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August 28, 2010 11:06 AM   Subscribe

What single software application has been a life-changer for you?

I'm thinking about applications that, once you discovered them, became immediately indispensable, replaced other apps in the category, and transformed your life or work practices in a meaningful and possibly permanent way, solving problems you didn't know you had until you discovered the application.

They could be for a laptop, smartphone, or whatever.
posted by craniac to Computers & Internet (60 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Gmail, or more specifically, the notion of (effectively) unlimited, fast-searchable storage space for email.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:11 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

C compilers.
posted by rdr at 11:16 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Endnote - I don't love it but I can't live without it
posted by Fiery Jack at 11:16 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

For windows... Pathbuddy. Its old, not updated anymore, and I 'm not even sure the latest version of windows would support it...but if you spend your day navigating folders in windows...this program will really speed up your workflow...I can't imagine using windows without it.
posted by jnnla at 11:20 AM on August 28, 2010

Response by poster: Gmail is the first time in my life I've been able to effectively file and retrieve information. I love being able to dredge up a note from two (or five) years ago and say, "Here's what you actually said, as opposed to what you are claiming you said."
posted by craniac at 11:20 AM on August 28, 2010

GCal. My life was a (bigger) mess beforehand.

VLC. No more having to worry about codec, compatibility, streaming, crashing, whatever. It is pretty much the perfect video player. It might be good for music, but I'm still a Winamp hanger-on.

Picard. Standardized ID3 tags across my entire MP3 library to my preference. All new albums go through it before they're filed.

ComicRack + several plugins. Does exactly what Picard does except to my comics instead of my MP3s, plus serves as a browser.
posted by griphus at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Google Calendar, which helped me realize my procrastination was really a time management problem most of the time. After I started plugging in deadlines and set it to email me reminders and a daily rundown, I stopped missing deadlines.

Google Reader -- simply the best RSS feed reader I've found. Saves me loads of time and energy.

Kindle, which, as much as I love Project Gutenberg and free books, means I can take around commercial books and all my annotations wherever I go, has been fantastic. I use it on my Mac and iTouch. I find myself switching away from Twitter and Facebook more often than I used to, just because I have exciting books waiting.

gnome-terminal, -- I love writing and doing other tasks, even surfing the web, in the terminal. Many of the commands I've learned make my job easier. I've written programs that run in the terminal and actually do useful things for me. So that interface has been great.

FOSS-stack applications -- these have replaced TONS of freeware and even commercial apps in my workflow. I even ended up buying two Linux laptops and a dedicated Linux server just because I love being able to apt-get everything I need. I was disappointed to buy a Mac and find that running the same apps was more painful, because they really have been a huge convenience.

One big one there is KeePass -- I don't know about "replaced others apps in the category," but talk about peace of mind...I don't know what I would do now without a password manager.
posted by circular at 11:23 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I live in Seattle, and take the bus. So...

One Bus Away.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:23 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

possibly too trivial for your list, but have saved me a lifetime of aggravation in just a few short months.
posted by Ys at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

As a musician that does a fair amount of arranging and transcribing for high school marching, concert, and jazz bands, Finalé has been the most indispensable program I use on a daily basis. The Cadillac of notation programs, I've been using it since 1.0 arrived in the late eighties. Even with over 20 years of experience, I still don't know half the stuff it can do because it is such a comprehensive application with features hidden in every nook and cranny.

Others might place Sibelius in the same category. I just started with Finalé and have continued to do so because most of my clients and colleagues use it as well.

To even think about returning to hand-written manuscript would be taxing to the mind and cause me to spend way more in paper because of the sheer number of errors in transposition, rhythmic spacing, etc...

As a runner-up in this question, at least for me, would be the computer aided drill design programs. Pyware is the industry standard in choreography on a grand scale. Used by high school and college bands for their pregame and halftime shows, drum corps, winterguards, and indoor drumlines use the software as well. This software was also used to plan the winter olympics opening ceremony several years ago.
posted by bach at 11:32 AM on August 28, 2010

TightVNC. Soothes anxiety, enables casual telecommuting.
posted by tintexas at 11:41 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alarm Clock (os x only). I now never wake up to the god awful screeching of normal alarms.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 11:43 AM on August 28, 2010

any command line
posted by tracert at 11:58 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have friends who swear by Remember The Milk.

Lately, I've been using Nirvana. It's the first GTD app that seems to be "sticking" for me, thanks to the "just right" level of complexity. It's not as perfect as the name implies, but it's the first one that's worked for me.

I'm a recent convert to the Fluid site-specific browser. Pulling GMail and GCal into their own dock icons has made my life a tiny bit simpler and more elegant. Chrome has a similar functionality built-in for Windows users. Mozilla's Prism, though once promising, appears to have been abandoned.

XMarks. Bookmarks seamlessly synchronized across every browser, device, and computer on the planet. "Profiles" feature also lets you selectively choose which bookmarks show up where (ie. no Facebook toolbar icon at work).

Dropbox. File Synchronization and cloud storage that. just. works.
posted by schmod at 12:19 PM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Keystroke-based program launchers like Launchy (Windows) or Quicksilver (OSX).

Similarly, Everything (Windows only) lets you search NTFS drives, displaying the results as you type. It supports regular expressions and custom filters.
posted by seikleja at 12:20 PM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not a program per se, but syncing my calendar to my mobile phone has made life more manageable.
posted by theora55 at 12:21 PM on August 28, 2010

CoolPreviews which is (unfortunately) only available for Firefox. It makes surfing ecommerce sites and checking out links embedded in Google Reader (to name just a few uses) so much easier!
posted by DrGail at 12:26 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anki - a flashcard program
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Gimp. It's every bit as powerful as Photoshop and it's free. I use four or five different computers through the course of a day, and it's handy to have a good image editor on all them.

That said, Gimp is really different from Photoshop; fortunately it's well-documented and there are some great Gimp books available.
posted by workerant at 12:40 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

VirtualBox has changed the way I think about operating systems (as something to try out and tinker with, rather than as essential plumbing to be left alone if working properly), and Python has recently replaced Perl in my affections (both very definitely in the "solving problems you didn't know you had" category).

And like others in this thread, the electronic calendar. First on a Handspring PDA, then a Palm (specifically the Pimlico calendar), then integrated with Outlook / Exchange (which I have to use at work) which made it accessible from the web. I can schedule and check appointments at home, at work, using my iPod, etc.
posted by nja at 1:48 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That said, Gimp is really different from Photoshop;

There is also GimpShop, which mirrors the menu structure of Photoshop.
posted by craniac at 2:18 PM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

For plain text editing, I found Textpad about 10 years ago when I started learning Perl. I spend more time using it than any other app. It is fantastically useful (as is Perl of course).

Firefox with Xmarks and Firebug is a great combination and indispensable. Add a fast internet connection, a good search engine and Wikipedia and the world is my oyster.

Winamp changed how I listen to music forever. It's simple and it works.

Microsoft's OneNote didn't seem like a big deal at first, but it's slowly been growing on me for a few years now. When I do a lot of research on something, it all goes in OneNote.

Snagit and Adobe Acrobat Pro were both apps I installed for a one-time use but they ended up growing on me. I now use them pretty much every day.

Lastly, GPS of any sort with points of interest is a life changer. I'm not sure how I managed to get anywhere before GPS (and especially before Google maps or Mapquest).
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 2:48 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't want to do my job without UltraEdit.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:10 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

VMware - being able to run multiple OSes on a single computer is so handy. I use vmware workstation for testing stuff out on my desktop with messing up my primary OS, and unzipping/extracting questionable files - try to infect my machine? Who cares, it's a virtual computer, reboot and its reset back to before. I also use vmware server (a friend uses ESXi) - both free, and I can have a linux server with all my files on, and leave virtual windows programs running overnight in my 'free' bandwidth slot. Great for 7GB steam games. I even have a virtual media centre running with a USB tv tuner, so I only ever have to leave one quiet box running.

Remember the milk - the best part is the android app - it has a really nice iphone app too. Best task management app that works across computers, phone, everything, sync'd up automagically. Uses google gears in chrome to give you a 'local' app on your desktop if you want.

Evernote - I use the web-clipper most. No more bookmarks, now I evernote the bit of the page I'm actually after, and it's all stored away online, autosyncs to every computer, and is easily fulltext searchable. It's to bookmarks and 'stuff' and 'snippets' as gmail is to email archiving. It even text searches in images. (I took a photo of a pc serial label on my android phone, uploaded it to evernote, and was able to find it a couple of weeks later just from the the make of the pc that was on the label).

