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Must-have Windows utilities for 20 essential tasks

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.

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.

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.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. 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.

Encryption
Sometimes there are things you'd just rather keep to yourself. Windows has encryption functionality built into the file system, but it's a) not very robust and b) a proprietary part of the NTFS file system. I prefer the TrueCrypt Foundation's TrueCrypt, a free and open-source encryption system that can create encrypted volumes out of a file on disk or a physical drive (such as a USB drive).

Most of the program's functions (like creating encrypted volumes) are wizard-driven and easy to use, even if you know nothing about encryption. The encryption algorithms it uses are fully documented industry standards, such as Triple DES and Blowfish, so the encryption itself is not going to be a weakness. You can even set up a USB thumb drive or an external hard drive with its own copy of TrueCrypt if you want to take your encrypted files with you to a machine that doesn't have TrueCrypt installed. (Note that you'll need administrative access on the target computer for this to work.)

FTP
A good FTP client is another of those gotta-have-it tools in this day and age, and there are so many of them to choose from it can get a little dizzying. My favorite is Tim Kosse's open-source FileZilla, currently at revision 2.2.32, but with a heavily rewritten 3.0 beta version available for public test. It gets things done, has all the features I want, and has dealt with any number of long and grueling upload/download jobs without gagging. It's also remarkably fault-tolerant: If your network dies in the middle of a long operation (whether it involves one file or many), you can pick up where you left off at the click of a button.

A good commercial client is SmartFTP from SmartSoft. Its feature mix is more professional and upscale than FileZilla's and includes IPv6, Universal Plug and Play support, FXP (which lets you transfer from one FTP server to another without having to download to your machine and then re-upload), verified transfers using XCRC and other verification protocols, and secure connections over TLS/SSL. An ActiveX/COM+ component add-on for the program (which lets you control SmartFTP through another application) is available for an additional licensing cost. The program itself costs $37 for a single-user license, with a 30-day free trial available.


Productivity

Image viewing and processing
One of the first programs I add to any newly installed PC is something to replace the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, which is terribly limited in its functionality. I also like to have something I can use to perform batch processing of images -- not actual image editing, but tasks like resizing, cropping, converting formats, and performing the vast majority of other things I do with images that a full-blown image editor application would be too much for.

IrfanView by Irfan Skiljan is the one I've come to love and use most: It's tiny (only 1,400K), lightning-fast, can run from any folder without being formally installed, supports scanner and camera input via TWAIN, and can do everything from generate HTML thumbnail galleries to apply Adobe Photoshop plug-ins. Best of all, it can open just about any image format you throw at it (including PostScript and SVG), either natively or with one of the many add-ons available. The program has a cult for a reason.

Image management
IrfanView's one big missing feature is image organization tools. It's a great program if you already have images manually sorted into directories, but it's not the best tool for actually doing the sorting, or for creating catalogs that span multiple drives or directories. For that, you need something like Cerious Software's ThumbsPlus, an image manager that also includes a database system for image organization and cataloging. It's $50 for a single user, but you can download a 30-day evaluation version for free.

Another image manager worth looking into -- and it's free -- is Google's Picasa, which offers local image management functions such as searching and creating albums. What's more, photos organized through Picasa can be shared with others through the Web Albums function.

Image editing
If you're looking for a free image editing tool -- preferably something better than Microsoft's cursed Paint application -- look no further than Rick Brewster's free, open-source Paint.Net, now in its 3.0 incarnation. It's broadly similar to Photoshop in its tool set and layout, and includes a plug-in architecture and editions in multiple languages. It doesn't yet have some of the really polished features of Photoshop -- for example, editable text layers -- but future editions of the program promise a great many things: support for HD Photo (Microsoft's new image format spec), effects layers, scripting and so on.

PDF creation
Creating PDFs has gone from being something rare and exotic to something almost anyone can do -- and may have to do at some point. You no longer have to shell out tons of money for software that can create PDFs; most basic PDF-creation needs can be met with freeware or products that cost very little.

