Most new Windows computers come with essential utilities, many of them built into the operating system itself. Unless you know how to use them, though, they’ll likely just sit there waiting to be used.
With good utilities (and the knowledge to use them), you can make Windows bend to your will. At the least, you can solve any problems you encounter, as well as prevent many future issues from happening.
What kinds of utility applications should you have in your PC? Some of these should be in your machine already. Others, you’d probably have to get either in freeware or retail form.
For backups, I prefer using third-party tools rather than Windows’ default applications. They’re just as powerful, often coming with more flexibility and elegance than Windows’ built-in options for backups. Both paid options (like Acronis Backup & Recovery) and freeware (like GFI Backup) are available to do this job.
At any rate, you’d want a backup utility to keep secondary copies of important files, hopefully with encryption, compression and a few security options along with it. Not maintaining an up-to-date backup is one of the biggest mistakes you can make if you do plenty of work in a computer — you just don’t know if or when a crash will occur.
You need to have either WinZip, WinRAR or 7-Zip in that computer, both for compressing your own files and folders, and opening compressed files from other sources. Compressing files before sharing them is just something people do all the time, so a file compression utility is a must-have.
Sometimes, you want to know more about your hardware, especially when shopping for software with special requirements or talking to product support. While Windows will show information, it’s not that easy to find. And whatever details you do find are usually fragmented across different functions. A utility for showing system information, such as CPUZ, Belarc Advisor or System Information Viewer, is all you need to make up for the lack.
Recommending an antivirus software is a difficult task — everyone has different security needs. There are many considerations to take into account. Are you a power user who knows the ins and outs of computers? Do you download files from non-official sources (e.g. torrents, warez)? Do you share files with people over email? Do you stick to browsing on sites you know? Do you have Flash disabled on your browser? The answer to those and other questions will actually determine your level of vulnerability to virus threats.
Before you purchase any antivirus software, though, make sure you get the Microsoft Security Essentials, which you download at no cost from the Microsoft website. While far from a full-fledged antivirus solution, it provides enough without the intrusive meddling that made many power users swear off antivirus applications long ago. At the least, it’s a good software to have while you’re waiting to buy a more robust solution.
Apart from installing an antivirus application, you may also want to get an anti- spyware program for handling other types of malware. Many types of malware, including adware, trojans and dialers, can fly under the radar of most antivirus software, so another layer of protection should keep your PC safe.
As good as Windows has evolved into now, it’s still crap when it comes to maintaining its registry. Suffice to say, it does a poor job of cleaning registry entries for uninstalled programs and similar changes. Fortunately, a registry cleaner can take over the job, pulling out unused registry entries, as well as cleaning other PC clutter like temporary files, memory dumps and old restore points.
You might want to pair the registry cleaner up with an uninstaller program, too, as a replacement for Windows’ installation service. For the most part, third party uninstallers can do a considerably better job of really cleaning out any traces of the removed program.
Windows has built-in facilities for defragging them and checking disk integrity. While the integrated disk-checker software is decent, the defragger is seriously flawed, simply taking way too long when you try using it. Luckily, there are plenty of alternative defragging tools out there that can restructure your hard drive’s file system minus the excessive processing time. There are also plenty of third-party options for analyzing drives that you might find more useful than the standard Windows utility.
We prefer external tools for startup managers simply because they are more feature-rich and easier to use than the built-in interface Windows has for the same function. And if you don’t think you need a startup manager, wait until you’ve had a computer a couple of months, installed a variety of programs and uninstalled a few more — chances are, you’ll have all sorts of crap running while Windows initializes, extending your startup time and eating up precious resources.
In case you don’t want to shell out cash for one, Microsoft has recently started offering Autoruns, a separate start-up manager for Windows machines, that you can download for free. Another tool we like for this is the PC Tools Performance Toolkit, which bundles a startup manager among other utilities designed to give your computer speed some needed boost.
Want to keep certain folders inaccessible to other people that use or connect to your computer? An encryption title like TrueCrypt should prove very handy, encrypting large chunks of your data into a coded form that can’t be easily opened or accessed by other software. If you keep confidential and sensitive information in your computer, we highly recommend encrypting them to avoid any compromise.
The built-in Windows Picture and Fax Viewer is horrible. There, I said it. As such, you’d have to hunt around for a better image viewer and manager. With everything from AcDSee to irFanView to Picasa to numerous other titles out there, you have no shortage in options, so take your time finding the right match to your needs.
Do you often download stuff from online sources? I do. From podcasts to torrents to trial software to open-source apps, my bandwidth is kept pretty busy by both downloads and uploads. A download management software is especially helpful if you’re the same way, giving you a single window to monitor and manage all the multiple downloads you have.