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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.

Paint.Net

Purpose: Image editor
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP (requires .Net Framework 3.5 SP1 or later)
Cost: Free

With dozens of good - even great - free image editors around, it's hard to pick one above the others. IrfanView, for example, has tremendous viewing, organising and resizing capabilities. GIMP ships with powerful tools and an enormous array of add-ins. FastStone Image Viewer lets you edit full-screen and has a screen capture capability. That doesn't even brush the surface of the Picasa vs. Windows Live Photo Gallery maelstrom - a religious debate worthy of several volumes.

For powerful, easy-to-use photo editing, with layers, plug-ins, and all sorts of special effects, along with a compact and easily understood interface, I'll stick with Paint.Net. Although it requires Windows' bloated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a nonprofessional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.

Autoruns

Purpose: Controls autostarting programs
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003
Cost: Free

Programs that run automatically when Windows starts bedevil every Windows consumer, from rank beginner to grizzled veteran. There's one industrial-strength autostart listing tool that knows all, sees all, and lets you do something about it.

If you've never used Autoruns, you're in for somewhat of a shock. Autostarting programs lurk in the most obscure corners of Windows. The Everything tab (shown in the screenshot below) lists every program that starts automatically, in the order in which it is run. Click on the program to see details. Right-click on a program and choose Search Online to look up the program on the web, using your default browser and search engine.

You can filter out the Microsoft programs and have Autoruns just show you the third-party interlopers: Click Options, Hide Microsoft and Windows Entries. Then click the Refresh icon. You see all the self-running stuff deposited on your machine.

LastPass

Purpose: Store and retrieve passwords online
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux
Cost: Free for Windows, Mac, Linux; $1 (63p) per month for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian

It sounds crazy to store all of your passwords on a website, right?

I'd been using AI Roboform to manage my passwords for years, until I bumped into this all-in-the-cloud password manager. Like Roboform, LastPass keeps track of your user IDs, passwords, and other settings, and it offers them to you with just a click. But there's a big difference: Roboform stores your passwords on your PC, while LastPass encrypts them, then stores them in the cloud.

LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password that you have to provide - and remember. The data that gets stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key (which only you know) the stored passwords can't be broken, unless you know somebody who can crack AES-256 encryption.

LastPass works as a browser add-on for IE, Firefox or Chrome, so all of your passwords are stored in one place, accessible to any PC you happen to be using, as long as you have the master password.

NEXT PAGE: VLC Media Player

  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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