Fixing broken Windows
As far as operating systems go, Windows is robust, mature, and polished—but despite Microsoft’s best efforts there are a few annoyances that just haven’t (or can’t) been improved yet.
The lingering irritations can stem from a number of sources: security concerns, the decision to choose simplicity over complexity, plain old user error, or flat-out questionable interface decisions. Luckily, there are tools for almost every common Windows frustration you can think of. Here are 10 of them.
Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder
A big downside of using Windows—or any commercial software, really—is that you end up managing a pile of product keys. Even if your strategy is not to manage them at all, you’re still stuck with having to figure out what your product key is should you ever need to reinstall a program.
That’s why Magical Jellybean KeyFinder is a great tool to have in your kit. This free program lets you recover the product keys for more than 300 desktop programs, and there’s a paid version that recovers more than 6,500 programs. The same developer also offers several other handy tools, including a utility to reveal a long forgotten Wi-Fi password stored on your system.
Price: Free (premium upgrades available)
It’s no secret that Windows slowly fills with clutter over time. That’s why so many enthusiasts swear by periodic “clean installs” of the core operating system.
Don’t feel like using the nuclear option? The all-purpose utility CCleaner can help you clean out all kinds of junk from your PC, reclaiming free space on your hard drive. Another (perhaps lesser known) convenience is to use it as a way to clean up your right-click context menu, which can get all kinds of crap added to it by third-party programs. Check out Lincoln Spector’s tutorial from 2012 on how to get this done.
ModernMix and a Start menu replacement
Price: $5.00 each (Modern Mix and Start8); Free (Classic Shell)
Windows 10 is just around the corner, and the free upgrade for Windows 7 and 8.1 users brings with it both the return of the Start menu as well as the ability to use modern UI apps in windowed mode. But if you’re not upgrading for whatever reason (forced updates *cough*), you can still imbue Windows 8.1 with the deeply helpful features— for a small fee.
Stardock’s $5 Modern Mix lets you run modern apps in typical desktop windows. For adding a Start menu, try Stardock’s $5 Start8, or the free Classic Shell. If you just can’t wait for Windows 10 to get here, Start8 and Modern Mix offer free, 30-day trials that can give you a taste of Windows 10 before it lands on your PC.
Transform your PC into a Wi-Fi hotspot
Price: Free (premium upgrade available for Connectify)
Sometimes you just need to share your laptop’s Internet connection, whether it’s because of restrictive hotel Wi-Fi or the only option is a single wired connection.
Windows itself doesn’t feature great built-in tools for transforming your PC into an ad hoc Wi-Fi hotspot, but programs like Connectify Hotspot, MyPublicWiFi, and Virtual Router can have you sharing your computer’s Internet connection in no time.
Maximize your taskbar with Bins
Pinning programs to your taskbar has been a boon for Windows users ever since it showed up in Windows 7. Bins, from 1UP Industries, takes that ability one step further by allowing you to combine similar programs together on your taskbar. Think of it as smartphone-style app folders for your PC.
Once the app is running all you have to do is drag one icon onto the other to create “bins” on your taskbar. You can use this little utility to combine similar programs together like browsers, messaging programs, or music players. Alternatively, you can put together related bins, like a productivity section for your Office Apps, or audio and video players with Steam for entertainment.
Fence off your desktop
Price: $10.00 (30-day free trial)
Many people use the Windows desktop as a workspace for quick access to important files and program shortcuts, but that approach sure can get pretty chaotic, pretty quickly. That’s where a handy utility from Stardock called Fences comes in.
Fences lets you organize program or system shortcuts, files and folders into pre-defined areas on your desktop. Each area is shaded, making it easier to see them at a glance. You can show or hide your fence icons with a double-click, and even create multiple pages of fences—just like a smartphone home screen.
PC program settings backups
One of the worst parts about performing a clean Windows install is nuking all your personalized program settings. CloneApp can back them up for you.
CloneApp lets you pick and choose the programs whose settings you’d like to backup for a future restore. CloneApp officially supports more than 100 programs and grabs their data from Windows directories, profile folders, and the registry. And if you need help with a program that’s not on the list, you can add it manually.
When you’re looking to clear up hard drive space, the first thing you should always do is fire up Disk Cleanup. To take a more customized approach, GetFolderSize can help.
This program scans either your entire hard drive or specific folders and displays them in a traditional tree hierarchy, with an emphasis on folder size. You can use this to view your biggest folders and figure out which ones are taking up more space than necessary, or even discover a long-forgotten game you have on your hard drive but no longer play. The fantastic WinDirStat provides similar functionality.
Nailing down the fine technical details of your PC’s hardware components can be frustratingly difficult using Windows’ native tools, and the information you can find isn’t particularly in-depth. Third-party software to the rescue!
From Piriform, the makers of CCleaner, Speccy makes it really easy to get a detailed rundown of your computer’s specs all in one spot—no digging through your computer’s settings required. Speccy can tell you everything from what kind of RAM you have (and how much), your processor type, and even your motherboard details.
Sometimes regret is spelled “c-l-i-c-k.” We’ve all been there before: you mistakenly delete something, forget about it, empty your recycle bin, and then have that “oh crap” moment. Pandora Recovery helps you get past those times by trying to recover lost files for you.
When you delete something in Windows it actually isn’t gone from your system until the operating system overwrites it with new data. Until that happens your file is, at least theoretically, recoverable. It won’t work all the time, but when it does get the job done, you’ll be glad it did.