Dropbox - file sync across multiple computers. Flawless, free, it Just Works. Wuala is little more rough, but it maps as a drive letter, and you can get more storage.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:20 PM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

FastStone Capture - easy and powerful screenshot tool; lifesaver.
posted by Enki at 3:34 PM on August 28, 2010

Git revolutionized my professional life.

And, for the Mac, Jumpcut and Zoom/2.
posted by nicwolff at 3:46 PM on August 28, 2010

I love music and audiobooks so my life is made more wonderful by Goldwave and Tunebite.
posted by bjgeiger at 3:48 PM on August 28, 2010

There is also GimpShop, which mirrors the menu structure of Photoshop.

Gimpshop is a buggy mess and, judging by the amount of spam in their forums, probably abandoned. I'd wager it's based on an older, buggier version of Gimp to begin with and hasn't been updated to keep up. Despite any UI difficulties, much better to get used to regular GIMP.

At the risk of being a Google schill, ditto Reader, Gmail, & Calendar.
Also ditto VLC & textpad.
A decent alternative to textpad is Notepad++.

For debugging CSS (it's useful for other stuff, but I use it mainly for css), the firebug addon for firefox and, not quite as full featured or easy to use, the developer tools (for IE8) and developer toolbar (for IE7) are indispensable.
posted by juv3nal at 4:15 PM on August 28, 2010

Google Voice --
*voice-mail on steroids
*free text messaging
*easy contact management
*different messages to different people, or groups of people (ie can have one message for family members, another for work related calls)
*the ability to shunt unwanted callers directly to voice-mail or to never-never land, with a msg saying "This number is no longer in service"
*free (thus far, anyway) long-distance in US and Canada, very inexpensive to other countries
*voice-mail transcription, and sent to your email
*ability to forward voice-mails through email ie I can send a voice-mail from one business contact to another, saving me trying to explain the clients need

Voice interacts very nicely with Google calendar and GMail. I've not totally given in to Voice -- I want to port over two numbers that I've had a long while, one since 1992, one since 1997, so I have dead-headed one of those into a Vonage acct ($10 a month, sends emails telling me if/when I have messages, in fact it emails the msgs to me).

*IrfanView hasn't 'changed my life' but it's been on every puter I've had since I found it
*VLC maybe hasn't changed my life but it's what I use on every puter since I found it
*Firefox -- no one has mentioned Firefox? The best software on planet, totally configurable
**any number of the add-ons for Firefox -- I puke when surfing the net without the ad-blocks especially but also like many other sweetnesses
*Opera -- for anything that Firefox chokes on for whatever reason
posted by dancestoblue at 4:32 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Upon review:
Link to IrfanView

And yeah, Notepad++ is sweet, too
posted by dancestoblue at 4:35 PM on August 28, 2010

vim - Text editor par excellence !

I use it most days of my working life, have done for seven years and it still makes me smile .
posted by southof40 at 4:36 PM on August 28, 2010

The Sleep Cycle alarm clock. I installed it on my iPhone almost six months ago and it's changed how I sleep. I've been able to see why I am still tired when I wake up after several hours of sleep, thanks to the graphs that show just how many times I woke up during the night, even though I didn't remember. It also broke my habit of snoozing the alarm 10-20 times (not joking) before getting up. I'm still not a morning person, but it makes waking up early a lot less painful.
posted by Fuego at 4:41 PM on August 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

posted by scruss at 5:37 PM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


It puts all other reference management software to shame. More than anything else, it's what keeps me tied to Macs.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:48 PM on August 28, 2010

I love Visor on my Macs. I can access my terminal using command+\. I'm a System Administrator, so I use it all day every day, weekends included.

Google Reader. It's a great RSS reader. There would be no way to keep up with the number of feeds I have without it.

Instapaper - Great for long form articles you don't have time to read (generally form Google Reader.) It and the iPad were made for each other.
posted by elcainos at 6:26 PM on August 28, 2010

Org-Mode. After seeing it mentioned here on Metafilter recently I took a look and, basically, it's exactly what I've been looking for for many years as a way to organize information and projects, but was never able to find after trying many other programs.

