25 useful, free tools for every Windows desktop

Whatever your poison -- Windows 7 or 8, updated or not -- there's a desktop tool just begging to become part of your repertoire.

Top 25 free tools for every Windows desktop
Credit: Windows blueprint by Cracksoldier via deviantArt
Top 25 free tools for every Windows desktop

While smartphones descend on computer cognoscenti like Mongol hordes and tablets tempt the tried and true, the good ol’ Windows desktop still reigns supreme in many corners of the modern tech world. That’s where I live, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

If you haven’t looked at free desktop programs lately, you’ll be surprised. The inexorable shift to a post-PC world hasn’t deadened the market or dulled innovation. Quite the contrary. The current crop of free-for-personal-use (and cheap for corporate use) desktop apps runs rings around the best tools we had not long ago.

Productivity, file management, media, system, security -- here are my top choices for the most useful free and almost-free desktop apps, tested on Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1 Update 1.

Top free desktop productivity tool: FreeCommander XE
Top free desktop productivity tool: FreeCommander XE

Whether you’re using File Explorer in Windows 7 or Windows Explorer in Windows 8/8.1, you’re up against the same, lame Explorer layout we’ve known for more than a decade, plus or minus a few icons on a Ribbon. FreeCommander XE presents the obvious solution -- two side-by-side panes for independent navigating and copying -- along with an entire cookie jar full of worthwhile one-click features. 

Although some of the download versions of FreeCommander XE bundle unrelenting crapware, the version available from the FreeCommander site installs without a hitch or a hitchhiker.

Top free desktop productivity tool: 7-Zip
Top free desktop productivity tool: 7-Zip

Every desktop user needs 7-Zip. While Windows 8 (finally!) added the ability to look into ISO files -- you still need 7-Zip to see them in Win7 -- Win8’s Windows Explorer still doesn’t support RAR compressed files, which are becoming more common as Mac use continues to rise. 7-Zip also creates password-protected Zip files, as well as self-extracting Zips. 

You don’t need to register or pay for 7-Zip.

Don’t fall for a website with a similar name. To get the real, original, one and only free 7-Zip, with a crapware-free installer, go to 7-zip.org. There’s support on the 7-Zip Sourceforge page.

Top free desktop productivity tool: EditPad Lite
Top free desktop productivity tool: EditPad Lite

Notepad is soooooo last century.

Even with all of the fantastic new brightly colored file formats running around today, everybody, sooner or later, needs a text editor. Let’s hear it for EditPad Lite.

With tabs, undo/redo, Unicode support, cut/copy/paste, and search and replace all in a svelte and fast package, EditPad Lite works wonders. Free for personal use, the pro/corporate package costs as little as $9 per user. Pay for the product, and you also get a spell-checker.

Top free desktop productivity tool: PicPick
Top free desktop productivity tool: PicPick

If you've ever tried to use the Windows Snipping Tool to capture fleeting images on the screen -- notification boxes that go away when you click, or popover menus that disappear the minute you move your mouse -- you're in for a treat.

PicPick lets you take screenshots with the press of a key, and pressing the key doesn't make ephemeral items on the screen run for cover. Once you've taken the shot, PicPick pops your screen into an editor with tools for resizing and editing. Add automatic file naming, on-screen magnification at selectable levels, a pixel ruler, color picker, and a half-dozen other screenshooting aids, and you end up with a versatile, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink shooter. Just watch out for crapware.

Top free desktop productivity tool: Tixati
Top free desktop productivity tool: Tixati

If you aren’t yet using torrents, now’s the time to start.

For years I’ve used and recommended uTorrent, but the current version’s installer includes the notorious piece of crapware known as OpenCandy. I wouldn’t touch uTorrent now with a ten foot barber pole.

Instead, try Tixati. It’s simple (no Java, no .Net), fast, easy to use, supports magnet links (which really simplify downloads), with extensive bandwidth reporting and management. Be careful when you navigate the download site. You may see an ad at the top of the page that says Download. If so, don’t click it -- horrendous crapware may lurk. Instead, follow the link to an official mirror site.

Top free desktop file management tool: File Shredder
Top free desktop file management tool: File Shredder

Even if you don’t wear a little tinfoil hat, from time to time you may want to completely delete a specific file or overwrite an entire drive before you give it away.

If you do wear a little tinfoil hat, File Shredder will help you graduate to the big leagues. Shred files, folders, free space, entire drives, you name it, using any of several shredding algorithms.

Pro tip: When you get to the download page, don’t click the Download icons -- those lead to a Zip manager and Download manager that aren’t exactly what you want. Instead, click on the link in the text that says “download File Shredder.”

Top free desktop file management tool: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder
Top free desktop file management tool: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder

While the cost of cloud storage is rapidly approaching zero, most of us are still tied to hard drives here on earth. If you think your hard drive might have 10 different copies of a specific photo of your last birthday party, well, it probably does.

Auslogics Duplicate File Finder’s easy-to-use interface makes it relatively easy to find and select the duplicated files you want to delete, then stick the selected files in the Recycle Bin.

