Budget Crunch Software (Last Updated 12/15/2013)

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Preventing and Eliminating Malware.

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.

From firewalls to antivirus software to tools for combatting rootkits and spyware, here are some great downloads to protect your system against malicious attacks.

Antivirus
MicroSoft now offers MicroSoft Security Essentials anti-virus and anti-malware detector for free. Two excellent antivirus products, which come in both for-pay and free editions, are Avira-Anti-Virus and 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.)

AVG Anti-Virus and AVG Anti-Spyware, effective with Version 8, have been incorporated into one product. That is, AVG Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware Version 8 will scan for both viruses and spyware with one scan instead of two separate scans. This technology cuts your hard drive wear due to anti-virus and anti-spyware scans in half and as a result your hard drive will last much longer. I still recommend anti-virus/anti-spyware scans only once weekly instead of daily to avoid premature hard drive failure. Thus the daily anti-virus/anti-spyware scan of AVG Version 8 will have to be disabled in the options menu and the scan run manually by the user weekly. In addition, virus and spyware detection by AVG version 8 has considerable improved over AVG Version 7 products. If you don't already have an "all-in-one" paid anti-virus/anti-spyware package, the free AVG Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware Version 8 makes a good choice.

Tired of dealing with bloated, overpriced security suites that bog down your system and cost an arm and a leg, when all you want is antivirus software? Then get Avast, a superb antivirus program that's free for home and personal use. Because it's a lean piece of software, it imposes a relatively light burden on system resources and RAM. Despite this, it kills viruses in their tracks and has plenty of extras, including live scanning to prevent viruses from infecting your PC in the first place. Avast can scan regular and Web-based e-mail for viruses, too, and it protects against instant messaging viruses, peer-to-peer dangers and more.

Antispyware
It's a good idea to have more than one piece of antispyware on your PC. So double up for safety and add Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware or Spybot Search & Destroy -- or even both -- to your arsenal.

  Windows Defender
Windows Defender is exactly the same on XP and Vista.
 

AVG Anti-Virus and AVG Anti-Spyware, effective with Version 8, have been incorporated into one product. That is, AVG Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware Version 8 will scan for both viruses and spyware with one scan instead of two separate scans. This technology cuts your hard drive wear due to anti-virus and anti-spyware scans in half and as a result your hard drive will last much longer. I still recommend anti-virus/anti-spyware scans only once weekly instead of daily to avoid premature hard drive failure. Thus the daily anti-virus/anti-spyware scan of AVG Version 8 will have to be disabled in the options menu and the scan run manually by the user weekly. In addition, virus and spyware detection by AVG version 8 has considerable improved over AVG Version 7 products. If you don't already have an "all-in-one" paid anti-virus/anti-spyware package, the free AVG Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware Version 8 makes a good choice.

Many people swear by one or the other of these anti-spyware programs, but I find Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware catches malware that AVG misses. It is also often highly recommeneded by anti-spyware sites to remove specific infections. But the truth is, it's best to use as many anti-spyware programs as practical -- 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!)

Anti-Rootkit
Rootkits are a special kind of software tool used to hide trojans, viruses and other malware from your anti-virus scanner and other security products. Unfortunately, they are extremely effective, which means that some of you who are reading this will be infected, even though you believe your PC to be totally clean. Thankfully, there is a new class of security product now available, called "rootkit detectors", that use specialized techniques to detect these dangerous intruders.

Most of these detectors require quite a bit of technical skill to interpret the results. Avira-Anti-Virus contains an optional root-kit detector that must be turned on to have the anti-virus scanner also scan for root-kits. One of the simplest to use is also among the most effective. It is called Sophos Anti Rootkit. You do have to register at the Sophos website before you can download it. I suggest that all of you download this product and scan your PCs. The chances of you being infected are small, but for five minutes work it's well worth eliminating the risk.

Sophos Anti Rootkit will detect most rootkits missed by AV scanners, but it can't provide perfect detection; no rootkit detector can. The reality is that at the present time, full protection against rootkits may require the use of multiple products, and complete removal may require a system rebuild.

Firewall
Check Point Software's ZoneAlarm may well be the most popular free firewall on the planet, and the most recent release (finally) protects Vista machines. Arguably, ZoneAlarm is the product that made everyone conscious of the need for firewall protection. It's extremely easy to use, and its method of configuring outbound protection is particularly useful. Whenever a program tries to make an outbound Internet connection, ZoneAlarm announces it with a pop-up alert. You can then permit or disallow the connection, on a one-time basis or permanently. Configuring your level of protection is a simple matter of moving a few sliders. Though the free version of the software is exclusively a firewall, Check Point also offers for-pay security suites. But if all you're looking for is a firewall, stick with the free version.

