Must-have Windows utilities for 20 essential tasks

From file management to encryption to system maintenance tools, these handy applications will help you do your job and keep your PC humming happily

For a long time, American Express' slogan was, "Don't leave home without it." Likewise, there are some programs -- apart from "big" applications such as Word, Outlook or Firefox -- that we just can't live without. They're too useful, too elegant or just too neat.

What makes for a must-have utility? My rule of thumb: It's anything you'd install on a new PC within a week of uncrating it. You can work without these programs, but life becomes mighty uncomfortable if you don't have them.

To that end, I've compiled a list of must-have tools in 20 different categories, plus a couple of nifty bonus apps for good measure. I haven't limited myself to just free or just for-pay products; I simply chose the best in each category. I stuck with the kinds of utilities that almost everyone uses at one time or another, although I admit I bent this rule in a couple of places -- for instance, PDF creation and virtualization, if only because those things are becoming increasingly popular with users at large and not just a few pros.

A note about licensing: While many of the programs here are described as "free," that doesn't automatically imply open source, software whose code is freely available to be modified by anyone, unlike commercial programs. Any programs that are available under open-source licensing will be described as such; unless stated otherwise, "free" only means available at no charge.

Finally, the majority of the applications described here should work with all three major versions of 32-bit Windows: Windows 2000, XP and Vista. Note that in Vista's case, the vast majority of these programs should work as-is, although some may require running as administrator to work correctly.

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File management

Archiving/compression

The native .zip file integration in Windows Explorer is OK, but most people want something with more features than that. For a long time now, my favorite third-party archiving tool has been Rarlab's shareware WinRAR.

Its proprietary .rar archive format does a far better job of compressing than vanilla .zip does, and includes compression algorithms for audio and images -- ones that aren't already compressed, that is. (Note that while the .rar format is great for your own use and is becoming increasingly widespread, you can't yet assume other users will have a program that understands .rar files.) The trial is free (albeit with nag boxes when the 40-day trial period expires), and a single-user license will cost you $29.

A new contender that's completely free and open source is Igor Pavlov's 7-Zip, which includes your choice of multiple compression algorithms, AES-256 encryption for archives, multithreaded performance for multicore systems and compatibility with existing .rar archives. If you're a convert from WinRAR, you don't have to recompress all your old files. The interface is also similar enough to WinRAR that you can switch from one to the other without too much trouble.

7-Zip
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The versatile 7-Zip. (Click for larger view.)

CD/DVD burning

For a long time, I was a fan of Nero Ultra Edition, and it's still one of the better commercial suites for CD and DVD burning. It crams quite a few audio and video disc mastering features into a single $79 package, including support for Blu-ray authoring (not just burning data, but creating playable BD-AV discs). But the sheer size of Nero -- and the fact that I barely used many of the features in even the most basic version of the program -- compelled me to look elsewhere.

 
ImgBurn
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The small, lightweight ImgBurn. (Click for larger view.)
 

I've since settled on ImgBurn from Lightning UK, a freeware application with just the right mix of features. Aside from being able to do the simple and obvious stuff like burn and compile disc images, it includes some fairly advanced features. You can specify where to put a layer break when burning dual-layer DVDs; there's already support for HD-DVD and Blu-ray drives; you can set manufacturer-specific options such as overspeed burning, depending on what drive you have installed; and much more.

One major drawback to ImgBurn is that it doesn't burn audio CDs. That's not something I've done for a long time, but if you want to burn audio CDs, check out Ashampoo's Burning Studio, which has a 30-day trial and a $40 price tag. Aside from burning video and audio CDs, it rips from audio discs to multiple formats, has elaborate backup and restore functions, and (my favorite) lets you modify existing bootable discs with minimal hassle.

Download management

A download manager is one of those tools that's more optional than mandatory, but the more you download, the more you might need something to lend a hand keeping it all straight. FlashGet is one of the most popular, and for good reason: It's free, it supports a whole bevy of protocols (including BitTorrent), and it includes optional features like the ability to remotely command your computer to download something by sending an e-mail to a specific address.

I should point out that some Web site administrators resent the use of download managers -- especially when they use aggressive, multithreaded or multisocket acceleration techniques -- and may ban you for using them. When used judiciously, however, download managers like FlashGet are unlikely to raise admins' ire.

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