You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

There's nothing quite like unboxing a new PC or laptop. It's going to be fast, efficient and super-smooth. The world's your oyster: having chosen a computer that suits your needs, it's time to make it your own. You can customise it, tweak it and add as many functions as you wish – or you can simply strip it back to the bare minimum and focus on making it as lean and as fast as possible.

Whichever type of machine you decide you want to end up with, there are free programs that can help you achieve your goals. There are also hundreds of useful, highly focused utilities that can assist with under-the-hood settings and give you maximum control over your PC's appearance and behaviour.

Invaluable tools to keep your computer connected, protected and in touch with the world are also easy to come by. It's knowing where to look and which apps are worth having that's the hard part. Thankfully, for every piece of disappointing frippery, there's a far better and more capable alternative.

With the range of desktop, browser and multimedia extras we introduce you to over the following pages, there's no need to settle for anything less than the best system for you.

System utilities

Windows is a pretty powerful operating system (OS), but it doesn't always do what you need. These utilities provide some of the missing functions.

Remove pasted-text formatting

Most of us have experienced the frustration of copying and pasting text from one document to another, only to have unwanted text formatting along for the ride. Better Paste strips formatting from text when you press Ctrl, V to paste. Pressing Ctrl, Shift, V retains the formatting.

Fix everyday frustrations

It's not always the big things going wrong that causes the most aggravation. If your Recycle Bin goes Awol or you can no longer preview images as thumbnails, you're just as likely to want a fix. FixWin is an easy-to-use utility that offers fixes for common annoyances related to Windows Explorer, the internet, Windows Media Player and other system tools.

Update everything

Windows Update keeps your OS up to date, but third-party programs aren't necessarily kept current in such a routine manner. Ketarin scans your installed programs and then checks for and downloads any updates to make sure you're running the latest versions.

Take Linux apps with you

You don't have to install an entirely new OS to experiment with Linux. Simply install Portable Ubuntu Remix to run Linux applications seamlessly on your Windows machine.

Turbo-charge file transfers

If you get impatient while waiting for Windows to copy large files from one folder to another, try Teracopy. This handy utility copies files significantly faster than Explorer can, and lets you pause and resume transfers, too.

NEXT: tweak to your heart's content >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Tweak to your heart's content

In the golden days of XP, a small utility called TweakUI was every system tweaker's dream. Unfortunately, it doesn't support newer Windows releases. Try Ultimate Windows Tweaker instead. It lets you see every corner of your Windows 7 or Vista installation.

Library assistance

To help you find your data, Windows 7 aggregates files and folders from all over your computer into a few special groups, called Libraries. You can make your Libraries even better with Zorn's Win7 Library Tool, an easy-to-use download that can add the contents of networked folders to Libraries, back up Library configurations and even change your Library icons. Very helpful.

Scroll anywhere

A useful trick is to use your mouse's scroll function to zoom in and out of images and enlarge document views. But this doesn't work for items outside your active window. Wizmouse makes your scrollwheel work with whatever window your cursor is hovering over, active or not.

Customise Windows

Even if you're happy with XP or Vista, you might want to borrow a few of Windows 7's innovations, such as transparent windows or eye-candy icons. These apps will help.

Snap to resize  

Some PC screens are so large that you can happily view several panes at a decent size simultaneoisly. In Windows 7, Aero Snap lets you resize a window to fill half of the display by dragging the window to the screen's edge. AeroSnap gives XP and Vista the same functionality.

Make XP mimic Windows 7

Windows 7's distinctive look sets it apart from the ageing XP. The Seven Remix XP transformation pack makes XP's boxes, icons, buttons and Start menu look remarkably like those in Windows 7.  

Shuffle along now

Windows 7 lets you reorder Taskbar items with a simple drag-and-drop. XP and Vista users can enjoy the same functionality with Taskbar Shuffle.

Steal some shortcuts    

Windows 7 introduces many time-saving keyboard shortcuts for moving windows around onscreen or taking a quick peek at the desktop. Windows 7 Shortcuts installs a tiny system tray utility that adds these shortcuts to your XP or Vista machine.

See-through Window panes

WinShake offers older versions of Windows the shake-to-see-what's-underneath function (AeroPeek) that Microsoft introduced in Windows 7. The feature allows you to see items hidden by the uppermost window pane. It works by minimising all the active window via a simple shortcut.

NEXT: Get more done >>

 

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Get more done

With the following programs and services, you can share large files, save ink, keep tabs on action items and improve efficiency.

