Don’t pay for software you don’t need — Part 3

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

In the first two installments of this series, I stepped you through a boatload of software that you don’t need if you have Windows 7.

Many of you wrote to me in disbelief — some of you disagreed in very strong terms. But from what I’ve seen, most of the add-on software that people buy for Windows is just a waste of money.

Those two articles also generated one of the largest and most interesting online discussions in recent history on the Windows Secrets Lounge. Some of you have problems with specific Windows 7 features — most prominently, backup features — and I can sympathize with that. There are problems with Win7.

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Frustrating troubles crop up with any software. I doubt that anyone would argue that a specific third-party backup program, for example, works flawlessly on every system. Windows is in the same boat. It ain’t infallible.

One reader accused me of “stirring the pot,” and I salute him! That’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s time for us Windows 7 users to stop taking advice based on the workings of ancient software (measured in Internet time) or on rumors reverberating over the years in the Windows echo chamber. You should demand proof that the product you plan to buy works — works in a situation just like yours — before you shell out any hard-earned bucks, bolivars, or baht.

It isn’t just about money. Hundreds of thousands of people could avoid infections by rogue antivirus programs if they were skeptical (or at least cautious) about some program that “for a mere U.S. $49.95″ promises to clear off the remaining 137 pieces of malware on PCs, cure psoriasis, and bring on world peace.

Here’s a recap of what you don’t need to buy

In Part 1 of this series, I showed you that Windows 7 owners don’t need to pay for the following:

Antivirus software — Microsoft Security Essentials is free, fast, thorough, nearly invisible, and works just as well as the expensive and bloated alternative brands. MSE was updated on June 29 to version 2.1, so if you haven’t upgraded it yet, run over there and get the latest.

Defraggers — Windows 7 defragments your drives automatically once a week, and you don’t need to lift a finger. In the article, I give instructions for making sure your Scheduler is doing its job. (We have a story coming down the line about tweaking the Scheduler, if yours isn’t working right.)

Backup packages — Win7 backup doesn’t function correctly on every machine, but when it does work, it works very well. Fred Langa’s May 12 Top Story shows you how to set up and run Win7’s backup.

There’s also an update on the Office suite front. If you were waiting for the outrageous OpenOffice/LibreOffice debacle to settle down (details in the article), I’m happy to report that Oracle has promised (as reported in an InfoWorld story) to give the code to the Apache Software Foundation. That isn’t the same as merging OpenOffice.org back with LibreOffice, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. For now, the situation remains murky — so I’m still not ready to recommend OpenOffice or LibreOffice. In the meantime, Google Docs is gathering steam, especially among people who want to collaborate online with a minimum of hassles.

In Part 2 of this series, I railed against the following:

Registry cleaners — Except in rare instances, I can’t recommend them. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you pay real money for one. Fred Langa’s been running all sorts of tests with Windows 7 and Registry cleaners. Hopefully, he’ll have something to report shortly.

Disk partitioners — Yes, you need to partition your hard drives in some very specific circumstances — when you’re going to dual-boot, for example — but for most PC users, disk partitions are a waste of time and effort. I’m fond of saying that there’s nothing you can do with a partition that you can’t do better with a folder. When you do need to create a partition (or, more frequently, juggle partitions because you didn’t set them up right in the first place), Windows 7 has all the tools you need for simple partitioning chores.

For-pay firewalls — The Windows 7 firewall works only one way: it’s an inbound firewall; it keeps the bad stuff out. If you really, really need an outbound firewall — you’re convinced that something evil is inside your machine trying to get out — and you don’t mind wasting your time tracking it, delving to the bottom of inscrutable notifications and worrying about incompatibilities with everything from downloads to updates to installers, by all means get an outbound firewall. Just don’t pay for one. As I said in the article, outbound firewalls don’t catch the cleverest malware anyway.

In this column, Part 3, I’m going to gore some more bull, er, bulls. Specifically, the following:

Search software — Once upon a time, you needed Windows add-on software to index and search for stuff stored on your computer. Not anymore.

Services hacks — What, you’ve come up with a cool site or fancy book that tells you all about Windows services you can disable to improve performance? Poppycock. Ditto for Windows prefetch tuning.

Enhanced versions of Windows — With very specific exceptions, if you have Windows 7 Home Premium, you have all the Windows you need.

Windows Server — If you want Windows Server features, there’s no need to buy a server or pay for Windows Server, Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, or Lync. Microsoft just made all of those available for rent at a fairly reasonable price.

No need for indexing/search applications

If you installed an indexing and search program for Windows XP — Magellan, Google Desktop Search, Windows Search, or Windows Desktop Search — I’ve got good news for you. Windows 7 finally, finally performs searches properly and more or less efficiently. If you have an indexing or searching program installed, get rid of it. Don’t even think about buying one.

I saved an entire rogues’ gallery of screen shots showing how search in Vista didn’t work. Now, with Windows 7, indexing really does occur in the background without taking over the PC, and search (if you know how to use it) works like a champ.

Look for a primer on Windows 7 search here in Windows Secrets Newsletter later this year. It’s an important topic, for which a few tips can make a world of difference.

