Our Hive Five asks readers to identify five of the best tools for any job, then vote for the absolute best. Here’s a look back at the winners from each week in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Every week we pose a question to you, the computer savvy readers of Lifehacker. Tirelessly we search for the next “Which is best?” question and through the hive mind we distill down your thousands of nominations into a list of the top five candidates. You vote on the best of the best and we return the next week to declare a champion.
The following list showcases the winners in each of the categories we covered in the fourth quarter of 2009. If a particular category catches your eye and you’d like to see the other contenders, click on the name of the category to jump to the original Hive Five post, clicking on the name of the winner will take you directly to the winner’s web site.
TweetDeck boasts the ability to monitor multiple social-networking services, in this case Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace. You can fight Twitter spam with a built-in spam monitor, follow topics with saved searches, and preview shortened URLs from within TweetDeck. You can use TweetDeck to manage multiple Twitter accounts from one interface and thanks to web-based TweetDeck accounts you can back up and sync your TweetDeck profile across multiple machines.
SparkPeople is a comprehensive weight-loss web site. A free membership gives you access to a variety of nutritional information and calorie-tracking tools, weight-tracking tools, and the enormous SparkPeople community. Personal pages, like mini-blogs within the SparkPeople site, help you publish your progress and connect with other users who have similar goals. You’ll find no shortage of ways to track and analyze everything from the types of food you eat to the amount of weight you lift-and lose!-in the reports section of the site. SparkPeople is available in a scaled-down mobile version for use on your web-enabled phone or as an iPhone/iPod touch application.
Process Explorer is the free and portable offering from Microsoft. Process Explorer is like the standard task manager on steroids. You still get a list of processes, you still see charts of your usage, but both give you significantly more information and control over the information. Unlike the default manager, Process Explorer makes it easy to track down which file is being held by which program and get to the bottom of computer mysteries like why a certain DLL or DOC file simply cannot be deleted. It also shows which service is performing which function so you’ll never look at a long and repetitive list of Windows system executables that are indistinguishable from each other-every one will be associated with its function.
The Advanced Packaging Tool, a.k.a. APT, is a free tool built into most Linux distributions and many variants that handles the installation, removal, and updating of software packages. APT is a tool that went a long way toward making Linux a bit friendlier to the masses who aren't comfortable installing or compiling software packages on Linux, but it runs from the command line, so it's still not all that friendly to folks joining Linux from the Windows or Mac worlds. That's where Synaptic comes in. Synaptic is a graphical front end to APT that makes the tool wildly more user-friendly, and—yes—it handles checking for and updating software with aplomb. (Folks using Ubuntu, <a href="the most popular Linux distribution among Lifehacker readers, take note: Synaptic will be replaced by the Ubuntu Software Center—another APT-powered update tool—in April of 2010.)
PortableApps is the Grand Daddy of portable application sites. Between John Haller—the founder of the site—and the dozens of developers, packagers, translators, and the hundreds of people that participate in the forums, the sheer number of people working to polish the PortableApps suite has resulted in a very comprehensive package. The PortableApps suite includes basics like Firefox for browsing and Pidgin for instant messaging but also includes—in the full package—Open Office. You could download all the individual portable components separately of course, but what really ties everything together is the PortableApps menu system. Seen in the screenshot above, the menu system is clean, includes a backup utility, and makes organizing your portable apps and documents simple.
A long time coming, Windows finally enhanced the standard taskbar, creating a swanky dock system to call its own. Windows users trying out Windows 7 for the first time are in for an extra big treat-the change from the old taskbar system to the new dock is huge. You can drag and drop to pin shortcuts to the taskbar, Win+# (where the # is the numerical position of the pinned icon) launches the application, and icons also have jump lists associated with them—quick access to routine features and commands for that particular application. Hovering over the icon of a running application gives you a quick peek and the ability to jump to the application or close it. Microsoft was late to the dock party, but at least when they finally rolled it out, they remembered to decorate with streamers and bring a cake.
The free offering from AVG is one of the lightest, feature-wise, among the nominations in the anti-virus Hive Five. That said, if you’re looking for a basic antivirus application that will scan your computer, keep an eye out for spyware, and keep you from visiting malware and virus laden websites (via their LinkScanner protection), AVG is a solid free offering.
Once you install Dropbox, a folder, appropriately called "My Dropbox", is placed in the Documents area of your computer. Anything you put into this folder will be synced with your Dropbox account. You can sync files, share files by making the folder they are in public, and restore a previous version of your file—Dropbox keeps a change log going back 30 days. All your files are also accessible via the Dropbox web site, which is great for those times you're at a computer where you don't have Dropbox installed, but you still want to access a document. If you want to sync a folder without putting it directly inside the main My Dropbox folder, you can do that with a little elbow grease, too. Dropbox doesn’t have an unlimited option like the rest, but if all you want to back up is your most important documents, it certainly works as off-site backup, and it provides data redundancy on every computer you install it on.
CamStudio is a free and open-source offering for the screencasting market. You can record all or part of your screen, customize cursors and text annotations, adjust the quality of the video output, and save screencasts as AVI or SWF files. The interface is easy to understand, and you won’t be overwhelmed with extensive options. In a nutshell, it’s a free and effective tool for creating screencasts without a lot of bulk or expense.
Amazon's wishlist system used to only support items that Amazon or affiliates carried—which, while limited, still gave you access to a large stable of items. When they rolled out the Universal Wishlist and its accompanying Wishlist Button, however, you got the ease of use of the Amazon wishlist system plus the ability to add items to your list that Amazon.com doesn’t carry. Anything from any web site can now be added to your Amazon wishlists, both private and public, using the Wishlist Button. Creating and managing your Amazon wishlist is free.
OneNote is a note-taking and organization tool that many Lifehacker readers have called Microsoft's best product. It's versatile—it's made appearances here, in the best note-taking tools and journaling Hive Fives—and the outlining functionality is well integrated and easy to use. One of the strong points of outlining in OneNote is the way outlines support the same drag and drop rearranging found throughout OneNote. Almost every single element in a OneNote page can be dragged, dropped, or easily manipulated with a context menu—the screenshot above shows an element in the outline right before being dragged into a new slot. Note: If you’re curious about the GTD context in the screenshot, read our guide to getting things done with Microsoft OneNote.
CCleaner isn't strictly a startup management tool. Most people use it to clean out cookies and other undesirable elements and to tidy up the registry. A secondary but helpful tool in CCleaner: it also allows you to delete entries from the startup file—hence its inclusion here. It's a bit of a one trick pony, though; you can't alter, tweak, or insert entries. You can only delete them. Still, it gets the job done if the task you want isn't advanced tweaking, but just to get that annoying program to stop popping up every time you reboot.
The last quarter of 2009 was filled with all sorts of useful tools and software to help you get things done. If reading over the list gave you an idea for the next great Hive Five topic, drop us a line at tips at lifehacker.com. Make sure to include Hive Five Idea in the subject so your idea gets forwarded to gnomes at mission control.