  Comodo Pro
Comodo guards against outbound as well as inbound threats.
 

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.

As Computerworld online editorial director Scot Finnie points out in Slim is in for Windows desktop firewalls, Comodo Group earns the top firewall rating for security from the independent testing site Matousec and offers a good balance between security and convenience.

Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer
Getting StartedMicrosoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) is an easy-to-use tool designed for the IT professional that helps small- and medium-sized businesses determine their security state in accordance with Microsoft security recommendations and offers specific remediation guidance. Improve your security management process by using MBSA to detect common security misconfigurations and missing security updates on your computer systems.

Disable Windows Gadgets and Windows Sidebar
Microsoft has discovered an unfixable security hole with Windows Gadgets and Windows Sidebar that a malicious application can use to take over your computer. Microsoft recommends permanently disabling Windows Gadgets and Windows Sidebar. Microsoft will not offer this solution via a regular Windows security update, but does offer a "Fixit" program to disable Windows Gadgets and Windows Sidebar. I recommend you run this Fixit program to disable Windows Gadgets and Windows Sidebar as soon as possible. You will have to reboot your computer after running the Fixit program.

Internet Browser
Back in the early 1990's when the World Wide Web was young, there was only one web browser worth using: Netscape, which evolved from Mosaic. Then Microsoft gave us Internet Explorer and subsequently started including it with their OS. Thus began the browser wars, and IE eventually emerged as the clear winner.

Today Internet Explorer is a competent browser with enough features to meet the needs of most users, but it's difficult to recommend due to on-going security concerns. In the past IE has been a focus for security attacks, and there is little to suggest that this will change with newer releases of IE. Additionally, Microsoft has a poor track record for speedily fixing IE defects, and this has left users open to drive-by attacks and other forms of zero-day exploits. This has opened the door for a new set of browsers that are feature rich, very secure, and super fast.

When it comes to web browsers, everyone has an opinion.  Every web browser will have a specific feature set that appeals to some while not appealing to others.  The criteria used for selecting browsers in this review are the following:

When it comes right down to it, the best web browser is one that allows you to view the Web the way that YOU want.  The browser listed below is, in this editor's opinion, one of the best at doing this by offering ease of use, flexibility, expandability, security, and great feature sets, while simultaneously doing their prime function of displaying HTML pages.

There are several excellent alternatives, and Mozilla Firefox is a solid first choice. It's safer than IE, so safe in fact that many users have reported no spyware infections since they started using the product. It also browses a tad faster than IE, is very stable and is more standards compliant. With tabbed browsing and over 2000 free extensions (add-ons) that allow you to customize your experience, it provides most users with a major surfing upgrade. Firefox is now my everyday browser, though I still leave IE on my PC for the occasional web site that's designed around IE's non-standard features. If you need any further convincing then check out Gizmo's IE to Firefox migration guide.

If you decide to install Firefox, uncheck the box(es) that will make Firefox your default browser. In addition, uncheck any "free" utilities offered (e.g. Google Toolbar).



Tweak Windows 7 settings for faster performance.

Although there are good reasons to switch to Windows 8, faster performance isn't one of them. Windows 8 adds several new features designed to improve its speed, but they are mainly intended to buy back the performance lost by Window 8's increased resource hunger. A few simple tweaks to an existing Windows 7 setup can make it fly.

Enable ClearType.

Performance isn't just about the speed of your system, it includes being able to clearly see the text on your screen. ClearType provides support for vastly improved font display on colour LCD monitors, high-quality TFT and standard CRT screens, and whilst ClearType is enabled by default in Internet Explorer 7, it isn't enabled in XP. Compare the difference:

To enable ClearType and make any adjustments to suit your eyes, go to Start->Control Panel->Display->Adjust Clear Type Text and follow the simple instructions. You can adjust ClearType in the Control Panel after installing the software at the link.


Lose the eye candy.

All the animations and visual effects that Windows 7 uses can sap performance, particularly on low-end systems. Yes, we know we just told you ways to add more eye candy to Windows 7, but users' tastes vary -- as do their machines' capabilities. If you prefer fast over frilly, you can turn off Windows 7's eye candy to gain speed.

