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JDMurray's Blog at www.TechExams.Net

Free Windows Tools to Save you some Money

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by , 12-02-2007 at 02:12 AM (7514 Views)
It's getting close to the gift-giving season and you might be thinking about building (or rebuilding) a Windows computer as a present for someone, or possibly even as a gift to yourself. When I rebuild a computer, I like to install a standard set of utilities and tools that are very useful for keeping the computer working well and for fixing any problems that will inevitably occur.

Windows XP and Vista come with a variety of software tools for providing useful services, such as backing up and defragmenting the hard drive and scanning for malicious software. However, not all tools you may need are included with Windows, and certainly not the best tools for every job. And when you start adding up the costs of all the tools you might need, you've just added several hundred dollars to the cost of rebuilding that old computer! Doesn't anybody make good Windows tools that are also free?

In this article, I look at ten categories of computer utilities used to fix, maintain, and provide useful services for Windows computers, and I make recommendations of free tools for you to try. All of the tools listed are freely distributed under a public license and are available from their owner's Web site, or from the amazing selection of Freeware tools at MajorGeeks.com.

Disk Defragmenter

Since Windows 95, the Defrag utility included with Windows has been the default (free) defragging tool of choice. Defrag does an adequate job of defragging your hard disk's partitions, increasing your read/write disk performance. Although using Defrag is better than never defragging, there are much better defragging utilities available, such as Perfect Disk and Diskeeper, but they cost money.

The Freeware defragger I like to use is SmartDefrag from IOBit. This is a simple defragging program that is fast, efficient, and easy to use. SmartDefrag can perform quick or full file system optimization, works in the foreground or invisibly in the background, and supports Windows 2000, XP, and Vista. SmartDefrag appears to be a mature product; I have never experienced any problems with it eating files or disk partitions.

One word of caution: always run a disk checking utility, such as chkdsk, before running a defragger. If a disk partition has problem, such as lost clusters or bad sectors, running a defrag utility can make the file system problems worse.

Disk and Registry Cleaner

Only running chkdsk and a disk defragger will not fix all of the file system problems you will encounter. Windows computers are notorious for performing more slowly as they are used over many months and years. Programs can sometimes malfunction and never operate properly again, even after being reinstalled. And just where is all my free disk space disappearing to?

The tool that solves many of these problems is a disk and registry cleaner. These programs remove all unnecessary files that are needlessly using your valuable hard disk space, and the broken registry entries that are slowing your system performance. Disk cleaners also make your system more secure by removing temporary files that might contain personal information that you do not want others to find (e.g., Web browser cookies).

My favorite Freeware disk and registry cleaner is CCleaner from Piriform. It removes temporary disk files created by program such as Web browsers, media players, P2P file sharing clients, file viewers, and word processing applications. Windows log files and the Recycle Bin are also cleaned. CCleaner can also over-write files before it deletes them to render the data they contain (practically) unrecoverable.

CCleaner also removes old information from the Windows Registry, such as missing ActiveX controls and programs, shared DLLs, fonts, and invalid shortcuts. You can even run program uninstallers faster than you can get the Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs applet to appear. CCleaner also gives you the option to backup the Windows registry before cleaning it, just in case you think something necessary was removed and want to restore it.

Disk cleaners are famous for “working too well” and actually breaking a Windows system by removing too much information from the registry. I have used CCleaner for several years and I have never experienced any problem with it. This experience must be shared with a lot of other people, because CCleaner now boasts over 100 million downloads. Using both SmartDefrag and CCleaner will help you avoid “fixing” computer problems by resorting to reformatting the hard disk and reinstalling Windows.

Data Destruction

Disk defragmenters and cleaners are good for over-writing temporary files and unused file space, but what about destroying all of the data in a file or on a hard disk? The gold standard of free data destruction tools is Darik's Boot and Nuke. DBAN is a free, open source program created specifically for destructively erasing data storage devices, effectively and irrevocably “nuking” a disk partition or an entire hard disk. The author of DBAN claims that (with a few exceptions) his program “thoroughly hinders all known techniques of hard disk forensic analysis” ( DBAN FAQ ).

