57 free tools to boost your PC
- 27 July, 2009 14:48
There are some fantastic tools out there that can be yours for nothing if you know where to look. We show you how to reclaim processor cycles and streamline your PC for free.
There's something in the motto ‘you get what you pay for'. Of the vast range of free online tools available, the majority are free for a reason: they're not good enough to charge a fee for. Fortunately, there are some fantastic tools out there that can be yours for nothing if you know where to look.
Many of the best free online tools and services are quickly championed and their fame and functionality spreads. Two good examples are Google Search and Firefox, and both have enjoyed huge success without charging a bean. We'd include Internet Explorer in this group but, since Microsoft preloads it with Windows PCs, its success wasn't achieved in the same ‘viral' way.
Now that the internet is infinitely mashable and malleable, with plug-ins and customisations, localised hacks and online apps, the average user can't be expected to keep up with each and every newcomer that's worthy of attention. So how do you know what's free and worth having, what's free but will load up your PC with endless pop-ups ads and prompts to install other programs, and which downloads are actively dangerous?
Dealing with the latter concern first, ensuring your antivirus, firewall and other malware trappers are up to date will help keep your PC safe; toolbar indicators in your browser and search listings that warn if a site is suspect can also help. But there's a lot to be said for using recommended downloads and services that have been pre-tested for suitability and scanned for viruses.
That's where PC Advisor comes in. We've got a vested interest in helping you get the best from your PC and enjoy a solid, streamlined web experience. We're also advocates of making the best of what you've got, whether that's a cranky but tweakable copy of XP or a fast system held back by overbloated applications.
Read on for our recommendations of free tools that will optimise your PC, tighten security, improve your browsing experience and help you get more done.
Tweak your system
This download can speed up your system by fixing your Registry, removing spyware and junk files, killing unnecessary programs that run at startup and more. It even provides a one-click option that automatically finds all problems and fixes them.
Power up Windows' anaemic Clipboard with Clipboard Help+Spell, which maintains a list of the text items you copy to it so that you can retrieve them later. As well as checking spelling and grammar, a research capability lets you snag items and organise them into folders.
If you accidentally delete a file from the Recycle Bin and later realise you need it, you can spend hours fruitlessly searching for it. Recuva is what you need to recover the file. It scans your PC for items that you've deleted, lists what it finds and shows you the likelihood that you can recover each file.
If you need to record what happens on your screen, ScreenToaster is ideal. Go to the site, press Alt, S and ScreenToaster records every action you take. Press Alt, S again to end recording. You can edit what you record, upload the video to ScreenToaster or YouTube and download it to your PC.
Defraggler is far better than Windows' defragging utility, scanning your disk faster - useful if you have a large hard drive - and adding the ability to defragment individual files. It's more entertaining to watch, too.
If you have multiple USB drives, media-card readers and optical and network drives on your PC, organising files can be complicated. This download quickly identifies your drives, giving you vital information such as the type of drive and its total and remaining capacity. Drive Manager also lists the temperature and model number for SMART-enabled drives.
For the Linux-curious, Wubi is a dual-boot manager that allows you to keep your options open. It's straightforward to install and doesn't require you to create a separate partition. Since it runs within Windows, you can easily toggle between the two.
Windows 7 will feature a Mac-esque dock, giving quick access to commonly used apps. Add the functionality to Vista and XP with RocketDock. You can pick the items in your dock, customise its look and behaviour and put it at the top, bottom or side of the screen.
StartUpLite streamlines your PC's startup function with just a few mouse clicks. It's possible to achieve the same result within Windows, but StartUpLite helps you get there quicker and with less hassle. The result is a revved-up machine that eliminates unnecessary system overheads.
Feeling the limitations of your PC screen? 360desktop enables you to link up the left and righthand sides of your screen, creating a continuous, scrollable loop. Photo fans will relish the ability to view breathtaking vistas without buying a bigger monitor.
This app provides 150 ways to tweak Vista. Options include adding or removing items from the Start menu, altering notifications about connections and battery life, adjusting User Account Control settings and changing the physical appearance of the interface.
For those less confident in speeding things up by preventing services and processes running in case they are critical to Windows, Vista Services Optimizer can quickly and efficiently give your PC a speed boost.
The big names in security software charge a lot for complete suites full of big, bloated software. This excellent antivirus tool does everything the major players do, but for free. It scans your system for malware and eliminates what it finds, and it gives you seven different ‘shields' to keep you safe from dangers lurking on websites, peer-to-peer attacks, instant-messaging threats and so on. And it does all this without hogging RAM or system resources.
Worried that malware is targeting your website? This service checks whether your site is under assault. Enter your website address into the search field and Trusteer will let you know whether you're under siege.
