The best free system utilities
A PC or Mac is rather like a car. That showroom-fresh saloon doesn't seem so sleek and shiny once road film, suicidal insects and evil supermarket car park users start ruining it, and that speedy new computer soon begins to sag under the stress of unnecessary apps, unwanted add-ons and other irritations. Thank crikey, then, for system utilities and tools: the right ones make your PC or Mac feel brand new, or at least an awful lot faster and a lot less crashy.
There are thousands of system utilities out there, but these are our favourites - although as with any freeware, be very careful when you're installing any of them. Many free apps' installers are awfully keen on giving you extra software, toolbars or changes to your search engine that you might not want - see our guide to avoiding potentially unwanted programs.
Remove unneeded files for a quick and easy speed boost
CCleaner has been around for a long time, and part of the reason for its ongoing popularity is that it cleans the parts of your PC that many other free system utilitites don't.
There are paid-for versions that add real time protection and cleanup scheduling, but the free edition covers the important stuff such as removing temporary files, getting rid of browser caches, removing unwanted cookies while keeping the useful ones and so on.
If your PC feels slow or sluggish then this is the system utility to try first, and thanks to its huge array of features and deep scans, it's our favorite free system speed-up tool.
2. PC Decrapifier
Uninstall the junkware that comes with a new PC
Like CCleaner, PC Decrapifier's job is to remove unnecessary files and programs for your PC. It's particularly useful on brand new PCs, which are often either full of exciting opportunities to discover new apps or stuffed to the gills with a load of preinstalled junk, depending on your point of view.
Free system utility PC Decrapifier analyses your system, shows you the apps it thinks you should get rid of - based not just on its developers' opinions, but on other users' feedback - and then removes the ones you choose. It's so focused on cleaning PCs it doesn't even install itself. One of the tidiest system utilities around.
Stop unnecessary startup processes to speed up boot times
We don't normally quote former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but when he said "There are known knowns. These are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know," he could have been describing the apps you know you're running - the known knowns - and the ones you don't.
The latter category of software runs when you boot Windows, or log in, or launch certain system tools. You can find and get rid of the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns with the superb system utility Autoruns.
An essential system utility for recovering lost or accidentally deleted data
There are lots of data recovery tools out there, but Recuva is our favorite. Not only can it recover files that have been deleted but not overwritten, this free system utility can recover files from removable media such as USB drives and memory cards. It can even get data off damaged discs, although naturally the success rate depends on the kind and extent of the damage.
5. 3DP Chip
A convenient tool to keep your hardware drivers up to date
The near-infinite variety of possible Windows PC configurations is a great thing, but it can also lead to a great big pain in the backside: ensuring that the device drivers, the bits of software that Windows uses to communicate with your various bits of hardware, remain up to date. It's worth doing because driver updates banish bugs, vanquish vulnerabilities and fix flaws, but it's not remotely quick or fun.
Enter 3DP Chip, a free system utility that can do the dirty work for you - and unlike some other driver update programs, it doesn't try to install a whole bunch of nonsense on your PC either.
Find out what's taking up so much space on your hard drive or SSD
You're running out of space but you've no idea why. Does that sound familiar? Then you need free system utility SpaceSniffer, which enables you to see what's taking up space via a format known as a Treemap.
It's a very immediate way to understand where the space hogs are on your system, and the filtering means you can limit the visualisation to certain kinds of files or to exclude certain kinds of files. You can also combine filters to look for space hogs of a particular kind or vintage.
7. Auslogics Duplicate File Finder
Delete redundant files to free up space on your hard drive or SSD
One of the downsides of digital media is that it's very easy to end up with multiple copies of the same thing taking up valuable storage space. That's bad enough on a hard disk, but on the more limited space of an SSD it's even more of a problem - or at least, it is if you don't have Auslogics Duplicate File Finder.
This free system utility scans your PC for duplicate files and enables you to restrict the search to specific file types or sizes, and you can specify whether duplicates should be binned or placed in a holding area for you to check them out. This is a great and genuinely useful app for Windows users of all kinds.
8. Revo Uninstaller Free
Remove all traces of uninstalled programs to avoid junk buildup
If you like trying new apps you'll be horribly familiar with the joys of built-in software uninstallers, which all too often leave bits and pieces everywhere. It's a particular pain when a program comes with additional tools like browser toolbars and unwanted 'helper' apps, which then have to be removed separately.
Revo Uninstaller Free is a free system utility that solves the problem by scanning for the bits the standard uninstaller often leaves behind, and its multiple uninstall option means it's a big time saver too. The free version can't uninstall apps that were on your PC before you installed it, but it does a good job of getting shot of anything added since.
9. Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI)
Keep your software up to date with the latest bug fixes and security patches
Secunia PSI solves one of the biggest headaches for Windows users: keeping software up to date in order to keep your system secure. The free system utility knows about thousands of different programs and can scan your system to identify whether you have the most up to date versions.
And here's the best bit: if you don't, this free system utility can usually download and install the necessary updates and/or patches without any further intervention from you. The combination of PSI and Windows Update should ensure that malware can't exploit any vulnerabilities in unpatched software.
A system cleanup tool to keep Macs running quickly and smoothly
The majority of system tune-up and cleaning apps are for Windows, but Macs get messy too - and on OS X, the evergreen OnyX is often the solution. It can get shot of bulging system logs and clean up files that are no longer needed, it can turn on hidden features in OS X itself and you can use it to schedule dull but useful maintenance tasks.
It has two companion system utilities, both also free: Deeper is purely for personalisation while Maintenance covers - yep - maintenance. For most people OnyX offers the best of both.
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