Utility software

Top 15 Free Tools for Every Windows Desktop

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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