Software

10 favorite freeware tools for IT pros

Why should you pay for software when there are so many great tools out there that don't cost a dime? Gina Smith rounded up some winning freeware.

The best four-letter word is free -- especially for IT pros. And these days, with so much open source tech around and so much good will toward developers who offer astounding and useful freeware, there's a lot to wade through.

So with a little help from the CIOs and IT pros who write for my geeky techblog, aNewDomain.net, I found the best freeware out there and put it through its paces. It wasn't easy to select just 10 freeware utilities for you. But I bit the bullet anyway.

In no particular order, here are top 10 freeware packages the CIOs and tech pros I interviewed are in love with right now.

Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.

1: Start8

Just hours after Microsoft announced its Windows 8 Consumer Preview in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress (MWC 2012), utility maker Stardock announced it would create a tool to easily return the now-missing Start button and menu. A week later, Stardock announced and made available for free download its little utility fix, Start8.

As an exec at Start8 wrote in a blog post, "The lack of a start button and start menu in Windows 8 has made using Microsoft's new OS a non-starter for me and a lot of other people. I like Metro, I really do -- for tablets. But as a desktop user, I need a consistent work flow that lets me have my windows together on my desktop and [I] don't want to be jerked out of that environment every time I want to start some new program."

Stardock execs say they will continue adding new features to Start8 as the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and Windows 8 Server evolve over the year.

Start used to bug me. Why do I have to hit the Start menu to exit the system? But now I'm used to it. Start8 will be a utility I will definitely run as soon as I upgrade my system to Windows 8. If I upgrade. We'll see.

2: Ninite

I'm guessing you've heard of Ninite (Figure A), but on the off-chance you haven't, I'd be remiss not to include it here. This powerful freeware utility tops them all. It will cut hours off software re-installation time when you reformat a disk, do a clean install, or start a new system.

Ninite is essentially a tiny installer that will automatically manage and download other freeware packages. "Ninite doesn't support adware or other ad supported junk either," says Jeremy Lesniak, founder of VAR consultancy Vermont Computing in Duxbury, VT. Available for Windows and, more recently, Ubuntu 8 and higher, it automatically hunts for and installs free utilities like DropBox and 7-Zip to recently reformatted or new systems.

Figure A

Ninite

3: Oracle VM VirtualBox

This is a free virtual machine manager, originally from Sun and now enhanced and available from Oracle. "Managing virtual machines on your desktop or someone else's is often a hassle. And it gets expensive," says Peter Baer Galvin, a Boston University lecturer, author, and CTO for systems integrator Corporate Technologies.

A new version of the software came out in December, offering more features and broad support for a variety of systems and platforms, including Linux (2.4 and 2.6), Windows NT, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Vista, and Windows 7, plus Solaris and OpenBSD. It even supports OS/2. It's an x86 virtualization software package and it works as advertised.

"It's as useful for enterprise managers and IT pros as it is for geeks who just want better control over virtualization," Galvin says. Who doesn't? VirtualBox is now in version 4.1.8.

4: Everything

The search feature in Windows 7 is a huge improvement over what Windows XP and Vista offered. But it still pales miserably in comparison to the freeware search tool I use constantly in Windows: voidtool's Everything. It's a lightweight utility that indexes and queries your entire drive for anything you're looking for. And is it ever fast!

Just type in some text and bang, it'll find whatever file or directory you're looking for in a jiff. I've been using this utility for the last two years and I now rely on it daily. It's so rapid at searching -- and so dependable -- that you might find yourself slacking off on keeping your files and programs in organized folders. No need for it. The left-brained among us will just use Everything to find anything. At least, that's what I do.

It might also minimize calls to the desktop. It's so easy to use and comprehensive, you won't have users calling to ask you where some random, misplaced file went. If you check out just one freeware package on this list, I'd suggest that you select this one.

5: Fing

Fing (Figure B), now in version 1.4, is a powerful network discovery tool, available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android. If you've ever tried to find, say, a printer on your network and couldn't find a handy IP address for it, this is for you. "Think of it as a quick security scan," says Michael Doornbos, a security specialist and podcaster based in Washington DC. "It will let you know all the machines on your network, what operating system they run and the system names, too. It's a tremendously useful tool for administrators."

For Linux, Fing is especially flexible, working with such variants as Debian 5.0, Ubuntu 8 and up, CentOS 5.0, Fedora 10, Slackware, and 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Gentoo.

Figure B

Fing

6: LastPass Password Manager

LastPass is a master password system. According to Washington DC-based security expert Todd Moore, "It's a tremendous security tool for web shopping and surfing."