Go to Control Panel --> Performance Information and Tools --> Advanced tab, and click on Adjust Visual Effects. On the Visual Effects tab, choose the either Adjust for best perfomance option, or the Custom option and clear as many of the check boxes as you can stand -- the more check boxes you clear, the faster your system can run. Most people won't notice much of a difference in appearance as long as these three boxes remain checked: "Smooth edges of screen fonts", "Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop", and "Use visual styles on windows and buttons". Click OK twice, and you're done.

If you decide to choose the Adjust for best performance option, ClearType will be turned off even although it is not a check box in the Custom option. Follow the instructions above for Enable ClearType to turn ClearType back on.

Turn Off Aero Themes and Visual Effects.


Limit Window 7's Aero themes and visual effects for a speed boost.
 

As ridiculous as that sounds, if you want a very responsive user interface because you are more interested in getting work done (or playing a faster game) than looking at Window 7's Fisher-Price graphics, then turning off themes and visual effects has got to be the best idea since sliced cheese spread. You might not like what you see, but it will be faster.

You can disable all of Window7's Aero visual effects by right-clicking the Desktop and selecting the "Personalize" menu item. In the scroll box under "Change the visuals and sounds on your computer", choose Windows 7 Basic style.

Extend your battery life.
Windows 7 includes new power options that will help to improve your laptop's or UPS's battery life. To see them, click Start=>Control Panel=>Power Options. Then click Change Plan Settings for your current plan and select Change Advanced Settings. Expand Multimedia Settings, for instance, and you'll see a new "playing video" setting that can be set to optimise power savings rather than performance. Browse through the other settings and ensure they're set up to suit your needs.

Monitor Your Laptop’s Power Efficiency.


Use the Power Efficiency Diagnostics Report to extend battery life.
 

In Windows 7, you can observe your PC’s power efficiency and tweak settings to get the most out of your battery and the best balance between performance and endurance. Doing so is a little techie, but it’s not hard.

In the Start menu, type in cmd. Then, when the cmd.exe icon appears, right-click it, and choose “Run as an administrator.” At the command line that pops up, type powercfg –energy and hit Enter. At this point, Windows 7 will scan your system (it will take a minute or two) and publish a report in the folder indicated by the command line. Follow the path indicated to the file—it’ll be an HTML document—and look through the suggestions.

In the report to the left, for instance, we got a handful of pink error messages stating that our power settings weren’t set for optimal battery life. Those are pretty easy to fix: Go to Start=>Control Panel=>Power Options, then select which plan you’d like and click Edit Plan Settings. From there, you can tweak to your heart’s content. We also got a handful of yellow warning messages, such as “Power Policy: Disk timeout is long (On Battery).” Our hard drive was set to turn off after 1,000 minutes, but this warning suggests keeping that time to less than 30 minutes so that if the hard drive doesn’t need to be spinning, it can turn off after a given amount of time. The trade-off (and yes, there’s always a trade-off) is that when you choose a task that requires it to spin back up again, it can be slow in doing so.

This is a good report to run, so that, at the very least, you can get an idea of which settings affect power consumption. Once you have that knowledge, tweaking those settings is pretty simple.

Change your Monitor's refresh rate (CRT monitors only).
This is not necessarily a performance tip (though it can be - see the tip below on disabling VYSNC for more details), but it will certainly make your computing life easier on the eyes.

All versions of Windows including XP tend to default to a 60Hz screen refresh rate on CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitors. This equates to 60 screen updates a second, creating a barely perceptible flickering which can cause eyestrain after a while. It's highly recommended that you increase this refresh rate to something more constant, like 75 or 85Hz.

This makes the image presented much easier on the eyes by refreshing the screen faster than we can actually perceive. While the refresh rates that different monitors and video cards can achieve vary, if you have anything bigger than a 15-inch monitor, it should be able to manage 800x600 resolution with at least 75Hz, making for a much higher quality image. Virtually any video card made within the last 5 or 6 years will be able to handle this too.

To increase your monitor's refresh rate:

  1. Go to Start=>Control Panel=>Display and select the 'Change Display Settings' tab.
  2. Click the 'Advanced Settings' button.
  3. Choose the 'Adaptor' tab and hit the 'List all modes' button.
  4. This will bring up a windows displaying all the possible combinations of resolution, # of colours and refresh rates that your video card\monitor combination can achieve, with your current setting highlighted. If your current setting uses 60 or 70Hz refresh rate, consider increasing it if there is a higher refresh rate available.