DBAN works by booting on a computer from a floppy disk, CD-ROM, or USB flash drive (DBAN only require about 1.3MB of space). DBAN runs completely in memory by loading a Linux kernel and presenting a simple menu. The partitions and disks to be nuked are chosen and the erasure method is selected (there are many to choose from). Depending on the size of the disk partition(s), and the type of erasure method selected, the entire process could take less than an hour or more than a day.

While DBAN is extremely effective at permanently wiping disk partitions and entire disks, it is not the solution when all you need to wipe is individual files. And while CCleaner will securely overwrite files before removing them, it will not allow you to select individual files to securely delete. Fortunately, a Freeware solution to this problem is available.

DeleteOnClick from 2BrightSparks is a utility that allows the secure deletion of files with only a single mouse click. DeleteOnClick works on any file accessible to Windows XP or Vista–including encrypted and compressed–and is not currently locked. The Freeware version securely overwrites the file before fully deleting it (not just sending the file to the Recycle Bin). The commercial version also renames the file before overwriting it, removing the file's name from the partition's File Allocation Table. With either version, the file is irrecoverable.

DeleteOnClick is part of the OnClick suite of utilities from 2BrightSparks. Check out the other OnClick tools and the Freeware utilities available.

Data Recovery

You go to great lengths to hide, encrypt, and destroy data on a hard drive. But sometimes you need to instead recover files that have been deleted. On a Windows system, the sooner you attempt to recover a file after it has been deleted the more likely it will not be over-written and destroying its data. But installing a data recovery tool afterwards might over-write the files you want to recover. For this reason, you need to already have a data recovery tool installed on your Windows computer and know how to use it.

The free data recovery tool I've used a lot is PC INSPECTOR from Convar. PC INSPECTOR is capable of searching folders, partitions, or entire hard disks and network drives for deleted files to recover. PC INSPECTOR also recognizes the header of many file formats (e.g., ZIP, DOC, MP3, AVI) and will attempt to identify what it can of them. Unfortunately, PC INSPECTOR has yet to be updated to work on for Windows Vista, so it may not be what you need.

Fortunately, Recuva from Piriform is another Freeware data recovery tool that works quite well with Windows Vista, XP, 2003, 2000 and 98. Recuva allows files to be recovered from hard disk partitions, USB flash drives, memory cards, and MP3 players. Recuva displays information on all erased files that it finds, how recoverable the file is, and allows the recovery of selected files or entire folders. Recuva's GUI supports 31 different languages; you can also run Recuva from a USB flash drive.

File recovery is an operation that you rarely perform, but when you do you want it to succeed. Therefore, you should also consider other options for protecting your data before it is accidentally or maliciously destroyed.

Disk Backup

Backing up your computer is something that all of us should do, but most of us don't. The few people that do are either afraid of the inevitable catastrophic loss of data, or have already had permanent data loss happen and learned from the experience (I'm in the latter category). Recovering files from a backup is often much more successful than recovering it from a hard disk, but people are only likely to make backups if it is very easy to do.

Windows comes with the Backup or Restore Wizard , which is a very serviceable program. In fact, it is the backups program I've sued the most for making local backups to disk. However, this wizard may not have some features that you need, and it is not easy to use if you don't know what you are doing. I prefer to use Norton Ghost 12 for performing backups of Windows file systems, and Norton Ghost 2003 for making partition and disk backup images. However, both of those programs cost money.

A free backup program that I've used and like is SyncBack. Backing up or synchronizing files and folder to local and network drives, CD-RW, flash memory, ZIP files, or FTP sites is very easy. SyncBack supports many types of back operations, compares and compresses files, and can simulate backup and restore operations. The SyncBack GUI has an Easy Mode and an Expert mode, and is available in over a dozen languages. SyncBack is the Freeware version of SyncBackSE.