Don’t follow the well-worn hacking advice

I just love it when someone writes to me, all excited because they’ve found a Windows 7 service that they can turn off, with no apparent ill effect. Other people tell me about this really neat Windows 7 prefetch hack they’ve found, in which a couple of flipped bits in the Registry can significantly speed up your computer. Before they changed, Windows boot times were sooooo slow. Now, with the hack, it’s like having a new PC all over again!

Meh.

I call it the Registry Placebo Effect. If you find an article or a book or a YouTube video that shows you how to reach into the bowels of Windows 7 to change something, and the article (book, video) says that this change makes your machine run faster, well — by golly — when you try it, your machine runs faster! I mean, just try it for yourself: your machine will run so much better.

Yeah. Sure. Once upon a time, when dinosaurs walked the earth, it’s possible that turning off a few Windows services (little Windows subprograms that run automatically every time you boot) might have added a minuscule performance boost to your daily Windows ME routine. Bob might have jumped up faster, or Clippy could have offered his helpful admonitions a fraction of a millisecond more quickly. But in the days of Windows 7, turning off Windows 7 services is just plain stupid. Why? The service you turn off may be needed, oh, once every year. If the service isn’t there, your PC may crash or lock up or behave in some strange way. Services are tiny, low-overhead critters. Let them be.

Don’t pay for a version of Windows you don’t need

If you have Windows 7 Home Premium, you almost undoubtedly have all the Windows you need. There’s no need to pay for an anytime upgrade. If you reinstall Windows, there’s no need to cough up the money for Pro or Ultimate. Trust me.

Yes, there are unusual exceptions. If you have to connect to a large company’s Active Directory network — a domain — you need Pro (or Ultimate). That’s the only good reason I know to pay for Pro.

Microsoft would have you believe that you need Pro to run XP Mode, but VMWare does that just fine, for free. I use VMware Workstation from PHP-Nuke (download/info page), but there are other good options.

Microsoft would also have you believe that you need Pro to run as a server (a puppeteer) in a Remote Desktop session. It’s true that Windows Pro lets you do that, but other products (including LogMeIn) also work well. Need to run the Pro-only Encrypting File System? Why not try TrueCrypt? It’s also free.

Once in a very blue moon, you stumble across instructions for Windows 7 that require the Group Policy Editor, or gpedit.msc. The Group Policy Editor typically flips some bits in the Registry to allow or restrict certain activities in Windows 7. It’s true that Windows 7 Home Premium does not include Gpedit. But the good news is that Microsoft itself publishes a list of the changes Gpedit makes. If you take a look at the list and match it up with whatever you’re trying to do in Gpedit, chances are good a couple of Registry changes will do the trick — without Gpedit.

You may want to pay the (considerable!) tariff for Windows 7 Ultimate in two very specific situations.

If you want to be able to switch the language that Windows uses — for menus, the help system, and the error messages — you need to either buy another copy of Windows in the desired language or install Windows Ultimate. (I’m not talking about switching the keyboard to a different language or displaying different languages on the screen — every version of Windows can do that.)

Finally, if you have a PC with ultra-classified information — the White House Nuclear Launch Codes, for example, or recipes for Mom’s favorite cookies — it would behoove you to lock down the hard drive(s) on the machines. This is not the TrueCrypt level of encryption, which is good for average PC users; I’m talking about locking down the hard drive so tight that you can’t even turn on the machine without the password. In that case, you need Windows 7 Ultimate and its BitLocker feature.

In every other case a normal person might encounter, Windows 7 Home Premium suffices.

If you want Windows Server, rent it

Some people really want Windows Server — and last week Microsoft made it available for rent. You don’t need to buy Windows Server. You don’t even need to buy server hardware. For U.S. $6 to $27 per month, you can rent a virtual, Internet-based server. It’s maintained by Microsoft, and you get Office 2010 in the bargain.

Back in April, I ran a Top Story about Office 365. Don’t let the name throw you. Office 365 is the cloud-based version of Microsoft’s Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, and Lync Server, combined with an option to rent Office 2010.

Office 365 is solidly aimed at small businesses — even businesses with just one employee — that want to use all of the Office-enhancing server tricks that big companies have had for years. For a single-person shop (or home) the most likely draw is fully synchronized Outlook — you see the same Outlook files whether you’re working on your desktop PC, on your laptop while you’re on the road, or even on an iPad.

You might also want inexpensive office-phone support. With Office 365, voice messages appear as SMS messages on your phone. If you commonly work with a handful of people, you may want shared calendars and contacts, file sharing and document management, Voice-over-IP support, and video conferencing. Office 365 offers an impressive array of features.

To take a look at the features, start with the Office 365 team blog overview. You’ll find a lot to digest.

So there you have it: a very large collection of money-saving, hassle-avoiding tips that should make you think twice, at least, before parting with your money. If you really want to make Windows work better, get a faster Internet connection — or a bigger monitor, or a keyboard that didn’t come out of a Cracker Jack box. Want to extend Windows in fabulous new ways? Get an iPad 2. Or an Android phone. Or look into Google Apps.

There’s a big, wide world out there. Why are you sitting around hassling with defragmenters and partitions?

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard writes computer books, primarily about Windows and Office, most recently the award-winning Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies. He’s a Senior Contributing Editor at InfoWorld, where his Tech Watch columns bring some common sense — and a jaundiced eye — to the latest industry shenanigans.
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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.