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

Top free tools for Windows: Wiseval Photophant

Download: Wiseval Photophant

Purpose: Image resizer/converter

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

Cost: Free

While there are many photo resizers floating around, there's one I come back to again and again. Wiseval Photophant handles batch resizing, format conversions, watermarking, and renaming with just a couple of clicks.

If you want to resize or rename one photo at a time, you have many options; for example, the free version of VSO Image Resizer works well. But if you want to change a bunch of picture files, Photophant's the way to go.

You can choose from one of the predefined sizes (800 by 600, 1,024 by 768, and many more) or set up your own custom size; convert between JPG, PNG, BMP, GIF, and TIFF formats with compression techniques that you specify; rename as a group ("Four Generations_" turns into "Four Generations_1", "Four Generations_2," and so on); and add a watermark in the location and with the opacity that suits you.

The altered pictures go into a different folder from the original, so nothing gets munged. It's fast, high quality, and amazingly easy to use.

Top free tools for Windows: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder

Download: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder

Purpose: Find and eliminate duplicated files

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

Cost: Free

If you're a card-carrying member of the Ready, Shoot, Aim school of hard disk maintenance, pass this one by. But if you're willing to look and carefully consider the information presented, Auslogics' free Duplicate File Finder can help you reclaim enormous amounts of disk space.

The trick with any duplicate file cleaner lies in judicious use of the gray matter between your ears. That said, Auslogics' easy-to-use interface makes it relatively simple to find and select the files you want to delete, then stick the selected files in the Recycle Bin, where you can bring them back if need be.

As a general rule, you're safest restricting the duplicate search to locations with data files: documents, music, pictures, and the like. If you venture into locations with system files, be especially cautious before hitting the Delete button.

Top free tools for Windows: Revo Uninstaller Freeware

Download: Revo Uninstaller Freeware

Purpose: Uninstalls programs

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP

Cost: Free; additional features in Pro version, $39.25, or $19.62 each for four or more computers

Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls programs, and it does so in an unexpected way. When you use Revo, it runs the program's uninstaller and watches while the uninstaller works, looking for the location of program files and for Registry keys that the uninstaller zaps. It then goes in and removes leftover pieces, based on the locations and keys that the program's uninstaller took out. Revo also consults its own internal database for commonly-left-behind bits and roots those out as well.

Revo gives you a great deal of flexibility in deciding just how much you want to clean and what you want to save. For most programs, the recommended Moderate setting strikes a good balance between defenestrating problematic pieces and deleting items that really shouldn't be deleted.

The not-free Pro version monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. Pro will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.

Top free tools for Windows: Paint.Net

Download: Paint.Net

Purpose: Image editor

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP (requires .Net Framework 3.5 SP1 or later)

Cost: Free

With dozens of good -- even great -- free image editors around, it's hard to pick one above the others. IrfanView, for example, has tremendous viewing, organizing, and resizing capabilities. GIMP ships with powerful tools and an enormous array of add-ins. FastStone Image Viewer lets you edit full-screen and has a screen capture capability. That doesn't even brush the surface of the Picasa vs. Windows Live Photo Gallery maelstrom -- a religious debate worthy of several volumes.

For powerful, easy-to-use photo editing, with layers, plug-ins, and all sorts of special effects, along with a compact and easily understood interface, I'll stick with Paint.Net. Although it requires Windows' bloated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a nonprofessional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.

Top free tools for Windows: Autoruns

Download: Autoruns

Purpose: Controls autostarting programs

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

Cost: Free

Programs that run automatically when Windows starts bedevil every Windows consumer, from rank beginner to grizzled veteran. There's one industrial-strength autostart listing tool that knows all, sees all, and lets you do something about it.

If you've never used Autoruns, you're in for somewhat of a shock. Autostarting programs lurk in the most obscure corners of Windows. The Everything tab (shown in the screenshot below) lists every program that starts automatically, in the order in which it is run. Click on the program to see details. Right-click on a program and choose Search Online to look up the program on the Web, using your default browser and search engine.

You can filter out the Microsoft programs and have Autoruns just show you the third-party interlopers: Click Options, Hide Microsoft and Windows Entries. Then click the Refresh icon. You see all the self-running stuff deposited on your machine.

Top free tools for Windows: LastPass

Download: LastPass

Purpose: Store and retrieve passwords online

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux

Cost: Free for Windows, Mac, Linux; $1 per month for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian

It sounds crazy, right? Store all of your passwords on a website. Meshuggeneh.

