Utilities and security apps are two of the most important categories of software that PC users download. From keeping your operating system slim and bloatware-free to eradicating cookies and spyware, these apps amply reward you for downloading them. And best of all, they're free!
A word to the wise: All of these downloads should work with Windows 7, and most will work with earlier versions of Windows, too; but always double-check the OS and system requirements of a program before making a home for it in your computer's memory. It's also not a bad idea to make a full-system backup and create a new system restore point before installing each new program.
BootMed: Download and burn a copy of this Ubuntu-based boot disc, which is made to recover failed or malware-infected Windows PC installations. BootMed is simple, but not dead-simple. Among the small but useful array of tools it provides on an uncluttered desktop are a partition manager, a tool that allows you to run Windows programs to remove viruses and other malware, the PhotoRec file recovery tool, and the TestDisk partition recovery and boot doctor. For users who understand Linux commands, a terminal icon (the equivalent of CMD in Windows) is also available. It's a large download, but BootMed is worth it.
CCleaner: Tests that we ran earlier this year showed that cleaning tools like CCleaner didn't have much effect on overall performance, but at least they can help you remove clutter from your PC. Developer Piriform released CCleaner 3.0 earlier this year, and like the older versions, it does an excellent job of clearing out temporary files, cleaning the Windows Registry, erasing browser histories, and so on. The big news in this update is a native 64-bit version for use with similar editions of Windows. One of CCleaner's best features is that it intelligently scans for cookies that you're likely to want to keep, such as those for Google and Yahoo.
PC Wizard: If you're interested in examining your PC's hardware and software in extreme detail, check out this utility. It can assess what's going on in your PC, from bringing up a list of all the hardware running on the system to checking the level of activity on each of the processor's cores. PC Wizard also reports detailed statistics on restore points, shutdowns, and boot-ups, and it includes benchmarking tools for your entire system.
7-Zip: Available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, 7-Zip can compress and decompress WinZip-compatible AES-encrypted .zip files. That capability is vital if you need to email sensitive data, because the .zip format's standard password protection (the only kind that Windows supports) is notoriously easy to crack. 7-Zip also allows you to compress and email files in one easy step. It even has its own compression format, though you should probably stick with the .zip format to avoid compatibility issues. Unlike WinZip, 7-Zip can't compress a .zip file into an .exe file. But for most compression tasks, 7-Zip performs the job quite well.
Smart Defrag: One of the simplest ways to ensure that you'll be able to recover your data easily in the event of an accident is to defragment your hard disk -- and Smart Defrag is a great tool for doing it. Recent tests have shown that defragging a PC doesn't speed it up as much as some people expected, but grouping your files does make them easier to retrieve after you delete them. Like the defragmenting utility built into Windows, this freebie analyzes your hard disk, shows you the results, and lets you decide whether to proceed. It also offers extras such as several levels of defragmentation -- for instance, from defragging your entire hard disk to merely relocating files for optimum placement. But you should pass on this download if you have a solid-state drive, because too much rewriting can wear such drives out.
CyberGhost VPN Free: Concerned that when you're connected at a public hotspot, such as at a café, a hacker can intercept everything you send and receive -- including passwords and other personal information? Give CyberGhost VPN Free a try. This program creates a virtual private network connection when you're on the Internet, replacing your normal IP address with a CyberGhost IP address and connecting you to anonymization servers for further protection. Once you've connected, you are anonymous online. The free version of CyberGhost VPN works for only 6 hours at a time or for 1GB of downloads at a time, whichever comes first. You'll get disconnected after that, though you can immediately relaunch it.
Spybot Search & Destroy: When you fire this program up, it will spot all sorts of tracking cookies and let you remove the offenders individually (some cookies are good to keep, and this tool usually can distinguish between desirable and undesirable types). Spybot Search & Destroy also offers an immunization feature to help protect your now-clean PC against subsequent spyware, as well as an effective resident shield that will warn you of suspect behavior, such as altered or removed Registry entries.
TrackMeNot: Bing, Google, Yahoo, and a number of other search engines create profiles of you based on the terms you enter. To counter this, TrackMeNot -- a Firefox and Chrome add-on -- inundates the engines with a blizzard of search terms so that they can't build a practical customized profile of you. The add-on generates the terms from RSS feeds, including those of CNN and NYTimes.com. TrackMeNot gives you considerable control over how you use it, including which search engines to send the searches to and how many searches to perform per hour.
Avast Free Antivirus: In our recent malware scanner tests, Avast Free Antivirus detected 94.8 percent of the samples we threw at it, which is neither particularly good nor especially bad. But Avast Free Antivirus was the only free product we looked at that didn't falsely identify a single safe file as a piece of malware. With fast scan speeds and low impact on PC performance, Avast is the most well-rounded free antivirus software program out there.