Free tools are definitely one on my favorite things, and in fact they're one of the best things about the Windows ecosystem: It's so mature and ubiquitous that free tools abound, and they address the majority of the problems and troubleshooting situations you're likely to run into. There are so many free tools that you can't possibly list them all, but here are ten tools that I've recently found to be useful.

10. PC Inspector File Recovery—You'll find many free undelete tools out there, but some have hidden restrictions; sometimes they don't really undelete files unless you buy something or they only undelete certain types of files. Recently I needed to undelete a folder of photos that was accidently deleted, and the Recycle Bin had been emptied. After trying and discarding a number of free tools, I ran across PC File Inspector from CONVAR at www.pcinspector.de/Default.htm?language=1. This utility isn't supported for Windows Vista, but it ran fine for me in Windows 7.

9. SDelete—Sometimes you might want highly secure or sensitive files deleted for good so that they can't be recovered. One great tool for this purpose is Sysinternals SDelete. Instead of merely deleting the file's directory entries, SDelete writes over all of the file's existing data, making it impossible to recover the original file. You can download SDelete from the Windows Sysinternals website at technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb897443.

8. FreeFileSync—Another common task is synchronizing files and folders. This procedure is handy for moving a set of work files to your laptop for travel, but it's also handy for comparing different sets of files and folders on your local system. FreeFileSync can compare files and folders and optimally synchronize them. You can download FreeFileSync from SourceForge at sourceforge.net/projects/freefilesync.

7. ExamDiff—If you want to compare the contents of files, one very capable freeware tool that lets you do so is ExamDiff. ExamDiff provides a graphical interface that immediately shows the differences between two files. You can find ExamDiff on PrestoSoft's website at http://www.prestosoft.com/edp_examdiff.asp.

6. 7-Zip—Although Windows has its own built-in ability to deal with .zip files, that ability is limited. The free open-source 7-Zip tool lets you work with many more file compression formats, including the Linux TAR format. There are 32-bit and 64-bit versions of 7-Zip, and it's completely integrated into Windows Explorer. You can download this tool from the 7-Zip page at www.7-zip.org.

5. Remote Desktop Manager—If you're like me, you use a lot of remote desktop sessions to manage the different servers on your network. This is doubly true when many of your systems are running in virtual machines (VMs). Remote Desktop Manager helps you keep all your RDP sessions together. It also supports both RDP and Virtual Network Computing (VNC) remote connections. Remote Desktop Manager is available from Devolutions at remotedesktopmanager.com/remotedesktopmanager/Home.aspx.

4. WinDirStat—Sometimes it's difficult to tell which files and folders are consuming the most disk space on your system. WinDirStat is a SourceForge tool that graphically displays disk utilization. It shows a typical navigational tree and also shows the size of each directory as well as a graphical representation of the space consumed by each file. You can download this tool from the WinDirStat page at windirstat.info.

3. AutoRuns—Another Sysinternals tool that I often use is AutoRuns, which is a valuable tuning and troubleshooting tool. Like the built-in Windows msconfig tool, AutoRuns shows you what's running when your system starts up. However, AutoRuns takes this analysis to a whole different level, showing all the registry entries, tasks, services, and other boot locations that can be used to automatically run programs at boot up. You can download AutoRuns from Sysinternals at technet.microsoft.com/sysinternals/bb963902.

2. DNSDataView—If you're like me and you can never remember all the commands to run Nslookup, you might want to check out DNSDataView. Like Nslookup, DNSDataView lets you retrieve and view DNS records for a specified domain. However, unlike Nslookup, DNSDataView provides a graphical interface. You can get DNSDataView from NirSoft at www.nirsoft.net/utils/dns_records_viewer.html. The NirSoft site (www.nirsoft) provides many other free system utilities that you might find useful.

1. Lansweeper—One of my favorite utilities for generating an inventory of my networked system is Lansweeper. There are server versions of Lansweeper, but the freeware version is capable of producing a basic inventory of all the systems on your network. You can run reports showing different types of servers and clients on your network. The freeware version is limited to scanning one domain. You can download this tool from the Lansweeper page at www.lansweeper.com.

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