Tweak Windows to your will
There are some very good reasons why you might want to peer behind the scenes of your Windows PC. Maybe you want to tweak your system to maximize performance, or maybe you just want to know what your computer is doing underneath those slick desktop graphics. Either way, here are 12 free programs you can use to fully monitor and manage your Windows experience.
It’s tough to tweak your hardware and software settings without knowing your exact system composition to begin with. Belarc Advisor tells you in detail all about your hardware, software, patch status, security settings, networking inventory, and more. If you’re dealing with a new system for the first time, running a Belarc report can give you vital information in one place that it could take hours to collect the old-fashioned way. Are you doing some emergency tech support for your parents just before Thanksgiving dinner? Save yourself a headache and run Advisor first.
Advisor is aimed at the individual home user, but there are versions of Belarc software that can be used in a larger-scale office setting. If you’re an IT professional and you want to come to grips with your new working environment, look no further.
If you need even more information about your hardware than Belarc can provide—maybe because you’re building your own custom overclocked gaming rig or maybe because you’re trying to track down a pesky overheating issue—you can use HWInfo. It provides extremely detailed info on your hardware components, as well as real-time tracking of things like temperature and power usage. It’s got a bigger footprint than more specialized tools like CoreTemp (which monitors only processor temperature and power draw) but for maximum utility it can’t be beat.
You can also use HWInfo to generate slick-looking reports that you can post online to show off your rig to other enthusiasts, or just hang on your wall as a trophy.
Prime95 and MemTest86+
Okay, so let’s say you’ve run your Belarc report and installed HWInfo. You know what you’re working with, but how do you know how your computer will perform under a heavy load? There are dozens of stress-testing utilities out there, but Prime95 and MemTest86+ are two stalwarts. Prime95 uses your processor to calculate extremely large prime numbers, and MemTest86+ taxes your RAM with several different memory-straining algorithms. If you’ve got a flaw in your setup, these utilities will smoke it out. Hopefully, the smoke in this situation is figurative.
MemTest86+ is especially useful because you can boot to it, so if you suspect a memory problem is making Windows unstable, you can bypass the operating system entirely and test the hardware from the BIOS level.
Also, if you feel like contributing to a larger cause, Prime95 is part of GIMPS, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. There are cash prizes for using Prime95 to discover new Mersenne primes!
Speaking of maximizing performance, MSI Afterburner has long been one of the most popular graphics-card overclocking and monitoring programs among PC enthusiasts. Do you want to squeeze every last pixel out of your video card, and do it without melting your motherboard? That’s what Afterburner is for.
Afterburner is a far cry from the early days of overclocking, when we had to literally solder jumpers on the videocard and use aquarium pumps for cooling. Word to the wise: Even with a software solution like Afterburner, it’s really easy to damage your system if you get too ambitious with overclocking, so be careful.
What about maximizing your HDD or SSD storage space? Haven’t you always wondered what’s taking up all those billions and billions of bytes on your system? TreeSize Free can tell you. You can use it to run a scan on all of your drives—internal, external, and network-based—to see what files are taking up space and where they live. This can be especially useful if you suspect you might have out-of-control log files clogging your drive, or if you suspect dead sectors or other drive corruption problems.
Paid versions of TreeSize can be used to perform more advanced hard drive management tasks including file de-duplication and a variety of snazzy visualizations and reports, but for basic functionality the free version works just fine.
What if you go too far trying to make room on your drives and delete things that you shouldn’t? Recuva can restore deleted material from all kinds of local drives, including USB memory sticks, memory cards, and regular drives. It’s not perfect, or guaranteed to work, but if you’ve accidentally deleted your wedding pictures there’s no better free solution if you want to try to get them back.
Recuva can also securely delete files and make them almost impossible to recover. Again, nothing is perfect, but short of a military-grade zero-fill solution, Recuva is as close to reliable as you can get.
A leading cause of system-performance slowdown on a Windows PC are all of those annoying startup programs. Are they even necessary? A lot of the time, the answer is no. The built-in Windows startup-management utilities (MSConfig in Windows 7 and earlier; the Startup tab of the Task Manager in Windows 8 and up) are okay for basic stuff, but to really get into the nitty-gritty you need Autoruns.
Autoruns will tell you, down to the individual DLL level, every single thing that loads on top of Windows when you start your computer, and let you decide whether to let it happen. If you suspect you might have a problem with malware that reinstalls itself every time you boot up, Autoruns is a great place to start looking.
Process Explorer and Process Manager
Okay, now you’ve got your system hardware running perfectly. Next you want to see what Windows actually does with it. Microsoft’s Process Explorer (aka Procexp) and Process Monitor (aka Procmon) will give you detailed, in-depth information on everything running on your system. Procexp is a turbocharged Task Manager replacement, and Procmon features real-time monitoring of all process operations. It’s technical stuff, but if you’re a power user and you want to know exactly what’s happening, when, and why, there’s no real substitute, especially not for free.
In conjunction with Autoruns, you can use Procexp and Procmon to hunt down even really nasty, antivirus-resistant malware. These are the tools that the pros use, and they are an excellent way to learn how Windows works for intermediate and advanced users.
BitMeter OS and Wireshark
If you want to know how much internet bandwidth your system is using, either because you’re on a metered connection or just because you want to know how long it will actually take something to upload or download, BitMeter OS gives you real-time bandwidth analysis in a slick, user-friendly package. If an elderly relative asks you why their internet is so slow, BitMeter’s reporting can give you something concrete and easy to understand to show them.
If you’re looking for something more advanced and technical, download a network protocol monitor like Wireshark (previously called Ethereal). It will tell you about every single piece of data entering and leaving your computer, what it is, and where it’s going. Wireshark is an indispensable tool for many system administrators and security professionals, but even intermediate users can benefit from the information it provides.