10 Free, Must-Have Windows Tools for IT Pros
They say you can tell a lot about a person by the tools they bring to the job. If you're a professional plumber or a carpenter, people will expect you to carry the right tools for the task at hand. The same holds true for IT pros. Those in the know will judge you by the depth and sophistication of the technical toolkit you bring to a support call.
[Save time with the slide show tour of this article: "10 Terrific (and Free!) Windows Tools for IT Pros." ]
To help you make a good first impression and to cement your reputation as a seasoned troubleshooting guru, I offer the following list of my top 10 must-have Windows utilities for PC support professionals. Some you probably already know. Others you may have heard of only in passing. But all deserve your consideration for a place in your PC support and diagnostics toolkit.
When Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell embarked on their quest to fill what they perceived to be glaring holes in Windows' management and diagnostic capabilities, they couldn't possibly have known the impact their suite of tools and utilities would have on the greater Windows IT community. Yet here we are, a short decade later, and it's hard to imagine a world without Process Monitor, Autoruns, RootkitRevealer, and the rest of the Sysinternals Suite.
A lot has changed since those early days. Russinovich was eventually courted by Microsoft and now serves as a technical fellow overseeing the evolution of the Windows architecture (much to the benefit of users everywhere). Meanwhile, the Sysinternals Suite has been transformed from unofficial -- yet highly prized and admired -- collection of backdoor hacks into a must-have ensemble of fully sanctioned tools offered under the Microsoft TechNet banner.
There's not much else to say about Sysinternals except that, like all of the tools I've highlighted here, it's absolutely free. And no Windows professional should be without it. For shame!
What kind of CPU is in the PC you're using? Does it support hardware virtualization so that it can run Virtual Windows XP Mode under Windows 7? How old is the BIOS? Are all of its core hardware components running within normal voltage parameters? Are any components overheating or otherwise misbehaving?
If you can't answer these questions off the top of your head, you need a copy of HWiNFO32. A free, comprehensive hardware diagnostics and inventory tool, HWiNFO32 can tell you everything you need to know about the PC you're trying to support. CPU and chip set type/revision/stepping levels; runtime capabilities (VT, SSE, etc.); disk drive S.M.A.R.T. support/health; and myriad other details -- all are revealed when you run HWiNFO32.
To be sure, there are other hardware identification utilities. CPU-z, Everest, and SiSoftware Sandra all come to mind. However, none of them can match HWiNFO32's breadth of reporting and rock-bottom pricing (it's freeware). Next time you're in the field and need to know what's inside that flaky PC, don't just guess at the specs. Run HWINFO32 and know exactly what you're dealing with before you ever crack that case.
3. Crap Cleaner
Windows is an untidy beast. From orphaned registry entries to long-abandoned temporary files and folders, the process of running Windows makes a mess out of your PC's file system and software configuration parameters. In fact, Windows' tendency toward sloth has spawned an entire industry of tools designed specifically for cleaning up the detritus of daily life in a Microsoft world. And by far the best of the best is the appropriately named Crap Cleaner, aka CCleaner.
A combination registry and file system cleanup tool, Crap Cleaner makes quick work of those insidious configuration inconsistencies and accumulated temporary files and folders that can bog down system performance. It includes a variety of program-specific cleaning functions for common applications and directly supports cache maintenance functions for all major Web browsers. And for the truly paranoid among us, Crap Cleaner even offers a secure erase function to ensure that those deleted temporary files are gone for good.
Another must-have freebie, Crap Cleaner can breathe new life into what may have seemed like a terminally ill Windows patient. Before you reach for the Windows installation media to conduct a clean install, give Crap Cleaner a try.
It's the support call we all dread most. That guy in accounting, the one who always misplaces his data files, has accidentally deleted another critical workbook. Now he's on the phone, screaming for help and expecting you to save the day.
Fortunately, there's a red cape and tights lurking in your toolkit. With Recuva, you can recover deleted files from almost any Windows-compatible storage media, including removable disks and thumb drives. It works by scanning the disk for orphaned file data and giving you the option of recovering what it finds.
Recuva can operate in "quick" mode, where it checks for deleted files in the higher-level disk structures, or in deep "scan" mode where it searches your media block by block. If you later decide that the file in question was really better off dead, Recuva can perform a secure delete operation to make sure that nobody else can recover the data anytime soon.
You'll want to keep a copy of Recuva handy for the inevitable panicked phone call from your accidental deleter. As with the other tools here, Recuva is completely free. There's even a portable version that you can run off of a thumb drive, so there's really no excuse to be caught unprepared when the inevitable occurs.
Spend any time supporting Windows PCs and you'll find yourself becoming an expert at FTP. That's because the File Transfer Protocol is the de facto way of distributing device driver updates and patches to Windows customers. And depending on the prevalence of specific makes and models, you'll likely begin to learn the directory structure of your primary vendor's FTP site like the back of your hand.
Fortunately, Windows users have access to one of the more powerful FTP clients available: FileZilla. Now in its third major generation, this capable if somewhat homely application makes transferring large quantities of files a snap. A capable queue management system helps keep the uploads and downloads humming along while a nearly endless selection of configuration options and protocol tweaks ensures that, whatever the situation, FileZilla will come through every time.
Microsoft loves the ISO image format. From trialware versions of its OS products to its latest Patch Tuesday security fix collections, Microsoft distributes more software in the ISO format than any other vendor. So it comes as somewhat of a shock to learn that, as of Windows 7, the company still hasn't integrated a basic ISO image mounting/drive-emulation capability into its core OS. Basically, if you want to use an ISO under Windows, you need to first burn it to a physical CD or DVD.
Fortunately, a variety of free third-party solutions fill this void. My personal favorite is Virtual CloneDrive, from Elaborate Bytes. Simple to use and highly compatible with all versions of Windows, VCD makes it easy to mount and access an ISO image. Just right-click the VCD tray icon, select Mount from the context menu, and point the ensuing file open dialog to the desired ISO file. The image then appears as a virtual CD-ROM drive in Explorer, allowing you to access its contents like a real disk.
Note: I used to be a Daemon Tools fan. However, recent versions have proven unstable under Windows 7 (I've traced several Blue Screens of Death to Daemon Tools' kernel mode components), and the developer's lackadaisical attitude toward supporting new Windows versions has turned me off from this once class-leading utility.
If you regularly need to mount and access ISO images, make sure you take along a copy of Virtual CloneDrive. It's easy to use, installs in seconds (no reboot required), and provides the capability that Windows should be providing but doesn't.
It's a trend that many IT pros find disturbing: With each new release of Windows, the amount of control over and feedback from the built-in disk defragmentation utility has decreased to the point that now, with Windows 7, the process is almost entirely opaque. And while third-party defraggers have been available for Windows since the early NT days (Diskeeper qualifies as a national historical monument), they can be both costly and complex.
Enter Defraggler. Another freebie from the folks who brought you Crap Cleaner and Recuva, Defraggler is a Windows disk defragmentation utility that provides tremendous control over the entire defragmentation process. With Defraggler, you can defragment individual files, folders, or an entire disk. Need to speed up access to that massive database file? Defraggle it. Want to improve performance for newly created files? Defraggle your disk's free space.
With Defraggler, you can even specify where specific files get stored on the disk, moving larger files that are accessed infrequently to the "end" of the disk media and smaller, frequently accessed files to the "front." A scheduled, background execution option and portable version (so you can take it with you when you're in the field) round out a surprisingly rich feature set for a free tool.
Mounting ISO images is a great time saver. You get to save money on physical discs, and you don't have to wait while they're being prepared in your CD/DVD-write. But sometimes you just need to burn a physical CD/DVD -- for example, when installing a new version of Windows or distributing a custom disc image. And while there are myriad commercial solutions to allow you to author your own media masterpiece, most are overkill when it comes to basic disc burning tasks.
Thankfully, there's ImgBurn. The gold standard for freeware image burning tools, ImgBurn lets you transfer virtually any kind of ISO image to virtually any kind of writeable optical media. ImgBurn's simple, straightforward interface makes quick work of most common burning tasks, while its more advanced modes let you handcraft your own disc image, including defining the disk format, directory structure, and numerous other custom parameters.
There are other free utilities out there for burning discs (Alcohol 52% comes to mind). But none of them provide the level of flexibility or control over the burning process that ImgBurn does. Definitely a must-have addition to your IT support toolkit.
Zip archives are a fact of life. Whether you're downloading an installation program from the Web or merely passing that bulky PowerPoint deck to your colleague in marketing, compressing files saves you time, space, and network bandwidth. Though Windows has included basic zip file support for years, its capabilities have proven anemic at best.
7-Zip is an open source archiving utility that improves upon Windows' basic capabilities, adding support for additional formats -- including its own, high-ratio compression algorithm -- while remaining lean, mean, and true to its original purpose.
Unlike more elaborate utilities, like the shareware WinRAR archiver, 7-Zip doesn't pretend to be all things to all people. You won't find ISO extraction or other esoteric functionality in 7-Zip -- just a basic archiving functionality that is secure, reliable, and fast. If you're looking for a beefier alternative to Windows' built-in zip capability, but don't want the hassle of dealing with the overly complex, "nagware" behavior of the well-known commercial offerings, check out 7-Zip.
Troubleshooting a complex OS like Windows can be a challenge. Sometimes the only way to effectively diagnose a problem is to reproduce the entire runtime environment. And the only real way to do that, short of building a new physical PC, is through virtualization.
In the IT support and help desk space, VMware Workstation has long ruled supreme. However, the combination of high per-seat costs and an increasingly complex feature set is causing many IT pros to gravitate to the simpler, yet deceptively powerful VirtualBox from Sun Microsystems. Even better, an open source version of VirtualBox is available free under the GPL; compared to the commercial version, it's lacking only USB support and an RDP server that lets you connect to guests remotely.
Though not as full-featured as VMware Workstation -- for example, there's no equivalent to Workstation's Easy Install feature for Windows guests -- VirtualBox installs quickly, requires very little study, and includes all the essentials. It supports Windows, Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X hosts and guests (including 64-bit editions), Intel VT and AMD-V hardware virtualization extensions, OpenGL and DirectX 3D graphics acceleration, VMware and Microsoft virtual hard disk formats, and of course, stateful VM snapshots.
So while VirtualBox may seem less sophisticated than VMware Workstation on the surface, the truth is that VirtualBox 3.8 delivers tremendous virtualization power. And like all of the other utilities here, it's available absolutely free.