Utility software

Top 15 Free Tools for Every Windows Desktop

If you haven't looked at the Windows utilities landscape lately, you're in for a big surprise. Many of the old favorites have changed, bringing new features to Windows 7, as well as XP. Others have fallen by the wayside, replaced by upstarts that deliver meaningful functionality that once cost big bucks.

But where to begin? After all, there is almost no end to the number of tools offered for Windows desktops. To help guide you on your quest to find the best free tools available for Windows, I poured through reviews, sifted through hundreds of websites, and canvassed Windows-savvy customers and colleagues to see which products actually help Windows users work faster and free up time for more important things in their business day -- and in their lives.

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I've boiled the recommendations down to 15 utilities that belong in every Windows user's bag of tricks. They're all free for personal use; many are free for corporate use as well.

Even if you figure Windows does everything you need, take a minute to see if something here tickles your fancy. Unless you run Windows inside a locked Faraday shield, I bet you'll find a program or two that'll make your life easier.

Top free tools for Windows: Dropbox

Download: Dropbox

Purpose: Multiple-computer/phone/cloud file duplication

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003; Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Web interface

Cost: Free up to 2GB; $9.99/month for 50GB; $19.99/month for 100GB

Here's how hard it is to transfer files from computer to computer to phone to the Web, and keep them all updated: Install Dropbox on your computer (Windows, Mac, Linux) or mobile phone (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry), then drag any file you want to share to the box.

Dropbox takes care of the rest, automatically copying the files in the designated dropbox folder onto dropboxes on all of the linked computers and phones, and leaving an additional copy on the Web, where you can access your files through any Web browser. Of course, usernames and passwords are required, and computers and phones are updated only when attached to the Internet. But once Dropbox is set up, you can stick your files in this one common location and have them magically replicated almost anywhere.

You can even set up "public" dropboxes and send the Web address to friends, who can then look in your dropbox.

Top free tools for Windows: SyncToy

Download: SyncToy

Purpose: File synchronization

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003; 64-bit version available

Cost: Free

Microsoft's free SyncToy originally appeared as part of the Windows XP PowerToy package. While most of the old XP PowerToys passed on to the big bit bucket in the sky, SyncToy has been improved regularly. The latest version takes advantage of Ray Ozzie's Sync Framework. SyncToy 2.1 has been around for almost a year, and it works amazingly well.

To use SyncToy, pick two folders. Let's call one "Left" (for reasons manifest in the screenshot below) and the other "Right." Here's what you can do:

* Synchronize: New files, along with files that have changed since the last Synchronize, are copied between the Left and Right folders. If a file has been renamed or deleted in one, it's renamed or deleted in the other.

* Echo: New and changed files are copied left to right, with renamed and deleted files on the left renamed or deleted on the right.

* Contribute: Same as Echo, but deletions on the left are not deleted on the right.

Top free tools for Windows: System Information for Windows

Download: System Information for Windows

Purpose: Hardware and software inventory

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003

Cost: Free for personal use; corporate 10-license pack, $99.95

Over the years I've used many programs to retrieve software license keys, identify hardware, measure temperatures, and fan speeds; run down memory chip details; and monitor CPU and network loads. Now, finally, I've found one program that does it all -- and cleans my glasses.

System Information for Windows (SIW) reports three separate data categories:

* Software, including file associations, ActiveX controls, and file name associations

* Hardware, such as BIOS version, video and sound adapters, CPU details

* Network, including neighborhood devices, shares, and open ports

There are hundreds of individual entries, all neatly arranged with a tree on the left of the screen.

Caveat: The SIW setup routine recommends that you install a Registry cleaning program called Registry Reviver. I've long felt that the benefits of Registry cleaners are greatly overshadowed by the problems they sometimes cause. (That's also why you won't see any registry cleaners in this list.)

Top free tools for Windows: Recuva

Download: Recuva

Purpose: File undelete

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003

Cost: Free

File undelete has been a mainstay of the PC utility market since the days of DOS. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a tool that performs file undelete better than Recuva (pronounced "recover"). It's fast, thorough, and free.

When you throw out the Windows Recycle Bin trash, the files aren't destroyed; rather, the space they occupy is earmarked for new data. Undelete routines scan the flotsam and jetsam, then put the pieces back together. As long as you haven't added new data to a drive, undelete (almost) always works; even if you've added data, there's a good chance you can get most of the deleted stuff back.

Recuva's repertoire goes beyond Windows. Use it to undelete data on a USB drive (see screenshot below), a camera's memory card, or even an MP3 player. It's certainly the most important PC utility a camera owner can have.

Warning: The installer offers to install the Yahoo toolbar. Oy.

Top free tools for Windows: 7Zip

Download: 7Zip

Purpose: Multitalented (un)zipper

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003; available in 64-bit

Cost: Free

Another venerable Windows utility, 7Zip still rates as a must-have, even though Windows supports the ZIP format natively.

Why? Because some people of the Apple persuasion will send you RAR files from time to time, and 7Zip is the fast, easy, completely free way to handle them.

7Zip also creates self-extracting EXE files, which can come in handy (although heaven help you if you ever try to email one -- most email scanners won't let an EXE file through), and it supports AES-256 bit encryption. The interface rates as clunky by modern standards (see screenshot below), but it gets the job done with ZIP, RAR, CAB, ARJ, TAR, 7z, and many lesser-known formats. It even lets you extract files from ISO CD images.

A poster boy for the open source community, 7Zip goes in easily, never nags, and wouldn't dream of dropping an unwanted toolbar on your system. Call it enlightened.

Next page: Remember passwords and ditch Photoshop

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