Convert FAT32 To NTFS.
NTFS formatted drives are faster, more stabile, secure, and fragment less than FAT32 formatted drives, so it is recommended that you convert your logical drives to NTFS. This can be done one way only, as NTFS drives cannot be converted back to FAT32.

 
 

The only situation where it is not advisable to convert a drive would be in situations where multiple operating systems reside on the same computer. If one of these operating systems is unable to read NTFS (such as windows 9x/ME) it will lose access to the drive that has been converted to NTFS. If the converted drive contained that operating system's files, it will no longer be able to boot.

To convert your drives to NTFS: Right click on 'Computer' and select 'Manage'. From the computer management window, expand storage and select 'Disk management.'

Using the 'File system' column of the upper pane of this window, you can easily check what file system each of your logical drives is using. Make a note of this information.

To change from FAT32 to NTFS file system open a command prompt (ad Administrator) (Start=>All Programs=>Accesories=>Command Prompt) and type:

CONVERT X: /fs:ntfs

"X" being the drive you wish to convert. Make sure there is a space between the X: and the foward slash (/). Once you press enter it will ask you for confirmation by typing Y. Then press Y and enter once more to reboot.

Optimize Your Boot Process.
To optimize your boot process, open a command prompt (as Administrator) (Start=>All Programs=>Accesories=>Command Prompt) and type:

DEFRAG X: -b

"X" being your boot drive (usually "C"). Make sure there is a space between the X: and the -b option. Be patient, this optimization process will take several minutes.

Optimize your Internet connection.
A computer without a fast Internet connection isn't much of a computer nowadays. Windows 7 automatically tunes the Internet connection for best performance.

Don't know the rated speed of your Internet connection? There is a connection speed test available at Speedtest.Net.

Make Your Mouse More Responsive.
We posted some registry tips to increase mouse responsiveness in PCstats previous tips guides, but the easiest way to increase the sensitivity of the mouse is through the control panel.

   

Go to Start=>Control Panel=>Mouse and click 'Pointer Options' tab.

Under the 'Motion' heading, the 'Select a pointer speed' bar will increase the overall speed and responsiveness of the mouse.

The 'Enhance pointer precision' button controls whether the mouse pointer has an acceleration curve to its movements. Try the settings to find one that you like.







Optimize Your Pagefile.

Move Your Pagefile.
If you have two or more hard disks, move your pagefile. But if you have only a single hard disk, then you only need to optimize the size of your pagefile.

There is no point in moving your pagefile if you have a single disk, even if the disk has multiple partitions, so this tweak requires at least two hard disks. It relies on the assumption that your second or subsequent hard disk is used much less than your system disk (the disk that your operating system and applications are installed on) so there is less disk activity on it, which means the pagefile can be accessed much more quickly on that drive. In addition, Input/Output (I/O) to and from the second disk is performed in parallel to any I/O on the first disk, which means Windows is not trying to batter the heads across the hard disk as it tries to load files at the same time it is accessing the pagefile.

If you have a single disk with partitions then there is no benefit to be gained from this moving your pagefile because the pagefile will still be on the same disk, and the disk heads will still have to move across the same hard disk to get to the pagefile. By moving the pagefile to a different disk you can obtain significant performance gains if your machine constantly page faults.

Note: A page fault is not an error condition. Page faults occur when the OS needs something that is stored in the pagefile, in other words, a page fault occurs when the computer reads the pagefile. Constant page faults are indicated by lots of disk activity when, for example, switching applications or starting new ones. If you perceive a lot of disk activity in these situations then you really need to get more RAM.

  • Open the Control Panel and select the System applet
    • Alternatively, right-click "My Computer" on the desktop and select Properties
  • On the Advanced System Settings tab, select Settings under the Performance group:
  • On the Performance Options dialog box, click Change, which is under the Virtual Memory group:

Then, only if you have two separate hard drives, Click on the hard disk that currently contains the pagefile (1.) then click No paging file (2.), then click Set:

This previous step is not necessary if you only have a single hard drive.

Optimize Your Pagefile Size.

This pagefile tweak will perform best if the pagefile drive is empty to start with. Failing that, a disk defragment should be performed before applying this tweak to help ensure a contiguous (unbroken) span of space is available for the pagefile.

  • Open the Control Panel and select the System applet
    • Alternatively, right-click "My Computer" on the desktop and select Properties
  • On the Advanced system settings tab, select Settings under the Performance group:
  • On the Advanced dialog box, click Change, which is under the Virtual Memory group:

Uncheck the automatically manage paging file size for all drives box if it is checked. Then choose the hard disk that you want to contain the pagefile. If you only have a single hard disk, choose "C:". If you have multiple hard disks, choose the letter of the first partition of the second drive (usually "D:" unless your hard drives are partitioned).

