The best free hex editor

If you have ever accidentally opened an .exe program file in a text editor such as Notepad you will have been confronted with a mass of unintelligible garbage on your screen. Worse still if you wrote the .exe file back to disk the program file would almost certainly be corrupted and would not work. That’s because text editors are designed only to work with text files such as .txt, .bat, .prg and .html. To view and safely change binary files such as .exe, .com and .dll files you need a hex editor, sometimes called a binary editor. Whatever, most average PC users have no need for such a program but techies and gamers find them indispensable.
There are some excellent free hex editors available that range from the small and simple to some advanced products that are the equal of any commercial product. In total I looked at seven products: HexEdit [1], Cygnus Free [2], Hxd [3], Hexplorer [4] HHD Free [5], FrHed [6] and XVI32 [7]. Hex editors (like programming editors) are a software category where personal needs and preferences are so important that it is meaningless to pick a "best" product. Instead I encourage all potential users to test several or all of the products and choose what suits them best. That of course doesn’t stop me stating what I like. For my needs, Hxd is a clear winner. Its first virtue is that it doesn’t need installing. Second, it has a great interface. Third, it handles huge files without slowing down. Then add in unlimited undo, great searching and search/replace capabilities, full support for ANSI, DOS/IBM-ASCII and EBCDIC character plus a dozen other features and you can see why I like it. But it doesn’t stop there. Hxd also works as a RAW disk editor and a full read/write RAM editor. It’s three utilities rolled into one.
This power makes it a dangerous tool in the hands of beginners. It may also give your security software apoplexy, but users skilled enough to use this product will understand this not a concern. Is it perfect? Of course not. To start, it lacks binary file comparison capability and the ability to extract text strings and a built in disassembler would also be nice. There are also a few bugs. However what it does offer is so impressive that it’s hard to believe this fine product is free.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2007-04-12: