Save $100: Replace Windows 7 Professional's Big Features with Freeware!

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If you're a general computer user, and you buy Windows 7 Professional, you are a sucker.

There, I said it.

I'm not a Windows fanboy or general enthusiast of any real operating system, but I know my freeware when I see it. And the features you get from dishing out an extra $100 between the full versions of Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional are easily replicated by software that costs you nothing.

A Google search doesn't cost any money--and I'm even going to relieve you of that burden by listing the best ways to boost the functionality of your $200 Windows 7 Home Premium OS to match the pricier $300 Windows 7 Professional. Ready? The differences between the two versions include:

Encrypting File System

Admittedly, Windows 7 simplifies the process of keeping your files out of the hands of other uses on your machine. To encrypt files so that only those with the proper encryption key can read them--which doesn't automatically include a user with super-level access to the system, like an administrator--all you have to do is right-click on a file or folder, hit properties, click the "advanced" button on the general tab, select "encrypt contents to secure data," and mash the "ok" button a number of times. Easy.

While it doesn't natively build this action into the operating system, the freeware application TrueCrypt is an excellent program for concealing your contents with a wide variety of powerful encryption algorithms. The program uses containers--seemingly innocent files that can be made to look like any other file on your OS--as the basis for its protection.

When you mount a container file, TrueCrypt pulls up the file's associated virtual hard drives, which function like network-mapped storage. They'll appear as disks in your Windows Explorer menu, where you can access your encrypted area to drag-and-drop files or decrypt media files on-the-fly. But that's just a taste of what this program offers: Its free functionality surpasses anything offered by Windows, and is far more customizable than its file-properties-based alternative.

Backup and Restore Center

To its credit, Microsoft offers up a pretty solid (yet admittedly average) backup routine with the Windows 7 Backup and Restore Center. Not only can you save your files to locations on the physical drives of your current PC, but you can even target your backups to network destinations as well. Once you set the automated schedule, Windows 7 uses the spirit of iterative backups to only copy over files that have changed since the last backup run. This saves you time; the software's shadow copy feature archives previous editions of your files in case you need to reference previous backups.

Still, these are all features that can be found in freeware backup applications. In fact, it's tough to pin down just one application that's the best-of example of the freeware class. There are just that many options.

Want to create a full one-to-one clone of your hard drive? Check out Clonezilla. To back up your files to local, networked, or remote locations, CrashPlan is a solid, easy-to-use option that comes in both freeware and premium versions. If you're interested in the incremental backup option to save some time on your massive data transfers, Backup Maker is the ticket.

Me? I use SyncBackSE--instead of scheduled backups, I run scheduled synchronizations. I can set files and folders to include and exclude based on extensions or names, and the program will automatically copy new files to a target destination and erase files that exist in the destination but not in the source. In short, my "backups" are perfect, clean replications of my source files that don't waste a lot of time or space in their creation.

Remote Desktop Host

This one's easy. Windows 7 Professional gives you the ability to take control of another PC's desktop. You can pull up programs and access the contents of a machine-perfect for connecting to your work PC from home, for example.

A similar freeware program called UltraVNC accomplishes the same task. Not only do you get a wider batch of connective options, including numerous forms of compression for enhancing the quality of your PC-takeover experience, but you can also encrypt the data passing between the two PCs and transfer files back and forth with the touch of a button. There's even a built-in text chat, just in case you want to mess with... er... communicate with the person whose desktop you just latched onto.

Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode

A neat feature of Windows 7's fancier versions is the ability to have shortcuts to Windows XP-based programs in your start menu, which subsequently launch in an emulated environment. Best of all, this XP operating system doesn't require you to have a copy of the OS for installation. Unlike most virtual environments, which require you to actually own and subsequently install the operating system, you can download a copy of Microsoft's Windows XP OS straight from Microsoft itself. Plug this into the new Virtual PC program for Windows 7 and you have a working, virtualized version of the OS running right on your Windows 7 desktop.

That said, you can mimic this functionality by grabbing the open-source program VirtualBox. After that, you need a previous copy of the operating system you plan to install.

Yes, that's right.

Since you opted for the Home Premium route, you don't get Windows XP for free. You can nevertheless install previous copies of Windows operating systems (or, really, any operating systems) into virtual environments using VirtualBox. This gives you new access to legacy programs in a sandbox environment--perfect for running apps that just don't work right in Windows 7, as well as testing out new programs or settings without mucking up your PC's current OS. Heck, install Linux. Give it a whirl. I won't tell anybody.

Geek Tech's David Murphy (@acererak) has installed more freeware on his machine than Windows has help files. Seriously.

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