Click on the hard disk that you want to contain the pagefile (1.), then click Custom size (2.) and enter the same value as shown in the Recommended field (3.) in the Initial size and the Maximum size fields. Finally, click Set then OK:

If you elect to allow the system to choose the pagefile, the pagefile will need to grow at a later date, and your system will slow down during the pagefile growth stage. It is suggested that you use a fixed size pagefile of the recommended size.

You must reboot to make this change take effect.



System maintenance.

PC Tune-up Utility
For one-click cleaning the stand-out product is Advanced WindowsCare Personal Edition from IObit. The Personal version is a feature-reduced version of their $29.95 Professional product. Features missing in the Personal version include automated scheduling, commercial use licensing, tech support and some advanced tuning tweaks.

However, the Personal version does include almost everything else: adware/spyware cleaning and immunization, removal of useless temporary files from your hard drives, Windows registry cleaning, startup program analysis, erasure of private browsing history, plus a number of system and security tweaks.

It's an impressive package for a freebie, and this, combined with one click operation, makes Advanced WindowsCare Personal an easy top recommendation for non-technical users. It really lacks in one area only: hard-drive defragmentation.

Those of you who are more technically inclined will find the lack of fine control in Advanced WindowsCare frustrating, and it's more likely that you'll be attracted to the use of several specialized packages which offer more settings and better user control. This approach is less convenient than a one-click package that "does it all" but, ultimately, it's more customizable to the individual user's needs and offers more powerful cleaning functions.

And it's also less dangerous. A one-click approach encourages haste and discourages careful consideration of what you are about to do. Advanced WindowsCare provides an option to create a system checkpoint (before you start cleaning) which allows you to bale out if something goes wrong (and I suspect that something will go wrong sooner or later). A better approach is the use of multiple programs, which will encourage you to stop and think, and that's a good thing.

Another PC tune-up utility is the free Glary Utilities with its 1-Click Maintenance feature. It has some features missing in Advanced WindowsCare Personal.

Backup
SyncToy
For quick backups, SyncToy is tops.
 

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 Windows 7, the new backup tools positively stink -- with the possible exception of the full-system backup and restore tool that's available only in Windows 7 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 backups to the Internet and enabling a "briefcase" facility to allow portability of files between systems, there is both a free and fee version of Mozy Online Backup. The free version can backup 2.0 GB to the Internet, which is more than enough for "briefcase" facilities and backups of most student laptop data.

For more robust backups to the Internet and enabling a "briefcase" facility to allow portability of files between systems, there is both a free and fee version of Windows Live Mesh. The free version can backup 5.0 GB to the Internet, which is more than enough for "briefcase" facilities and backups of most student laptop data.

For more robust, systemwide backups, including backups of the Windows system folders, there are 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.

For the best data protection, use an image backup program such as Acronis True Image. It lets you selectively retrieve files from the backup image, or you can restore the entire data set to a new drive in case of a catastrophic drive failure.

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.

Uninstall unused programs and useless startup programs
New PCs come with a whole load of programs you will never use, and you probably don’t even know they exist.

Some programs even run background processes when you load your computer, even though you are not using them.

To remove all these pointless programs, open the Control Panel’s Programs and Features page, and have a trawl through the list of installed software. Uninstall those that you do not need, while being careful to leave programs your computer’s hardware needs (typically their publisher will be listed as the PC maker’s name or as Microsoft).

If you are still unsure about which programs to use, try a third-party called such as PC Decrapifier. It’s free for non-commercial use and should tell you which programs you don’t want or need.

System cleanup
  CCleaner
CCleaner performs safe and effective system cleanups.
 
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. When you surf the Web, you pick up many traces of your Internet activity. Your PC swells up with temporary Internet files, a history list, cookies, autocomplete entries, and lots more. In addition, programs create temporary files, file lists, and other bits of effluvia. Windows itself constantly monitors what you do, and records information about it in logs. In fact, a snoop could easily gather a great deal of information about you from stuff that's junking up your PC.

CCleaner rids your system of all such traces. Not only does it enhance your privacy, but you'll regain hard disk space as well. 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. When I used this utility for the first time, it deleted a whopping 835MB 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. CCleaner can also remove things such as browser cookies that you may not want to be removed. Use it very carefully.

