Looking for software to get the most out of Windows Vista? As yet, there hasn't been a flood of great downloads designed specifically for Microsoft's latest operating system. But that didn't stop us from searching high and low for the best free Vista apps available - and we've come up with 20 real keepers.
For your convenience, we've arranged them into four categories: System tweakers; Startup, logon, and boot tweakers; Vista component tweakers; and Miscellaneous tools. So if you've got Vista and you're longing to make it better, rev up your browser and start downloading.
Want to bend practically every aspect of Vista to your will, from improving system performance to customising the interface? Then try out the following six system tweakers. You'll be the master of your own private Vista universe.
1. Vista Smoker Pro
If you're looking to juice up Vista's performance, give this tool a try. It's designed to help you optimise the way that Vista runs, from memory to hard disk operations to the basic interface. Very little escapes this program's notice. Want to optimise Vista for game play? The GameBoost feature will shut down services and free up RAM and CPU cycles for you. You can also optimise your CD drive, improve your system's graphics performance, shut down unwanted services, and tweak Internet Explorer to your heart's content. If you dislike Vista's intrusive UAC (User Account Control) feature, you can use this program to change UAC's behaviour. Vista Smoker Pro even lets you remove arrows from shortcut icons on your desktop - talk about attention to detail.
If you don't want to get down and dirty with manual performance tweaking, let the Auto Tuner feature do the job for you. One note of caution: it's a good idea to create a restore point before using this program; if anything goes awry, you can return to an untroubled (albeit considerably slower) version of the OS.
2. Systerac Tools for Vista
Your everything-including-the-kitchen-sink performance tool for Vista is this medley of utilities from Systerac. Among the tools bundled here are a memory optimiser, a disk doctor, a Registry backup program, a Registry optimiser, a shutdown scheduler, an internet booster, a startup manager - and that's just the beginning. You'll also find a file shredder and a nifty tool that displays a complete list of all your hardware. That's the good news. Now the bad news: Systerac was perhaps overgenerous in its use of nag screens that pop up whenever you want to use one of the program's features, urging you to make the buy. The trial is good for 14 days, but the importuning starts right away. If you can put up with it, however, you'll find this a useful program.
3. Mz Vista Force
Here's a free - and very accomplished - Vista tweaker. Use it to accelerate performance, juice your browsing speed, clean up your hard disk, clear out bandwidth-wasting startup programs, and even fine-tune Windows Media Player and Explorer. Many of the settings here are exceedingly fine-grained. Want to change the speed at which the Start menu search displays? With Mz Vista Force, you can. The program is free - and considering how many tools it brings to the party, it's an irresistible download.
4. Vista Manager
This Vista tweaker from Yamicsoft may be the most powerful one of the bunch. More than a single program, it serves as an umbrella uniting many utilities in a single interface. Whether you want to speed up your system, repair it, optimise Internet Explorer, enhance security, or adjust the way your network works, you'll find something here that can do the job.
Vista Manager also lets you customise just about every part of the Desktop, Start menu, and Taskbar, as well as your icons. A Registry defragmenter and cleaner provides a final dollop of usefulness.
As its name implies, Stardock's TweakVista lets you alter and fine-tune Vista in countless ways. A blessedly simple and well-designed interface makes tweaking easy. You can see which programs run at startup, how much RAM each currently running program uses, and what Vista security parameters are now in force. One particularly useful feature is the Services module, which enables you to switch various Vista services on or off, depending on how you want to use your PC. Another utility in the TweakVista tool box lets you customise how User Account Control works. For a free program, this one is hard to beat. A full version, priced at $19.95 (£10), offers benchmarking, analysis of system startup and shutdown, and similar features. But for the basics, the free version works just fine.
STARTUP, LOG-ON & BOOT TWEAKERS
Don't like your Vista startup or logon logo? Want to change the way your system boots? Then try out the following four programs.
