Windows Explorer hasn't always been the most feature-packed of elements inside Microsoft's operating systems. Yet, oddly, it's probably the one part of your Windows version that you use most frequently. But that's not to say that everything is Microsoft's fault. We're often so quick to blame the software giant for what's more a lack of future-proofing than outright failure. In this case, Windows Explorer can't predict what's going to be the next big thing--it can't know that you'll want your photographs easily updated to Maximum Photos someday; it has no idea that you might somehow need to paste a direct link to a file instead of its name or containing folder.
Windows Explorer is, in a word, dumb.
But that's not what we're here to talk about. We're not going to sit around a table and lament about all the features Windows Explorer could have were you one, Bill Gates, and had access to an engineer, or two, or twenty thousand. We're going to go over all the unique little elements that you can build into Windows Explorer right this darn second. I can think of five off the top of my head that are useful additions to your standard interactions with your operating system. They're free, they're awesome, and they're yours for the taking.
Right-clicking on a typical piece of content via Windows Explorer gives you a useful, but limited, number of options for manipulating said content. Lammer Context Menu is like calling up a fifty-person catering squad to serve food for a dinner with you and your cat. It's chock-full of useful features and shortcuts that can all be access via your standard right-click context menu in Windows Explorer. This includes the ability to quickly mount anything as a virtual drive, batch rename files, open up a command prompt at a given directory, and a whole host of parameter-based copying and moving options. And that's just the tip of the contextual iceberg!
I didn't believe in the raw speeds unlocked by the popular freeware program TeraCopy until I tried it. And once I tried it, I became hooked. This little application integrates into your right-click context menu as well, and it's designed to turbo-boost your copying and movement capabilities in Windows Explorer. Not only does it work--a big complement for a program that sounds a wee like snake oil at first glance--but it also comes with a number of other great features that Windows Explorer lacks: pause transfers, resume transfers, and blow past transfers that simply don't work for whatever reason (unlike Explorer, which would automatically kill the whole batch).
Have a whole bunch of empty folders clogging up a particular directory on your hard drive? Not anymore! Fire up the ultra-portable (and ultra-easy-to-use) Vanity Remover, and this little open-source utility will scour said folder in search of directories with nothing in them. When it finds said directories, it will eliminate them. If the totality of its work ends up leaving the actual folder that Vanity Remover resides in empty as well (save for the program, obviously), it will delete itself and said folder in one heroic self-sacrifice. For Spartaaaaa!
Tired of seeing a laundry list of options whenever you right-click inside a folder, in Windows Explorer, and hover your mouse over the "new" option? ShellMenuNew, as the name somewhat implies, allows you to dig deep into your operating system and excise or add these options. Prune your "new" listing to your heart's content and assume control of your overflowing ability to create!
I'm not going to ask what you might use this for; I'm just going to tell you what it does. The helpful-yet-sneaky utility NoDrives Manager allows you to quickly and easily edit the system registry to display or hide any of your system's drive letters. From hard drives, to optical drives, to USB key assignments, you can make it look as if your C:\ drive is the only chunk of files that exists on your system. You won't be able to stop creative users from accessing other drives by typing in the drive letter, but nobody's that crafty, right?
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!