Easy e-document maker

DoPDF Free PDF Converter provides a quick and easy way to export a Microsoft Word document, Excel spreadsheet or web page to PDF. Install this download, then choose the Print command in the program you're using. Then simply select the DoPDF ‘printer' and choose your settings.

Share huge files

If there's an easier way to share 100MB files than Drop.io, we haven't found it. It works with Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Outlook. You can even choose a custom download URL.

Eco ink saver

Ecofont is a font set that looks a lot like the familiar Arial typeface, but with one key difference: each letter has holes punched into it, requiring less ink to print. You won't need to replace your cartridges so often, so you'll save money.

Find anything with Everything

The aptly named Everything indexes every item on your hard drive and then provides lightning-fast searches for files and folders. The tiny program takes the place of the standard search function in Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7.

Show them what you mean

FlockDraw is an ideal freebie if you need to express an idea visually to people who aren't in the same room. It's a web-based service that can act as a shared sketchpad. Invite other people to view your drawing and even to draw along in real time. You log in using a Twitter account or a nickname, then show people what you mean.

All the news you want

iCurrent is a news aggregator that works surprisingly well. It provides a personalised news service, replete with stories based around your interests. This beta service shows you news in all your chosen areas, in the familiar format of a daily paper. It can take some work to set up, but it's good for keeping track of a wide range of subjects.

Timely reminders

Many email messages represent action items – things you need to schedule, track and do. Liaise is an Outlook add-in that automatically interprets action items as you type a new message, then keeps tabs on them and helps you finish them on time.

Value your time

Invoice management can be a challenge if you're self-employed. Sign up with MakeSomeTime to keep tabs on invoices, clients, projects and billable time, all within your browser. The free plan lets you manage up to five clients and send out one invoice per month.

Show them how it's done

A phone is a great tool for keeping in touch, but there's a limit to how well you can explain how to do something to a person on the other end of the line – particularly if that something is a series of steps on a PC. If remote-access software doesn't appeal, you could perform the steps on your PC and record them as you go in the form of a screencast. Sign up to ScreenToaster and press Alt, S to record. You can add captions and upload the video to YouTube or the site's own servers or download it as an AVI file.

Create instant planner charts

Gantt charts, with their overlapping colour bars, are helpful for visualising a schedule, but making them can involve painful data entry. With Tom's Planner (free for a year if you sign up during the beta at tomsplanner.com), you go straight to the final product.

NEXT: cutomise your desktop >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Customise your desktop

Use these downloads and services to build 3D desktops, creatively launch or minimise programs and keep your workspace tidy.

Organised chaos

If you're the sort of person who is fond of pinning notes and photos to the wall and arranging your documents into stacks, try BumpTop. It takes a similar approach to organising your computing life, creating a sort of 3D desktop.

Get more screen space

An extra inch or six of screen space is always welcome. DeskHedron gives you up to nine ‘virtual' 3D desktops that you can flip through using your mouse's scrollwheel or by pressing hotkeys.

Precision placement

Stardock Fences organises your icons into translucent, window-like areas. And with a double-click of the desktop, you can make everything disappear (another double-click restores everything). It's a must-have app for neat freaks, or for anyone whose icon collection is out of control.

Better background images

Windows 7 can automatically cycle through wallpapers at designated intervals. Rather than viewing the same old photos, stock it with pretty pictures. For an attractive assortment of images, sign up to the InterfaceLift library. The site has more than 2,000 selections, sorted by resolution. You'll even find mobile-ready images for iPhones and other devices.

Get an Apple-like app dock

Krento creates a slick, rotating 3D circle of up to 12 of your favourite applications so they are easy to find and quickly launch. If you need more, the program lets you create multiple circles that you can then categorise. You can also skin Krento, invoke it using a variety of mouse/keyboard shortcuts and add favourites by dragging-and-dropping. Both 32bit and 64bit versions are available.

Visual delights

Give your desktop a complete overhaul with Rainmeter, a beautiful display complete with resource monitors, news feeds, a to-do list and more. A world away from the offputting figures and codes of some resource monitors, it allows you to see what's happening and customise the details displayed with a fabulous view. It works with Windows XP, Vista and 7.

Stack up on shortcuts

The concept of ‘stacks' is familiar to any Mac user; now Windows users can have them too. StandaloneStack 2 creates eye-pleasing animated shortcuts (aka stacks) for the contents of any folder on your system. Such a function usually requires a desktop dock program, but this download gets you straight to the good stuff.

Shrink programs a little or a lot

Forget minimising programs to the Windows Taskbar where you can't see what they're up to. T3Desk minimises them to the desktop, shrinking each one to the size, transparency and 3D viewing angle of your choice. All it takes to bring any window back to the forefront is a single click.

NEXT: Browser add-ons >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Browser add-ons

The following tools and services let you recover information you typed into forms, add narrations to presentations, turn PDFs into editable documents and more.

Get a Web 3.0 CV

CeeVee provides a quick way to assemble a polished-looking résumé that you can then share online via Facebook, Twitter or a custom web address. It's fast, easy to use and proof that you're a web-savvy applicant.

Comments to keep

Lazarus is a convenient Firefox add-on that records every keystroke you enter into blog tools, comment boxes, email forms and the like. It's very useful should your browser crash and you need to retype detailed information. To magically restore the items you typed, just right-click and choose ‘Recover Text' or ‘Recover Form' from the context menu.

Make meaningful contacts

MailBrowser lets you manage your contacts, attachments and more in Gmail. This Firefox and Internet Explorer add-on reveals information about each contact, integrates with Google Calendar for simple scheduling, lists all the received attachments for a given contact and creates local, searchable copies of them.

Instant narrator

MyBrainshark is a presentation-hosting service that lets you add narration to a presentation. Upload your PowerPoint slide or other document, add a narrative track and upload it.

Make PDFs editable

PDFs preserve formatting and design, but there's a web-based service that allows you to edit and use them as text. Upload a file to PDFtoWord and choose your desired output format. Then sit tight until the service sends you an email with a link to download the converted document.

NEXT: Keep in touch >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Keep in touch

These freebies streamline interfaces and help you use social networks more effectively.

Best of all social whirls

Tired of Facebook's cluttered interface and Twitter's boring one? Sign up with Brizzly to give both services a simple, classy makeover. You can still tweet and retweet, write on walls and do all the other core Facebook/Twitter stuff.

Facebook photo fun

Everyone loves sharing photos on Facebook, but downloading shots from a friend's album is a hassle. FacePAD, is a Firefox add-on that lets you grab entire albums (including event and group albums).

More Facebook photo fun

The ultra-stylish Microsoft Silverlight 4 Beta Client for Facebook delivers not only the usual Facebook elements but also a cool animated photo grid and a better photo-upload tool. It's currently a 'developer preview', so expect a few bugs.

Link Outlook and Facebook

Outlook lets you link photos to contacts. And most Facebook users have profile photos on their accounts. Get the two to meet using OutSync, which copies photos of your Facebook friends into matching contacts in Outlook.

Round up portrait snaps

PhotoGrabber runs independently of your browser and downloads photos tagged with your name or the names of your friends. It's great for rounding up snapshots that land in other people's albums without your knowledge.

Split your Twitter time

Splitweet lets you tweet to one or more accounts simultaneously; read, reply to and share updates from users you follow; and track mentions of ‘brand' names (your company name, a competitor's name, a product line and so on).

Tweet to your inbox

Don't want a full-blown Twitter client to take over your whole desktop? The Outlook add-on TwInbox displays tweets in your inbox and has a toolbar for updating your status, retweeting, sending direct messages and performing other tasks.

NEXT: backup and storage >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Backup and storage

The following tools enhance backups, make drive images, provide storage and more.

Social media failsafes

You might have got into good habits with backing up the files on your PC, but have you applied the same logic to your Facebook contacts, Twitter feeds or Flickr photos? Sign up to Backupify to get 2GB of storage and weekly backups of online accounts that can be downloaded to your PC.

Restore and back up

Comodo Time Machine does a similar job to Windows' System Restore, rolling back your PC to an earlier state. However, this download does more than just protect the Registry and your system files, it also backs up files, folders and programs. And if Windows won't load, you
can press Home during bootup to access all of Comodo's roll-back features.

Hard-drive restoration

Macrium Reflect Free creates an image of your hard drive for restoring your PC in the event of a disaster. This download can run automatically at set times, too. The interface requires some understanding of XML code, however.

Get at your online archive

Windows Live SkyDrive gives you 25GB of free online storage, while SDExplorer (bit.ly/b5vXka) allows you to access that storage from Windows Explorer. Forget wrangling with Live SkyDrive's awkward web interface – this extension brings drag-and-drop simplicity to file management.

Unobtrusive online backup tool

Although it's no match for SkyDrive's allowance, SpiderOak gives you 2GB of free online backup space. The download runs in the background, saving selected files whenever it detects changes. It can archive data on network drives, too.

