When you've just bought or built a new PC, its speed feels incredible. Your favorite apps and games run faster and more smoothly than ever, and it starts up in the blink of an eye. Eventually, though, that feeling fades as 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 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 speed boost, plus improved security
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. Thanks to its huge array of features and deep scans, CCleaner is the best free system utility for Windows.
Review and where to download: Piriform CCleaner
Stop unnecessary startup processes to speed up your PC's 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. It gives you far more granular detail and control than CCleaner's startup manager.
Autoruns is also extremely useful if a program refuses to uninstall because it's running.
Download here: Autoruns
An essential utility for recovering lost or deleted data from any storage media
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.
The paid-for Pro version adds support for virtual hard disks and offers technical support too, but the free one is worth sticking on a thumb drive as part of your emergency toolkit.
Review and where to download: Recuva
Find and delete redundant files to free up valuable space on your drives
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.
When installing Duplicate File Finder, choose 'Custom install' to make sure you don't accidentally download any extra programs you don't want, and decline any offers to change your homepage unless that's really what you want.
Download here: Auslogics Duplicate File Finder
Remove all traces of programs to avoid junk buildup from orphaned files
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.
Review and where to download: Revo Uninstaller Free