all these (!).
Panekiller - startmenu facelift and enhancement
Ok, this one's $10. That's the price you pay for some VWM's, many other freely available tasks. But this is a complete rebuild of your startmenu. Panekiller features complete control on contents, features transparancy (not only in 2k/XP!), change of the "arrow", startbutton (normal/hover/clicked) bitmaps, lets you rip off parts and much, much more. So we'll call that a pretty decent price!
Resource Hacker - modify (system) files
And then, there's always those little things you'd like, but no program takes care of. That little icon in your systray not matching your design, some button strip you really dislike... Resource Hacker to the rescue. This free tool let's you edit resources inside any 32-bit file and gives you that last touch of control! A favorite all around customization communities, with reason :).
Rainmeter - next generation resource monitor (for all platforms)
Most likely to take over Sysmeter' position as most popular: Rainmeter is a Litestep module, but functions in explorer too. It's a skinnable CPU/RAM/Swap monitor, does uptime, diskspace too, and lots (!) more. Plus, it's in development and going strong.
Samurize - resource monitoring gone wild
"Samurize is the successor to the quite popular program CureInfo. It is a system monitoring utility with awesome configuration power. The configuration program is totally separated from the client for minimal memory usage. For the moment Samurize is in beta state. This means: Bugs can and do exist, all optimitions have not yet been done." Yeah, sure - this one is like a paint program, with a palette of monitors, to be painted on the desktop, where, how and in which size, color, kind off display etc etc you'd like! Free, for 2k/XP only.
ShortPopUp - launch anything from anywhere
ShortPopUp, by ()rm, displays a popup menu of a folder you directed it to. Add a shortcut to the executable to the quicklauch bar or a new toolbar. Displays .lnk files, .mp3 playlists, anything. New version also finds subfolders and displays them as submenu's (after this, it really got me hooked :). Now also with sorting options added to the popup. You'll have to take note of the extensive readme, but this one can look and behave like anything you'd want.
SnIco Edit - complete, free, icon editor
We moaned for it for years, tested many a free icon editor, just to conclude the shareware alternatives were, well, better. So, SnIco Edit not only comes as a relief, it's the basic answer to anyone wanting a clear, good icon editor. Supports XP alphablending features...
Switch - color picker deluxe
Switch is the next generation, skinnable colorpicker. RGB, HSL, HEX and OLE values. Easy to use, can display custom cursors (and does some neat tricks with those), and in constant development.
Tclock(2) - taskbar looks
As the name indicates, Tclock has major options to change the systray clock. But it gives you control over startmenu sidebanner and startbutton bitmaps too, can set parts/whole taskbar to flat style, lets you define a gradient for whole systray area. Great stuff! Two_toNe developed a version that's fully compatible with 2k/XP, and adds lots of other stuff, like options to set a bitmap for the clock, hide taskbar grippers, set transparancy and more.
Get the original Tclock here
and find Tclock2 here
Winkey - advanced keyboard shortcutter
"You thought the Windows key was useless?" Winkey lets you assign any keyboard shortcuts (as long as it contains the Winkey) to any app, file or folder, this way you just have to hit some keys and your app is launched, for example pressing Ctrl + Winkey + E would open IE. You can also manage the state of an active window (Close, Minimize...).
XXCalc - skinnable calculator replacement
One of the ugliest pieces of coding in the UI of Windows is the calculator. XXCalc fixes that (temporal page), it's a skinnable replacement, free, clean, easy to skin too!