Password Safe, for managing passwords. I've used various approaches and software for this in the past, but Password Safe gets it right.

Google Maps (and Google Earth). The ability to see satellite pictures of just about anywhere has changed the way I get to know new places (and learn more about places I already know). Of course now there are plenty of competitors with this feature as well, but when it was new it was amazing.
posted by Emanuel at 7:17 PM on August 28, 2010

2nding Vim with a bunch of plugins, some of them my own. Chrome after I tried it and realized that Firefox (on many sites) works as if it's running on a 5hz cpu instead of 2Ghz cpu. I really love AutoHotkey (many different scripts, some of them my own) when I use windows. Xplorer2x, also when on windows. A good command line shell, I use zsh now but bash is ok too. Python interpreter. That's about it I think.
posted by rainy at 8:35 PM on August 28, 2010

Life-changing? Only a few things come to mind:
vim. Nothing else comes close.
screen. I need to leave that job running and check later? And I don't want to screw with VNC? No problem.
pinboard. Because bookmarks on one computer isn't enough (and emailing around links is awful).

LaTeX made a huge difference for me during my college years, and the first few years of professional life (but not after).
posted by base_16 at 9:16 PM on August 28, 2010

Not a techie, but the iPad has changed my life.....when Apple first announced it, I was 'meh'. But after having one for a week, I'm floored. I take the damn thing everywhere.
posted by rtodd at 9:34 PM on August 28, 2010

I find the Opera browser indispensable, but it may be because of my particular situation. I have a Windows machine at home and a Linux machine at work, and aside from regular web browsing, I use Opera as my main email client (mail server is IMAP, so everything is on the server) -- but more than that, it synchronizes my bookmarks and notes (built-in notepad). So, basically, I always have quick access to my email, my bookmarks, and random notes on any of my computers, regardless of operating system.
posted by spiderskull at 12:28 AM on August 29, 2010

Buienradar or your local precipitation/weather radar site. It's become a standard check before stepping on my bike (which, living in Groningen, is basically every day). Of course, it won't stop the rain, but it makes it easier to avoid the rain.
posted by Harry at 2:58 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The command line. It encouraged me to learn basic Perl and scripting, and was a useful tool on the Linux platform. It still comes in handy in Terminal on the Mac, and seems more intuitive than Quicksilver.

As much as I hate to admit it, Microsoft Office. The autocorrect feature in Word beats spellcheck in Vim hands-down, and businesses appreciate the compatibility of .docx files. But the complexity and feature-heavy interface is stifling.

On the topic of Microsoft, how about a shout-out to the other software package with "silver" in it, "Silverlight," the streaming app used by Netflix and other services? It's a wonky program, but streaming movies on a computer is a fun time-waster at the end of the day.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:24 AM on August 29, 2010

iBooks. This app (for my iPhone 4) has been a godsend to me from day 1. I've downloaded a huge number of books from the Project Gutenberg collection, and I'm compiling a list of books I still want to get. I'm a bookworm at heart, and an app like this that lets me carry around dozens of books in my pocket makes me wonder why I didn't spring for an iPhone before now.
posted by Telpethoron at 5:08 AM on August 29, 2010

I really like the free Windows file search utility Agent Ransack which I use many times every day to search through source/config files/database exports etc. There's no indexing involved, it just searches through whatever you point it at. I reach for it almost as instinctively as going to Google to look information up on the web.

Another thing that I have found useful is the Task List in Microsoft Outlook; if you need to have Outlook running all the time anyway it's so easy to quickly switch into it, do Ctrl-Shift-K and add a one line task description. I feel much more organized since I've got into the habit of doing this.

Also, another vote for the excellent Notepad++.
posted by tomcooke at 6:30 AM on August 29, 2010

HyperCard. Discovered it when I was in my early teens, and got absolutely hooked on making "programs" on it. There's no question in my mind that my current career in programming can be traced along a route that started with HyperCard.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:28 AM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Email clients in general, Apple Mail in present particular.
posted by Mertonian at 9:21 AM on August 29, 2010

I second Anki. I never thought a spaced repetition program would make such a great difference for learning things. I cannot imagine learning without it (or another SRS) anymore.

I also really like f.lux, which makes the color of your computer's display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.

