Top 15 free tools for every Windows desktop

15 free (or nearly free) Windows utilities for a fast, productive desktop environment

Top free tools for Windows: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder

Download: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder

Purpose: Find and eliminate duplicated files

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003

Cost: Free

If you're a card-carrying member of the Ready, Shoot, Aim school of hard disk maintenance, pass this one by. But if you're willing to look and carefully consider the information presented, Auslogics' free Duplicate File Finder can help you reclaim enormous amounts of disk space.

The trick with any duplicate file cleaner lies in judicious use of the gray matter between your ears. That said, Auslogics' easy-to-use interface makes it relatively simple to find and select the files you want to delete, then stick the selected files in the Recycle Bin, where you can bring them back if need be.

As a general rule, you're safest restricting the duplicate search to locations with data files: documents, music, pictures, and the like. If you venture into locations with system files, be especially cautious before hitting the Delete button.

Top free tools for Windows: Revo Uninstaller Freeware

Download: Revo Uninstaller Freeware

Purpose: Uninstalls programs

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP

Cost: Free; additional features in Pro version, $39.25, or $19.62 each for four or more computers

Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls programs, and it does so in an unexpected way. When you use Revo, it runs the program's uninstaller and watches while the uninstaller works, looking for the location of program files and for Registry keys that the uninstaller zaps. It then goes in and removes leftover pieces, based on the locations and keys that the program's uninstaller took out. Revo also consults its own internal database for commonly-left-behind bits and roots those out as well.

Revo gives you a great deal of flexibility in deciding just how much you want to clean and what you want to save. For most programs, the recommended Moderate setting strikes a good balance between defenestrating problematic pieces and deleting items that really shouldn't be deleted.

The not-free Pro version monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. Pro will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.

Top free tools for Windows: Paint.Net

Download: Paint.Net

Purpose: Image editor

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP (requires .Net Framework 3.5 SP1 or later)

Cost: Free

With dozens of good -- even great -- free image editors around, it's hard to pick one above the others. IrfanView, for example, has tremendous viewing, organizing, and resizing capabilities. GIMP ships with powerful tools and an enormous array of add-ins. FastStone Image Viewer lets you edit full-screen and has a screen capture capability. That doesn't even brush the surface of the Picasa vs. Windows Live Photo Gallery maelstrom -- a religious debate worthy of several volumes.

For powerful, easy-to-use photo editing, with layers, plug-ins, and all sorts of special effects, along with a compact and easily understood interface, I'll stick with Paint.Net. Although it requires Windows' bloated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a nonprofessional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.

Top free tools for Windows: Autoruns

Download: Autoruns

Purpose: Controls autostarting programs

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003

Cost: Free

Programs that run automatically when Windows starts bedevil every Windows consumer, from rank beginner to grizzled veteran. There's one industrial-strength autostart listing tool that knows all, sees all, and lets you do something about it.

If you've never used Autoruns, you're in for somewhat of a shock. Autostarting programs lurk in the most obscure corners of Windows. The Everything tab (shown in the screenshot below) lists every program that starts automatically, in the order in which it is run. Click on the program to see details. Right-click on a program and choose Search Online to look up the program on the Web, using your default browser and search engine.

You can filter out the Microsoft programs and have Autoruns just show you the third-party interlopers: Click Options, Hide Microsoft and Windows Entries. Then click the Refresh icon. You see all the self-running stuff deposited on your machine.

Top free tools for Windows: LastPass

Download: LastPass

Purpose: Store and retrieve passwords online

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux

Cost: Free for Windows, Mac, Linux; $1 per month for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian

It sounds crazy, right? Store all of your passwords on a website. Meshuggeneh.

I'd been using AI Roboform to manage my passwords for years, until I bumped into this all-in-the-cloud password manager. Like Roboform, LastPass keeps track of your user IDs, passwords, and other settings, and it offers them to you with just a click. But there's a big difference: Roboform stores your passwords on your PC, while LastPass encrypts them, then stores them in the cloud.

LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password that you have to provide -- and remember. The data that gets stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key (which only you know) the stored passwords can't be broken, unless you know somebody who can crack AES-256 encryption.

LastPass works as a browser add-on for IE, Firefox, or Chrome, so all of your passwords are stored in one place, accessible to any PC you happen to be using, as long as you have the master password.

Top free tools for Windows: VLC Media Player

Download: VLC Media Player

Purpose: Media player, including video

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Mac, Linux

Cost: Free

Another poster child for open source software, VLC Media Player plays just about anything -- including YouTube Flash FLV files -- with no additional software, no downloads, and no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos.

Unlike other media players (notably the versatile but complex KM Player), VLC sports simple, Spartan controls, built-in codecs for almost every file type imaginable, and a large and vocal online support community. VLC plays Internet streaming media with a click, records played media, converts between file types, and even supports individual frame screenshots.

VLC is well-known for tolerating incomplete or damaged media files. It will even start to play downloaded media before the download's finished.

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