Acro Software's CutePDF Writer, which is tiny and light, is the low-end freeware contender. Its sole purpose is to take an application's printed output and turn it into a PDF, with no more options than are absolutely needed. In fact, the only time you see the program interface is when you're asked for a file name to save the PDF to.

For something more upscale but still free (and open source), there's PDFCreator from Philip Chinery and Frank Heindörfer. It adds document encryption and permissions, explicit CMYK support, watermarking and tons of other pro-level features -- again, at no cost.

I should also take time to mention Foxit Software's freeware PDF reader Foxit, a far less bloated alternative to Adobe's own reader.

Text editing
Notepad may be one of the simplest, spiffiest and most useful of all of Windows' native tools, but it's also rather limited. For one thing, it's unsuitable for handling files larger than a few hundred kilobytes (such as log files). Most people eventually graduate to some kind of replacement for Notepad depending on their needs.

I like Florian Ballmer's free, open-source Notepad2, a simple and fast program that includes a few basic things that I need a great deal of the time: the ability to read very large files without too much slowdown, syntax highlighting for many common file types and the ability to run anywhere without being installed (which makes it great for a utility repository on a USB flash drive).

A more upscale application -- one that requires an install but offers more features -- is Fookes Software's NoteTab Pro, now in revision 5.2, which has been around in one form or another since 1998 and comes jammed with an amazing number of functions: a built-in scripting language, HTML-specific features like tag stripping and syntax highlighting, spell-checking, search and replace with regular expressions, and tons more. It's $30, but a 30-day trial version is available and an edition with fewer features (NoteTab Light) is available for free.

Security

Security tools could easily be a whole article unto themselves. That said, however, a safe computer doesn't have to be one crammed with a monster of a security suite that slows down every mouse click and browser action. Go small and light with separate antivirus, antispyware and firewall products.Firewall
If you want to upgrade the built-in Windows firewall -- which is minimal, to put it charitably -- there's a number of reasonably priced contenders, most of which also have free, stripped-down implementations. Much has been written about ZoneAlarm, both the free version and the Pro version ($40), but an excellent and largely unsung contender that delivers equally good inbound protection is the free Comodo Firewall Pro. And unlike the free version of ZoneAlarm, Comodo also boasts strong protection against threats on your machine that try to reach the outside world, such as zombie spam engines.

Antivirus
For simple but effective antivirus defenses, Eset's Nod32 will protect one user for $39 a year, with a 30-day trial and family discounts available. The program is unobtrusive and fast, uses little memory, and has provided consistently excellent protection over the years.

Another excellent antivirus product, which comes in both a for-pay and a free edition, is Grisoft's AVG Anti-Virus. For most single users, the free edition is more than adequate. (If you're looking for an open-source alternative, ClamWin Free Antivirus is a good choice, but it has no real-time protection engine; it scans files only on demand.)

Antispyware
Even though many antivirus products now treat spyware as a virus-like threat, there's still room for dedicated run-on-demand antispyware apps that clean existing spyware off your system and make it difficult for spyware to get a toehold in the future. One of the longest-running and best is the free Spybot Search & Destroy, with a 1.5 beta-test version available. Another long-running contender, available both as a free product and in commercial editions, is LavaSoft's Ad-Aware.

Many people swear by one or the other of these programs, but the truth is, it's best to use both -- they can be installed on the same system, and each one tends to catch things the other does not. (Just don't run them at the same time!)

System maintenance

Backup
Windows has never really had a robust backup tool. The closest we ever got to such a thing was NTBackup in Windows 2000 and XP -- not a bad program, but also not a great one. And if you're on Vista, the new backup tools positively stink -- with the possible exception of the full-system backup and restore tool that's available only in Vista Ultimate. Small wonder most folks opt for a third-party backup tool.

