Top 35 free apps for Windows 10

From backup to productivity tools, here’s the best of the best for Windows 10. Sometimes good things come in free packages.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #01 [cover]
ipopba / Getty Images

With Windows 10 adoption going full steam, many folks are looking for ways to further improve the experience. Why not make the most of Windows 10 by getting tools that will help you work smarter, faster, and more productively?

This list of top 35 apps covers Windows 10 programs that everybody needs. Whether you're a grizzled Windows victim or a faltering Windows ingénue, these programs should be at the top of your list.

Install all your programs with Ninite

I've long recommended the free Ninite as your one-stop shop for desktop applications. Simply click on the applications you want and Ninite will download the latest version, absolutely free of crapware, install them, and leave you in the driver's seat. As we went to press, Ninite supported 90+ different Windows programs (130+ apps in the paid Ninite Pro version, $35 per month for up to 50 machines).

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #02 - Ninite Secure By Design, Inc.

The beauty of the Ninite approach? Each app is a click away: no fuss, no nags, no charge. It's the best way I know to install a bunch of good programs on a new machine in minutes. The downside? It misses a few of my favorites — and it doesn't touch UWP/Windows Store "Metro" apps.

I used to recommend Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) for ensuring that installed programs are up-to-date. I've switched to Ninite's $10-per-year Ninite Updater. It works better. While you can manually run the free Ninite anytime and the latest versions of your apps get installed, Ninite Updater proactively watches your installed programs and warns of any available updates. Ninite Updater even works with programs that you installed manually — as long as they're among the currently supported apps.

Handy tool for bad patches: Wushowhide

It used to be that only Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise installations could delay Windows 10 patches. That ability is now shared by Windows 10 Home, but delaying doesn't always work seamlessly — and that can cause mayhem if there's a problem with a patch, such as a faulty driver or a conflict between the patch and one of your programs.

Fortunately, Microsoft has a program that allows you to block and hide specific updates. Wushowhide, known by its cryptic Knowledge Base number KB307930, scans to see which updates are pending and lets you hide individual updates.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #03 - Wushowhide, Microsoft Knowledge Base no. 3073930 Microsoft

To use it, head over to KB307930, then download and stick wushowhide.diagcab on your machine. Next, follow these steps precisely:

1. Run wushowhide.diacab.

2. This part's important: Click the link marked Advanced. Uncheck the box marked Apply repairs automatically. Click Next.

3. Wushowhide will run for a long time. When it comes back up for air, click the link to Hide Updates. You see a list like the one in the screenshot.

4. Check the update(s) you want to avoid, click Next, then Next again. The chosen patch(es) won't be installed, until you go back and uncheck it.

This tool will block an update dead in its tracks — but watch out. If Microsoft releases a new version of a patch, it'll switch off the "hidden" checkmark, so you have to go back and hide it again.

Incremental backup: File History

I'm forever amazed at how many Windows 10 users don't know they can keep full, incremental, accessible copies of their files with a couple of clicks using a utility that ships with Windows. Once enabled, Win10's File History takes snapshots of your files, allowing you to go back to older versions with a right-click.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #04 - File History Microsoft

You need a second hard drive — internal, external, or over a network -— with enough free space to store your backups. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security > Backup. If "Back up using File History" isn't set up yet, click the button marked Add a Drive to specify your target backup drive. After the first run, you see the "Automatically back up my files" slider (screenshot), which automatically backs up all the files in your User folder. You can click on More Options to add more folders.

After that, backups happen "automagically." To bring back an old version, go to File Explorer, right-click a file, and choose Properties > Previous Versions. You can get to versions of the files made long, long ago.

Bring back deleted files with Recuva

File undelete has been a mainstay PC utility since DOS. But there's no better "undeleter" than Recuva (pronounced "recover" in a Boston accent): fast, thorough, free.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #05 - Recuva Piriform

When you empty the Windows Recycle Bin, files aren't destroyed; rather, the space they occupy is earmarked for new data. If you delete files on a USB drive (screenshot) or an SD card, they're treated similarly, without the Recycle Bin as a safeguard. If you delete files on an SD card using a phone or tablet, heaven help ya!

That's where Recuva (free for personal use, $35 each for 1 to 10 licenses) comes in.

Undelete routines scan the flotsam and put the pieces back together. As long as you haven't added new data to a drive, undelete (almost) always works; if you've added some data, there's still a good chance you can get back most of the deleted stuff.

Look inside your PC with Speccy

With more than a dozen competing tools available for examining the innards of your machine, coming up with the "best" revolves around what you need and what you expect. I've long recommended HWiNFO and Belarc Advisor, but of late I've settled on Speccy (free for everybody).

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #06 - Speccy Piriform

Like other hardware/software scanners, Speccy ferrets out all sorts of information, including real-time monitoring of internal temperatures, and a full SMART status report for each drive. The operating system report for Win10 includes details such as your Windows Update status, antivirus in use, scheduled tasks, .Net Framework versions installed, and much more.

Unlike other examining programs, Speccy makes it easy to output reports, including free website posting. Speccy can be installed, or it can be run "portable" with no installation required.

Both Speccy and Recuva (preceding slide) are made by Piriform, which also makes CCleaner. I don't recommend CCleaner because many people use it to clean their registries — and some rue the day they did. I realize that's a religious statement open to debate, but I firmly believe the potential downside to using a registry cleaner far exceeds the potential upside of cleaning out a few KB of aberrant entries here and there. If you use CCleaner for one of its many other features and studiously avoid registry cleaning, it's a good one to add to your arsenal.

Best way to get the junk out: Revo Uninstaller

Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls desktop programs, and it does so in an unexpected manner. (To get rid of a UWP/Windows Store app, you have to use Windows 10 itself with, for example, Start > Settings > System > Apps & Features.)

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #07 - Revo Uninstaller VS Revo Group

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 will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.

Revo consults its own internal database for commonly-left-behind bits and roots those out as well.

The not-free Pro version (from $25 but frequently discounted) monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. It also pushes harder to remove bits and pieces of programs that leave detritus behind when they're uninstalled.

You can get Revo Uninstaller from Ninite.

Back it up with EaseUS Todo Backup

Windows 7 had a decent — but not perfect — backup and restore function. Windows 8.1 threw it all away. Windows 10 has brought it back, but many people complain about it. You can see the old Win7 backup in Win10 by typing backup in the Windows search box.

Microsoft wants you to use its new backup method, stick everything on OneDrive, and use Refresh/Restore should the proverbial substance hit the impeller. But many people aren't comfortable with that approach, for many reasons, ranging from privacy concerns to the infernal requirement that you maintain installation media for all of your non-Microsoft programs.

I've gone through lots of backup programs over the years: Norton Ghost, Comodo Backup, Macrium Reflect, Aomei Backupper, Clonezilla, and many more. They all have good and bad points. I've settled on EaseUS Todo Backup and use its free edition.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #08 - EaseUS Todo Backup EaseUS

EaseUS, based in Shenzhen, has an easily skipped Amazon link in its installer, and it tries to upsell you to the not-so-free version ($29 or $39, including free lifetime upgrades). If you're careful installing it, you'll end up with a nimble, general-purpose backup tool that can create full disk image backups, incremental drive or file backups, and/or differential ("store the deltas") backups per your specs. By default, it runs full backups once a week, with differential backups every 30 minutes. You won't get Outlook email backups unless you pay for one of the not-so-free versions.

I first used EaseUS to swap out my C: drive to an SSD. It worked well and was reasonably easy to decipher, so I recommended it to the crowd on AskWoody.com. Positive reports all around.

Remember that backing up is only half the battle. You need to test the backup to make sure it works. Swapping out an SSD is a great test for full-disk backups, but it doesn't tackle the thorny problem of incremental backups. I still use File History (recommendation No. 3) as a safety net.

Best system administration tool: Autoruns

Microsoft's venerable and free-as-a-breeze Autoruns finds more autostarting programs (add-ins, drivers, codecs, gadgets, shell extensions, whatever), in more obscure places, than any other program, anywhere.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #09 - Autoruns Microsoft / Sysinternals

Autoruns not only lists autorunning programs, it lets you turn off individual programs. There are many minor features, including the ability to filter out Microsoft-signed programs, a quick way to jump to folders holding autostarting 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.

Free for everybody, personal or corporate.

The other best system admin 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 identified by Process Explorer, the process that has locked up your file can be killed. Process Explorer also gives you full information on all the svchost processes running on your PC. That accounts for the other half a head.

Computerworld  >  Free Apps for Windows 10 > #10 - Process Explorer Microsoft / Sysinternals

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 in use. Right-click and you can go online to get more information about the executable.

Another must-have product from, yes, Microsoft. Free for everybody.

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