Excellence in tools that happen to be free

Although by no means an exhaustive list, the following tools have made my computing life easier:

1. Lutz Roeder’s Reflector for .NET is a must-use tool for any .NET developer. Not only does it allow you to quickly gather a mental picture of an assemblies API, documentation and implementation, but it’s also extensible and free, too. (Speaking of documentation, Reflector is actually more faithful to the C# XML documentation specification than Visual Studio’s Object Browser!) Just like OleView inspired COM developers bogged down by RegEdit, Reflector enlightens .NET developers unsatisfied with lesser tools (e.g. ILDASM, WINCV, etc.). (If only it were open source, too. I suspect that I could learn a great deal more about reflection if I could read and digest Lutz’s code.)

2. RSS Bandit remains the only feed reader I’ve ever seriously used thus far. I’ve never felt the need to switch due to a lack of functionality, quality or performance. Dare, Torsten & Co. continue to pursue a well-defined and articulated vision for the product, and Bandit’s user community is fairly active, too. Bandit (i.e. the breadth and depth of feeds it presents to me) has fundamentally changed the way I get information pertinent to my profession, my business and my life. I’m in control of what I read. A radio or TV station, editor or anchor is not in control. A portal is not in control (e.g. sorry but you can’t get that particular news pane in My Yahoo!). I don’t have to cull through a ton of irrelevant content and visible bombardment to get at the essence of a particular issue, hot technology or interesting event. In a large way, I credit Bandit with making my information gathering and subsequent decision making life what it has become. It is the user experience that has drawn me in and causes me to return regularly and often. (Portal content providers like MSN, Yahoo!, etc., are you listening? It’s no longer enough to increase the number of choices from which to choose in building my page. You have to now give me a blank canvas with the ability to put any feed, any image, any conversation in any portlet I want. The resulting page will be truly sticky. In return, you will gain deeper insights into compelling views and community (market) dynamics. What do you say?)

3. Startup Control Panel and Startup Monitor by Michael Lin are two pieces of freeware that I can heartily recommend. Not only did Startup Control Panel make it a snap for me to identify an errant piece of startup and eliminate the results of Windows trying to act on its behalf (i.e. pop-up an unexpected Windows Explorer view of my system32 folder), but it also enabled me to quickly and easily determine what I needed or wanted to run at startup and what was unnecessary. Disabling the latter items reduced my effective start up time without any loss of functionality. Adding Startup Monitor to the mix puts you in control of what runs at startup moving forward. If you forego these tools and go the direct-to-the-Windows-Registry route, John Yacono gave good advice in his 5/24/2004 CRN Tech Tip column, Startup Setup. Before you delete a suspected offending key or value, backup the contents in a registry script (.reg file). If problems arise upon subsequent reboot, the exported entry can be re-entered into the registry.