6. Vista Boot Logo Generator
Tired of seeing the same old boot screen every time you start up Windows Vista? Become ennui-free with this nifty free program. It lets you replace your boot screen with one that you create yourself from scratch, or with a graphic that you find online. You'll have to create or find the image in two sizes: 1,024x768 pixels, and 800x600 pixels. Both must be in BMP format, at 24bit colour depth. Once you have them, though - and plenty are available via a search on Google - this program very deftly replaces your boot screen with them.
7. LogonStudio Vista
Facing the same boot logo screen every day isn't the only repetitive experience that can render your visits to Vista mundane and joyless. Having to see the same logon screen every time may have the same deleterious effect on a sensitive psyche as overexposure to French Symbolist poetry. But Stardock's LogonStudio Vista gives you the power to triumph over your tedious logon screen. It's exceptionally easy to use: pick a graphic already stored on your PC, create a new one, or download a prefabricated logon screen from the website associated with this program. Then tell Windows Vista to use the new logon screen - and prepare to bask in the new.
Longtime Windows XP users may remember that changing the way XP booted in multiboot systems required them merely to do a little digging and then edit a boot.ini file. With Windows Vista, unfortunately, that approach is no longer possible, because a well-nigh incomprehensible command line program called BCDEdit rules the roost.
EasyBCD from NeoSmart Technologies serves as a front-end to BCDEdit, enabling you to change all of the important settings on your multiboot PC. This free program comes with a diagnostics and troubleshooting tool as well, to help you recover from a multiboot system gone bad. A word of advice: you should be familiar with multiboot menus before using this program, so you don't do your system any damage.
Here's an even stronger tool for hacking multiboot menus, with more options than EasyBCD. One especially nice feature of ProNetwork's VistaBootPro is that it lets you back up all of your boot information - to a locale called the BCD store - before you begin making any changes. That way, you'll be able to restore your system more easily if things go wrong. With VistaBootPro, you can change the order of the boot menu that appears when your PC starts, set any operating system to be the default, rename any OS list entries, and change how long the menu displays before your default operating system kicks in. Among the more esoteric features are options to debug the boot process, to enable or disable the boot GUI mode, and to allow or disallow the use of unsigned drivers in the 64bit version of Windows Vista.
VISTA COMPONENT TWEAKERS
What's the biggest annoyance of Windows Vista that you have to deal with? Hands-down, it's UAC (User Account Control), which nags at you to enter a password or click ok every time you make certain changes or perform certain actions. You can turn UAC off in Vista if you'd like, but that leaves your system vulnerable. So you might prefer to turn it on at times and off at other times. TweakUAC, from Winability Software, solves the problem neatly. It lets you quickly and easily switch UAC on and off. Better yet, it lets you put UAC into 'quiet mode', which in essence turns off UAC for administrators but keeps it on for everyone else.
The program is free, and it fixes a big-time Vista annoyance. What more could you ask of it?
The Windows Vista search box on the Start menu is just aching to be tweaked - and here's the program to do it. With Start++, you can rev up the search box by adding small applets that automate many different kinds of tasks, such as searching for music, creating a playlist, and playing songs in Windows Media Player. Start++ performs simpler tasks as well. Especially useful are the aliases it lets you create to (for example) enable you to search Google by merely typing the letter 'g', followed by your search term.
12. Vista Shortcut Overlay Remover
People get annoyed at all kinds of seemingly minor things. Case in point: the arrows overlaid on shortcuts in Windows. These little arrows drive some people into fits of apoplexy. If you're such a person - or if you have very calmly and rationally determined that you'd simply rather not have your shortcuts defaced by those bleeping triangles - you can use the Vista Shortcut Overlay Remover (from Frameworkx) to eradicate them. VSOR gives you the power to remove shortcut arrows, or reduce their size and then restore them to their original size later (like when a notoriously warm precinct freezes over).
13. Amnesty Generator
One of Windows Vista's niftiest new features is its Sidebar, home to an array of interesting gadgets that perform all kinds of functions, including grabbing blog entries, stock quotes and the local weather, or displaying pictures in specific folders on your PC. The web contains thousands of widgets and gadgets, but regrettably the vast majority of them won't work in the Sidebar. But Mesa Dynamics' free Amnesty Generator fixes that state of affairs. The program lets you convert almost any online widget or gadget to a Vista-compatible gadget that you can then run on the Sidebar.
