Ten tools to make Windows shine

Add a layer of protection against spyware, stop Kaspersky's annoying audio alerts, and hide your files and folders.

Are you worried about malware and spyware plaguing your system? I have a cool, free tool that gives you an extra layer of defense when you're Web surfing. I also have two free utilities that can lock up and hide your sensitive folders and keep them from prying eyes. Plus, for readers who didn't like my earlier tip for disabling the Insert key, I offer a nifty program to watch your Insert, Caps Lock, and Num Lock keys.

Hide and Encrypt Files and Folders

The Hassle: I have files — documents and videos — on both my desktop PC and my notebook that I'd like to keep private. Do you know of a sure way to do it?

The Fix: If you just want to tuck away one or a few folders, use Free Hide Folder. This menu-driven and password-protected tool creates obscurely named, hidden folders to hold your private data. But it isn't secure: Directory Opus, an ordinary file manager, displayed the hidden folder when I tried it. And if someone on your machine searches for a file name in the folder (or even part of the file name, such as *.jpg), they can find the files and their locations. If you want to keep your folders hidden and secured, use TrueCrypt. A free, powerful tool, it creates an encrypted volume that you use as you would any other drive — but only you can access the files. To avoid losing your data, it's essential that you read the tutorial.

More Insert-Key Madness

The Hassle: I use the Insert key often when filling in text over a form in Word, to prevent the rest of the line from moving to the right. My gripe is with Windows: It doesn't indicate whether I'm in insert or overwrite mode. So how about a tweak to show when the Insert key is enabled?

The Fix: Download DK:Keyboard, and you'll see the status of the Insert, Caps Lock, and Num Lock keys in a system-tray balloon pop-up. Unzip the file and drag the executable to the Startup group. If you'd rather keep tabs on your Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock keys, use Vasilios's NumCapsScroll Indicator. Both tools are free.

Ramp Up Against Spyware

The Hassle: I use antivirus and antispyware software, but I still worry about getting nailed by malware. Give me more protection ideas!

The Fix: Even paranoids have enemies, right? Seriously, I agree that fortifying your PC is a good idea. I get an extra edge with Javacool's SpywareBlaster, a freebie that blocks nasty ActiveX controls and stops them from installing on my system. To test SpywareBlaster's skills, I uninstalled it and scrolled to a couple of unsavory sites. CounterSpy, my antispyware app, detected and stopped five Web-based, ActiveX malware attacks. I then reinstalled SpywareBlaster, and it invisibly blocked those same five Web assaults. Very cool!

If you're still worried, use the Try & Decide feature in Acronis TrueImage 11 while browsing. It acts as a virtual machine, writing disk changes to a hidden recovery partition. If anything goes awry, you can restore a pristine prebrowsing version of Windows from the recovery partition. It's slow and it requires a reboot, but it can save your system from disaster. On top of that, TrueImage is a terrific backup program. Read our TrueImage review and download a free trial.

Two Tools of the Month: ImgBurn and Paint.Net

I'll admit to using Nero, the behemoth disc-burning tool that just seems to grow with each release. At the other end of the functionality spectrum is ImgBurn, a lean but still-powerful tool that, well, burns discs — CDs, DVDs, and, if your optical drive supports it, Blu-ray, too. It runs on every Windows platform, as well as Linux. One bloated app I do avoid is Photoshop; its complexity scares me. That's why I love Paint.Net, a free photo and imaging tool that is packed with features — multiple-image support, layering, unlimited undo, and plenty of filters — but isn't so overwhelming that you won't use what it has to offer.

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