20 Great Low-Cost Utilities

Your PC is a complicated piece of machinery. It probably has thousands of files, hundreds of folders, and any number of things that can break, disappear, or otherwise behave unexpectedly. Fortunately, there are plenty tools that can help you control the chaos. I looked at four important types of products that everyone should be familiar with: file managers, hard-disk utilities, desktop tools, and performance enhancers. I opted for products that were effective, easy to use, fun to try out, and, most important, free or low-cost.

For those in a hurry, here's a quick rundown of each category and of the most important utilities covered in this article. Our links take you to the Downloads page for each program. Read the full file description there to judge whether it's for you.

File managers help keep your files organized, and they also perform functions that Windows Explorer can't. One of my favorites, PowerDesk 6, includes tools to make managing large numbers of files easier. If you often e-mail large files, you'll want a tool like MasterSplitter that can cut large files up into smaller chunks. (Remember, most mail servers refuse to send large files in one chunk.)

Hard-disk utilities are designed to help you work with the files on your hard drive and manage the drives themselves. Programs like Restoration can recover files that you've accidentally deleted, or Sure Delete can completely erase them so nobody can read your confidential files. If you're selling or donating your PC, Jv16 Power Tools can wipe the hard drives so you don't end up donating your tax returns to an identity thief, and BootItNG allows you to repartition your drive, breaking a single drive up into several smaller logical volumes, so each gets its own drive letter and looks like a separate drive to Windows. This can be really useful in helping to keep data files separate from program files, a strategy that can simplify backups.

Desktop tools help you manage applications. Whenever you install a new program you're putting your PC at risk because some include spyware or adware that can slow your PC to a crawl. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that help you control what's going on in your computer, spotting programs that shouldn't be there or which are trying to sneak into your startup folder. WinPatrol keeps an eye out for these, warning you when something tries to sneak in, and lets you block it. Startup Control Panel is a simple but useful program that allows you to decide which programs start up with Windows. Keeping down the number that do is a good idea; that will help keep memory free for the programs that really need it.

Performance enhancers help you get the most out of your PC, by enabling you to tweak settings that Windows doesn't normally provide access to. Free RAM XP Pro and RamBooster, for instance, let you manage memory better than Windows alone can do. Sometimes if you're trying to run several applications and you close one, the closed app may fail to release all the RAM it was using. Free RAM and RAMBooster can help you free things up. Cacheman performs similar functions for caches that your PC uses to speed up disk reading and writing, and Motherboard Monitor can check your motherboard's temperature sensors and alert you if components are overheating.

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