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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.

VLC Media Player

Purpose: Media player, including video
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux
Cost: Free

Another poster child for open source software, VLC Media Player plays just about anything - including YouTube Flash FLV files - with no additional software, no downloads, and no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos.

Unlike other media players (notably the versatile but complex KM Player), VLC sports simple, Spartan controls, built-in codecs for almost every file type imaginable, and a large and vocal online support community. VLC plays Internet streaming media with a click, records played media, converts between file types, and even supports individual frame screenshots.

VLC is well-known for tolerating incomplete or damaged media files. It will even start to play downloaded media before the download's finished.

Jaangle

Purpose: Music organiser
Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003
Cost: Free

While VLC excels at playing videos, Jaangle covers the music bases, with the best combination of tagging and library support I've seen. (Yes, it was formerly known as TeenSpirit.)

Jaangle reaches out to the Net and retrieves a bewildering array of ancillary information about the music: album art, of course, but also artist biographies (see screenshot below) and artist pictures. If you're tired of seeing the same old album covers, it's like a breath of fresh air. The tag editor's just a right-click away. More than that, you can right-click on a song and download the Google Lyrics, right there inside Jaangle. Finally, we're seeing online music libraries used for something other than ordering more songs.

With customisable options to slice and dice, reorder and reorganise, Jaangle takes a fresh, new approach to organising and managing a music collection.

Process Explorer

Purpose: Monitor and manage running programs
Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7; Windows Server 2008, 2003
Cost: Free

The great granddaddy of program monitors, Microsoft's free Process Explorer just hit version 14. If you've never used Process Explorer, you've never seen what's really going on under Windows' covers. If you have used Process Explorer, this new version boasts a couple of new tricks and a much-needed makeover for the CPU and memory monitor.

PE shows you all running processes and subprocesses and with a click or even a mouse-over, divulging details about what's really going on. Want to know which program has a file locked? Click Find, Handle, or DLL; type some part of the file name; and click Search. To release the file, right-click on the process and choose Kill Process Tree. Curious about the origin of all of those svchost.exe programs running on your machine? A simple mouse-over shows you what command line started the program.

See every process that's running; its handle, process ID, and controlling DLL; the amount of CPU it's using; and much more. PE also tells you everything about CPU cycles, memory usage, and I/O.

Best of all, PE doesn't have an installer. It just runs, and runs well.

NEXT PAGE: PicPick

  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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