An ounce of prevention is worth, what, a working version of your operating system? A few hours of a Windows reinstallation? All of your system's data? When it comes to dealing with issues with your PC, apps that help you prevent problems before they occur are worth their file size in gold.
A clean, efficient, and smoothly running PC only makes your life that much easier as a user: Your data is organized and accessible; your operating system is free of errors and other third-party problems; your system, well, works – and it works nearly as well as it did the first day you installed the OS.
In short, apps that help protect your system from yourself, from the outside world, and from its persistent push toward chaos are critical parts of the PC user experience, period. As it just so happens, we've come up with a list of the 21 best programs that can help prevent (or mitigate) PC performance problems before they make your life miserable.
"But wait," you ask. "Do I really need all 21?" No. Treat this article like a spice rack: Depending on how strong of a mix you think you need for your individual computing setup, you might benefit from all, some, or a scant few of the apps we'll be suggesting.
The Reinstallation Blues
Let's start from the beginning. Something's gone cataclysmically wrong with your Windows operating system and your only choice is to either restore it back to its original settings – potentially wiping your data, your record of program installations, or just generally making your hard drive's contents chaotic – or wiping your drive and reinstalling Windows from scratch. Use Clonezilla to clone your primary hard drive's contents to a separate drive before you undertake this process, and you'll then be able to copy your critical files back once your reinstallation is complete.
If your current Windows issues aren't catastrophic, but you still want to start the time-consuming process of reinstalling the operating system from scratch, be sure to make ample use of the freeware app System Information for Windows.
The beauty of this app lies in its ability to tell you exactly which programs are installed on your system (which can be copy and pasted to make a printable list), as well as which keys you've used for various apps.
Laptop users, take note: If you're worried that a Windows reinstallation might somehow leave you hanging without critical drivers that your laptop needs to function (perhaps your laptop is super-old!), then get some peace-of-mind via Semper Driver Backup. This app does just what its name implies: It copies all of your system's drivers to a single folder for safekeeping, which you can then use to restore your system hardware to a workable state post-Windows reinstallation!
Let's face it: CDs and DVDs are going the way of the dodo. They're extremely prone to annoying scratches that can render them unusable, they're slow to use, they have a good tendency to be misplaced and squashed around the general messiness of your desk – the list goes on. WinToFlash saves the day by transferring the contents of your Windows installation disc to a flash drive, which the program then makes bootable. Provided your motherboard supports flash-based booting, hello speedier Windows installations!
While we're big fans of Ninite – the tool that allows you to customize and automate an installation package for a ton of must-have software apps on a brand-new PC – there's always something to be said for new blood.
So that's why we're also including Allmyapps as a Web tool that you should definitely keep your eye on. These two programs let you quickly and easily mass-install all sorts of apps onto your system, saving you countless hours (and mouse-clicks) in the process!
A Spotlight on Ninite
Since we just recommended that you check out Ninite to mass-install apps on your system, let's take a deeper look at the must-have freeware programs that will help keep your PC running perfectly.
It goes without saying, but Google's ability to sandbox browser activity from the rest of your operating system goes a long way toward keeping certain kinds of malware from turning your desktop into a mess. But there's also Chrome's built-in "Safe Browsing" feature that allows you to avoid Website traps before you even load a single line of code. The list goes on!
Stop us if you've heard this one before. Microsoft Security Essentials is an excellent freeware antivirus application for three major reasons: It's consistent in its ability to detect and eliminate threats, it's a lightweight and often-updated app that offers powerful protection without eating up key system resources, and it's one of the few freeware antivirus apps that delivers real-time scanning for any file that touches your system.
Let's face it; we all sometimes download something we shouldn't (by accident, of course). And when we find our systems infected with an annoying toolbar or pop-up mechanism, the first tool that we should use to eradicate such nonsense from our systems is Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware. Simply put, weekly scans with this app will keep your PC (mostly) problem-free!
Spare your tomatoes: We realize that disk defragmentation isn't for everyone, especially you fancier Maximum PC readers with your SSD storage arrays (or SRT-based storage setups). But if you're looking for a tool that offers a bit more power than the standard Windows 7 disk defragmentation utility, Auslogics' Disk Defrag is your ticket. We especially enjoy its auto-defragmentation mode – scheduled defragmentation can be so easily forgotten!
This one's the big one. We can't count how many times removal utilities for the apps that we download don't always do the best of jobs at deleting files, folders, and the registry entries associated with programs that you just don't want anymore.
The freeware version of Revo Uninstaller scours your system to remove every last trace of an app that you're kicking to the curb. For the PC clean-freak, Revo Uninstaller is a giant bottle of digital bleach.
