You might think Windows has all the utilities you want, but we've found 20 that are free and do a better job. We tell you what they do and where to download them
Windows includes enough built-in utilities to satisfy the needs of most users.
You probably use them dozens of times each day, but sticking with what Microsoft supplies isn’t always the best option.
Why? Because there are loads of alternatives to Windows’ tools and some of them are far better than those included with the operating system.
So, if you find yourself cursing the Windows Clipboard, exclaiming at the ineffectiveness of Windows Explorer or despairing at the deficiencies of Disk Defragmenter, don’t worry – help is at hand.
In this article, we’ve found 20 downloads that can supplant their built-in Windows equivalents.
All include useful extra features and most make using a computer just a bit more pleasurable. Best of all, each utility is free to download and use, so read on to find out what you’ve been missing.
Xplorer 2 Lite
Windows Explorer is the interface that shows folders and icons for files. Although it has been refined over the years, Explorer is still clumsy for working with lots of files in different folders, which is where Xplorer 2 Lite comes in.
This free utility does away with open windows all over the Desktop in favour of a single pane with a hierarchical folder structure on one side and a split-window folder view on the other.
There are countless other clever features, but the most useful are bookmarks for quick access to certain folders and filtering tools that hide certain file types.
If Xplorer 2 Lite fixes on Windows Explorer’s navigation shortcomings, Teracopy fixes another. Moving and copying files with Explorer works adequately but it can be slow when transferring across different drives.
Moreover, there’s no way to pause the process mid-transfer, or stop one or more files being copied when dragging a folder to a new location. With Teracopy, there is.
Once installed, it automatically pops up whenever files or folders are being moved, and its dialogue box shows the detailed status of the transfer, along with options to tweak it without interrupting the process.
The Windows Clipboard is adequate for copying and pasting one item at a time but hopeless when you need to perform several such operations. Try copying selected sentences from different paragraphs on a web page for pasting into one text document, for example, and the problem becomes apparent.
But CLCL can help. It doesn’t replace the Windows Clipboard, but instead builds a ‘stack’ of any number of copied items (the default is 30) and makes them available from a pop-up list when you press Alt + C.
Multimon Taskbar Free 2.1
Connecting a second monitor to a PC means the Windows Desktop can be stretched out to create much more screen space. The only problem is the Taskbar stays stuck on monitor one, so there is no easy way to tell which windows are open on the second display.
Multimon Taskbar solves that problem by putting a separate Taskbar on a second (and third, if need be) monitor that tracks its windows. It was designed for Windows XP, so Multimon doesn’t exploit Windows 7’s new Taskbar features – but it still works perfectly.
The Alt + Tab keyboard combination has long been the accepted way to switch between open windows in Windows, though Windows 7 added Win + Tab for a 3D take.
Neither is efficient when lots of programs are running though, but what about seeing a full list of all open windows, complete with an oversize thumbnail that gives a clear view on their contents?
That’s what Taskswitch XP and Vistaswitcher provide (plus quite a bit more) – just install the correct version for your operating system (Vistaswitcher also works with Windows 7) for a better way of managing windows in Windows.
The Start menu is the simplest way to launch a program in Windows, while the Search box adds the option to launch a program by typing its name rather than first finding its folder.
Launchy combines the two, and adds much more, besides. Activated with a keyboard shortcut, Launchy can launch any program from the user typing just the first letter or two of its name, but it can also open documents in the same way, play music and open web pages just as easily.
It’s a must-have for anyone who hates reaching for the mouse and is a real time-saver for any PC with lots of programs installed.
Finding out how much space a folder occupies on the hard disk is as simple as right-clicking it and choosing Properties – and its size will be duly displayed. But doing this for every folder on a PC is a tedious process.
Spacesniffer speeds it up by quickly scanning a hard disk and displaying its contents as proportionally sized rectangles. It’s possible then to drill down into sub-folders to see their contents displayed in the same way, making it easy to see what’s wasting valuable space.
The Notepad tool included in Windows is a competent text editor, but its lack of frills can make working with anything more than simplest of files tricky.
Notepad++ doesn’t discard simplicity, but it does include features that are more befitting of a 21st-century text editor. Most useful of these is a tabbed interface that keeps several open files within one window.
Professional and amateur web designers alike will appreciate its automatic colour-coding of commands, plus the split-screen view that can keep one part of a file in view while another is edited.
Gadwin Printscreen 4.6
Press the Print Screen (or PrtScn) key on your PC’s keyboard and whatever is on the Windows Desktop is copied to the Clipboard. From here it can be pasted into an image editor and saved in a suitable image format to make a screenshot. This is fine for taking the occasional screenshot, but hugely inefficient for any more.
So, install Gadwin Printscreen 4.6 and use it as a replacement: now, tapping the Print Screen key will snag the whole Desktop, just the current window or even a selected area of the screen.
Printscreen will even automatically save the captured screen – all within a split second. And you can repeat as many times as you like, making it ideal for quick-fire screenshots.
You can now rename groups of files in Windows, but it remains a basic tool.
Advancedrenamer, on the other hand, brings much more flexible bulk file renaming to all versions of Windows. Drag a group of files or folders onto its window, select one of the program’s many predefined renaming tags, click the Rename button and it’s all done in the blink of an eye.
Advancedrenamer can work with files from different folders too, and even move disparate groups of files into one folder.
Readying high-resolution photos for uploading to the web means opening them in an image-editing program, reducing the dimensions to shrink the file sizes and then saving with new names.
In Microsoft Paint that takes at least 20 seconds per image. Now imagine there are 50 photos. Or 500.
Image Resizer takes the pain out of this routine task by putting a ‘Resize Pictures’ option on the Windows Explorer context (right-click) menu. Select a group of images, right-click to select the resize option and all are resized and saved with new names.
Instead of resizing images, what about if they need to be converted between image-file formats (from BMP to JPEG, say)? That same 20-second editing process applies and it’s just as tedious when done for more than just a handful of photos.
But with Adapter any number of images can be converted between numerous popular file types using a drag-and-drop window.
But that’s not all: Adapter can convert the format of video and audio files in a similar fashion too, which is something Windows makes a real fuss about.
Microsoft’s System Configuration utility (often called MS Config, as it is launched by typing msconfig into the Run or Search box from the Start menu) is a built-in tool for seeing what programs start automatically with Windows. However, deciphering MS Config’s data can take some doing.
Autoruns is a replacement tool from Microsoft that does the same thing but splits startup items into categories and displays more detail about each one. It makes troubleshooting Windows startup problems and streamlining program installations more simple.
VLC Media Player
Windows Media Player (WMP) can play several popular video file types and, with some suitable coaxing and codec installations, can handle a few others – as long as such sophisticated features like subtitles aren’t required.
Contrast this with VLC Media Player, which plays almost all media file types, supports all manner of exotic video features and can even tweak a video file to improve its picture quality on the fly. Try it once and you’ll never go back to WMP.
Running Windows XP applications in Windows 7 requires the costly Professional, Ultimate or Enterprise editions of the operating system, as these include a feature called ‘Windows XP mode’ that emulates the older version.
But this is no help to Windows 7 Home Premium or Vista users that have incompatible XP applications.
Virtualbox solves the problem by creating a ‘virtual’ PC within Windows that can run almost any operating system – even Windows 98. It requires the appropriate operating system installation disc but it’s perfect for running old applications that more recent versions of Windows might otherwise reject.
Cleartype Tuner Powertoy
Cleartype is a Microsoft technology that makes text easier to read on modern monitors and, in Windows 7, you can tweak the way it works from Control Panel’s Appearance and Personalization section. Windows XP and Vista users, though, have no such option.
Microsoft offers an online-tweaking tool that can be accessed via Internet Explorer but if you would rather have the controls to hand at all times then the Cleartype Tuner Powertoy is called for. This adds a Windows 7-like option under Appearance and Themes in Control Panel and launches an easy wizard to adjust how text looks.
The most recent versions of Windows will happily burn CD and DVD discs but the operating system has no idea what to do with blank Blu-ray media. Moreover, even though XP has a tool to burn CDs, it can’t create DVDs.
But the free CDBurnerXP utility will do all these things, and a few more besides, in all versions of Windows. It even includes a basic cover-printing tool, which is handy for burning music compilations.
All versions of Windows can delete digital detritus from a hard disk: just right-click a drive, choose Properties and click the Disk Cleanup button, but this doesn’t perform a particularly thorough flushing of unwanted files.
However, Disk Cleaner does. This free tool purges everything from old Adobe Flash data to web browser cookies. It even makes a note of unnecessary files that can’t be deleted because they’re in use, so it can delete them once Windows is restarted.
Having too many fonts installed can adversely affect Windows’ performance, so Font Frenzy is ideal for anyone who’s added more than a handful of styles. It can disable all bar the fonts that came with Windows, but stores them for safekeeping and will restore them with a mouse click.
Better still, it can also take ‘snapshots’ that save and restore different font configurations, which is perfect for anyone who has to install lots of them for work-related reasons.
Regular disk defragmentation is recommended to keep Windows running smoothly, but its built-in tool isn’t the best at rearranging fragmented files for most efficient use.
Disk Defrag is a better option, because not only does it provide the same features (including scheduled defrags), but also such useful new ones as putting frequently used files at the start of a disk for faster access, individual folder defragmentation (useful for large music or photo collections, for example) and the ability to defragment only the most scattered files by selecting them from a list.
Must-have add-ons for Windows
The main part of this article is concerned with utilities that do a better job than those included with Windows – but there still some useful tools that Microsoft doesn’t provide.
Windows, for example, has an irritating habit of ‘forgetting’ the position of Desktop icons when the screen resolution changes – after playing a full-screen game, for example.
Desktop Save and Restore fixes that with a right-click on the Desktop to save their positions and another to restore them.
Phraseexpress, on the other hand, is a real time-saver: it allows short ‘snippets’ to be typed and automatically replaced with longer words, full sentences or even entire paragraphs. So, with the program installed, typing ‘pht’ can become ‘phantasmagorical’, or ‘bye’ a pre-formatted letter sign-off, complete with a scanned signature image.
Finally, empty the Recycle Bin and Windows itself is unable to retrieve the deleted files. While that might seem logical it is actually possible to recover accidentally erased files and folders, using a free tool such as Recuva. This scans drives and presents a list of ‘lost’ files organised by type ready for recovery. It also includes a secure-deletion function for personal files that need rendered permanently unrecoverable.
Windows knows best
We have recommended replacements for many Windows tools, but that’s not to say everything Microsoft supplies is sub-par.
Even if anti-virus software is already installed, for example, Windows Defender is an extremely capable spyware countermeasure that all PC users should use – it’s already part of Windows 7 and Vista, and a free download for XP.
Alternatively, Microsoft Security Essentials keeps spyware, viruses and other internet threats at bay, removing the need to buy costly third-party anti-virus software – another free download.
Windows 7’s Aero Snap feature makes moving and resizing a breeze. Just drag two windows to either side of the screen to have them automatically resize side by side, or drag a single window to the top of the display and Windows 7 will maximise it.
Explore the alternatives
Windows didn’t become the world’s most popular operating system by accident – the fact is that many people love the way it works, not to mention the numerous great tools it includes.
However, as we have shown, in many cases there are better free alternatives to Windows’ own built-in tools. Try some or all of them and you save time and effort every time you use the computer.
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