Anti-Malware

One thing Windows XP and Vista do not include–but will happily scold you for not having–is an anti-Malware tool. The term “Malware” has come to represent any software that purposely does things that you don't want it to and that you are not aware of. The more common names for Malware are virus, worm, Trojan horse, Adware, Spyware, and rootkit. Unless you are a Malware researcher, you do not want these things on your computer.

There are plenty of free anti-Malware tools available. Tool vendors hope that a freely available “basic” or “home” version of a tool will encourage users to buy a more feature-packed version of the product. Fortunately, the freely available tools perform the essential Malware detection and removal that most home computer users need. (Yes, Microsoft does provide the free Windows Defender Spyware scanning product, but it hardly provides a complete defense against all types of Malware.)

I personally prefer to use all of the free security products from AVG as my primary source of Malware detection and prevention. Rather than have a single, all-in-one solution for all types of Malware, AVG provides individual tools, allowing the user to install the type of protection that the user wants.

For protection against viruses, worms, and Trojan horses infecting files and email attachments, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition is the product to use. For detection and protection against Spyware, Adware, and other hidden software that literally spies on your Web-browsing and computer-using activities, AVG Anti-Spyware is the tool.

Other free virus detection and removal tools to try include AntiVir and Avast! Home Edition. Two other classic (and free) anti-Spyware and Adware tools are Ad-Aware 2007 Free and Spybot Search And Destroy. Blink Personal Edition from eEye Digital Security is an all-in-one, zero-day Malware solution which I like and use very much, and is free for a limited time.

Rootkits are a newer type of Malware in the Windows world that specialized in avoiding detection. Many of the advanced, for-pay scanners have rootkit detection built in, but there are several free tools available , including Gmer, Sophos Anti-Rootkit, F-Secure BlackLight, and AVG Anti-Rootkit Free Edition.

No one tool will detect all possible rootkit threats, so try them all. The fact is that no single tool will discover all malicious software programs installed on a computer. You should therefore always have installed and periodically run several different Malware scanners on each of your high-risk computers. (My only word of caution is that you should not run two or more of these scanners at the same time.)

Firewall

Just as there is no perfect Malware scanner, there is also no perfect firewall either. The Windows XP SP2 and Vista firewalls have been criticized for not having significant, default outbound (egress) filtering rules. This means that you will not be alerted to all of the attempts made by programs running on your computer to contact other hosts on your local network and on the Internet. Being alerted to such activities is necessary for discovering if Malware on your computer is attempting to send spam or contact its home server.

There are several good software firewalls from which to choose. The most popular packages seem to be ZoneAlarm Free Firewall and Comodo Personal Firewall. If you need a software firewall for legacy Windows systems (Windows 9x and NT4), have a look at Jetico Personal Firewall v.1. And although I haven't yet tried it, WebRoot's Desktop Firewall is now completely free too.

To help you make a choice, Web sites like Firewall Leak Tester provide tools to test hardware and software firewalls, and Personal Firewall Reviews provide reviews of the effectiveness and usability of firewall software. My personal favorites firewall products are Comodo, SunBelt Personal Firewall (not free, but very inexpensive), and Blink 's integrated firewall.

Although you may not feel that a software firewall is necessary for desktop computers that are located behind a hardware firewall, mobile wireless laptops certainly need software firewall protection. Also, consider the fact that your hardware firewall can't notify you if a Malware program is trying to phone home from your computer.

CD/DVD Copier/Burner

Over the past few years, I've become disenchanted with commercial CD/DVD burning software. Most of the popular brands have become bloatware by having every possible copying/burning/ripping feature that anyone could ever want crammed under a very pretty GUI. What I want from CD/DVD burning software is the most commonly needed features packaged in an interface that is easy for anyone to use. Oh, and I want it to be completely free . I have found all this with CDBurnerXP.

