The Windows ecosystem is filled with more programs than we will ever need. But while you know to install essential programs like Firefox and Steam onto every new PC, there are plenty of core utilities you should install before downloading any application software.
We pick out the 33 most useful utilities that enhance the Windows operating system. These aren't apps used for productivity (like word processing or web browsing) or entertainment (like video playback or gaming). Instead, they strengthen the backbone of Windows by optimizing hardware and system software. From single-purpose diagnostic tools to user-interface replacements, these programs provide general support to overhaul the gestalt of the Windows experience.
Think you have every utility to bend Windows to your wishes? You'd be surprised!
After recommending SyncBack SE in our last app roundup, our readers turned us onto Cobian, an independently-developed backup utility that is as elegant as it is powerful. Cobian lets you schedule backups of folders and drives (yes, even networked ones) to encrypted archives. You can select the frequency of backups, the type of backups (incremental or differential), encryption algorithm, and compression format (Zip and 7z are supported). Backups can be stored onto physical disks, USB keys, or networked drives. The best part is that retrieving files is a cinch—just browse the backup with your preferred archiving program, like 7-Zip.
It you want to rid Desktop icons once and for all, consider using Executor, a powerful visual implementation of the Run command. A keyboard shortcut brings up the Executor prompt, which lets you type open programs, documents, and websites that the program indexes in the background. You can associate keyword commands with applications to perform specific tasks, and manage Executor’s database to refine your results. It’s also extremely customizable to match your desktop aesthetic. Another recommended program launcher is Launchy, which isn’t as feature-heavy as Executor.
It’s easily the most popular registry-cleaning utility; though CCleaner will also purge your system of unwanted temporary files, memory dumps, and even system restore points. The latest version will let you manage start-up programs and services as well.
Since its introduction last year, Dropbox has been a perennial addition to our must-have software lists. So why does it always make the cut? Because it’s a utility that’s simultaneously intuitive, simple, and absolutely kick-ass.
Dropbox monitors a folder on your system, and syncs it with a folder on any other system you have Dropbox installed on, keeping all your important files everywhere you might need them. Even if you don’t have a second computer you want to sync, Dropbox is a worthy download thanks to its powerful browser interface, which lets you download or upload a file anywhere, and saves a revision history, in case you screw up an important document.
For neat freaks who like to keep their files organized, here’s a powerful utility that lets you automate file management in Windows. Belvedere is an open-source tool that lets you monitor folders and move, delete, rename, or open files based on specified rules. You can set it to keep track of your documents folder and archive files created over a month ago, or keep watch of your downloads folder and soft files based on the file’s name, extension, size, or creation date.
WinDirStat is a powerful hard drive visualization tool which goes way beyond that tired old disk space pie graph, and gives you a complete, graphical breakdown of what’s eating up all the space on your disk.
You can choose to view this information in tree view form, which shows all your folders in a drill-down format, with bar graphs illustrating how much of each folders total space is comprised by each of its subfolders and files. You can also view your disk as a treemap, which uses colorful, metallic squares to illustrate how every single file on your drive contributes to the overall disk usage figure.
Remember WinZip? The program you probably used way-back-when to open compressed files, before Windows could handle .zip files natively? Well 7-Zip is like that, on steroids.
7-Zip can decipher just about any archive format on the planet, including .zip, .rar, .tar, .gz, .jar, .iso, and dozens of others. If you need to create your own archive file, 7-Zip has all the important ones covered, including .zip, .tar, and .7z, 7-Zip’s own archive format, which boasts excellent compression rates and encryption.
It’s 2:30PM, do you know how hot your CPU is? Because your computer does, or it should, anyway—there are sensors built into your motherboard keeping track of various important temperatures, voltages and fan speeds, but good luck getting Windows to tell you what they say. That’s why you need SpeedFan, a free program which tells you all your system temperatures and lets you manage your fan speeds, either manually or in response to temperature changes. It can also display S.M.A.R.T. data, so you can make sure your hard disks aren’t about to break on you. You can receive alerts via email if any of your components are in danger of failure.
With the release of Windows 7, Microsoft finally addressed a long-standing flaw in their operating system by including an ISO burning program to handle the simple task of creating a physical disc from an image on your hard drive. Unfortunately, Windows XP and Vista users are still left out in the cold if they want to do something as simple as burn their freshly-purchased digital copy of Windows 7 to disc in order to install it.
Enter ImgBurn, a free, powerful program which can burn and image to disc, or make an image from a disc.
People who care about gaming hardware care about frames per second. It's a convenient, practical way to get a quantitative measure of just how much ass you system is kicking. But it's not always easy to find out what fps you're getting in games--sometimes it's in an options menu, sometimes it's a console commands, and sometimes it's just not possible. That's why you need Fraps.
Fraps is a utility which runs in the background and adds a discrete frames per second overlay to any OpenGL or DirectX game you run. It also serves as a convenient video and screenshot tool, although it adds a watermark unless you pay for the full version.
