Don’t pay for software you don’t need — Part 2

Woody Leonhard By Woody Leonhard

After the first article of this three-part series appeared, many of you wrote to ask: do I really not need this software?

It’s true: if you’ve moved up to Windows 7, there are all sorts of software that you just don’t need. Stop following outdated advice and get with the system!

In my previous installment, I wrote that Windows 7 owners don’t need to pay for any of these important apps:

Antivirus software: Microsoft Security Essentials is free, and for the average PC user, works just as well as the paid products — sometimes better.

Defraggers: Windows 7 defragments your drives automatically (once a week by default), and you don’t need to lift a finger or spend a sou.

Backup packages: Win7 backup isn’t particularly neat or fancy, but it covers the bases automatically and (almost always) works well. Fred Langa’s May 12 Top Story shows you how to set up and run Win7′s backup.

You may or may not want to shell out shekels for Microsoft Office, but that really depends on the level of document compatibility you need and on your willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of the current OpenOffice/LibreOffice debacle. It’s a complex and costly problem. (A Feb. 16 InfoWorld article covers this in detail.)

This week, I’m going to gore a few more sacred (cash) cows. Specifically, I explain why I think Registry cleaners are worse than useless, why most people don’t need partition software, and why there’s no reason to pay for a firewall. I can hear the howls already. (Those PC users who do need a partition manager should read Lincoln Spector’s story, “Four free hard-drive maintenance tools,” in the paid portion of this newsletter.)

Trust me regarding these applications: their time has come and gone. Save your money. Buy a bigger monitor, faster Internet, a comfy Aeron chair; upgrade to an Android phone or iPad 2 — things that will make an obvious difference to you.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll talk about saving money on Windows and MS Office — it makes absolutely no sense to pay for more than you need — and take some parting shots at expensive cables, obscure Windows services, and a few other items I love to lambaste. Stay tuned.

Some Registry cleaners do more harm than good

I’m going to get a lot of flak over this one, but I’ve never seen a real-world example of a Windows 7 machine that improved in any significant way after running a Registry cleaner. As with defraggers, Registry cleaners may have served a useful purpose for Windows XP, but with Windows 7 I think they’re useless (correction: worse than useless).

Senior Editor Fred Langa and I don’t yet agree on this point: Fred suspects that Registry cleaners may be useful for some Windows 7 owners, some of the time. He’s running a series of experiments right now, and we hope to see the results in a couple of weeks. But in my experience, working with hundreds of Windows 7 machines in all sorts of environments, I’ve never found a single run of a single Registry cleaner that caused anything but grief.

There’s a great quote that (as best I can tell) originated on the DSLReports forum in March 2005. A poster who goes by the handle “jabarnut” states, “The Registry is an enormous database, and all this cleaning really doesn’t amount to much … I’ve said this before, but I liken it to sweeping out one parking space in a parking lot the size of Montana.” And that’s the long and short of it.

Jabarnut is correct: the Registry is a giant database — a particularly simple one. As with all big databases, sooner or later some of the entries get stale; they refer to programs that have been deleted from the system or to settings for obsolete versions of programs. Sure, you can go in and clean up the pointers that lead nowhere, but why bother?

I’m ready to change my tune if Fred can find a Registry cleaner that reduces the size of a typical Registry by, oh, 15 percent to 20 percent (that’s the point where I assume a decrease in size could improve system performance), or if he can find a slick way to speed up a system by 10 percent to 15 percent. Failing that, it’s hard for me to imagine paying any money — or wasting any of my time — cleaning my Registry.

More important, Registry cleaners are notorious for messing up systems by cleaning things that shouldn’t be touched. My favorite example: a free Registry cleaner called EasyCleaner, which we at Windows Secrets Newsletter recommended some years ago. It was an excellent program, possibly best in its class, but it doesn’t appear to have been updated in a long time. If you follow the list of fixes during EasyCleaner’s waning years, you’ll see that the authors went through a litany of mistakes, instances where the cleaner borked programs by deleting required Registry entries.

Reader DBB wrote to me recently, asking why Microsoft had abandoned its Registry cleaners. Windows Live OneCare (a precursor to Microsoft Security Essentials) included a much-ballyhooed online scanner and Registry cleaner, and a Microsoft U.K. page still lists an included Registry cleaner.

