Jazz Up Your Old PC with 15 Free Downloads
Got an aging Windows laptop or desktop computer, but money's too tight to buy a new one? Fret not. There's plenty of life in your old PC. It may seem sluggish and on the point of expiring, and its hard disk may be nearly full to bursting, but there's plenty you can do to clean it up, speed it up and give it new life.
And here's the good news: You can do it all without spending a dime, with these 15 free downloads we've rounded up for you. They'll get you more hard disk space, give your PC an overall tuneup, monitor your hardware for potential problems and more.
Just give your PC this dose of virtual Geritol and it'll soon be as peppy as new. It'll last long enough until the good times roll again and you're in the mood to fork out for new hardware.
Do a Quick-and-Dirty System Tuneup
An easy way to get your PC in better shape is by giving it a one-step system tuneup. The following two programs do everything from stopping unnecessary programs from running at start-up, to fixing Windows Registry problems, to cleaning up the hard disk and more.
Later in the story we'll offer plenty of downloads that each perform one or two system tuneup tasks in depth, but if you want the easiest path to a peppier PC, try one of the all-in-one programs below.
Advanced SystemCare Free
This excellent all-around system cleaner from IObit.com will help keep your PC humming. It takes an "everything plus the kitchen sink" approach, scanning your system for spyware, Registry problems, privacy dangers, and junk files that were once needed by your system but are no longer necessary. You can then tell the program to clean up everything it finds or pick and choose what you want it to fix.
Note that the software will install the Yahoo Toolbar by default, so if you don't want it installed, make sure to uncheck the box during installation.
Works with: Windows 2000/XP/Vista
Glarysoft's do-it-all utility offers plenty of ways to help make sure your old PC keeps running despite the ravages of time. To start, there's a good Registry cleaner, hard disk cleaner, and a shortcut fixer that will correct any shortcut error it finds on your desktop or Start menu. In addition, there's a nice start-up manager that shows every process or program that launches when you log into Windows, and provides details about each, including whether any might be dangerous.
There's more as well, including a lot of tools that won't necessarily extend the life of your PC, but will make it easier to use, or offer you useful features. For example, there's a file shredder, a duplicate file finder and a context menu manager for editing the right-click context menu that appears when you click a file. You'll also find encryption tools, ways to clean up your Internet traces and a lot more.
Works with: Windows 2000/XP/Vista
Editor's note: Got an XP machine? All the software in this roundup is XP-compatible. For even more advice, see How to make Windows XP last for the next seven years.
Rein In Applications
A big cause of PC slowdowns is software that runs in the background or at start-up, often without your knowledge. Unpatched software can also cause problems. Two of the following downloads help you get a handle on sneaky apps, and a third keeps the rest of them properly patched.
This freebie from BillP Studios helps you stop unnecessary programs from running on start-up, and in doing so, speeds up your PC. Run it, and it displays a detailed list of all the programs that start when you boot your PC, including the developer, the file name and much more. Select each program you don't want to run at start-up and click the Disable button.
You'll get a PC that's zippier starting up -- and potentially zippier running as well, because if the programs aren't running in the background, you should have more memory and CPU power available.
The Delayed Start feature is especially nifty. It lets you tell some programs not to launch when Windows boots, and instead delay their launch for up to an hour. Why do that? Because you might not need those programs right away, and by delaying their start, Windows will start up more quickly. Later on, when you need the programs, they'll already be running in the background for you.
There's a lot more to this program, including showing all the services that are running on your PC, displaying all of your ActiveX controls and Internet Explorer helper programs, and showing your scheduled tasks. Examine them all, decide which are unnecessary and disable any you don't need. Again, the result is a smoother-running PC.
Works with: Windows 9x/Me/XP/Vista
One reason that your aging system gets sluggish is that as you install programs and use your PC over time, more and more services and programs end up running in the background without your knowing it. A surprising number of programs invisibly run system updaters, which constantly look for updates to software you're running, without telling you. And there are plenty of other services and programs you run that you don't really need.
Only for the technically inclined, Microsoft's Autoruns is the best way to ferret them all out so you can decide which you want to allow to run and which to stop. It breaks out the list of services into categories -- those that run when you log on, those that are scheduled tasks, those that are Vista gadgets, those associated with Internet Explorer and so on.
You'll see a brief description of each program, its publisher and the program path. To find out more details about any program or service, right-click it and select Search Online; Autoruns does a Google search for the executable so you can find more information.
To stop a service from running, uncheck its checkbox. (This doesn't delete anything; it just stops the service from running.) This is a powerful tool, so before you make any changes with it, do your research so you know you don't need the program or service to be running.
There's also some information here that most people won't need, such as details about dynamic-link libraries. Still, this is a very useful program for advanced users who want to clean out their PCs -- older or not -- and keep them running as fast as possible.
Works with: Windows XP/Vista
Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI)
You already know that to keep your system running well and for a long time, you need to keep it free from viruses, spyware and infections. So you're certainly running security software. But anti-malware software alone can't always keep your system running in tip-top shape. Sometimes the problem is that you're running an application without the latest security patches, and bad guys and bad software can sneak through the holes.
Secunia PSI shuts down those holes. It scans your PC for all the software you have installed, then checks to see if any applications are missing the latest patches. Whenever it finds any, it reports the results. It will also download and install the patches if you ask it to.
It doesn't stop after the initial scan -- it constantly runs in the background, checking when there are new patches available, then tells you when it's time to get them. In downloading the patches, it does more than just keep your PC secure: It also helps it run faster, because patched applications usually run faster than unpatched ones.
Works with: Windows 2000 SP4/XP SP2 or later/Vista
Clean Your Registry
Think of the Windows Registry as if it were your basement -- there are plenty of useful things down there that your house needs, such as plumbing, heaters and boilers, but there's probably plenty of useless junk as well.
In the case of your home, the junk is harmless. Not so with your PC. A junked-up Registry can slow down your system and cause conflicts and freeze-ups. The following free Registry utilities will clean it out and help your PC live longer.
Eusing Free Registry Cleaner
One of the main reasons your PC gets more sluggish with time is that the Registry gets clogged up with old entries left behind by badly behaving software, and with outright bad Registry entries. The problem: It's not humanly possible to find these bad entries and fix them.
This excellent free program does the job for you. Run it, and it looks through your Registry for many different kinds of problems, then shows you what it finds. Select the bad entries you want the program to fix, and it fixes them all.
Don't worry that the program will make a mistake and do damage -- it automatically backs up your Registry and lets you restore your old Registry entries if changing them causes problems.
Works with: Windows 9x/Me/NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista
Auslogics Registry Defrag
Your Registry, just like your hard disk, can become fragmented over time when you install and uninstall programs, change system settings and manually edit your Registry. When you uninstall programs or make changes that delete or alter Registry keys, the Registry's size doesn't shrink because it keeps the space for the keys. So over time, the Registry tends to grow, which can potentially slow down your PC.
This program can potentially make your PC run faster by doing a full Registry defragmentation. It first tells you how fragmented your Registry is and how much more quickly your PC can access your Registry if you defragment it. When you do a defrag, the program restarts your PC. It also creates a Restore Point, so that you can restore your Registry if you run into problems.
By the way, not everyone believes that shrinking the size of the Registry will make a significant performance difference, but it can't hurt to try.
Note: When you install the program, it also installs an Ask.com toolbar by default. If you don't want to have the toolbar installed, uncheck the box next to it before completing your installation.
Works with: Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7
Clean Up Your Hard Disk
As your PC ages, it gets more bloated, full of applications and data you don't really need. This can slow down your PC, and may force you to buy a new hard disk. But with the following free programs, you won't have to do either.
One big cause of software bloat is the trialware, annoying free software, and "craplets" that computer makers put on new PCs, or that you might have inadvertently installed during your Internet travels. Not only does it clog your hard disk, but the software may run in the background without your knowing it, slowing down your PC.
This little program solves the problem neatly. It gets rid of dozens of the most common kinds of junk that PC makers put on your PC, including AOL, Dell URL Assistant, WildTangent Games and trial copies of many common pieces of software. For a full list, go to pcdecrapifier.com/apps.
In addition to removing programs from the list, it will also show you all of the programs on your PC, and ask if you want to remove any.
When you run the program, it asks whether you want to create a Restore Point. It's a good idea to do this before having PC Decrapifier delete programs from your PC, in case you want to revert your system to its previous state. Note, though, that the program's FAQ page says that the Restore Point won't reinstall any software that the program removed; you'll have to do that yourself manually.
Keep in mind that if you've got a very old PC, this software may not work with it. It works only with Windows XP and Vista, not older versions of Windows.
Works with: Windows XP/Vista
Piriform's CCleaner is another excellent tool for unclogging your PC. In fact, it's probably the best piece of software you can find -- whether free or paid -- to unclog your computer's arteries. For a start, it gets rid of cache files and junk files left behind by many applications, including Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat Reader, QuickTime, Windows Media Player, and all the major browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Opera.
Close your browsers and tell it to scan your PC; it reports on what it will clean up, and then cleans up what you tell it to. Often, you'll be able to get rid of hundreds of megabytes of files you don't need. If you think you need a larger hard disk, first run this program -- it may show you that just cleaning up your existing one is all you need.
CCleaner goes beyond cleaning your hard disk, though. It also has a Registry cleaner that kills unused entries and fixes bad ones; will show you what programs automatically run on start-up when you boot Windows; and will let you disable ones you don't need.
When you install the program, it also installs a Yahoo toolbar by default. If you don't want to have the toolbar installed, uncheck the box next to it before completing your installation.
