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The top 15 free tools for every Windows PC

Utilities for a fast, productive desktop environment

There is almost no end to the number of tools offered for Windows desktops, so we've sifted through hundreds of websites to find 15 utilities that belong in every Windows user's bag of tricks. They're all free for personal use; many are free for corporate use as well. I bet at least one program here will make your life easier.

System Information for Windows

Purpose: Hardware and software inventory
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003
Cost: Free for personal use; corporate 10 licence pack costs $99.95 (£63)

Over the years I've used many programs to retrieve software license keys, identify hardware, measure temperatures, and fan speeds; run down memory chip details; and monitor CPU and network loads. Now, finally, I've found one program that does it all - and cleans my glasses.

System Information for Windows (SIW) reports three separate data categories:

  • Software, including file associations, ActiveX controls, and file name associations
  • Hardware, such as BIOS version, video and sound adapters, CPU details
  • Network, including neighbourhood devices, shares, and open ports

There are hundreds of individual entries, all neatly arranged with a tree on the left of the screen.

The SIW setup routine recommends that you install a Registry cleaning program called Registry Reviver. I've long felt that the benefits of Registry cleaners are greatly overshadowed by the problems they sometimes cause. (That's also why you won't see any registry cleaners in this list.)

Recuva

Purpose: File undelete
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003
Cost: Free

File undelete has been a mainstay of the PC utility market since the days of DOS. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a tool that performs file undelete better than Recuva (pronounced 'recover'). It's fast, thorough, and free.

When you throw out the Windows Recycle Bin trash, the files aren't destroyed; rather, the space they occupy is earmarked for new data. Undelete routines scan the flotsam and jetsam, then put the pieces back together. As long as you haven't added new data to a drive, undelete (almost) always works; even if you've added data, there's a good chance you can get most of the deleted stuff back.

Recuva's repertoire goes beyond Windows. Use it to undelete data on a USB drive (see screenshot below), a camera's memory card, or even an MP3 player. It's certainly the most important PC utility a camera owner can have.

Warning: The installer offers to install the Yahoo toolbar.

7Zip

Purpose: Multitalented (un)zipper
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003; available in 64-bit
Cost: Free

Another venerable Windows utility, 7Zip still rates as a must-have, even though Windows supports the ZIP format natively.

Why? Because some people of the Apple persuasion will send you RAR files from time to time, and 7Zip is the fast, easy, completely free way to handle them.

7Zip also creates self-extracting EXE files, which can come in handy (although heaven help you if you ever try to email one - most email scanners won't let an EXE file through), and it supports AES-256 bit encryption. The interface rates as clunky by modern standards (see screenshot below), but it gets the job done with ZIP, RAR, CAB, ARJ, TAR, 7z, and many lesser-known formats. It even lets you extract files from ISO CD images.

A poster boy for the open source community, 7Zip goes in easily, never nags, and wouldn't dream of dropping an unwanted toolbar on your system. Call it enlightened.

 

NEXT PAGE: Wiseval Photophant

  1. Create a fast productive desktop environment
  2. System Information for Windows
  3. Wiseval Photophant
  4. Paint.Net
  5. VLC Media Player
  6. PicPick


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