Curiously, one of the simplest and most effective programs for doing conventional file backups is a free Microsoft product: SyncToy. Originally devised to sync files from external devices like cameras and portable media players, it's been adopted as a quick-and-dirty way to do backups of things like one's My Documents directory. Pluses include several directory-sync options, support for UNC paths as directories for syncing over a network, and the ability to preview sync actions before doing so. A minus: It doesn't work well with system folders or files in use.

For more robust, systemwide backups, including backups of the Windows system folders, there are three other products to consider. The first is Symantec's Norton Save & Restore ($50), which can create full system and file backups to another drive, either in the background or on demand, and lets you perform a "bare-metal restore" from a full-system backup if you need it.

Save & Restore is actually a slightly slimmed-down version of Norton Ghost ($70). Ghost adds a few professional-level features like remote management (you can control other Norton Ghost installations on the same network), and the ability to convert backups into mountable virtual disks that can be used by VMware and Microsoft Virtual PC.

A more basic, but still extremely effective, whole-disk backup tool is Terabyte Unlimited's Image for Windows, which can create an image file of a partition and store it anywhere from a network share to another hard drive, including external 1394/USB drives. The program includes Image for DOS, which you need if you want to perform a full-system restore. Image for DOS boots from stand-alone disks (floppies, CDs or even USB thumb drives), while Image for Windows runs from within Windows itself and can image system and in-use files transparently. Try out the free 30-day version; the full version is $39 for a single seat, with bulk discounts available.

Disk/partition management
Cloning disks or resizing partitions used to be the exclusive province of for-pay software. To a great degree, it still is, but you no longer have to spend a ton of money to get something not only functional, but genuinely useful.

Consider Terabyte Unlimited's BootIt Next Generation. For $35 you get a whole slew of disk, partition and boot management tools all in one package. Version 1.81 adds Vista BCD support (so you can edit Vista's boot options without using Microsoft's ugly command-line tools) and includes many of the great features of previous editions that I've come to rely on: imaging support for 1394/USB devices, nondestructive resizing of partitions, support for drives and partitions larger than 2TB and more.

BootIt is a stand-alone DOS-mode program. For something that has better integration within Windows, Acronis offers Disk Director Suite, which performs both disk management and recovery and can perform many operations from within Windows itself. Give the 15-day trial a whirl, and if it suits you, the full product is $50.

System cleanup
I'm a little dubious of any system- or Registry-cleaning tool. Too many of them have turned out to be complete digital snake oil -- and some of them leave your system worse off than when it began. One of the few cleanup apps that does a genuinely good job is Piriform's free CCleaner, which I've been using for almost three years now. In addition to clearing dead wood from the Registry, it also neatens up many other things around your system -- particularly your /temp folder, which can become a massive toxic waste dump of files. Best feature: When you clean the Registry, any items to be deleted can be saved out to a .reg file beforehand; that way, they can be reimported if they turn out to be crucial.

Disk defragmentation
Windows' native Defrag application, based on the long-running Diskeeper defragmentation program, has never been very good, although it's been incrementally improved over time. After Microsoft started including a native file-defragmentation API in Windows (starting with Windows 2000), many individual programmers stepped up to create defrag tools of their own.

The commercial version of Diskeeper is probably the single best-selling commercial defrag tool on the market. It has many functions that don't exist in the native Windows version, such as the ability to defragment directory structures or immovable system files. Multiple editions exist for workstations and servers; the basic single-user version is $30, with a 30-day trial version also available.

A number of freeware defrag programs offer similar functionality. Of those, the best I've found so far is the open-source JkDefrag from Jeroen Kessels. It can be run in a graphical mode, from the command line or even as a screen saver. While I'm not a fan of file-placement options -- it's not always clear what kind of performance benefit they provide -- JkDefrag has a slew of them, including the ability to move the least used and least accessed files to the end of the disk. One flaw: JkDefrag doesn't preserve any files specified in the Windows prefetch layout folder, so prefetching will break if you use JkDefrag consistently. (This isn't fatal; it just might have an unanticipated performance impact.)

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

Virtualization
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.

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. 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.

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.)