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: Recuva

Download: Recuva

Purpose: File undelete

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

Cost: Free

File undelete has been a mainstay of the PC utility market since the days of DOS. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a tool that performs file undelete better than Recuva (pronounced "recover"). It's fast, thorough, and free.

When you throw out the Windows Recycle Bin trash, the files aren't destroyed; rather, the space they occupy is earmarked for new data. Undelete routines scan the flotsam and jetsam, then put the pieces back together. As long as you haven't added new data to a drive, undelete (almost) always works; even if you've added data, there's a good chance you can get most of the deleted stuff back.

Recuva's repertoire goes beyond Windows. Use it to undelete data on a USB drive (see screenshot below), a camera's memory card, or even an MP3 player. It's certainly the most important PC utility a camera owner can have.

Warning: The installer offers to install the Yahoo toolbar. Oy.

Top free tools for Windows: 7Zip

Download: 7Zip

Purpose: Multitalented (un)zipper

Platforms: Windows 7, Vista, XP; Windows Server 2008, 2003; available in 64-bit

Cost: Free

Another venerable Windows utility, 7Zip still rates as a must-have, even though Windows supports the ZIP format natively.

Why? Because some people of the Apple persuasion will send you RAR files from time to time, and 7Zip is the fast, easy, completely free way to handle them.

7Zip also creates self-extracting EXE files, which can come in handy (although heaven help you if you ever try to email one -- most email scanners won't let an EXE file through), and it supports AES-256 bit encryption. The interface rates as clunky by modern standards (see screenshot below), but it gets the job done with ZIP, RAR, CAB, ARJ, TAR, 7z, and many lesser-known formats. It even lets you extract files from ISO CD images.

A poster boy for the open source community, 7Zip goes in easily, never nags, and wouldn't dream of dropping an unwanted toolbar on your system. Call it enlightened.

Top free tools for Windows: Wiseval Photophant

Download: Wiseval Photophant

Purpose: Image resizer/converter

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

Cost: Free

While there are many photo resizers floating around, there's one I come back to again and again. Wiseval Photophant handles batch resizing, format conversions, watermarking, and renaming with just a couple of clicks.

If you want to resize or rename one photo at a time, you have many options; for example, the free version of VSO Image Resizer works well. But if you want to change a bunch of picture files, Photophant's the way to go.

You can choose from one of the predefined sizes (800 by 600, 1,024 by 768, and many more) or set up your own custom size; convert between JPG, PNG, BMP, GIF, and TIFF formats with compression techniques that you specify; rename as a group ("Four Generations_" turns into "Four Generations_1", "Four Generations_2," and so on); and add a watermark in the location and with the opacity that suits you.

The altered pictures go into a different folder from the original, so nothing gets munged. It's fast, high quality, and amazingly easy to use.

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