This download allows you to create secure peer-to-peer networks over the web for sharing information, chatting and so on. Everything sent over the network is encrypted using a 128bit key, and it uses a cabled connection so wireless packet-sniffing can't take place.
Possible uses include remotely and securely connecting several office locations, accessing your home photo library from your office PC and setting up multiplayer gaming.
Hidden in some software end-user licence agreements (EULAs) are indicators that the application may be spyware, or that it might invade your privacy in other ways - it's what made the MBS billing ploy legal. This downloadable analyser examines EULAs and warns you about potential dangers.
This is the best personal firewall you've never heard of. It provides solid protection, but does so unobtrusively. Lots of firewalls pester you constantly when you first install them, asking about any program that wants to access the internet. This software starts out by allowing known safe applications to access the web and bothers you only about the programs that it's unsure about. It also has a clever ‘Safer mode' that allows certain apps to run with stripped-down privileges.
Spyware can evade even the most rigorous system cleaners, so you need to have more than one antispyware utility on your PC. HiJackFree is an ideal tool to use alongside your main antispyware application. It checks for spyware and then eradicates it. It also provides lots of detail about what's happening on your PC, should you be interested. This includes tools for viewing what programs are using your TCP ports, and for examining programs that run when your PC starts up.
Most security suites work best on their own, but Threatfire is designed to complement your existing antivirus setup. It's on the constant lookout for suspicious behaviour and is able to automatically block malware without first needing for a virus to be announced or a patch issued.
This download helps you ensure that your system won't get infected with spyware in the first place. SpywareBlaster works differently from most of its rivals, restricting the actions that potentially dangerous websites can perform. It also guards against dangerous ActiveX controls and repels tracking cookies.
This is an excellent antispyware tool that does a thorough job of scanning your system for dangers and then removes any it finds. This download scans not just your files and memory, but also your Registry. Note that it doesn't offer real-time protection.
Having a tough time keeping files and folders on multiple PCs in sync? It's much easier if you use this Microsoft service. You'll first need to register. Install the software on each PC and tell the service which folders to look at and how to synchronise them. Live Sync does the rest. It acts as a conduit between PCs and is able to synchronise files and folders according to your preferences.
Sharing files could hardly be simpler. Create a name for your ‘drop', upload files to it and then give access to your colleagues. Each drop includes thumbnail previews, so people know exactly what they're downloading.
Some things are better demonstrated than they are explained on paper. That's the principle behind 5min, a video site that hosts hundreds of how-to videos. How to ask for a pay rise, how to play the guitar and how to master the Pilates abs core workout routine are covered, along with countless others.
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This clever download scans everything you print and removes any wasted pages, such as a web page containing a single line of text. It also removes ads and lets you take out other unwanted pages or images. It'll even track how much paper and money you save.
This a Microsoft service (registration required) that lets you sync PCs and web-connected devices, and share files among them. You can even control devices remotely. The site is sometimes confusing to use, but it's a very powerful tool.
This online editor is another tool for saving paper. It lets you print any web page minus the junk, ads, extra space and images. You can save pages as PDF or HTML files, too.
Yet another Microsoft service, SkyDrive lets you store up to 25GB of files online and access them from any PC that's connected to the internet. The service also lets you share the files with friends.
If you're a blogger, this Firefox add-on will help you juice up your posts, enhancing your blog with automatically created links, pictures and more. It works with all the well-known blogging platforms, including Blogger, WordPress and Typepad. It can enhance your blog with Wikipedia, YouTube and Internet Movie Data Base entries, too.
This often-overlooked web-based mail service (registration required) provides pretty much all the features you'd expect from a meatier mail client, including an effective spam filter. You can use more than one email address and mail service, and conduct instant messaging chats within it. You can also access your account from your phone. Not bad when you need do little more than create a username and password.
Working late shows commitment, but that's not to say you want your boss to know you didn't complete that promised report until the early hours. Deferred Sender helps you keep up the appearance of professional cool. Register at the site and you can get it to deliver emails exactly when you want them to be sent. It's also ideal for press releases, marketing emails and other messages you want to arrive no earlier than a specific time.
Gmail and Google tips
If you use Google only to search for phrases, you're doing it wrong. The service is loaded with tricks you can enable from the search box. Check Google's Search Features and Advanced Operators List to see what's new.
Clock watching: If you need to know how late it is in another country, simply type time city.
Example: time Beijing.
Search within a domain: To limit results to a single site, type search term site:domain name. You can even search within site sections.
Example: netbook review site:pcadvisor.co.uk/reviews.
Search for a file type: Searching by specific file type can be useful for tracking down a product manual or video file. Try search term filetype:three-letter type.
Example: Zoom H2 manual filetype:pdf.
Weather reports: Type weather town/city to get a report of the current conditions and forecast.
Example: weather Dover.
Calculate and convert: Google's search box is also a calculator. Type in a calculation or conversion and Google will do the rest.
