There's a tool for just about anything you can think of in Windows. And if you look hard enough, you'll find a freebie is more than capable of doing the job you want – in some cases, free tools outclass their shareware or commercial rivals.
The trick is knowing what's out there and where to find it, which is where we come in. We've done the hard work for you, trawling the web for hundreds of free Windows tools and selecting the finest 100 to include in this feature.
You'll find programs to help you fix problems, speed up the way you use Windows, and unlock cool and exciting features you never knew existed. You'll save money in many ways too.
We're not going to pretend you need to download all 100 of these tools and install or run them all simultaneously; that's a recipe for disaster. Here's one tip, however: if you're in the mood to experiment with a selection, install Comodo Time Machine first, so you can undo any changes you make to your PC if you discover a program isn't to your tastes or doesn't meet your needs.
We'd also recommend backing up your computer before you begin – as you'd expect, we've highlighted a number of free backup tools in the System health section to help you here too.
One thing we will guarantee you: there will be at least one tool in this collection that – if you haven't already discovered it – will become indispensable. We predict you'll find at least ten tools to revolutionise the way you use your PC.
Now that's got to be worth an hour or two of your time…
System health tools
Monitor the status of your hard drive, CPU, memory and software
Your hard drive is arguably the most important component in your PC, seeing as all your precious data and settings (never mind Windows and programs) are stored on it. Knowing when a hard drive is about to physically fail could save you heartache, as well as hundreds of pounds in expensive data recovery fees.
CrystalDiskMonitor enables you to keep an eye on your hard drives' health in the background, providing you with a health rating based on its SMART status, as well as information about each drive's temperature.
If a drive is running too hot – over 50-55 degrees Celsius in a desktop or over 60 degrees in a laptop – you'll need to invest in cooling measures to reduce its stress and lengthen its life.
What gives CrystalDiskMonitor the edge over similar products is the fact it can also monitor external USB and FireWire drives, so your essential backup device is also covered.
This handy – and portable – utility can fix common Windows problems in a single click. Over 50 issues – such as a missing Recycle Bin – are covered, and although it's designed for Windows 7, many fixes work in Vista and XP too.
Create, resize, move and recover partitions without data loss, thanks to the free Home Edition of this powerful partition manager. We've picked it over other similar offerings as it also works in 64-bit versions of Windows.
Microsoft FixIt Center
This centralised tool gives access to all of Microsoft Support Center's automated fixes in a single tool. Select your problem to download and apply the fix.
A customised boot Linux disc that gives you access to your hard drive and PC, even when Windows won't boot. Burn the CD using ISO Recorder.
Windows Memory Diagnostic
A downloadable boot disc (burn with ISO Recorder) to test for memory errors. If you have a Windows 7 or Vista install disc it's under "Repair your computer".
This useful system information utility lists your PC's hardware spec, installed software, product keys and Microsoft updates, on a web page to save or print.
This is a detailed hardware system information and diagnostics tool – frequently updated to work with the latest chipsets, motherboards, and processors.
Another system information tool, CPU-Z focuses on core components (with CPU, memory and graphics). Again, you can save reports to give to others or print.
GFI Backup Home Edition
Currently the best free files and settings backup tool, this is essential if you use XP or if you want more control over your Vista or Windows 7 backup.
This backs up your Registry each time Windows starts. It's invaluable if you use XP, as you can easily fix a corrupt Registry from the Recovery Console.
Easily back up, restore, and find updates for your drivers with this free tool. It also identifies unknown hardware devices – a free subscription is required.
This will set Windows to shut down, restart, log off, hibernate, or lock at a certain time or after an interval. Great for file servers and non-attended PCs.
This stores all Microsoft updates and certain system components offline, enabling you to quickly bring your PC back up to date after reinstalling Windows.
You can monitor the temperature of your PC and – if supported – adjust fan speeds, to give better cooling or less noise directly from within Windows itself.
Comodo Time Machine
A life without System Restore is unthinkable, and Comodo Time Machine offers something even better – instead of only monitoring certain changes on your system, it monitors every file and setting, enabling you to roll back your PC to a working state quickly, easily and with complete confidence!
Step 1. Take snapshots
Like System Restore, Comodo Time Machine can take both automatic snapshots and manual ones; take one before installing a new program, for example.
Step 2. Reverse changes
Select Restore System to roll your PC back to a previous state. Remember though, all changes (such as data stored on monitored drives) will be rolled back.
Step 3. Individual files
You can also restore lost, deleted or changed files and folders: choose Recover Files and enter all or part of the filename you want to restore.
Frustrated by Windows' inability to retain your open programs and documents after a restart? CacheMyWork solves this, so you can restart after updates without having to start from scratch.
Quite simply, this is the simplest and most effective free tool for connecting remotely to another PC, whether that's your home machine from work, or a friend's PC that's been playing up. You can even use it from your iPhone.
This handy tool gives access to key Registry tweaks for a more user-friendly experience, by describing what tweaks do rather than listing Registry keys and values. It's a good substitute for the Group Policy Editor.
CS Fire Monitor
This freebie has a whopping 11 monitors, to keep a beady eye on everything from hardware to software and the internet. Once set up it monitors in real-time, with a graphic display in the guise of a line graph and it also stores the results in a database to output as reports.
Its monitoring tools include NetStats, which doesn't just track your network and internet activity, but also identifies which programs are hogging your bandwidth. It can track processes, services and installed software too.
The program also has a built-in screensaver, which feeds data from the program into a series of graphs that display when the screensaver kicks in.
Do you want the security of an online backup program, but can't afford the monthly cost? Buddy Backup enables you, and like-minded individuals, to back up to each others' PCs over the internet for free. The new version now also backs up to external devices such as a hard drive, for when your buddies aren't online.
Partition Find and Mount
If you lose access to non-Windows partitions, this recovery tool fi nds them. It can mount the partition and transfer the data off it to a more reliable source.
Zero Assumption Recovery
This commercial program gives one component for free in its trial version: the ability to recover lost and deleted image files from a camera's memory card.
Data recovery from damaged CDs can be tricky, but ISOBuster is one of the best tools. Some functions are free but others require registration (US$29.95).
Unknown Device Identifier
This useful freebie helps you identify hardware that shows up as "unknown" when detected by Windows. Once identified, you can source the correct drivers.
Data recovery used to be an expensive business, but Recuva is the best in the growing number of data recovery tools that don't cost a bean. It enables you to recover your deleted and lost files with the help of a user-friendly wizard.
Windows Registry Recovery
This handy free tool enables you to recover the Registry settings from files stored inside a drive image (such as that taken by Macrium Reflect Free). It's perfect if you've forgotten to export a key setting prior to reinstalling Windows on your PC.
Vista and Windows 7 use a different bootloader to XP. Therefore if you have two or more Operating Systems – including Linux – installed on your hard drive using this alternative bootloader, you'll need this to manage them all.