What with Windows 10 about to be succeeded by Win11, why pay a lot for the apps that help you get the most out of your PC?
Now that Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 will be replaced by Win11, it’s a good moment to look again at some of the applications, tools and software that I (or someone I know) couldn’t do without on a Windows 10 machine.
I’m a cheap geek. I’m willing to pay for software if that’s what I have to do to keep myself from being the product that the software vendor is really selling, but I’m not willing to spend a lot. Every tool in this list is either cheap or free. And they all serve a specific purpose or make my life easier.
1. Meet with anyone with online-meeting software
Zoom has kept most of us informed and connected during the pandemic, and maybe also driven us a bit crazy. The pandemic quickly exposed several of the product’s shortcomings, such as a lack of end-to-end encryption and the ability of uninvited “Zoom bombing” guests to interrupt meetings that were not password-protected, but all that was soon fixed. And Zoom is not the only game in this space; other platforms include Microsoft Teams (which recently also added end-to-end encryption), GoToMeeting, Skype and Cisco Webex. Zoom is, however, the default word we use to describe attending an online meeting. We’re all Zooming now.
Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype and Webex: free, with paid options available
2. Remote access software allows remote fixing
Every now and then, my 92-year-old dad gets stuck on his Windows 10 computer, and as a dutiful daughter, I can either drive over to his house and fix it or remote into it using remote-control software. Once again, the pandemic was behind a lot of people opting for the second choice when faced with similar situations.
But look out for creeping cost escalation with these tools. Over the years, I have used several remote-control programs that started out extremely cheap and slowly got more expensive until they approached the cost of premium software. Periodically re-evaluate your tools and be prepared to move to new ones if you can get them more cheaply.
I currently use Splashtop, which includes remote printing. With the business version of the software, you can enable two-factor authentication, which I’d say is essential when attackers could use your access to remote into another computer and then demand ransom.
Another option is Windows 10’s built-in — and therefore free — Quick Assist tool. The one catch is that you have to have a Microsoft account in order to provide remote assistance.
3. NirSoft tools for password cracking
NirSoft has one of those sites that look a bit sketchy — and your antivirus software might flag it as malicious because its password-cracking software can be misused — but I couldn’t live without the tools it offers. If you’ve ever forgotten a password in a Windows program or website and can’t reset it, its password-exposing tools are a godsend. I call them “password-exposing” because these utilities simply remove the protection that the operating system employs when it saves and stores passwords.
Even if you haven’t forgotten your passwords, using these tools to see what could be found by an attacker on your machine can be an eye-opener. You just might stop saving passwords in your browser and on your computer.
NirSoft Windows password recover tools: There are several, and they’re all free.
4. NirSoft tools for examining BSoDs
That’s the dreaded blue screen of death. When I get a BSoD after updating to the latest feature release, I want to know just what went wrong. NirSoft’s BlueScreenView tool can help. True, its diagnoses can be unclear, but they are definitely more informative than the frowny face that Windows gives you. If you remain in the dark, though, you can often find helpful folks in various forums who are able to diagnose what’s going on with your computer.
5. Be prepared for the worst with backup software
Windows 10 is trying to get us to move away from traditional backup, but I’m still a fan of old-fashioned full backup-and-restoration software. I’ve been using Macrium Reflect. You can choose the free version or a paid version that ensures that your backup can’t be deleted by ransomware. That’s what I’m using, and I also adjust the bootloaders of my workstations so that they allow an easy option to boot into the recovery console.
Macrium Reflect: free, and starting at $75 for a perpetual license for one PC
6. Find your memory hogs with TreeSize Free
When I stumble on a computer that doesn’t have enough space in the C drive, I use TreeSize Free to identify the memory hogs. The Windows-native disk cleanup helps with this sort of thing, but it can miss a lot. TreeSize Free points out where I’ve forgotten to clean up after myself. I often find that I have old and forgotten downloads taking up a lot of space, or cached image files from browsers. Just remember that the WINSXS folder should never be touched!
TreeSize Free: free, as the name says
7. Control patching with WUshowhide
WUshowhide has been my tool of choice to hide unwanted drivers and Windows updates (that’s the “WU” part), but it didn’t survive when Microsoft retired all tools written with SHA-1. Fortunately, a site called Oldergeeks.com kept a copy you can download if you want to hide troublesome updates or block them from installing. By the way, Oldergeeks.com is a great repository of tools that have been vetted (by the self-described older geeks who run it) to ensure that they are malware-free, annoyance-free and generally helpful. I guarantee there is something on this site that you just can’t live without.
8. Keep patches at bay with WUmgr
Over on GitHub, the WUmgr tool also allows you to block specific updates. You can find a great overview of how to use the tool on the AskWoody forums. Both WUshowhide and WUmgr illustrate that there is a clear need for more control over Windows updates, a need that Microsoft has yet to fill.
9. Patch all your programs with Ninite
Keeping a Windows computer and all its applications up to date is a complex task. Ninite helps even enterprises to deploy updates across networks.
Ninite: free for consumers, per-PC pricing for businesses
10. Diagnose what ails a slow computer with Sysinternals Autoruns
The Sysinternals tools are a bit geeky, but it’s worthwhile to climb the learning curve. Sysinternals was once an independent company led by Mark Russinovich, but when he joined Microsoft, the Sysinternals tools were folded into the Microsoft toolkit. Autoruns lets you see what is set to automatically run on startup in your system. That can be handy for diagnosing a bootup slowdown, but also just to review what is going on in your system.
Sysinternals Autoruns: free