A word of caution: While the Auslogic’s installer wants to put all sorts of junk on your machine, all the options are confined to one “Free Search Offer by Spigot” panel. Uncheck all of the junk, and you’ll end up with a very usable duplicate finder. Don’t install Spigot.

Top free desktop file management tool: SpaceSniffer
Top free desktop file management tool: SpaceSniffer

Want to know what’s taking up all the space on your hard drive? Run SpaceSniffer

No installation required -- it runs from a simple EXE -- no malware, no funny stuff. You end up with a patchwork quilt of files and folders. Click on a folder or file to get more details. Double-click on a folder to see all of the components.

There’s even a filtering capability so you can look at all of your MP4 files or JPGs. Great way to zoom in on the big space hogs.

Top free desktop file management tool: Comodo Backup
Top free desktop file management tool: Comodo Backup

Windows 7 has a decent -- but not perfect -- backup and restore function. Windows 8 basically throws it all away. Yes, you can find vestiges of Win7 backup buried in the dregs of Windows 8, but it’s a pain. Microsoft wants you to use its new backup method, stick everything on OneDrive, and use Refresh/Restore should the proverbial hit the fan. Comodo Backup runs rings around all of them. 

Comodo wants to back you up to the cloud, give you 10 GB of free online storage, then sell you the rest. But even if you choose to backup the old-fashioned way, Comodo Backup is free and works like a champ.

Top free desktop media tool: VLC Media Player
Top free desktop media tool: VLC Media Player

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, no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos.

Unlike other media players, 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 screen shots. Yes, there’s a Metro version. No, I don’t recommend it.

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

Top free desktop media tool: Image Resizer
Top free desktop media tool: Image Resizer

Once upon a time, the Windows XP PowerToys included a fabulous, simple, fast image resizer. Right-click on a photo, choose Resize Pictures, and the photo is reduced in size to a fraction of the original. With options for Small, Medium, Large, Mobile, and Custom, you can make the resized file as small as you like, and maintain a lot of image fidelity in the process.

But XP came and went, and Microsoft didn’t keep the PowerToys updated. Enter Brice Lambson, a Microsoft employee with a heart of gold -- and a mission to bring the free Image Resizer to the latest versions of Windows. Microsoft still doesn’t support Image Resizer. But Brice does.

Top free desktop media tool: Paint.net
Top free desktop media tool: Paint.net

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, organizing, and resizing capabilities.

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’ hard-to-keep-updated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a non-professional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.

Watch out for bogus “Download” ads on the site.

Top free desktop media tool: VirtualDub
Top free desktop media tool: VirtualDub

I know many people who swear at Windows Live Movie Maker, but don’t want to shell out the money for an expensive Windows video editor, and refuse to switch to Apple’s iMovie. For those people, VirtualDub is a good compromise -- and the price is right.

It’s almost entirely AVI-based, although it can handle screen captures, MPEG-1, and BMP files. If you’re working with AVI or your camera cranks out files in AVI (mine does), the restriction may not hurt. The program itself runs easily, fast, and very simply, with no installation required.

Top free desktop media tool: HandBrake
Top free desktop media tool: HandBrake

Windows doesn’t rip DVDs. Period.

While you’re bound to get a hundred different opinions from any collection of a dozen different RIAA lawyers, ripping DVDs for your own use (say, to play them from a computer that doesn’t have a DVD player, or to keep your three-year-old’s fingers off the shiny side) is a common, debatably illegal, activity. Ask your lawyer how she rips DVDs.

I rip DVDs all the time (so sue me), and when I do, I use Handbrake. Open source software at its finest, HandBrake has an enormous number of options that should cover even the most convoluted cases.

Top free desktop system tool: Secunia PSI
Top free desktop system tool: Secunia PSI

A key component in keeping your system up-to-date, Secunia Personal Software Inspector scans every program on your computer and tells you in no uncertain terms if you have any wayward programs that haven’t been patched. PSI knows about more than 3,000 different programs.You can tell Secunia PSI to automatically keep your programs updated, and unless there’s some sort of odd manual intervention required, everything gets patched behind the scenes.

I particularly appreciate the fact that PSI respects my Windows Update settings -- so while I have everything else updated automatically, it lets me install Microsoft patches on my own schedule. Free PSI is for personal use; CSI corporate editions available.

Top free desktop system tool: Autoruns
Top free desktop system tool: Autoruns

Microsoft’s venerable and free-as-a-breeze Autoruns finds more auto-starting programs (add-ins, drivers, codecs, gadgets, shell extensions, whatever) in more obscure places than any other program, anywhere. AutoRuns not only lists the auto-running programs, it lets you turn individual programs off.

There are many minor features, including the ability to filter out Microsoft-signed programs, a quick way to jump to folders holding auto-starting programs, and a command-line version that lets you display file hashes. AutoRuns doesn’t require installation. It’s a program that runs and collects its information, displays it (with a rather rudimentary user interface), lets you wrangle with your system, then fades away.

Top free desktop system tool: HWiNFO
Top free desktop system tool: HWiNFO

If you’re curious about the hardware that beats inside your system, have I got a utility for you. HWiNFO delves into every nook and cranny. From the summary (shown here) to detailed Device Manager-style trees of information -- entire forests of information -- HWiNFO can tell you everything anyone could want to know about your machine.