Works with: Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/Vista
Duplicate Music Files Finder
If you're running out of hard disk space, one of the biggest culprits is often music files. Without realizing it, you probably have plenty of duplicates that hog hard disk space and wreak havoc with your media library. For instance, duplicate files often end up in separate areas in your library under different names, and you end up playing them multiple times by accident.
But finding duplicate music files can be very difficult -- the same piece of music may have different file names and not appear to be a duplicate. This program from LC IBros Solutions finds duplicates by doing much more than looking at file names. It also compares file sizes, performs CRC checks and examines ID3 tags to find duplicates. It then deletes them for you.
Works with: Windows XP/Vista
Easy Duplicate File Finder
It's not just media files that fill up your hard disk, which is most likely clogged with plenty of other duplicates as well. Easy Duplicate File Finder scans your system, shows you in detail exactly what duplicates it finds, then lets you clean them one by one or in bulk.
Although all-in-one programs like Glary Utilities include duplicate file finders, this one has far more capabilities. You can specify minimum and maximum file sizes to search for, for example, and it does a more thorough job of examining files to determine if they're duplicates, including doing a byte-by-byte comparison. It can also protect system files so that you don't accidentally delete any vital ones.
Works with: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP/Vista
Running out of disk space, but don't want to spend the money for a new hard disk? Here's a simple solution -- use this free online storage service from Microsoft. You get 25GB of free online space to do anything you want with.
Using the service is exceedingly simple. Just sign up for a Windows Live account and you're ready to go. It's completely Web-based, so you won't have to download and install software. Once you sign up, you can create folders on the site that you can either keep private or share with others. Then upload files to them, and you can get access to those files from any computer with an Internet connection via Internet Explorer 6 or above, Firefox 2 or above, or Safari 3 or above.
Note that you won't be able to use the service if it's a virtual hard drive; you can't save files to it directly from an application. Instead, you'll need to first create the files on your own PC, then upload the files to the service.
After that, you can delete your local files, so that you have extra room on your hard disk. Whenever you want to access your files, just head to the site and they're there.
Got hardware troubles? We've got help. These two freebies will catalog your hardware so that you can more easily troubleshoot it, and monitor your PC's temperature so you can see whether it may overheat.
If you've got an aging PC, you run a chance of running into hardware trouble -- so be prepared to get friendly with tech support, or be ready to do some hands-on work. The first step in any kind of hardware troubleshooting is to know exactly what kind of hardware you've got, and this free program is the best for getting an exceedingly detailed audit of every part of your PC.
It details computer manufacturer, installed RAM, hard disk size, processor type and speed, for a start. But it goes well beyond that. You'll see the maker of your PC's motherboard, hard disk manufacturer, chassis serial number, your PC's service tag, bus type and speed, multimedia devices, whether you've got free memory module slots ... and plenty more as well.
In addition, it provides similar details about your software and Windows installation, including which security hot fixes you've got, which ones you're missing, a list of all user accounts on your PC, the name of your antivirus software and whether it uses real-time scanning, and lots more.
Works with: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP/Vista
One reason that PCs fail is that the system temperature gets too high. Overheated PCs can lead to system hangs and crashes, and ultimately to failures as well. This is particularly true for people who overclock their PCs -- that is, force them to run at faster than their rated CPU speed.
SpeedFan by Alfredo Milani Comparetti, who warns that the program is meant for advanced users only, monitors your PC's system temperature so that you can find out whether you're running into trouble. On some systems, it will also monitor your fan speed and let you adjust the fan speed to better cool your PC. It will also monitor some hard disks to see if they show any signs of impending failure.
Note that SpeedFan can't monitor all hard disks and fans. If your hard disk uses SMART technology, the software will be able to find a great deal of information about it. However, even if your hard disk doesn't use SMART, the software may still be able to get fan speed information as well as some hard disk information. The only sure way to find out is to give it a try. But it's free -- what have you got to lose?
Works with: Windows 9x/Me/2000/XP/Vista
Get a New Operating system
Frustrated with your old operating system but don't want to spend the money to get a new one? No problem. The following file installs Linux as a dual-boot option on your PC for free.
Wubi Ubuntu Installer
Sometimes you want a new PC because you'd like a new operating system, but your PC's processor and RAM can't handle a new one. Here's a way to get the best of both worlds: Use this free program to install a dual-boot version of Ubuntu Linux on your PC.
With it, whenever you reboot, you'll be able to boot either your existing version of Windows, or instead boot Linux. And you won't have to muck around with bootloaders, partitions, special drivers or other kinds of assorted nastiness usually required to get two different operating systems on your PC. Instead, it installs just like a piece of Windows software.
If you haven't installed Linux before, you'll be quite surprised at how peppy it is. It requires much less hardware overhead than Windows, and so is quite fast, even on an older PC. There's also plenty of free software to try out, and it ships with a good deal of free software as well, including the office suite OpenOffice.org.
For more details about how to install and use Linux for Windows users, see my article, " Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows."
Works with: Windows 98/2000/XP/Vista
Preston Gralla is a Computerworld contributing editor.