CDBurnerXP is a Freeware CD/DVD burning program that burns all types of media (including Blu-Ray and HD-DVD), creates audio and data discs, performs disc-to-disc copying, makes bootable CDs from boot image files, and can create/burn/convert ISO files too. The CDBurnerXP GUI is international and very easy to use. About the only things CDBurnerXP doesn't do is copy movie DVDs, in which case you'll still need to rely on the classic, free DVDShrink or DVDDecrypter and DVD43 programs.

Note: You may have experienced problems burning certain types of media, such as DVD-R or DVD+RW discs, with any burning software. When even applying the latest update to your burner software doesn't fix the problem, the cause is often your CD/DVD burner drive itself. Installing the latest firmware update may fix the problem, but if your burner drive is more than two years old you probably need to upgrade your burner.

There are several fast and inexpensive CD/DVD burner drives available that support all CD/DVD media types, including Dual/Double layer and Blu-ray discs. Currently, my personal fav is the Pioneer DVR-112D, but new burner drives are released every few months. Web sites like CDFreaks.com are a good place to check what's new and read reliable reviews and about CD/DVD burners.

Web Browser

It may seem silly to list a Web browser as a free tool, but at least one very popular Web browser isn't free unless you buy the operating system that it's bundled with. That same Web browser is also a very popular target for hackers and malicious Web servers, so using a different Web browser, such as Opera or FireFox, can have extra benefits.

Web browsers are capable of far more than just entertainment and e-commerce. Plug-ins (or Add-ons) are small programs that extend the capability of a Web browser much the same was that installing Windows programs extend the capability of your computer. FireFox 2 has a huge Add-on developer community, and the collection of Add-ons for FireFox allows the browser to be configures as a highly specialized tool for practically anything.

If you want to use FireFox to download a lot of files and videos, FlashGot and VideoDownloader are the addons you need; writers will love the Add-on spelling dictionaries and blogging tools; Web programmers will use the ChickenFoot, Grease Monkey, and Web Developer Add-ons to test their code; if you are concerned about Web-browsing privacy and safety, the NoScript and SafeHistory Add-ons are for you. And the IETab Addon provides complete compatibility with Web sites that only support Internet Explorer.

The Web browser is now the most used application on most Windows computers. FireFox is an excellent alternative to the security and performance problems of Internet Explorer. And it's extensibility and versatility makes it a free tool worth learning how to use.

Paint Program

OK, a paint program isn't really a necessary tool for every Windows user. However, I had to throw in just one fun category into this listing of practical productivity tools. I actually find that Microsoft Paint is entirely adequate for most of the simple cropping and touch-up jobs I need to perform on image files. However, if I need advanced capabilities similar to those found in Adobe Photoshop, I use Paint.NET.

Paint.NET is a free paint program that truly rivals Photoshop. It includes layers and blends, special tools and effects, acquiring from scanners and camera, and a large developer community extending Paint.NET's functionality by writing plug-ins. The GUI is easy to use for people familiar with professional paint programs. Paint.NET is freely distributed under the MIT License. If you like, you can download all 140,000 lines of C# source code and have a look at it in Visual Studio 2005 (but good luck trying to modify it).

If you need a free program to simply find and organize all of your image files–especially your digital photos–I recommend Picasa from Google. Picasa finds and visually organizes your images files by groups, and provides image manipulation feature that allow you to edit, print, email, post to a Weblog, and burn your photos to a CD. Picasa supports many image (.jpg, .bmp, .gif, .png, .psd, .tif), movie (.avi, .mpg, .wmv, .asf, .mov), and camera (Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Minolta and Pentax) file formats. Picasa is truly a versatile, useful, and well-written program–and I'm amazed that it is free.

Wait, you think those are the best Freeware utilities???

All of the Freeware programs mentioned in this article have been selected based on my own humble opinions. If you have you own favorite set of tools, a success or horror story to share, or just a differing opinion in general, please let me know about it in the comments section of this article.
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