There’s a separate real-time monitoring panel that tells you the current status of everything under the sun: Temperatures, speeds, usage, clocks, voltages, wattages, hard drive SMART stats, read rates, write rates, GPU load, network throughput, and on and on.

Top free desktop system tool: PDF-XChange Viewer
Top free desktop system tool: PDF-XChange Viewer

For years, I recommended Foxit Reader as my favorite PDF viewer. Then the folks at Foxit started piling crapware into the installer, and I finally gave up. Now, I recommend a better product -- not only with more features (including text overlay, which works for form filling, and OCR conversion), but also with fewer, uh, unintended installer hitchhikers. 

PDF-XChange Viewer offers all the PDF functions that most desktop users need. For Windows 8 users it also keeps you from that awful Metro viewer. The Viewer is free for businesses, too.

Top free desktop system tool: Revo Uninstaller
Top free desktop system tool: Revo Uninstaller

Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls programs, and it does so in an unexpected way. When you use Revo, it runs the program’s uninstaller and watches while the uninstaller works, looking for the location of program files and for Registry keys that the uninstaller zaps. It then goes in and removes leftover pieces, based on the locations and keys that the program’s uninstaller took out. Revo also consults its own internal database for commonly-left-behind bits, and roots those out as well. 

The not-free “Pro” version monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. Pro will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.

Top free desktop system tool: Process Explorer
Top free desktop system tool: Process Explorer

Process Explorer tells you which files are currently open by what program. That feature alone has saved me half a head of hair because once it's identified by Process Explorer, the process that has locked up your file can be killed. Process Explorer also gives you full information on all of the svchost processes running on your PC. That accounts for the other half a head. 

Mouse over a process, even a generic svchost, and you can see the command line that launched the process, the path to the executable file, and all of the Windows services being used. Right-click and you can go online to get more information about the executable.

Another must-have product from, yes, Microsoft.

Top free desktop system tool: Recuva
Top free desktop system tool: Recuva

File undelete has been a mainstay of the PC utility market since the days of DOS. Far as I’m concerned, there’s never been an undelete tool better than Piriform’s Recuva (pronounced “recover”): 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 and put the pieces back together. As long as you haven’t added new data to a drive, undelete (almost) always works; and even if you’ve added some data, there’s a good chance you can get most of the deleted stuff back.

Recuva does all of that and more, for your hard drive, USB drives, even memory cards.

Top free desktop security tool: LastPass
Top free desktop security tool: LastPass

LastPass keeps track of your user ids, passwords, and some other settings, stores them in the cloud, and offers them to you with just a click. LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password that you have to remember. The data that gets stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key, 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 -- if you have the master password.

Top free desktop security tool: EMET
Top free desktop security tool: EMET

Microsoft’s EMET (Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit) forces Windows to use two specific malware-busting defense systems. ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization) relocates pieces of programs randomly, making it much harder for malware to hook into specific locations; DEP (Data Execution Protection) makes it much harder for malware to lurk in parts of memory that should contain data.

EMET breaks some -- even many -- programs. While it would be nice if all Windows applications would submit to EMET, they don’t. That said, there’s very little downside to installing EMET and telling the installer that you want to protect Java, Internet Explorer, and the Office programs.

Top free desktop security tool: Kaspersky TDSSKiller
Top free desktop security tool: Kaspersky TDSSKiller

The name may lead you to believe that TDSSKiller kills the TDSS rootkit, but the product does much more simply because so many common rootkits are based on, or derived from, TDSS. The current version detects and removes SST, Pihar, ZeroAccess, Sinowal, Whistler, Phanta, Trup, Stoned, RLoader, Cmoser, and Cidox. Unlike most rootkit killers, this one runs in Windows.

To run the program, fill out the form on the TDSSKiller page, wait for Kaspersky to send you a download link. Download the program and run it -- no installer, just an EXE. If any rootkits are found, you’ll be given the opportunity to Delete/Cure, Copy to quarantine, or Skip each identified interloper.

Top free desktop security tool: Malwarebytes
Top free desktop security tool: Malwarebytes

No doubt you already have an antivirus program. I use, and recommend, Microsoft Security Essentials (or Windows Defender in Win8, which is basically the same thing), but there are many good alternatives.

Malwarebytes is different. The free version is designed to run manually -- I run mine once a week. Malwarebytes picks up all sorts of creepy crawlies that get past AV programs. When combined with the support on the Malwarebytes forum, Malwarebytes is the ultimate fallback for infected systems -- whether you know they’re infected or not.

A word of warning
A word of warning

It’s never been easy to download freeware, but with the proliferation of sites (even well-known sites!) that bundle their own loads of crap in the installer make finding the real, clean product harder than ever.

While coming up with these recommendations, I was impressed by the number of “Download” icons like the one shown here. If you look at the very tiny print, you’ll notice that the Download link appears on an advertisement. In this case, if you click on the green box just above the phrase “Download Tixati v1.96,” and unleash the installer, your system will get a big shot of junk.

Now, more than ever, you have to be very careful where you click.