Four free programs to help control Windows 7

Lincoln spector By Lincoln Spector

Windows 7, like all powerful operating systems, can seem a bit overwhelming and give you the feeling you’ve lost control.

Fortunately, there are some great utilities for taming Windows 7.

Some problems are obvious: you’ve got so many icons on your desktop you’ve given up trying to keep them organized. Other problems are more obscure — for example, why Windows takes so long to boot. And it’s always good to know exactly what hardware and software are residing in your PC.

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Here are four free programs that make Windows easier to control. I’m betting you’ll find them as useful as I do.

Use Fences to subdivide your desktop

If you’re one of those rare people who never ever put anything on their desktops, I applaud your inner neatnik. But if your screen is so packed with file and shortcut icons that you don’t remember what your wallpaper looks like, Stardock’s Fences (download page) can put some order back into your computing life. (Sorry, it can’t do anything about your garage.)

Once installed, this utility lets you create fenced areas on your desktop by double-clicking a blank spot and right-dragging the mouse. After you’ve created a fence, you give it a name and drag any item on the desktop into it.

You can, for example, create one fence for programs, another for shortcuts to files, and yet another for stuff you plan to delete in the near future. (See Figure 1.) If you put more stuff into a fence than it has room for, it adds a scrollbar. (You can get rid of the scrollbar by removing items from the box or resizing the fence.)

Stardock's fences
Figure 1. If your desktop is cluttered with dozens of icons, use Fences to corral them into organized groups.

A fenced area can be moved, renamed, or deleted. (The items that were inside the fence remain on your desktop.) Double-click the desktop, and all your fences — plus any unfenced icons — disappear. (Desktop windows remain visible.) Double-click again, and everything comes back.

If you find the double-click-and-hide feature annoying, you can turn it off in Fences’ configuration box. You can also control the look of the fences, back up your desktop layout (the backups are misleadingly called “snapshots”), and pick a standardized layout.

Fences is free for personal use, but you can also purchase the U.S. $50 Pro version, which adds default fences for new icons; automatic icon organization by file type, name, and more; icon sorting within fences; plus fence transparency and other powerful features.

The Soluto solution for long boot times

It’s one of Windows’ most annoying problems: half the programs on your PC want to load automatically every time you boot Windows — and most continue to run in the background indefinitely, soaking up memory and CPU time. Every one of those programs slows the boot process and may even slow down Windows. But in truth, few of them should be running all of the time.

I want to emphasize: I’m not talking about those junk programs you don’t want at any time; I’m talking about applications you want running only when you need them — not hanging around using valuable PC resources when you don’t need those apps.

Soluto (download page) offers a remarkably easy way to deal with this problem. After you install the app and reboot your system, an odd, turn-up-the-corner-of-the-page graphic shows you that Soluto is examining the PC’s boot process. (See Figure 2.) After your system is rebooted, you launch the Soluto app and it displays what it found.

Soluto corner graphic
Figure 2. Soluto’s turned-page graphic tells you it’s examining your PC’s boot sequence.

Reporting its findings within an attractive, graphic-oriented display, Soluto tells you exactly what’s launching at boot time (far more than is shown by Windows’ built-in msconfig app), how much boot time this takes, and what startup apps might be unnecessary.

It divides the boot-time applications into three categories: No-brainer (remove from boot), Potentially removable (advanced users), and Cannot be removed with Soluto (yet …). (See Figure 3.) Click on any item within a category and you get a brief description; click the description’s Advanced link and you get more details, such as what you gain and lose by allowing this program to load at boot time. Should you decide you don’t want an app to load at boot, click the Pause button.

Soluto boot report
Figure 3. Soluto’s comprehensive system-boot report displays a chart of what apps to keep and what to remove.

The program is far from perfect. It’s discouraging to look at its results and see that the Cannot be removed section is far larger than the other two put together. And Soluto itself must launch during startup so that it can block other programs.

Still, Soluto is the easiest solution I’ve yet found for controlling autoloaders.

Soluto is currently in public beta. I checked with a company contact and was told that the application will remain in beta for some time and that there’ll still be a free version once beta testing is finished.

Find out everything about your computer

System Information for Windows (SIW, download page) provides a massive amount of information about your PC’s hardware, the Windows version running on it, and the network it’s attached to. Most of this information is available elsewhere, but SIW puts it all into one convenient place. (See Figure 4.)

System information for windows
Figure 4. System Information for Windows provides an encyclopedic summary of your PC’s data.

Here’s a taste of what it can show you:
  • CPU and memory usage
  • Broadband speed report
  • Windows’ activation status
  • Available restore points
  • Every installed program’s version number and update URL
  • Computer serial number
  • PC’s Windows Experience Index
  • Maximum system RAM capacity and snapshot of what’s currently in memory
  • How hot a PC is running, in Celsius and Fahrenheit
  • Your system’s IP address
  • Open network ports
System Information for Windows is portable; you can put it on a flash drive and run it on any Windows PC. The program is free for personal use, but professional versions will set you back $70 to $100.

Take control of when your PC powers down

You’re done with the day’s work, but you’re not ready to shut down your PC. Maybe you’re backing it up or scanning for malware, or maybe you want to give family members network access to your photos or music for the evening. But you also want to save power by not leaving the system on all night.

WinMend Auto Shutdown (download page) does exactly what the name implies. It automatically powers down your PC at a time you set. (See Figure 5.) It can also sign you off your system or put a PC into hibernate or sleep mode.

Auto Shutdown lets you specify a one-time date and time for power-down or set up a daily recurring schedule. There’s also a countdown option; you can, for example, shut down the PC in two hours or put it into sleep mode within 30 minutes.

WinMend auto shutdown
Figure 5. WinMend’s Auto Shutdown lets you shut down your PC exactly when you want to — without being there.

Auto Shutdown is completely free, though the site does have a donation link.

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

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.
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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.