DBB notes, “The mystery is that, though Microsoft has not denounced the use of registry cleaners, it no longer provides one — at least for now. Previous to the online scanner, Microsoft provided reg clean and then scan reg.

He’s absolutely right: Microsoft used to offer Registry scanners and cleaners. It doesn’t have separate programs to perform those functions any more.

In my experience, the vast majority of Registry cleaners available now are either scareware come-ons or destructive — or both. Websites invite you to run a free Registry cleaning, they hit you with the rogue-anti-malware shtick, and then they ask for money. One Registry-cleaner site even uses “Microsoft” in its Web address; I have no idea why Microsoft doesn’t take the site down.

DBB blames Microsoft for backpedaling — first it distributed and recommended Registry cleaners, now it’s mum on the subject. DBB asks several interesting questions: Why doesn’t Microsoft just come out and say you don’t need a Registry cleaner? Why doesn’t MS go after the people who claim to sell Microsoft Registry cleaners — when the cleaners don’t come from Microsoft? Most important, why doesn’t MS come out and clearly say that you shouldn’t install or use a Registry cleaner — whether it’s from Microsoft or not?

All good questions.

Win7 does all the disk partitioning you’ll need

I personally hate disk partitioning. I’ve railed against it for years. But rather than get into a technical argument (yes, I know that dual-boot systems with a single hard drive need multiple partitions), I’ll limit myself to extolling the virtues of Windows 7′s partition manager.

No, Windows 7 doesn’t have a full-fledged disk-partition manager. But it does everything with partitions that most people need — and it gets the job done without messing up your hard drive. Which is more than I can say for some third-party disk-partition managers.

Finding Windows 7′s partition manager takes a little digging. Running in an administrator-level account, click Start, Control Panel, System and Security, and Administrative Tools. Next, double-click Computer Management. In the left panel, under Storage, click Disk Management.

If you don’t have enough unallocated space to create a new partition, you have to shrink one or more of the existing partitions. To do that, right-click on the partition you want to shrink and choose Shrink Volume. Figure 1 shows the box in which you set the new size.

Shrinking a Win7 partition
Figure 1. Shrinking a partition is easy in Windows 7 — no extra software required.

Type the amount of space you want to shave off the partition, and click OK.

You create a new partition by right-clicking the unallocated space and choosing New Simple Volume; a wizard pops up that steps you through set-up and formatting.

If your hard drive is very nearly full, third-party partition software may make it a touch easier to repartition a hard drive because some third-party tools allow you to keep and move files while changing partitions — something Win7′s native utility doesn’t allow. For most PC users, that isn’t much of a reason to spend money on a partition package.

Windows 7′s firewall works only one way

Like its predecessors, Windows 7′s firewall only keeps outside threats from getting in — it’s an inbound firewall. Outbound firewalls alert you when an unauthorized program attempts to send data out of your computer. At least that’s the theory. In practice, many outbound firewalls bother you mercilessly with inscrutable warnings saying that obscure processes are trying to send out data.

If you simply click through and let the program phone home, you’re defeating the purpose of the outbound firewall. On the other hand, if you take the time to track down every single outbound event warning, you might spend half your life chasing firewall snipes.

Some people think an inbound-only firewall is woefully inadequate. I think it’s good enough for almost everybody. Fred wrote about outbound firewalls in his March 17 LangaList Plus column. He, too, feels that an outbound firewall is usually overkill. But if you really want one, he recommends Sphinx Software’s Windows Firewall Control (info), a product that helps you tweak the Windows firewall so it works outbound. You can download a limited-capability free version or the more powerful Plus edition (U.S. $30).

I have a few friends who insist on running an outbound firewall. They uniformly recommend Comodo Firewall, which is also available in a free-for-personal-use version.

I think it’s all a complete waste of time. Although I’m sure some people have been alerted to Windows 7 infections when their outbound firewall goes bananas, 99.99 percent of the time the outbound warnings are just noise. Outbound firewalls don’t catch the cleverest malware, anyway.

So that’s Round 2 in the list of software that Windows 7 users don’t need to buy, don’t even need to bother with. It’s surprising how much old advice isn’t valid any more, eh?

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2011-05-19:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.