Disk defragmentation
The Windows 7 Disk Defragmenter is a crippled version of a commercial product called "DiskKeeper", has a number of limitations, and has never been very good, although it's been incrementally improved over time.

One excellent free defragmentation utility (which I use myself) is Auglogics Disk Defrag.

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. While the built-in XP defragmenter is ok for average users, power users who need more from a defragmenter might consider looking at the free UltraDefrag, which is an Open Source defragmenter for Windows that supports both x32 and x64 versions of XP and Vista. UltraDefrag offers:

A number of freeware defrag programs offer similar functionality. Of those, one of the most flexible 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.)

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.

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.)



Update Your Software and Drivers.

Make sure your software is up to date.
Perhaps the most important maintenance step is to use Microsoft Update. It replaces the older Windows Update and provides patches for all Microsoft products including Windows and Office. Most home users should have automatic updates enabled for security patches; go to Control Panel --> Windows Update to check the settings.

 

What is Windows Genuine Advantage?
In April 2006, Microsoft began to require that the Windows license be validated before users could download security updates and most other files from the Microsoft site. When you visit Microsoft Update, software known as Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) checks the license key on the system and allows the download only if the license appears to be valid.

In most cases, the validation works smoothly, but there can be problems. For instance, local PC builders or repair technicians sometimes reuse the same license keys for many computers, which can trigger the WGA flag. If this happens, you can contact Microsoft through the information you receive in the WGA dialog to determine how to fix the problem.

To keep the rest of your software up to date, just about every major product now includes an automatic updater that regularly checks for new versions of the software. It's especially important to keep any Internet-related software up to date, since these are often the "attack surface" used by security exploits. This includes Sun Java, Adobe Reader, Apple software such as QuickTime and iTunes, and browsers such as Firefox and Opera. All of these programs have automatic update features that are enabled by default.

For software that doesn't have an updater, check at least every month to ensure there are no critical updates. Sites like free File Hippo Update Checker, free Secunia Personal Software Inspector, free CNET TechTracker, free DriverMax, free DriverIdentifier, and for fee VersionTracker Pro also offer one-stop checks for software and driver updates.



Perform weekly maintenance for smooth operation.

A typical Windows setup will be awash in junk -- and noticeably slower -- just a few months after it's taken out of the box. Many people reformat and reinstall Windows, or even buy new computers, in search of their original level of performance. But just a bit of regular maintenance can keep a system performing at a near-new level. We recommend performing the following steps once a week.

1. Back up important data.
Inexpensive USB flash drives and external hard drives have removed any excuse that it's too difficult or expensive to do backups. For quick drag-and-drop backups of critical files, keep a USB flash drive near the computer.

2. Make sure your software is up to date.
Perhaps the most important maintenance step is to use Microsoft Update.

To keep the rest of your software up to date, just about every major product now includes an automatic updater that regularly checks for new versions of the software. It's especially important to keep any Internet-related software up to date, since these are often the "attack surface" used by security exploits. This includes Sun Java, Adobe Reader, Apple software such as QuickTime and iTunes, and browsers such as Firefox and Opera. All of these programs have automatic update features that are enabled by default.

For software that doesn't have an updater, check at least every month to ensure there are no critical updates. Sites like free File Hippo Update Checker, and for fee VersionTracker Pro also offer one-stop checks for software and driver updates.

3. Clean the disk.


Selecting files to delete with Disk Cleanup.

The next step is disk cleanup. If you save your software install downloads before running them to install a software product, delete obsolete software install downloads that you no longer need. I created a C:\MyDownloads folder to save all my software install downloads before running them. With all my obsolete software downloads in one folder I find it easy to delete them all to reclaim disk space. Any deleted files are placed in the Recycle Bin, so be sure to empty the Recycle bin after deleting to really free up disk space.

One of the most common causes of slow disk performance is the presence of lots of small files, which are often unused. Major culprits include the IE browser cache and Windows temporary file directories. Windows accumulates junk files on a regular basis from sources such as Internet caches and temporary files. Use Windows' built-in Disk Cleanup tool (Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> Disk Cleanup) to get rid of them. In most cases, the default settings for Disk Cleanup are the ones to use, but we never recommend using the Compress Old Files option.

The Windows Disk Cleanup tool automatically cleans the Internet Explorer cache if you have that box checked, but it won't clear the cache of non-Microsoft applications and browsers such as Firefox or Opera. If Firefox is installed, clean its cache through the Tools --> Clear Private Data menu. Make sure that you don't clear passwords unless you really want to do that. In Opera, choose Tools --> Delete private data. (The CCleaner program described below can clean all these caches.)