Examples: 89*22/16 and 1 yard = ? metres.
Gmail is loaded with tricks to help you with your mail. Google's About menu provides details of recent Gmail enhancements. Here's some of our current favourites:
Move quickly with keyboard shortcuts: You can use keyboard commands to speed effortlessly through navigation. Turn it on by clicking Settings and selecting ‘Keyboard shortcuts on', followed by Save Changes. Afterwards, you can press C to compose mail, R to reply and O to open.
Sort out unread messages: Show only unread messages with the search string label:unread label:inbox. For a one-click reference, save the search as a bookmark...
Save searches as bookmarks: You can save Gmail search queries as URLs and therefore as bookmarks. Use Gmail Search Bookmarks to generate a URL, then drag it to the bookmark bar.
Bookmark email: Gmail messages have unique URLs for navigation. That means you can create bookmarks for specific notes. For instance, you can bookmark a message containing an Outlook calendar appointment. Afterwards, you can return to the source message with a single one click.
Become an instant efficiency expert
OpenOffice.orgDon't pay hundreds of dollars for Microsoft Office when you can download this superb, newly revamped productivity suite for free.
Flowgram Create web-based multimedia presentations with this service, then share them with colleagues, clients, relatives and friends.
Gubb This service keeps track of to-dos, projects, phone calls and more. You can use it for your personal life as well.
MyHours.com If you do consulting, project work or other kinds of jobs where you need to monitor your time and costs, you'll find it useful to track the hours you put in using MyHours. Once you've registered, you'll be able to turn your hourly slog log into useful reports and timesheets.
PrimoOnline Create PDFs without Adobe Acrobat or one of its imitators. This service works with 300 document types and websites.
Remember the MilkThis service (for which registration is required) enables you to remember anything. It supports BlackBerry, iPhone, Gmail and Win Mobile.
Google Calendar Sync If you use both Google Calendar and Outlook's calendar and you can't figure out where you need to be when, use this download to synchronise the two calendars and straighten out your schedule.
Zoho Planner Keep track of your appointments and to-do lists - and generally get your life in order - with the help of this free service (again, registration is required).
Boost your browser
This Firefox 3.0 utility hides away until you need to jot down notes or call up those you made earlier. Simply press a hotkey, then type in text or view previous entries. You can synchronise notes among multiple PCs.
Internet Explorer has a very good built-in RSS reader - but you can make it even better. This download lets you read all your feeds in one location and notifies you when your favourites have new content available.
FTP is still a great way to access vast file repositories and to send and receive large files. This Firefox add-on lets you use FTP within the browser.
This Firefox add-on lets provides thumbnail previews of the web pages that appear in Google search results.
This do-it-all add-on for Internet Explorer rivals some of the best Firefox add-ons, and then some. You can manage your tabs better, block Flash ads, automatically scroll web pages, automatically refresh pages, instantly fill in forms... and that's just for starters.
Whenever you encounter a physical address in a web page, drag it to this Firefox add-on and the tool will map it for you - without you leaving the current site.
Found an online video that you want to save to your hard drive? Press a hotkey and this Firefox add-on will download the clip.
This service (registration required) lets you save websites and online content, then share your saved items with others.
This Firefox and iPhone add-on shows what others think of web pages? as you surf.
This is a child-oriented browser. It offers peer-approved videos and games, plus links to entertaining and educational websites.
Another safe way to explore the web: create an account and you'll be able to tag favourite pages, then share them with friends.
Digsby aggregates your entire online social life, wrapping social networking, instant messaging and email into one tight little package.
Keep tabs on friends and family using your web browser or mobile phone. Latitude shows you where everyone is on a Google Map. It supports Windows Mobile handsets, most Symbian phones, colour-screen BlackBerry handsets and will soon include support for the iPhone and iPod touch.
NutshellMail presents a digest of updates and comments for Facebook and Twitter accounts plus other specified email accounts, so you can continue to get stuff done while staying abreast of developments.
Rather than managing profile information, Ping.fm is all about managing your status. A single update automatically posts a status update on Facebook and a tweet to Twitter.
Interested in hunting down a college roommate or long-lost love? People-search engine Pipl scours the hidden web to find every photo, address and blog post that person has ever left online.
Cyberstalking is fun, but who has time to keep up with all the social networks? Spokeo (registration required) searches the farthest corners of 41 sites to uncover the deep, dark secrets of your friends and loved ones. We hope you're proud of yourself.
If you enjoy micro-blogging service Twitter, you've probably outgrown using Twitter's web interface to write and track tweets. TweetDeck puts Twitter on steroids, letting you easily track particular search terms, group your friends, shrink unwieldy URLs and more, all from a centralised window. Twhirl (twhirl.com) has also been updated to compete with TweetDeck's functionality.