It can be hard to recommend antivirus software, since everyone has different needs. Power-users might need nothing at all, or just a powerful spyware remover to run once in a while, while a total neophyte needs the protection of a full-on paid antivirus suite to keep them from slowing their machine to a crawl. Microsoft Security Essentials is sort of a compromise—it provides decent virus protection in an unintrusive, easy-to-use container at an unbeatable pricepoint: zero dollars.
If you want to keep something on your computer secure and/or hidden, there’s no better way to do it than TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt is a lightweight, free utility that can create or mount an encrypted, virtual drive, which your computer treats like a removable hard disk. The encryption on a TrueCrypt drive is as strong as you can get, and the contents of a drive or completely unknowable without the passkey or passfile. The program itself is very small, and can be run without installation, meaning that you can store sensitive files, encrypted on a thumb drive, along with the software necessary to decrypt them.
As more and more webservices require us to login every day, password security is becoming a bigger issue than ever. Do you really want to trust your bank account password to all of the latest fad websites? A data breach at one site would mean that all your accounts could be compromised. And if you don’t want to use the same password, how are you going to remember all those passwords without writing them down, which is also dangerous?
Use KeePass. KeePass is a password safe, which generates random, unique passwords for as many sites and programs as you want. When it comes time to login, you just provide keypass with your master password (the only one you have to remember) and it fills in the username and password for you. The whole thing is kept strongly encrypted, so you’re free to keep your password database on your USB drive, without worrying about somebody else decyphering it.
A two-monitor setup is great for productivity, but two computers are even better. The only problem is that you have to switch back and forth between two keyboard and two mice, unless you have a KVM switch, which slows you down and adds clutter to your desk. To get the most out of your dual-box setup, consider a virtual KVM, such as Input Director, which allows you to control two computers with one mouse and keyboard, as though it were a normal two-monitor setup. You simply run a client on each of the networked computers, and Input Director makes it so that moving the pointer off the right side of one screen moves it onto the left side of the other. Keyboard input goes to whichever computer currently has the cursor.
Input Director only works on Windows, but if you want to link up computers with different OSes, there’s the also awesome Synergy, which works on Windows, OSX and Linux.
So you’ve got two monitors—great! Nothing can help out your productivity like a little extra desktop real estate. Except, you’re second screen is really just that—extra space. There’s no taskbar, no way to control the windows currently residing on that screen. You’d think that by now Windows would have addressed this, but they haven’t, and as a result there’s a need for programs like Display Fusion.
Display Fusion lets you manage two computers, with a taskbar and different wallpapers on each. If you use two monitors, this utility is a must.
If you’re the kind of computer user that tries out a lot of apps (and, as you’re reading a best utilities list right now, we’re going to have to assume that you are) you know that every once in a while you just get a stinker—an app that doesn’t do what you thought it would, or anything at all. And what’s worst of all is when that app doesn’t want to leave your system. To take care of those tenacious programs, there’s Revo Uninstaller, which can root out and eliminate all traces of almost any app. Don’t know the name of the app you want to remove? Just set Revo Uninstaller to “Hunter Mode” and click on an app’s GUI to get rid of it.
Sure, BitTorrent gets kind of a bad rap as a transfer protocol for digital pirates, only used for transferring illegal copies of movies, music and games, but there’s really more to it than that. More and more, people are using BitTorrent to make things like game demos, podcasts, and Linux ISOs available, and that means everyone should have a BitTorrent client
We recommend uTorrent, for its small footprint, its exceptional featureset, and its ease-of-use.
Mouse gesture recognition, which allows you to give commands to your computer by moving your mouse in pre-determined patterns, was once only a feature of the few apps that support it natively, such as the Opera browser. With the unfortunately-named Strokeit, you can add that functionality to any of your programs, and to your desktop generally. Strokeit allows you to bind certain gestures to commands within any program, and to define your own gestures. For maximum control, combine Strokeit with autohotkey.
Secunia is a program manager, which scans all the programs on your computers, and tells you which ones are out of date and need patching. Not only does this ensure that you’re always using the latest, most powerful version of all of your programs, it’s also an essential security consideration. A major vector for malicious software is older, vulnerable versions of software, such as Adobe’s Acrobat reader. Using Secunia PSI, you can make sure you’re not leaving your front door wide open for cybercrooks.
Are you still using the old fashioned ctrl-shift-escape Windows task manager? If you are you’re missing out. Process Hacker is an open-source task manager which gives you much more granular control over your system’s processes, allowing you to start, stop, resume and delete services. The default process viewer is color-coded, so you can quickly focus on the processes that are causing problems for your computer, and it can find processes hidden by some rootkits. It also gives you complete control over processes that you normally can’t touch, like those protected by security software or rootkits.
Fences, a utility from Stardock, makers of fine Windows UI programs and 4X games, allows you to create boxes on your computer desktop. Why would you want boxes on your desktop? So that you can corral your seething masses of icons into orderly groups, of course! These boxes can be set to fade mostly out of view (along with the icons they contain) until you mouse-over them, letting you keep a tidy-looking, low-profile desktop without having to nuke all your icons.