Synchronise files on a network

Version control can be a nightmare if you work on several different machines. Microsoft's SyncToy 2.0 syncs files between two home network locations, such as a desktop PC and a laptop or a flash drive and a network folder.

Backup partitions

Compatible with Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7, EaseUs ToDo Backup creates an image of your entire hard drive or an individual partition. You can restore that backup from within Windows or via a bootable CD, which ToDo can burn for you.

NEXT: video viewing >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Video viewing

YouTube isn't the only online destination for fans of the moving image. From news sites and media aggregators to specialist sources, there's a wealth of online video you can access for free.

Classic Cinema Online

Classic Cinema Online offers hundreds of freely available classic films, neatly organised by genre. There's a section for silent movies as well as a classic serials section where you can relive your youth.

Clicker

Clicker aggregates internet video, giving you a central source for your favourite TV shows. When you've had your fill of spaghetti westerns at the Classic Cinema portal, you can load up on current series.

DoubleTwist

You don't need an iPod or iPhone to enjoy great media on the move. DoubleTwist takes its looks from Apple's iTunes but allows you to play podcasts and albums you've bought from a range of digital download stores and show off your photos on almost any smartphone.

Boxee Beta

The open-source Boxee plays desktop and web-based media seamlessly on your HDTV. There are versions for every OS, plus editions for iPhone and iPad users. Add sources manually or have Boxee trawl your PC or network for content.

Jinni

If you can't decide what you want to watch, the Jinni recommendation service helps you select videos to watch by their components, such as mood or plot.

Libox

There's no need to keep all the best music and video clips for yourself. Sign up for Libox and you can share the best of your media library (and the less impressive parts of your music collection) with friends and family over a private network.

ShowMeWhatsWrong

The next time you need to help someone remotely, point your relative or friend to ShowMeWhatsWrong, which makes it simple for tech novices to record and share quick screencasts to demonstrate their PC problems.

NEXT: mobile tools >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Mobile Tools

Embrace the mobile lifestyle with the help of these programs and online services. They'll let you recover a lost smartphone, strip down web content for easy downloads, turn a PC into a Wi-Fi hotspot and more.

Read It Later

Read It Later is a Firefox extension that allows you to bookmark items that pique your interest but don't have time to read immediately. A reading list organises what you've tagged to peruse at your leisure. A smartphone version is also available.

Connectify

Ever find yourself stuck in a room with just one wired ethernet connection and a whole lot of computers begging to browse the web? Simply run Connectify on your Windows 7 laptop and turn your portable into a Wi-Fi hotspot that you can share with others.

Instapaper

The web runneth over with content worth reading, but you certainly don't want to spend your entire life parked in front of your computer. Instapaper lets you bookmark anything to read later, stripping the page's content to bare text for your computer, iPhone or Kindle. You can even go fully old-school and print it out.

JWire

Head to JWire.com or load up JWire on your mobile phone to find details of Wi-Fi hotspots you can use. Search by country, then drill down by town or county. More than 29,000 UK hotspots are listed.

Xpenser

Tracking your expenses can be a pain. Rather than forget another expense, try Xpenser, which helps you track your expenses through its website, email, SMS, instant messaging and even Twitter.

NEXT: best ever freebies >>

You can power up your PC with extra features and functions without spending a fortune. PC Advisor outlines incredibly useful downloads you can use for free.

Best ever freebies

Over the years, we’ve highlighted thousands of pieces of excellent freeware and online applications that enhance your computing life by making it more straightforward, more feature-rich or simply more fun. We’ve tipped our hats to the likes of Adobe Reader, Flickr, Gmail, Google, Firefox and Wikipedia, all of which have gone on to global super-stardom. The following 10 freebies are other classics worthy of any desktop or browser.

Ad-Aware Free: Excellent at stopping spyware.

Audacity: This tool can record and edit sound.

BitTorrent: This easy-to-use filesharing service lets you pause, resume and otherwise control downloads.

Dropbox: 2GB of file synching between PCs and online.

Evite: Lets you create and email invites and track RSVPs.

FreeConference: Schedule and make unlimited conference calls with this service.

Internet Movie Database: How did we ever settle pub arguments without the Internet Movie Database?

OpenOffice: This versatile Microsoft Office competitor gives you a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database and drawing app.

The Gimp: This oddly named image editor offers many of the same photo tweaks as Adobe Photoshop.

Trillian Basic: From one interface, you can chat with many instant messengers.