The Disk Cleanup utility can take a while to run on laptops when you execute it for the first time, so be prepared to sit around for a while, or maybe a read a good book. However subsequent cleanups will run much quicker if you perform this task regularly.

You'll also want to take a look in Control Panel --> Add/Remove Programs to see if there are any applications that you no longer need. Many people install trial software but forget to remove it after they decide it's not worth buying. (You don't have to perform this step every week unless you frequently install trial software; once a month is fine for most people.) To remove a program you no longer want, select it, click the Remove button, and click Yes.

Other applications that should be deleted are browser toolbars (e.g. Google Toolbar, Yahoo Toolbar, and Windows Live Toolbar). These toolbars were designed for IE 5 and 6 and are not necessary in IE 7 and Firefox. Plus, they are security risks because hackers can "spoof" fake URLs for updating the toolbar.

4. Defragment the disk.
When files are stored on disk they are stored in blocks. A set of blocks can be contiguous or fragmented. Contiguous means adjacent. A contiguous file is composed of a sequence of blocks that is stored in an unbroken chain. A fragmented file has gaps in the block sequence, and the gaps are usually occupied by blocks that belong to other files. If a file is fragmented, or non-contiguous, the hard disk has to skip expanses of blocks as it tries to read a file from start to end, which means that fragmented files cause slower performance.

A fragmented hard disk is a disk that has a lot of fragmented files. A defragmented hard disk means faster read/write access, which, in turn, means better overall disk performance.

Regularly defragment your hard disk, every week if necessary, and certainly at least once a month. Also defrag your disk after deleting a large number of files, cleaning out your browser cache, uninstalling applications, or after using the Windows Disk Cleanup Utility.

Disk Defragmenter
Use Disk Defragmenter weekly.
 

Removing unused or unwanted files before executing a defragmentation can free up space that will be better occupied after a defrag, this is because files will load faster if they are located closer to the start of the drive.

With all unneeded files out of the way, now is the perfect time to defragment the drive. The built-in Windows defragmenter (Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> Disk Defragmenter) does a respectable job of bringing order back to the files. Choose Action --> Defragment from the menu to run it.

On a severely fragmented drive, you may need to run the program several times to fully defrag the files. Be sure to close as many programs as possible during the defragmentation process, including e-mail and even virus scanners, because files that are in use cannot be defragmented.

5. Do a full virus and spyware scan.
Most antivirus and antispyware software provides some real-time protection, but problems can still fall through the cracks. Many of these programs let you schedule an automatic scan on a weekly basis, but if yours doesn't scan automatically, do a manual scan as part of your weekly maintenance. If the scan detects problems, they should be fixed before trying any of the update and cleanup steps below.

By following these tips, you can keep your machine in tip-top shape and even get some of Window 8's advantages while sticking with Windows 7 for at least seven more years. Maybe by then there'll be a more compelling reason to give up Windows 7 than ho-hum Windows 8.



File management.

Archiving/compression

7-Zip
The versatile 7-Zip.
 

The native .zip file integration in Windows Explorer is OK, but most people want something with more features than that.

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 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.

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.

  ImgBurn
The small, lightweight ImgBurn.
 
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.

FTP
FileZilla
FileZilla: solid, dependable, powerful.
 

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.



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
Small, fast and full of features, IrfanView enjoys a cult following.
 
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

Notepad2
Notepad2: a new, improved version of Notepad.
 

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.

Virtualization

VirtualBox
VirtualBox has great features and costs nothing.
 

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.

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.)

Assessing risks to your system.

Spyware Blaster
Some of the nastiest kinds of spyware -- autodialers, home page hijackers, and others--install themselves as ActiveX controls. Spyware Blaster protects you against them, blocking the installation of ActiveX-based malware and other types of spyware, and eradicating tracking cookies that might otherwise invade your privacy. The program works with Firefox, Opera or Internet Explorer, and it prevents your browser from being diverted to dangerous sites. One particularly nice touch is the utility's System Snapshot, which (as you'd expect) takes a snapshot of your PC; if your computer gets infected later on, you can revert to the clean version.

Is it safe or isn't it? Whether you're asking this question about your own system, a site you'd like to visit, or a link you're tempted to click, you need the right tools to help you understand the level of risk involved. These utilities appraise the situation and deliver an informed assessment of where you stand.

