Freeware outdoes Windows’ built-in system tools

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Most standard Windows maintenance tasks can be accomplished using the utilities included with the OS itself — but that doesn’t mean those tools are your best option.

Whether you’re looking for an easier way to browse the image files in a folder, create a restore point, revert to XP’s Classic Start Menu, or customize your file associations, there’s a (free) app for that.

PC users have no shortage of things to complainabout. But we can thank our lucky stars for one thing: free software that’s constantly being created, revised, and improved. I unearthed a handful of new or recently revised system tools that make your computing life a whole lot easier without costing you a red cent.

Skim through graphics and PDF files in a jiffy

If you can get past the program’s clumsy name, the Scientific and Technical Documentation Utility (STDU) Explorer is a file manager that beats Windows Explorer by providing superior preview and thumbnail options. The program is designed especially for previewing and managing such image-file formats as .psd, .bmp, .png, .gif, .jpg, and .wmf. You can also use STDU Explorer to view Acrobat PDF files and DjVu books.

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The file manager lets you skim quickly through folders chock-full of image and PDF files. Finding the one you need is facilitated by STDU Explorer’s thumbnail previews, which you can enlarge, shrink, or otherwise customize on the fly. (See Figure 1.)

STDU explorer thumbnail resizer
Figure 1. Use STDU Explorer’s slider control to resize file thumbnails on the fly.

The program’s preview pane is great for flipping through multipage files, and its familiar folder tree and Office-like toolbar simplify navigation and basic file-management tasks. One useful feature missing from the utility is an address bar for entering folder paths, but otherwise, STDU Explorer is a winner that works with all Windows versions.

You’ll find more information about the program and a download link on the product’s page.

Simple utility creates instant restore points

There are various ways to set a restore point in Vista and Windows 7, but none of them is notably quick or easy. For example, one such method is to click Start, right-click Computer, choose Properties, click System Protection, select Create, type a name, and click Create again.

Even if you devise a shortcut to SystemPropertiesProtection.exe, you still have to launch the applet and then take at least three more steps. With the free Quick Restore Maker utility, you simply launch the tool, confirm the User Account Control prompt, and wait while it creates a restore point for you. When it’s done, click Exit. (See Figure 2.)

Quick restore maker
Figure 2. Create Windows restore points faster and easier with the free Quick Restore Maker utility.

Quick Restore Maker has no other features, but sometimes the simplest tools are the best. Get your copy of the program on the Windows Club site.

Free and easy way to tweak Vista and Windows 7

In the not-too-distant past, Microsoft provided the free Tweak UI utility that let you customize Windows via the simple point-and-click metaphor rather than having to dig into the Windows Registry. Unfortunately, there’s no Tweak UI equivalent for Vista and Win7 — at least not from Microsoft.

Ultimate Windows Tweaker is designed specifically for those two more-recent versions of Windows, and although it’s not a new program, the utility was recently updated to add even more Tweak UI–like capabilities. The program’s settings are presented on eight different tabs representing such categories as system info, personalization, performance, and security.

On the downside, the utility’s many checkbox options aren’t always clear. And unfortunately, documentation for the product is close to nonexistent. Consequently, I recommend this tool only for advanced PC users. If you try it out, be sure to click the handy Create Checkpoint button to make a restore point before you begin experimenting.

Ultimate Windows Tweaker is available from the Windows Club site.

Restore features removed from Vista and Win7

When you upgrade from XP to Vista or Windows 7, you may notice certain of your favorite XP features are missing in the new Windows releases. For example, XP’s Classic Start Menu is an easy way to launch dozens of programs with just a few keystrokes, but the option is gone from Windows 7. Many former XP users — among them, me — also miss the Explorer toolbar’s cut, copy, paste, and other buttons for performing common operations with a single click.

Classic Shell restores these and other useful XP features without depriving you of the new functions in Vista and Win7. After you install the utility, the Start menu behaves the way it did in XP; however, you can revert to the standard Vista/Win7 functionality by Shift-clicking the Start button.

The program’s optional Explorer toolbar appears on the right side of the menu bar, where it takes up as little screen real estate as necessary.

If you’ve missed these and other XP features in Vista and Windows 7, download your free copy of Classic Shell from the product’s page on SourceForge.

Uninstaller picks up where Windows leaves off

Absolute Uninstaller claims to go beyond Windows’ normal uninstall features; in my tests, the utility did just that. Often when you uninstall a program, it leaves behind settings, folders, and other items you no longer need. Absolute Uninstaller gives you the option of deleting these items automatically or browsing the ghost folder’s contents to review the leftovers before deleting them.

You can use the program to batch-uninstall when you want to eliminate many programs at one time. It also lets you remove dead or outdated entries in the list of installed programs or search for items in the uninstall list. All in all, Absolute Uninstaller provides a full-featured replacement for Windows’ built-in uninstaller, and at zero cost.

There’s just one gotcha to be aware of: by default, Absolute Uninstaller installs the Ask.com toolbar and makes it your default search engine. Be sure to uncheck those options in the installer if you don’t want them.

Absolute Uninstaller is designed to work with all Windows versions and is available from the vendor’s site.

Simpler way to customize your file associations

Prior to Vista, Explorer’s Folder Options dialog had a File Types setting that let you not only adjust programs associated with a particular file type but also edit the context (right-click) menu for almost every object on your system.

That feature is gone in Vista and Win7. In its place, Microsoft gives us the Default Programs Control Panel applet for modifying application, file type, AutoPlay, and other default settings. That works, but it’s a far cry from the simplicity of a directly accessible context menu.

If you’d like some of that lost functionality back — without having to edit the Registry — try Default Programs Editor. The utility duplicates most of the functions of XP’s File Types options and has a similar wizard-like interface.

But Default Programs Editor also does more. It lets you edit context menus, change file-type icons and descriptions, and remove a program’s associations with selected file types. (See Figure 3.)

Default programs editor
Figure 3. The free Default Programs Editor brings you more features than Windows’ Default Programs Control Panel applet does.

Default Programs Editor works with Windows XP, Vista, and Win7. Get your free copy from the product’s page.

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Scott Dunn is a contributing editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has more than 20 years of experience as a technical writer and editor and has won multiple business-press awards.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-02-11: