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Must-have Windows utilities for 20 essential tasks

By Serdar Yegulalp
July 12, 2007 12:00 PM ET

System information
If Microsoft's MSInfo32 tool doesn't give you enough under-the-hood details about your computer, the free Belarc Advisor can give you more. Run it, and you'll get a nicely formatted HTML report in your default Web browser that itemizes your machine's hardware, installed hot fixes, software licensing and other key stats. One personal gripe about Belarc: It needs to be installed before it can be used, so it can't be, say, thrown onto a removable drive and run directly from there to assess a system.

Another program I've found that doesn't need to be installed at all and returns an insanely large amount of information about a PC and your Windows installation is Ray Hinchliffe's free System Information Viewer (SIV). Its major drawback: It sports a really hard-to-navigate interface, which requires a lot of spelunking to be useful. To that end, it'll be more useful to pros, while less technical users will probably get more out of Belarc. (A tip for navigating SIV: Skip the buttons on the main interface and go with the drop-down menu by clicking on the top-left corner of the main window.)

Everything else

Virtual computing isn't just some exotic lab toy anymore. People use it to retain compatibility with older versions of Windows (or DOS!), to test out programs or whole operating system installations, and a whole bevy of other things that once upon a time would have required, at the very least, setting up a dual-boot configuration. Problem is, Microsoft Virtual PC may be free, but it's also rather limited in its functionality -- and while VMware Workstation has more functions, it's also expensive at $189 a seat (except for the free VMware Player, which doesn't let you actually create virtual machines, just run them).

Fortunately, there's a new contender: Innotek's open-source VirtualBox. It sports many of the best features of both Virtual PC and VMware: USB device emulation, clipboard and pointer integration through OS-specific guest additions, shared folders between guest and host, full SDK and command-line control options, and a lot more. The current 1.4 version runs Windows XP faster than Virtual PC itself does.


VirtualBox has great features and costs nothing. (Click for larger view.)

Password management
Passwords are something of a Catch-22. If you make them "secure" (i.e., long and complicated), they're impossible to remember -- and you often end up writing them down. If you choose one password and stick with it across multiple sites and applications, you're asking for trouble.


KeePass keeps track of all your passwords. (Click for larger view.)
The open-source KeePass Password Safe by Dominik Reichl solves both of those problems at once: You can store all of your passwords in one secure, encrypted location; generate random passwords for any application or site; automatically insert needed passwords into form fields; and protect them all with a single master password. You can even bring it (and, of course, all your passwords) with you on a thumb drive in a portable version that doesn't need to be installed on the host computer.

Also check out the expanding library of plug-ins, including (among other things) one with the ability to import password files from other password-keeping applications, like Firefox.

Bonus apps
Finally, I can't let a general discussion of utilities go by without at least talking about NirSoft, Nir Sofer's amazing cache of freeware tools that cover just about every topic imaginable.

Top Windows utilities

Among them: ProduKey, which recovers product keys for Windows, Office and other Microsoft server programs like SQL Server, and SysExporter, which lets you snag text from list views, combo boxes and other things that you can't normally copy text from. (I used this to make a quick text copy of my favorite playlists in Windows Media Player, among other things.)

You could spend a day downloading and trying out everything this man has available; I know I did.

Your turn: Got some favorite Windows utilities you'd like to share? Tell us about them in the comments area at the bottom of the page.

Serdar Yegulalp writes about Windows and related technologies for a number of publications, including his own Windows Insight blog.

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