It’s great Windows ships with a pile of included apps for everything from taking notes to viewing media files, but they usually aren’t the best options out there. Here are our favorite alternatives to the default Windows applications.
Why Change the Built-in Windows Apps?
Why move away from using built-in Windows apps? While the apps included with Windows are great for those times, you just need to do something quickly now and then—like record a brief audio clip or look at a picture or two—they often begin to show their limitations as you move into power user territory and really begin to lean on them.
All of our suggestions below are upgrade options that each offer one or more improvements over the vanilla way of doing things in Windows. They’re a great way to get more out of your experience. And the best part is that you don’t have to uninstall the old Windows apps. You can simply start using them, perhaps changing file associations if need be. Don’t like them? Just switch back or try a new alternative. Our suggested apps work great on Windows 10 and Windows 11.
Finally, two quick notes before we dive in. First, all of our suggested alternatives are free to use unless noted otherwise. Second, rather than list the specific application name our suggestions are replacing, we opted to list the general function.
Between Windows versions, there have been some odd naming choices (and even outright application replacements). But our picks stand the test of time, and we still prefer them over whatever various updates have been thrown our way.
Text Editing: Notepad++
If you just need to open a text document once in a blue moon, then maybe you can get by without ever upgrading from notepad.exe to something fancier.
But we have pretty strong opinions around here about Notepad. If you’re using Notepad for anything more than the absolute most basic text functions, you really owe it to yourself to upgrade to Notepad++.
And if you’re using Notepad as a catch-all note-taking system, seriously consider looking at OneNote. It’s not a third-party alternative to Notepad as it’s a Microsoft product, but it’s such a better solution for taking notes, making lists and organizing your life than Notepad alone.
File Search: Everything
Windows file search is slow. Really, agonizingly, slow. If you need deep text and metadata search you’ll have to put up with the slowness (as even alternatives that provide the same kind of in-depth search are also pretty slow).
But if you only use Windows file search to search for files and folders based on their names, then I insist you check out Everything. It’s a Windows file search alternative that uses file tables to perform lightning-fast file and folder searches.
It’s so fast the first time you use it you’ll be startled by the speed. I love the speedy little app so much I’ve been using it since Windows XP and can’t imagine using Windows without it.
File Explorer: OneCommander
There’s nothing wrong with the basic Windows file explorer. But if you’re a power user, slinging files this way and that, you’ll quickly get tired of switching folders, trying to tile folders side by side, or otherwise forcing Windows file explorer to bend to your power user needs. In those situations, you need an upgraded file manager.
OneCommander is like Windows file explorer on steroids. You’ll enjoy folder tabs, multi-pane views for easy folder management, favorites, color-based tagging to assist visual organization, rich file views, easy file previewing, and more.
If there’s a useful way to view and organize files there’s a good chance OneCommander has it. You can, for example, turn on color-coded file ages so you can at-a-glance see which files have been recently created or modified and which have been sitting idle for weeks, months, or years. It’s a powerful tool for people who do serious work with their files.
File Copy: Teracopy
If there is one phrase I have said the most over the years while using the default Windows file handler, it’s “What the hell is happening here?” Even with the upgrades to the file copy function over the years it’s still lackluster.
Because, let’s be honest here, when you’re moving more than a few files at a time—especially large files or a massive pile of little files—the default Windows file handler feels like a black box. You’re stuck starting the process and just sorta hoping it completes properly without any hangups.
Teracopy solves that problem. It replaces the default Windows file handler, and when you move or copy files, you’re not left wondering what is actually going on but with a proper transfer report, including logging, file checks, and more. Never get stuck wondering where things went wrong or if the little progress bar will ever move, again.
InfranView was created way back in 1996 and, in fairness, it sure looks like it was created in the 1990s. The interface has received a few updates over the years, but there’s nothing 21st-century looking about it.
But don’t let that fool you. InfranView is an absolute workhorse. It will load dozens of image formats lightning fast. You can make basic edits, organize your photos, batch convert images, and even perform basic editing tasks with the application’s built-in tools and the help of plugins.
Whether you just want an incredibly fast image viewer to help you rapidly move through photo directories or you need to do more serious organization work, InfranView is a sure bet.
Years ago, we argued you should replace Windows’ default image viewer with IrfanView, and that argument stands up even today.
We’ve mentioned a few suggestions so far that we’d consider “legendary” tier free apps, like Everything and InfranView, but as far as name recognition goes it’s tough to hold a candle to VLC.
The free and open-source application will play just about anything you can throw at it. Old movie files you stuffed in a folder a decade ago, new video formats you just downloaded, you name it.
It’ll even play a pile of music formats too. You can even load live streams in, watch DVD videos, and more. It’s like a video and music codec Rosetta Stone, ready to play whatever you have lying around. It really is the Swiss Army Knife of media players.
If you just want to open nearly any audio file under the sun and play it on demand, by all means just grab a copy of the aforementioned VLC. It’ll get the job done.
But if you’re still living your best MP3 life, organizing, tagging, and cataloging your music collection, then grab a copy of Foobar2000. If the combination of the name and date doesn’t give away the early 2000s origins of the app, nothing will. But don’t let that put you off. It’s an older app that still offers an easy-to-use and no-nonsense way to organize, tag, and enjoy your music.
