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9 free tools that make Windows much better

Alex Castle | Feb. 4, 2014
These free utilities do image editing, file management, screenshots and more, much, much better than Windows' own versions can.

For that, there's Process Explorer, an advanced tool offered by Microsoft itself for digging deeper into your active processes.

Process Explorer groups processes into a convenient tree structure, so that it's easy to see your web browser's 30 processes — for example — all in a single place. Process Explorer also color-codes processes, so you can tell at a glance which ones are your programs and which are background system processes. It also can connect to the Internet to help you identify mysterious processes that are bogging down your computer. Check out our full Process Explorer review for a lengthier explanation of the tool's wondrously granular capabilities.

Notepad
As a plain-text editor, Notepad's the sort of program that it's hard to imagine upgrading. After all, isn't simplicity the point with Notepad? If you wanted more, wouldn't you just switch to Word or (heaven forbid) Wordpad? Not quite.

Notepad++ is a free plain-text editor that keeps the simplicity of Notepad but adds a bunch of useful new features. In particular, Notepad++ offers a nicely customizable user interface that lets you edit multiple files at once and even includes spell-check. Some features are designed specifically for programmers, but even if you never touch those, you'll appreciate the upgrade.

Decompression
Sometimes you want something a little more exotic than a standard, compressed .zip file. RAR is the second-most common archive format, with a number of advantages, but Windows can't open .rar files by default. To do that, you'll need a better archive program — one like 7Zip.

7Zip is a free utility that can open .zip, .rar, and virtually any other archive file format. You can't use it to create RAR files (for that, you'd need the for-pay WinRAR), but you can create .zip and .7z files, which offer the best compression of any archive type. If you want to compress tons of big files and save as much space as possible, 7zip is a necessity.

Media Player
Media playback can be a real quagmire. Between all the various file extensions and codecs, you can never really be sure what you'll need to play any particular file. The only thing you can predict with certainty is that Windows Media Player probably isn't going to do the job.

To take the guesswork out of media playback, get VLC. VLC is a compact media-player application that will open and play pretty much any media file under the sun. With VLC, you can even play DVDs directly from your DVD drive — a feature that was removed from Windows Media Player in Windows 8. If you care to dig even deeper, VLC is chock-full of deep features and intriguing tricks, which you can discover in PCWorld's guide to mastering the media player.

 

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