McAfee SiteAdvisor
On the Web, unlike in the real world, it can be hard to recognize a bad neighborhood when you're wandering around in it. There are no boarded-up windows, no empty storefronts, no hard-looking men lounging on corners or in doorways. In fact, the prettiest and most inviting Web site may harbor all kinds of malware. That's where the McAfee SiteAdvisor comes in. It warns you when a Web site that you're about to visit -- or are already visiting -- may be dangerous. You install it as an Internet Explorer toolbar or as a Firefox plug-in. Then when you search with Google or some other search engine, it displays color-coded icons next to each search result, indicating whether the site in question is safe (green), questionable (yellow), or clearly unsafe (red). It checks sites for downloads that may be dangerous, and for evidence that they will send you spam if you give them your e-mail address. The toolbar offers similar reports about the sites you're currently visiting.

LinkScanner Lite
This is another good tool for determining whether a Web site harbors dangerous content. Open LinkScanner Lite and type in a site URL, and the utility checks the site for dangerous scripts, bad downloads, and other hazardous content. It also warns you about phishing sites and other potentially fraudulent online operations, and it integrates with search sites in much the same way that McAfee Site Advisor does, putting icons next to search results to indicate whether they are dangerous or not. Unlike Site Advisor, though, it doesn't check whether sites harbor adware or spyware.

Internet Threat Meter
Every day, it seems, new threats hit the Internet. Symantec's Internet Threat Meter keeps you informed about the latest arrivals and includes a link to a Symantec site where you can get more information and find fixes. The program runs as a nifty little widget in Windows XP, or as a Sidebar Gadget in Windows Vista, gathering data about the latest threats and reporting the results to you.

Trend Micro HijackThis
Like it or not, no single antispyware program can detect and eradicate all spyware. Consequently your favorite antimalware utility doesn't fully protect you. If you suspect that you've been victimized by spyware, but you haven't been able to track down the source of the trouble using your usual diagnostic software, give HijackThis a try. It thoroughly analyzes your Registry and file settings, and creates a log file reporting its results. If your system is infected with spyware, that file will contain clues about the particular type you're dealing with. Though an expert can analyze the log to try to track down the problem, you shouldn't try to do any advanced analysis yourself unless you possess relevant expertise. Instead, simply upload the log file to a HijackThis Web site, and ask the community there to analyze it for you.



Covering your tracks and cleaning up.

Transaction Guard
This freebie from commercial security vendor Trend Micro is actually two pieces of security software in one. First, it's a spyware detector and eradicator that monitors your system in real-time for spyware and kills any it finds.

Second, it introduces a "secret keyboard" to ensure that passwords and other sensitive information aren't stolen over the Internet. When you visit a site that asks for a password, instead of typing in the password, you enter it on the secret keyboard, which copies the password to the clipboard, from which it gets pasted directly into a Web form. The software runs as an ActiveX control in the System

NoScript
Among the biggest dangers you face when surfing the Web are boobytrapped Java and JavaScript scripts and applets. Evil doers can disguise these harmful pieces of code as useful tools, or can hide them completely while they perform their nasty routines. Unfortunately, there's no practical way for you to separate the good ones from the bad ones. But NoScript, a free Firefox extension, prevents all JavaScript and Java applets from running, except on sites that you designate as safe. The extension presents you with a list of safe sites, which you can add to. NoScript tells you when it has blocked Java or JavaScript on a site. For added protection, this remarkably powerful and flexible tool also blocks Java, Flash, and other plug-ins on sites you don't trust.

File Shredder 2
Delete a file and it's gone from your PC, right? Wrong. Even after you delete a file and flush it from your Recycle Bin, special software can re-create it. Of course, in general, you'd like files to stay deleted when you throw them away. File Shredder 2 overwrites any file or folder with a random string of binary data--multiple times. You have a choice of five different shredding algorithms, and using the program is a breeze: Just choose your files, tell the program to shred them, and they'll be gone forever.



Security.

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.

  KeePass
KeePass keeps track of all your passwords.
 
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.

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.)

Worried that someone may gain access to your most private files? Kruptos 2 uses powerful, 128-bit encryption to scramble files and folders so that only you can read them. It's particularly useful for USB flash drives and portable storage devices, which you can encrypt in the entirety. Kruptos 2 also lets you create self-extracting, encrypted archives; shred deleted files so that all traces of them vanish from your hard disk; and even disguise the filename when you encrypt a file.