Software Toolkit

Last updated: 14 April, 2013

A computer, properly kitted and configured, is now the single greatest ‘force multipler’ that an engineer, scientist, or mathematician has.

Listed below are software tools I have found exceptionally useful, grouped by category. Most of the tools are available freely, and in many cases the source code is also available. Where licensed software provides outstanding value for money and costs are still within individual/student budgets (< USD $50), I have included these and noted the license fee. Stay tuned for a future article that discusses the full toolset and how the elements work together to get your computer to do almost anything you can imagine - either out of the box, or able to be quickly put together by writing quick custom software applications.



  1. Essentials: File Manager, Text Editor, Web Browser, PDF Viewer, Email Client
  2. Handy Desktop Utilities: Elegant Printing, Image Manipulation, Dictionary/Thesaurus, Screenshot Maker, many more.
  3. Handy Utilities for Images, Graphics, Drawing
  4. Audio & Studio Sound
  5. Writing / Publication
  6. Project Management / Collaborative Work
  7. Remote Access/Telephony
  8. Educational


  1. Mathematical Computing
  2. Software Programming & Application Development
  3. Embedded Systems & Hardware
  4. Assembly Language
  5. The C Language
  6. Data Exchange Formats
  7. Website Development


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Essentials: File Manager, Text Editor, Web Browser, PDF Viewer, Email Client

A file manager, text editor, web browser, PDF Viewer, and Email Client underpin the computing environment of most users. For heavy users, efficiency is key and can be achieved by a judiciously configured combination of File Manager, Text Editor, Browser, Email Client, and PDF Viewer along with a few essential utilities.

  • Total Commander (unrestricted shareware, Windows only): TC is an outstanding orthodox file manager with a plethora of built-in capabilities and an extensive user-community contributing useful, mature, stable plug-ins.

    Any third party tool that isn’t part of Total Commander can be readily attached using TC’s fully configurable button bar and menu systems. All of this means consolidation of your software toolkit into an single efficient, platform, and a serious reduction in the number of “screwdriver utilities” needed for most jobs.

    Conveniences include built-in packer/unpacker, FTP client, full Regex search, full-featured file difference comparator, fine-grained directory synchronization, built-in command line, batch file processing capability, multi-file renaming, comprehensive file viewer (extensible to allow quick viewing of various images, Office documents, pdfs, syntax-highlighted text, and others), and literally hundreds of small efficiencies brought about through exceptional design and bullet-proof stability.

    My TC configuration files.

    Official TC Add-ons and Plugins(free).

    User-community of TC Add-ons and Plugins (free).

    (For Mac or Linux, try muCommander.)

    Other two-panel orthodox file managers in the same genre but having prettier, modern-looking interfaces, and a shallower learning curve than Total Commander, are below. If you’re new to orthodox file managers, you might want to start with one of these.

  • NotePad++ : open-source, rapidly advancing professional text editor with many of the features and capabilities of UltraEdit and other award winning text editors — but free.

    Includes: syntax highlighing for large collection of languages + user configurable, code folding, recordable macros, cloned views, selectable shortcuts, tabbed documents, and a host of other capabilities.

  • Firefox Browser : with the significant performance improvement of the Mozilla engine, Firefox is still one of the better browsers. Although there are hundreds of plugins, many are just treacle in your browser’s workings and are best avoided. A few, however, are so effective that really, they should just be built into Firefox itself:

  • PDF Xchange Viewer : this is a free PDF Viewer that is better than the ubiquitous, but crippled, Acrobat Reader. PDF Xchange Viewer is considerably faster and has a host of annotating, editing, and other features that you have to pay for in Adobe’s non-free software. Note! (new in 2016) – PDF Xchange Viewer has a Portable version.

    (Note: when installing, DECLINE the offer to use the ASK search engine. Other than that minor marketing pitch, this software is outstanding.)

  • PDFill’s PDF Tools : this is a free PDF Toolkit for splitting documents, inserting pages, rotating pages, cropping pages, and other various manipulations of your PDF files.
  • Primo PDF : outstanding PDF printer driver. (requires .NET 2.0 or better)
  • Thunderbird Email Client : everyone has their preferences. I prefer having my mail on my hard-drive, written in a non-proprietary ASCII format, easily importable/exportable between Windows and UNIX mail readers, and recoverable in the event of corruption.

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Handy Desktop Utilities

  • FinePrint : an elegant print driver handling everything from reformatting to preview, page insertions/deletions, many-to-one page consolidation and booklet printing. Works with any printer. Saves the environment, your eyes, and your filing system. Not free, but worth the investment. [Free alternatives are Sav-a-Page and iPrint]
  • WordWeb Dictionary & Thesaurus : convenient, fully functional free desktop dictionary and thesaurus with pronunciation.
  • Rainlendar Calendar : Lightweight calender TSR program that can be activated and de-activated with a single click, show two months side-by-side, stay “On Top” or not, and do so semi-transparently for non-intrusive reference. With the clock and calendar Gadgets in Windows 7, this is no longer as useful as it once was (Windows XP).
  • CS Diff: Visual File Differencing Utility
  • Internet Fax options single use to monthly subscription. Also: FaxFresh

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Handy Utilities for Images, Graphics, Drawing

  • IrfanView : free, powerful software in a light-weight container. Once you use IrfanView, you avoid having to drop into slow-loading, proprietary graphics applications for many common imaging transformations.
  • Batch resizing of images. Image Resizer PowerToy for Windows 7 or Vista, 32- or 64-bit
  • Image Compare: A Graphical Diff Utility
  • Color Selector: indispensable for web-developers and graphics designers
  • ScreenRuler : a free, versatile way of measuring separation distances on screen, in pixels, millimeters, centimeters, inches.
  • ArtWeaver : (freeware) a useful advancement from the MS Paint of WinXP and earlier, with layers, modular design, and a selection of drawing that digitally replicate a professionl studio artist’s toolkit with stunning accuracy.
  • Microsoft Paint : for operating systems WinXP and earlier, mspaint is “that old, tired classic”, awkward and yet available on every windows computer, useful for a quick manipulation, but not conducive for substantial drawing projects.

