Buy just about any item of PC hardware and it'll come with a disc packed full of utilities.
And if you're like us then you'll grab the bare minimum from it, probably just the drivers, then file the disc away, never to be looked at again.
That's a shame, though, because many hardware manufacturers produce excellent utilities to identify, monitor, test and optimise PC devices.
There are easy-to-use graphics card overclocking tools, motherboard monitors that keep you updated on voltages and temperatures, disk diagnostic utilities, network monitors, printing tools and more, all costing you nothing more than the time it takes to download them.
Some of these utilities will only work with hardware from the same company, of course, but a surprising number are more generally useful. MSI produce an excellent graphics card overclocker (see below) that's worked on every card we've tried, for instance, both ATI and Nvidia.
You're taking an extra risk if you use a tool in this way - there are no guarantees it'll work, in theory you may even damage your hardware - but we've yet to experience any significant problems.
There really is more to a hardware manufacturer's site than driver downloads and BIOS updates, then. They often have some very useful hardware-related tools, too - and here are ten of the best.
1. EVGA Precision 1.9.10
Are you getting the best from your graphics video? EVGA's Precision is a versatile overclocking utility that will fine-tune your video card for the maximum possible performance. You're able to tweak your core, shader and memory clocks by dragging a slider. It's possible to create up to 10 profiles with different settings, and you can even assign hotkeys to them for instant switching.
In theory, Precision is for EVGA 6, 7, 8, 9 or 200 series graphics cards only. But in practice, we've found it works on other GeForce cards, too: when RivaTuner wouldn't overclock our BFG GeForce 8800GTS, for instance, EVGA Precision stepped in and did the job very well. Just keep in mind that this isn't supported, and there may be a risk that Precision will adversely affect non-EVGA graphics cards.
2. ATTO Disk Benchmark 2.46
ATTA are experts in manufacturing high-end storage connectivity products, like host adapters and storage controllers. So who better to produce an accurate, reliable hard drive benchmark?
ATTO Disk Benchmark is highly configurable. You can try different transfer sizes (512KB - 8MB) and lengths (64KB - 2GB), there's support for overlapped I/O and a variety of queue depths, and a direct I/O option carries out testing with no system caching. Results appear on a graph, or you can save them for reference later.
ATTO Disk Benchmark is also surprisingly compact, at a tiny 237KB, and even better - it's portable. Unzip it to a USB drive and it's ready to use on any nearby PC.
3. D-Link Network Monitor Widget
If you need to keep an eye on your network's activity then D-Link's monitor widgets could be very useful. Web, wireless and wired network send and receive rates are displayed in real time on an attractive, if somewhat bulky interface. And more in-depth details, like IP addresses of networked devices, security settings, port connections and more are just a click away.
You'll need a D-Link DIR router (DIR-625, DIR-628, DIR-655, DIR-825, DIR-855), or the DGL-4500 for the display to work. But the program is available on three widget platforms: Yahoo!, Mac Dashboard and the Windows sidebar.
4. Seagate DiscWizard
Seagate don't just make hard drives - they give away some useful drive management software, too, and DiscWizard has to be one of their better freebies.
The program works well as an image backup tool, for instance, quickly creating an exact copy of the drive you specify. It's able to create a bootable recovery disc, which can then restore the last backup if your hard drive becomes corrupted and Windows won't start.
But you can also mount the image as a temporary drive within Windows, letting you restore just the specific files and folders you need.
But if that's not enough, then you can also use DiscWizard to help add a new drive to your system, or clone your existing partitions to a new drive so you can boot from that instead.
The program works with Seagate and Maxtor hard drives.
5. MSI AfterBurner
MSI AfterBurner is an interesting video card overclocking tool that's based on RivaTuner, but with a flashy interface that's also rather easier to use.
Straightforward sliders give you immediate control over voltages, core, shader and memory clocks, as well as fan speeds. You're able to save your settings in up to 5 different profiles, which can then be called up whenever it's appropriate. And a history window tracks your GPU temperature, GPU usage, clock rates and more.
The program works with both ATI and NVIDIA technology on most MSI graphics cards. We've found it works with cards from many other manufacturers, too, but as ever - be careful if you go experimenting. Mistakes when tweaking voltages, for example, could cause real physical damage to your card.