Want to put Windows Vista on a diet? This clever freebie will let you remove Vista components that are otherwise untouchable. It also lets you tweak Vista in various ways, such as turning Aero on even if your hardware says it can't be run. Once you've switched off components and tweaked the operating system to your heart's content, vLite helps you create a Vista installation DVD containing your new stripped-down operating system; and you install it from there. Warning: don't use this program unless you feel very comfortable with a high degree of techiness and customisation.
15. Windows Help Program for Windows Vista
In Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced one often-overlooked change that has proved to be a significant annoyance for people who use older Windows programs: the new operating system won't read Help files saved in HLP format. So what do you do if you have a program that uses HLP files, or if you download informational files in HLP format from the internet? You use this program. Download it, and it will let you read HLP files from the unfriendly confines of a Vista OS. Not an earth-shaking download, certainly, but a highly practical one nevertheless.
16. ISO Recorder
Here's one of those one-trick-pony downloads, that does its thing exceedingly well. ISO Recorder lets you burn ISO files to CD or DVD. An ISO file is single, large file that - when burned to a CD or DVD - contains many files, a file system and data, and that can be used to install an operating system. For example, Windows Vista betas were made available as ISO files; if you wanted to install the beta, you had to download the ISO file, burn it to DVD, and then boot from the DVD to install the unfinished version of Vista. In some instances ISO files can be used for other purposes, such as creating music or video, but ISO Recorder won't create images of audio or video CDs. The program can create ISO files as well as burn them. It integrates itself directly into Windows Explorer. Right-click an ISO file, and then follow the instructions to burn it to CD or DVD.
17. Windows Mail Attachment Extractor for Vista
If you use Vista's Windows Mail program, and you often need to save files attached to email messages, give this program a try. It simplifies the task of saving and managing email attachments. You can, among other things, have the program extract only pictures, and you can then save those pictures in a specific directory every time. Or you can have it automatically extract document files into a specific directory. The program will also create a report of what it's done for you. If you don't need to manage a large number of attachments, don't bother with Windows Mail Attachment Extractor for Vista. But if you field a lot of them and want to extract them from a single folder, this program will help.
18. Window Clippings
For capturing screenshots in Vista, Windows Clippings is just the ticket. It's available in free and for-pay ($10 - about £5) versions, it's simple to use, it can save to an array of formats, and it includes a particularly important feature for capturing Vista screens - the ability to capture window shadows. To use it, press the Print Screen key, click the window you want to capture, and then double-click. You can instruct the program to prompt you each time to tell it where you want to save a file, or you can designate a specific folder to receive all screenshots. For basic screen captures, the free version works fine. But if you want to capture a mouse pointer, snag specific areas of your screen, or use a timer for taking screenshots, you'll have to pay.
19. Feeds Plus
Fans of the RSS blog reader built into Internet Explorer 7.0 need this program. It enables you to read all of your feeds from a single location, instead of having to read one feed at a time. This is especially useful for people like me who subscribe to dozens of feeds. Rather than wasting precious moments clicking from feed to feed, you'll find them all in a single location. And because IE 7.0's feed reader has exceptional filtering, sorting, and searching prowess, finding a specific blog item is still easy.
Another treat: Feeds Plus will alert you when your favourite feeds have new content. This program works with Internet Explorer under Windows XP as well as with the version built into Windows Vista, so XP users will be happy with it, too.
20. Vista Battery Saver
Few things are more frustrating than having your laptop run out of juice during a cross-country flight, or at your favourite café. This program promises to lessen the likelihood of experiencing those frustrations. It automatically deactivates Windows Aero and the Windows Sidebar when your laptop runs on battery power, which (according to the author) will extend battery life. Alternatively, you can have the program automatically turn off Aero or the Sidebar when your battery level drops below a limit that you specify.