Speaking of tagging, if you have a very large collection of music and you’re breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about manually tagging every single file, do check out MusicBrainz Picard, an absolute powerhouse of music tagging automation.
And finally, if you want something a little prettier than VLC or Foobar2000 can offer, we won’t hold it against you if you opt to take MusicBee or Dopamine for a spin—two very polished-looking music organizers.
Video Editing: Kdenlive
For anyone serious about video editing above the bare-bones level of trimming videos, you need beefier video editing tools than Windows offers.
If you’re sitting down to make serious work of everything from a home video collage for a wedding or a work project you somehow got volunteered for, Kdenlive is an open-source video editor that scales well from small project tinkering to full-on professional work.
Speaking of professional work, if your aspirations are less wedding videos and more Hollywood, consider DaVinci Resolve. It’s a very powerful platform you can use for free at home built on the same bones as the bigger used-in-Hollywood suite Davinci Resolve Studio.
Sound Recording: Audacity
Audacity, another established open-source gem, is the kind of application everyone should download the second they need to do any audio editing on Windows (or any of the other supported operating systems, for that matter).
It’s easy to use, lightyears ahead of basic Windows tools, and whether you need to simply trim some audio files and join them together or do complex mixing, it will help you get the job done.
File Compression: 7-Zip
For opening a zipped file you just downloaded, the built-in compression tool in Windows works just fine. In fact, if that’s all you ever do you may not even realize there is a compression tool—Windows just opens zip files like folders.
But for anything more advanced (including dealing with other compression archive types) you really do need a more sophisticated compression tool. 7-Zip is free, open-source, seamlessly integrated with the Windows shell, can handle over a dozen compression types, and includes a built-in file manager to help you both navigate and build archives.
Screen Capture: Snagit
Windows has a built-in snipping tool that will suffice if you just need it now and then. But if you’re routinely taking screenshots, capturing animations or videos of what is on your screen, or such, you need something more powerful.
TechSmith has been making screen capture software for decades, and it shows in the polish and ease-of-use you get with the Snagit software. It’s dead simple to capture some or all of your screen, quickly crop and annotate it, create animations and video, and even include input from your webcam and/or microphone. From simple snapshots to creating quick clips to help people in your organization learn a new workflow, it has everything you need.
If the $63 price tag is a bit rich for your blood (and the app comes with more features than you need), you can get a lifetime license for FastStoneCapture for $20. And for free-as-in-beer options, check out some lighter alternatives like Flameshot and Greenshot.
Disk Cleanup: CCleaner
Over the years, the built-in Windows Disk Cleanup tools have matured remarkably. From Windows XP to Windows 11, Disk Cleanup has gone from “That’s it?” to “That’s not bad.”
But there has always been room for improvement, and CCleaner has been there since 2003 to fill in the gap—and it just keeps getting better.
The application cleans up the messes other apps create (and leave behind after you remove them), helps clear away the perpetually accumulating detritus Windows, web browsers, and other apps leave behind, and otherwise goes above and beyond what Windows can do by itself.
And, even in cases where there is a way to do what CCleaner is doing using built-in Windows tools, those tools are spread out all over the place and not as straightforward to use.
Windows Snapping: FancyZones
Windows supports basic windows snapping, but there’s nothing too sophisticated or fancy about it. You can shell out for a premium solution like DisplayFusion (which is overkill for a single monitor but a must-have tool for multi-monitor users), but you don’t have to.
For improved window snapping, you can skip the built-in functionality and upgrade it by downloading FancyZones. The lightweight app is part of the Microsoft PowerToys pack, so you can scoop up not just enhanced window snapping but tons of additional upgrades too.
If you’d like to check out another free option, do take a peek at AquaSnap.
Along with disk cleanup, anti-virus is an area where Windows has grown exponentially over the years, from having nothing but third-party solutions to fill in the void to Windows Defender doing a solid job.
But there’s always room for improvement, and Malwarebytes is a fantastic program to run alongside Windows Defender or another antivirus solution. It offers a well-rounded anti-malware experience with a particularly strong showing in the anti-Possibly Unwanted Programs (PUPs) department. We give it high marks all around, especially in the malware/PUP removal department.
Remote Desktop: Team Viewer
Windows’ baked-in remote desktop function isn’t terrible, and millions of people use it daily in personal and, especially, corporate settings.
But if you’re not dealing strictly with knowledgeable users, deploying a remote desktop can be a bit of a hassle. If you’re a regular How-To Geek reader, there is a very good chance you’re the go-to tech support person in your circle of friends and family.
That means you spend a lot of time troubleshooting, a lot of time fielding calls, and when you need to remote desktop into somebody’s PC to figure out what exactly they’re describing—“The files are in the computer!”—then the last thing you want to do is try and walk them through setting up a remote desktop.
This is where Team Viewer really shines. It’s easy to use on your own PC, it’s easy to use on your mom’s PC, and if it isn’t already installed on your mom’s PC, then getting from not-installed to installed is trivial. If you’re a one-person tech support operation, you need it.