Thanks seikleja for suggesting Everything! I gave up on desktop search apps because they ate up all my resources and/or seemed not worth it, this is lightweight enough to keep running and it is so much faster than Agent Ransack (which is a great program in itself).
posted by davar at 9:22 AM on August 29, 2010

Notational Velocity along with Simplenote. Random thoughts, ideas, articles, everything goes into this system. Simple, light weight, super fast, plain text, everywhere.

That combination has saved me from the utter hell that is evernote.
posted by justgary at 12:54 PM on August 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

On windows:
- dropbox
- everything
posted by motdiem2 at 1:25 PM on August 29, 2010

Screen. I knew what it did, but didn't really figure understand why I should really care. Later I decided to invest my time learning and it's great.

A small, simple one: a timer app on my phone. We have lots of timers in the house. Laundry, microwave, and ovens. I often leave earshot of them, leading to the occasional burnt pizza or a load of laundry unfinished. Because I have the phone with me at all times, it's no longer a problem. I kinda wish there was a bluetooth communication system for this, but it's the next best thing. What happens though, is you start finding more places where you can use it. Set a timer for an hour of video games.

Yahoo Pipes!. It's like greasemonkey for websites. It's best of class in the "mashup" category, but still has implementation problems. And I may or may not be responsible for a popular 20 stage branching pipe that gives them all kinds of trouble. It's quite amazing to be able to take a crappy feed and "fix" it. No more out of place quote origins in the freakonomics feed. RSS feeds with inline'd comic strips! I think it's a ripe ground for to take over.
posted by pwnguin at 1:51 PM on August 29, 2010

Keynote PIM
Tablet PC operating system
posted by chinabound at 6:56 PM on August 29, 2010

Fitday (the desktop version).

Any personal wiki, currently Luminotes (sadly abandoned, but you can get the source code).

Microsoft Excel. Seriously.

Total Commander.

Windows Live Sync or Dropbox.
posted by gakiko at 11:24 PM on August 29, 2010

>What single software application has been a life-changer for you?

2nding Total Commander - the only way to drive a Windows PC.
midnight commander for *nix
The Journal
Any VPS - makes running your own servers affordable

Great question - some interesting apps to go out and take a closer look at
posted by w.fugawe at 12:23 AM on August 30, 2010

Wot, no emacs? Started as an undergrad, still using it a quarter of a century later. Multiplatform, every feature I've ever needed, and it even looks efficient next to the larger IDEs I see today.
posted by mdoar at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2010

Since I installed GeburtstagsChecker a number of years ago, I have never missed a friend's or family member's birthday. There are millions of similar utilities, but it's the least intrusive I've found, and does exactly what I need.
posted by Sibrax at 2:57 PM on August 30, 2010

+1 for Everything

Also check out Sublime Text, it's my favorite Windows text editor.
posted by A Kingdom for a Donkey at 9:45 AM on August 31, 2010

NoMachine NX for remoting into Unix machines. So much faster and cleaner than VNC, and uses ssh to encrypt all traffic, rather than the gamish of encryption schemes in the various VNCs or X tunneling.

+1 for Passwordsafe.
+1 for VLC.

Instead of Gimpshop (on Windows), use Paint.NET. It's not as powerful but does 99% of what the average user will want to do.

Graphpad Prism for lightweight statistics and clean graphs that can actually lure non-statisticians away from using Excel.
posted by benzenedream at 10:40 AM on September 1, 2010

Scrivener is an incredible writing tool, and I wouldn't have been able to finish grad school without it. I still use it for banging out longer blog entries and freelance writing projects. (OS X only, I'm afraid.)

TED, or torrent episode downloader, does exactly what the name says. Along with XBMC, you'll never miss cable TV or Tivo.

Adblock Plus will hide every ad on the web. Enough said, I'm sure.

Things for iPhone and OS X is the only task management system that took, and I've tried lots of them. It is exactly as simple or sophisticated as you choose to make it.
posted by PM at 4:44 PM on September 2, 2010

Very late to the party, but Ubuntu Linux (obviously).
Makes anything from Bill look like the steaming pile of crap that it is!
posted by humpy at 10:17 AM on September 4, 2010

Stellarium made me an amateur-amateur-astronomer within a week.

Another life-changer was the program I found when I googled "Kazaa sucks" ten years ago.
posted by mahershalal at 2:42 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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