I'd been using AI Roboform to manage my passwords for years, until I bumped into this all-in-the-cloud password manager. Like Roboform, LastPass keeps track of your user IDs, passwords, and other settings, and it offers them to you with just a click. But there's a big difference: Roboform stores your passwords on your PC, while LastPass encrypts them, then stores them in the cloud.

LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password that you have to provide -- and remember. The data that gets stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key (which only you know) the stored passwords can't be broken, unless you know somebody who can crack AES-256 encryption.

LastPass works as a browser add-on for IE, Firefox, or Chrome, so all of your passwords are stored in one place, accessible to any PC you happen to be using, as long as you have the master password.

Next page: Capture screenshots and monitor open programs

Top free tools for Windows: VLC Media Player

Download: VLC Media Player

Purpose: Media player, including video

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux

Cost: Free

Another poster child for open source software, VLC Media Player plays just about anything -- including YouTube Flash FLV files -- with no additional software, no downloads, and no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos.

Unlike other media players (notably the versatile but complex KM Player), VLC sports simple, Spartan controls, built-in codecs for almost every file type imaginable, and a large and vocal online support community. VLC plays Internet streaming media with a click, records played media, converts between file types, and even supports individual frame screenshots.

VLC is well-known for tolerating incomplete or damaged media files. It will even start to play downloaded media before the download's finished.

Top free tools for Windows: Jaangle

Download: Jaangle

Purpose: Music organizer

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

Cost: Free

While VLC excels at playing videos, Jaangle covers the music bases, with the best combination of tagging and library support I've seen. (Yes, it was formerly known as TeenSpirit.)

Jaangle reaches out to the Net and retrieves a bewildering array of ancillary information about the music: album art, of course, but also artist biographies (see screenshot below) and artist pictures. If you're tired of seeing the same old album covers, it's like a breath of fresh air. The tag editor's just a right-click away. More than that, you can right-click on a song and download the Google Lyrics, right there inside Jaangle. Finally, we're seeing online music libraries used for something other than ordering more songs.

With customizable options to slice and dice, reorder and reorganize, Jaangle takes a fresh, new approach to organizing and managing a music collection.

Top free tools for Windows: Process Explorer

Download: Process Explorer

Purpose: Monitor and manage running programs

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

Cost: Free

The great granddaddy of program monitors, Microsoft's free Process Explorer just hit version 14. If you've never used Process Explorer, you've never seen what's really going on under Windows' covers. If you have used Process Explorer, this new version boasts a couple of new tricks and a much-needed makeover for the CPU and memory monitor.

PE shows you all running processes and subprocesses and with a click or even a mouse-over, divulging details about what's really going on. Want to know which program has a file locked? Click Find, Handle, or DLL; type some part of the file name; and click Search. To release the file, right-click on the process and choose Kill Process Tree. Curious about the origin of all of those svchost.exe programs running on your machine? A simple mouse-over shows you what command line started the program.

See every process that's running; its handle, process ID, and controlling DLL; the amount of CPU it's using; and much more. PE also tells you everything about CPU cycles, memory usage, and I/O.

Best of all, PE doesn't have an installer. It just runs, and runs well.

Top free tools for Windows: PicPick

Download: PicPick

Purpose: Screen capture

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

Cost: Free for personal or nonprofit use; $19.99, down to $7.99 each for 50-plus licenses

If you've ever tried to use the Windows 7 Snipping Tool to capture fleeting images on the screen -- notification boxes that go away when you click, or popover or context menus that disappear the minute you move your mouse -- you're in for a treat.

PicPick lets you take screenshots with the press of a key or key combination of your choosing. Pressing the key doesn't make ephemeral items on the screen run for cover. You can, depending on the key combination, capture a full screen, an active window, a rectangular or freehand region on the screen. If you need to shoot against a white or single-color background, the PicPick Whiteboard tool lets you "erase" convenient parts of the screen. Once shot, PicPick pops your screen into an editor, with tools for resizing and editing. Toss in automatic file naming, on-screen magnification at selectable levels, a pixel ruler, color picker, and a half-dozen other screenshooting aids, and you end up with a versatile, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink shooter.

Woody Leonhard writes computer books, primarily about Windows and Office. He's senior editor at Windows Secrets Newsletter and a frequent contributor to InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. A self-described "Windows victim," Woody specializes in telling the truth about Windows in a way that won't put you to sleep.

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