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A Whirlwind Tour of Windows and Its Best Utilities

Download.com offers a list of the best utilities and operating system for Windows.

Apps in this Guide

Windows is popular enough that third-party utilities are their own cottage industry; sifting through your options -- and deciding which version of Windows you should be using -- can be daunting.more

Windows is popular enough that third-party utilities are their own cottage industry; sifting through your options -- and deciding which version of Windows you should be using -- can be daunting. Let's clear the fog and give you the lowdown.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I look for in an operating system?
1. Check the expiration date: Windows 10 was released to the public on July 29, 2015, but it hasn't been a seamless transition from earlier versions. Windows 7 remains quite popular, and Microsoft is committed to patching this older OS until January 14, 2020. By that time, however, Windows 7 will be eleven years old, which is practically an ice age in the dog years of technology. How many people do you know who still use Windows Vista? Microsoft stopped patching that one after April 11, 2017. Windows 10, meanwhile, is supported until October 14, 2025. And patches don't just fix bugs. Keeping your system up-to-date has become an important part of your data security and privacy. 2. Support for your favorite activities: While you could argue that Windows 7 was a service pack for Windows Vista, Windows 10 does have some unique distinctions. It has DirectX 12, which can help your games run more smoothly and look nicer. It's also tightly integrated with the Xbox One console. You can log into your Xbox account from within Windows 10 and also stream a game from your console to your PC (handy if someone is using the TV for something else). With most games published by Microsoft on the console, you can also download a free copy that will work in Windows 10. And the "Creators Update" that arrived in April 2017 also beefed up Windows 10's VR capabilities; the Microsoft Edge browser will also get VR headset integration.
What should I be aware of before installing or downloading?
1. Windows may have a built-in tool for this already: For example, programs that offer to clean up your junk files tend to just gather built-in operating system functions into a single interface. This is handy, but be careful when the program is offered at a premium -- especially if that premium comes in the form of a monthly subscription. You can do a lot of junk cleanup in Windows without downloading an extra program, and cleanup utilities are notorious for overstating their capabilities. They may also clean too aggressively; your Web browser cache can take up a lot of space, but deleting its contents doesn't actually save you space, since the cache will fill up again like it's supposed to. Modern desktop browsers also have built-in mechanisms to automatically control the size of the cache, which you can usually customize by going into the settings. 2. The utility may collect user data: When you're trying out a utility for the first time, inspect its EULA (end user license agreement). It's not uncommon for this type of software to be offered for free and then make its money by collecting user activity data and selling it to advertisers. Customarily, the raw data is anonymized and clustered into groups of users so that the advertiser gets no personally identifiable information. But since the user has no control over who the utility maker chooses to sell this data to, or for how long, privacy-conscious downloaders should verify what they're giving up. On the other hand, there's often a setting within the app to disable data collection, so it's not a zero-sum game.

The best utilities and operating system for Windows

Autoruns for Windows

Autoruns for Windows

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This Microsoft tool takes a look at all the software that starts up when you start Windows. Badly behaving startup programs can slow down the startup process and use up system RAM. Some of them don't need to be run at all. Select the "Hide Signed Microsoft Entries" option to isolate the third-party apps, and you can start separating the wheat from the chaff.

Download Windows 10

Download Windows 10

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Windows 7 is certainly less intrusive on your privacy, but it came out back in 2009, which is a long time ago in the tech world. Like it or not, Win 10 -- and its default web browser, Microsoft Edge -- will be the more secure environment going forward. (Though if you're truly concerned about security, Linux might be worth a look.)

Recuva

Recuva

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Recuva, made by the same publisher as CCleaner, can undelete accidentally deleted files, and it's easy to use. A deleted file isn't automatically gone; instead, it's hidden from view, and the space on your storage device that it used to occupy is gradually overwritten by the bits of other files. As long as the deleted file hasn't been overwritten by a new one, you should be able to recover it.

CCleaner with CCEnhancer

CCleaner with CCEnhancer

Although the aforementioned manual system cleaning process is pretty thorough, it also doesn't hurt to run CCleaner to check how well you did. You may also want to try installing CCEnhancer, which adds a bunch more products for CCleaner to check for when scanning your system. Beware that this will make the scanning process take longer.