Beyond my typical day-to-day programs like Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, maybe a game here and there, I have a selection of utilities that help me perform behind-the-scenes tasks and maintain my computer’s health. I have found each of the following to invaluable. Many of them offer paid versions with extra customer support options and a few extra bells and whistles, but you will find that the free versions offer everything you need, so be sure to get those.
When downloading these programs, be careful not to click any banner ads that display a big green "Download" button.
Windows’ built-in file-zipper/compression tool is terrible. It’s inexcusable that even the newest version of Windows does not have support for compressed file types other than .zip. ZIP is so 90s. All the cool kids are using .rar, .7z, and a host of others. Rather than getting an error message or downloading format-specific utilities, go and download 7-zip and never again lose sleep over whether you’ll be able to decompress that next download!
Revo Uninstaller (http://www.revouninstaller.com/start_freeware_download.html)
When you uninstall a program using the standard Control Panel utility they frequently leave behind files, settings, and registry keys. Why? There are a few reasons, but generally speaking, either the program leaves traces of itself just in case you happen to reinstall it and all your settings would be intact OR many such items were generated by the program while it was in use and could not be planned for by a routine uninstaller. Revo picks up where the standard uninstaller leaves off, erasing those extraneous files and registry keys.
A couple of thoughts on Revo. First, using it can free up extra hard drive space taken up by files leftover from a program, so that’s definitely beneficial. Second, while it offers you the choice to delete leftover registry keys, you should know that doing this will not speed up your computer. Ignore the thousands of ads for registry cleaners you see splashed all over the Web, such programs are a sham. Also, those registry keys may contain settings that will be useful if you do decide to reinstall the program. In my role as a technology instructor, I spend a lot of my time demonstrating how different programs work from scratch, which means I need a blank slate for the program every time I demonstrate its use. Revo’s total uninstall features allow this. Maybe you want to keep those registry keys in case you ever do decide to reinstall the program. Revo lets you choose whether to delete the files and the keys separately, so if you want to lose the files, but keep the keys you can do so.
As you use your computer, detritus files build up that consume a lot more of your storage than you’d think. CCleaner scans your computer for common sources of these junk files such as Windows’ temp folder, Web browsers’ cache, the Recycle Bin, and uninstalled programs. If you’ve never scrubbed your hard drive with such a utility, you’ll be surprised how much space you can free up; if I wait a few months between cleanings, I can usually regain a gigabyte or three. Of course I use my computers more heavily than most, so your mileage may vary.
Have you ever accidentally deleted a file from the Recycle Bin you didn’t mean to? I know I have! But don’t fret, there’s a very good chance you can get that file back! When you “empty the Recycle Bin” you’re not really deleting anything, you’re just telling your computer that the space once occupied by a given file is now free to be overwritten by something else, but that doesn’t happen right away. Run Recuva and you can probably get those files back; it can scan your hard drive or external storage devices for specific types of files like music or video, or it can run a general search which will take longer, but bring back more results. You need this utility!
Literally on the opposite side of the spectrum from Recuva is Eraser, which will not only “delete” your files like the Recycle Bin does, but it will write over the space on the hard drive that file once occupied with random data, making the files thoroughly unrecoverable.
If you like to customize your computer’s internal hardware - upgrading RAM, swapping graphics cards, installing new, larger hard drives - download Speccy. It scans your computer and gives you exact specifications of what’s under the hood so you can figure out if a given expensive component is compatible with your hardware.
It’s important to defragment your hard drive periodically to keep your computer running smoothly. I don’t much like the built-in defrag utility for Windows 7 as it lacks a graphical representation of your disk space allocation and in Windows 8, the defrag utility is buried inside menus and has been renamed “optimize your hard drive” or something like that, which is really weird after almost 30 years of using the term “defragment”. Whatever. Defraggler to the rescue, which brings back the graphical interface I love so much along with scheduling capabilities.
Is your hard drive almost full? Have you made space everywhere you can think of and still there’s barely anything left? Run WinDirStat! It analyzes your hard drive to generate a graphical representation of every directory and sub-directory to show exactly how much space they are taking up. Of course, if you see a huge amount of space is being taken up by the Windows directory or the Program Files directory, you’re not going to want to go in there and start deleting files willy-nilly unless your goal is the utter destruction of your computer, but rather go to the Programs and Features section of the Control Panel and decide if there are any programs you can do without.