    Note: with Windows 7, Microsoft has given mspaint a sizeable facelift. It is now fresher, easier to use, has a full undo/redo stack (finally!), and features a limited selection of decently replicated brush styles.

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Audio & Studio Sound

  • VLC: Universal Media Viewer : cross-platform, open-source, universal media player
  • Audacity: Audio Editor / Studio Recorder Professional quality audio editor and recorder allowing the recording of multiple tracks, with professional grade metronome, the availability of a variety of convincing distortion effects, filtering, and, best of all, export to MP3 format.

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Writing / Publication

  • LaTeX : the free, professional grade typesetting engine that efficiently produces the journal quality papers of almost every working mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist. Working scientists the world over owe a debt of gratitude to Don Knuth, the brilliant perfectionist whose decades long obsession has put the power to communicate complex ideas simply into the hands of everyone with a little perseverance.
  • KompoZer / Nvu : full-featured, open-source WYSIWYG HTML Editor. The successor to the popular NVU. Built around the Mozilla Gecko engine.
  • WordPress
  • Microsoft Office and (formerly) Sun’s OpenOffice
  • Notepad++ Professional Text Editor (see above)

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Project Management and Collaborative Work

  • Gantt Project: lightweight, free, Gantt chart creator utility. Imports/Exports with Microsoft Project. Exports / Publishes to HTML, PNG, CSV. Can customize logos and branding by replacing stock images with your own.
  • GoToMeeting
  • Subversion, with the Tortoise Front End
  • PmWiki
  • FogBugz : The light-weight name belies a beautifully designed issue tracking collaborative development system that incorporates the insights of software development guru Joel Spolsky (his company, his product, his design).

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Remote Access / Telephony

  • Ultra VNC : (freeware) – powerful and flexible VNC client
  • GoToMeeting : (pay for service) – an easy to use collaborative meeting platform that is worth the cost for the ease with which it brings farflung collaborators together doing meaningful collaboration that requires interacting with the same documents, pictures, and diagrams.
  • FogCreek Copilot : – easy, quick, painless way to help fix / troubleshoot someone’s computer problems from far away. Free on weekends.
  • Skype : – one of the easiest, clearest, well-designed VoIP (Voice Over IP) applications. Free between Skype users. Remarkably low cost to landlines around the globe (from your PC).

    [If you’re using Skype, invest in a good microphone headset, such as the ones by Logitech. For that extra feeling of closeness, use a webcame. If your computer is not already equipped with one, or if you need a more higher powered webcam, this, also by Logitech, is a standout.]

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  • Typing Tutor Decent freeware typing tutor, by Kiran Reddy. Good testing facilities, good instruction, good design, and a selection of typing games for motivated learning.

Technical (Mathematics, Software & Hardware Engineering)

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Mathematical Computing

  • R (Open Source S-Plus) Already an academic standard in Statistics, Plotting, Signal Processing, Data Analysis; rapidly gaining mindshare in industry as well.
  • Maxima (Open Source Mathematica / Maple): for Symbolic Computation. This article gives you everything you need to get started on Windows, Linux, or Mac, including download links, reference sheets, and application notes.
  • Octave (Open Source Matlab) : Matrix Computations, Signal Processing, Wavelets, and much more.
  • GeoGebra (Open Source Geometer’s Sketchpad) : Plane Geometry and Algebra Visualization and Exploration toolbox. Excellent for education.
  • GraphViz (AT&T Research) : Open source automated planar rendering of complex graphs and networks, captured elegently in a plain text markup language. Excellent for network diagrams, and complex software design diagrams.
  • HEXelon MAX : Flexible scientific, mathematical, electrical engineering calculator with the best presentation and most comprehensive presentation of unit conversions I have seen in a stand-alone desktop application.
  • GSL (Gnu Scientific Library) : free, open source, high-quality numerical libraries for everything offered by Numerical Recipies, and more. With bindings from a variety of systems and rapid scripting languages including Ruby, Python and Perl.

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Various Programming & Application Development

  • Python
  • Forth
  • Ruby
  • Perl
  • PHP
  • AutoIt (Automation)
  • OpenGL (graphics)
  • VRML (simulation)
  • SQL (database manipulation and access)

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Assembly Language

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C Language

  • tcc (Tiny C Compiler) (Fabrice Bellard)
  • gcc (Gnu C Compiler)
  • MinGW (Open Source Gnu environment for C, C++, Objective-C programming on Windows)

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Embedded Systems & Hardware

  • MicroChip: makers of PIC controllers and system-on-chips.
  • PC/104, PC/104+ (a world of embedded capability for rapid integration)
  • Digital Works : — see the article Learning for Embedded Systems Development for download links and discussion.
  • MentorGraphics PADS
  • SolidWorks
  • Rhino CAD
  • Spice

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Data Exchange Formats

  • CSV (Comma Separated Values)
  • YAML
  • XML

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Web Site Development

  • DNS Tools
  • Domain Registrar
  • Hosting Company
  • Fantastico
  • Awstats
  • Feedburner

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