If you’ve ever experienced random, seemingly inexplicable problems and crashes with your computer, there’s a very good chance you’ve been a victim of bad memory. Because RAM faults are hard to diagnose by their symptoms alone, every would-be pc-troubleshooter should have a copy of Memtest86+ in their bag of tricks. Memtest is a classic, open source diagnostic tool which can be run from a floppy, CD, or USB thumbdrive, and which puts your memory through the ringer, helping you to identify bad sticks. Next time you have a computer problem you just can’t figure out, remember Memtest 86+.
Anyone who’s ever seriously played a strategy game know that if you’re actually using your mouse to click on icons, you’re wasting time. For any action that you repeat frequently, learning to use a hotkey instead of opening a menu or clicking on an icon can save you a lot of time in the long run. You can get even more out of your keystrokes by using AutoHotkey, a hotkey manager which lets you map any key to custom functions, macros and scripts.
While we'll concede that both Google Desktop Search and the Windows Search 4.0 are both vast improvements over the default Windows XP search function (death to that useless dog!), we have to side with Copernic when we want a powerful desktop search client. Copernic is not only comprehensive in its indexing --it quickly searches emails, office documents, and web pages--it also is light on system resources and processor utilization. We like its ability to sort, group, and refine searches, which is particularly useful for navigating through densely packed network drives. Our only gripe? The newest version of Copernic Free removes real-time results as you type--a feature reserved for the $50 professional edition.
If you haven’t used CPU-Z, you’re not an enthusiast. This tiny CPU interrogator has become the standard tool of anyone who thinks they’re a PC expert and wants to, say, query your cousin’s PC to find out what the hell is actually installed in the machine. CPU Z will tell you the model, code name, process, core voltage, stepping and revision number as well as the core speed, FSB and multiplier the PC is running. You can also find out what speed your DRAM is running at and check the SPDs on some machines too.
Sure, you know you have a Radeon 5970 card, but what do you know about it? If you want something that’ll brace the card for all of its specs, GPU-Z (no relation to CPU-Z) will do the dirty work for you. Offered for free by techpowerup.com, this handy utility will tell you the clocks, the card revision, the number of transistors on the card as well as the process technology used to build the card.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to malware—no one program can purge your computer of every single bit of potentially harmful software. We recommend the one-two punch of SUPErAntiSpyware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. The first has a high detection rate and will run during safe mode, while the latter will run in 64-bit operating systems and clean out anything the first missed.
Frustrated with how Windows manages multi-tasking? You’re not alone—Aero flip isn’t nearly as useful as Microsoft makes it out to be. VistaSwitcher (which works on XP, Vista, and Windows 7) replaces Windows’s default Alt-Tab dialog with a streamlined box that gives you list of every open task. From here, you can hover over the window to get a visual preview of each task and apply right-click menu options to selected apps. Furthermore, VistaSwitcher has built-in keyboard shortcuts that let you selectively browse through instances of a single program, like open Word documents.
Another excellent UI utility is Switcher, which replicates Mac OS’s Expose feature. Unfortunately, Switcher only works with Vista and Windows 7.
We’re not sure why Microsoft still hasn’t included a multiple-Desktops feature into Windows yet. But they still offer this capability in a free Sysinternals power toy, Desktops. This 62KB utility allows you to organize shortcuts and applications on up to four virtual Desktops, which can be accessed with customizable hot-keys.
Disk defragmentation is a contested topic. While most users can agree that having a defragmented drive is good for your PC, the degree to which defragging enhances system performance is still in question. The one thing that user can agree, though, is that Windows’s built-in defrag utility is frustratingly slow. That’s why we recommend Auslogics Disk Defrag, a lightweight piece of software that performs defragging duties without wasting your time. And even if you don’t believe in the benefits of defragging, the software won’t cost you a cent.
There’s no downer worse than finding a dead pixel on your desktop monitor or notebook screen. No matter how much you try to ignore or forget about it, it sticks outs like a sore thumb every time you look at the screen. The most you can hope is that the pixel isn’t truly dead, but just stuck. UDPixel is your best chance to reclaiming LCD perfection – it’ll help you detect dead pixels and run rapid color changes to attempt a fix. But we won’t judge you if you’d rather just not know about a dead pixel.
vLite lets you put Windows Vista and 7 on a diet by creating a customized install disc for the OS. You can integrate drivers, hot fixes, and language packs, remove unwanted components, and even include tweaks with your custom install disc. vLite even lets you automate the install process, so you can run the whole setup unattended.
After you’ve in installed your custom build of Windows, Ninite delivers an easy solution to downloading all your favorite programs. Go to the website and click on the apps that you ultimately want to install. When you're done, Ninite creates a customized executable that downloads and installs these apps for you. Each app is installed with its default settings to its default location--a boon for those who just want a "set it and forget it" dump of all their favorite applications, although picky purists who prefer to tweak an app's advanced installation options might find themselves slightly disappointed.
It can be tough coming up with a recommendation for something as basic as an FTP client. There are tons of options, they all do what you want them to do (upload and download to an FTP server) , and you don’t really want them to do too much else.
Fortunately, FileZilla is exactly what the doctor ordered: a lightweight, secure FTP client, with just the features you want (such as a list of saved servers) and not bloated with anything else. All that, and it’s an open source project, meaning that it’s free, frequently upgraded, and community-supported.