Fervent File Management
Simple, easy, efficient-we confess, part of the appeal of this freeware backup application is that its makers, Code 42, just seem to get backups. This isn't an app that's going to spend 8 hours copying every single file on partition C: to partition D:. Oh no.
CrashPlan, by default, only cares about the critical files in your Home/User folder. It's an excellent recommendation blended into a no-fuss program for users that just want a simple means of getting important files from one hard drive to another.
Of course, if you want a little more oomph to your backup than a simple "folder goes here" kind of a solution, Syncback brings a little more advanced functionality to bear on your backup practices. And, yes, as the name implies, Syncback can do more than just copy folders, filter files, and schedule backups – it can also automatically match the contents of two folders to one another (the "synchronize" bit). This app is so slick, it almost makes us want to spring for the paid-for version!
Good ol' Belvedere – yes, this app really is like having a virtual butler for your desktop system. It's a simple tool that allows you to reconfigure and resort folder contents based on rules you specify. For example, you can sort all files in a folder matching a particular extension that are more than, say, 7 days old into a new folder called "archive." Or if you're hardcore, you can have this app delete these old files (or any kinds of files you specify) with but one click of a button!
An organized PC is a fast PC – not in benchmarks, perhaps, but "fast" in the sense that you won't have to spend 20 minutes of your life navigating through folders to find the particular file you're looking for.
Advanced Renamer is a super-powerful freeware app that not only helps you rename files in a variety of rules-based ways, but it can also move or copy these files into a new folder hierarchy automatically. Now that's organized!
It's tough to start organizing your files if you don't even know what's taking up so much darn room on your hard drive. Disk Space Fan is the simple, pretty way to see a generic overview of just how your hard drive's space is being eaten up.
But if you want to dig a lot deeper into your drive analysis, then you're going to want to pick up the freeware app SpaceSniffer-what it lacks in looks, it makes up for with filter-driven scans combined with drill-down analyses and printable reporting.
Want to give your system the digital equivalent of a car wash in only two clicks of a mouse button? Ccleaner scours your hard drive for junk – temporary files, Web caches, cookies, the contents of you recycle bin, and other unnecessary crud – before removing it all in one big batch process. All you have to do is select the kinds of files you'd like to get rid of (we recommend: all), let the app assess your drive to see how much space you might save, and pull the virtual trigger. Cleaning house is that easy!
For a bit more oomph to your system cleaning, check out DrivePurge. This freeware app almost offers too many choices for novice users to comprehend. Just how many, you ask? DrivePurge scours your system for more than 750 different kinds of files and, depending on what you've selected for removal, automatically wipes these clutter-causing bits off your system for good. Thankfully, you can have the app ignore certain kinds of files – including system folders and files – if you're afraid that you might be removing too much!
Congrats, new PC owner! If you're lucky, you've purchased your system from a vendor who cares about your well-being and hasn't loaded your copy of Windows with all sorts of junk software, trial versions of apps, time-limited promotions, toolbars, advertising offers, and other such nonsense.
And if you're not so lucky, there's SlimComputer – a freeware app that's designed to quickly and efficiently restore your system to as close to a default Windows installation as is possible.
Depending on the specific hardware manufacturer of your system's devices, the process of installing new, updated drivers for your parts might be seamless and clutter-free. If you're unlucky, however, it could add just add one more batch of files on top of an increasing pile of older drivers that sit on your system, taunting you to banish them into digital nothingness. Driver Sweeper, a freeware app, helps you remove these legacy drivers that you just don't need anymore. Begone!
Happen to notice that Windows is taking forever to boot nowadays? Annoying "load at startup" apps could be the reason for the slowdown, and Soluto is an excellent way to go about determining how these programs play a role in preventing your computer from quickly loading.
And once you've figured out the issues, you can use this program to directly disable apps that you don't really need running the second Windows loads.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Finally, we come to the biggie. If you have the system resources and hard drive space to run another operating system inside of you primary OS, then do so: It's a great way to constrain apps, utilities, and other programs you're just "testing out" to a place that's far easier to maintain, purge, and restore than your primary operating system. And VirtualBox is the freeware virtual machine that makes this advanced computing all possible – like, say, trying out a developer preview of Windows 8!
Twenty-one different apps and we have yet to say anything big about the your system's actual hardware. Sure, keeping your software fresh, uncluttered, and happy is an important, preventative aspect of computing. But equally important is making sure that you have all the warnings you need if your system's internals are about to go supernova.
We've always been fans of HWMonitor for that, as it provides you with an easy-to-decipher look at your CPU and GPU temperatures and fan speeds.
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