Compatible with all major Windows, Mac, and Linux Web browsers, LastPass lets you set up one master password, eliminating the need to remember multiple Web site log ins. It will store your passwords -- that's cool in itself -- but it will also let you password protect other sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, social security numbers, mailing addresses, and anything else you always type into your browser because you're afraid to save it.

"Once you set it up," warns Moore, "be careful not to lose it or forget the master password you create. You'll need to type it in whenever you launch your browser." Forget the password and you're out of luck. This software is not for you if you're the password-losing type. You know who you are.

7: Foxit PDF Reader

This utility is one of my personal favorites and I've been using it for years. Foxit (Figure C) stands in for Adobe Reader as freeware that makes viewing, printing, and saving your PDF files quick and easy. But where Foxit really shines is in performance. Try it once and I'll wager you never go back to Adobe PDF Reader and Acrobat.

Not only is Foxit speedier, but it includes cool features that let you add annotations to your PDFs or fill out PDF forms. Foxit comes in versions for Windows, Mac, and some flavors of Linux.

Figure C

Foxit

8: Wappwolf for iOS

Wappwolf (Figure D) is a mobile app that runs on your iOS-based iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. If you share a lot of photos and documents, this is a must-have, says Julie Blaustein, a photojournalist and business development consultant in San Francisco. "It's like having your own toolbox for file editing and sharing."

Figure D

Wappwolf

Wappwolf partnered with Dropbox early this year, so it now includes Dropbox Automator. That triggers the options you need depending on the file type you're trying to share and edit -- and in what Dropbox folder you're storing it.

9: Combofix

Combofix is freeware that does one thing and does it well -- it detects and deletes spyware on Windows PCs. It's a powerful utility that runs at system level, so keep an eye on it and make your selections with care. A quick tip about Combofix comes from Vermont Computing's Lesniak: "Whatever you do, don't rename the [Combofix] file after you download it. If you rename it, combofix.exe will automatically self-destruct." Make sure you save it where it's easily accessible -- like, say, the desktop. Just download it, run it as an administrator, and take care.

10: Stellarium

And finally, some desert dessert [editor's note: gak!]. You probably know a lot of fun games and apps available for free. But have you checked out the open source product Stellarium (Figure E)? "It's a 3D planetarium," says Eric Finkenbiner, an IT pro for the Department of Justice who now is based in Rangoon, Burma. Stellarium lets you "view the sky from any point in the world and, at the same time, overlay it with planets, constellations and galaxies." It's a great way to kill some time. Not that you have any. I don't. But just in case you have time to gaze at the stars....
Figure E

Stellarium

Other favorite freeware picks?

Everybody's list of free go-to apps is different. What tools do you rely on? Share your recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.

About

Gina Smith is a NYT best-selling author of iWOZ, the biography of Steve Wozniak. She is a vet tech journalist and chief of the geek tech site, aNewDomain.net.

49 comments
joseph.jones63
joseph.jones63

Surprise! Macgo iPhone Cleaner is an excellent iOS cleaner tool runs on Windows. It can clean up most junk files on iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch to free up storage space for more fun securely. The point it will have a  free version several days later. 

Valerie624
Valerie624

DeskCenter USA Inc. provides a full featured IT Management Suite and Helpdesk Free Download as well at deskcenter.com. Call 516 442-1508 for a free demo.

Computer Dave
Computer Dave

VNC - handy remote control app - tiny footprint, too! Spybot Search & Destroy - fanatical spyware removal UBCD - has saved many virus-infected PC's VLC (as opposed to finding CODEC's for Media Player) Pidgin - manages most (if not all) of your IM accounts in one app

MissDorkness
MissDorkness

All good stuff. But, the only I used most often is a clipboard extender (nice and simple, just like me). And the one that has saved my butt from long, pointless hassles so many times has been ReNamer.

pconaty
pconaty

Another fantastic utility for finding wasted space on File servers. Visual maps take a bit of getting used to but once you get it you will not find a faster way of locating unwanted files on your servers.

Sanny Bolton
Sanny Bolton

Being a project manager, i think one of the best opportunity that developers offer nowadays is the ability to control and run business remotely. For example, we installed the comindware task management software to the all our ,managers and that's considerably improve their performance and helps avoid delays and mistakes.

shahdan
shahdan

1. IrfanView - Fast image viewer and manipulation. Make screen capture. Etc. 2. Ccleaner - cleaning.. :D 3. Universal Extractor - can extract most of compressed file format 4. Foxit Reader - pdf reader 6. doPDF - create pdf file. very small file 7. Firefox - Sync feature is very good to backup website,forum, etc. list.. 8. Thunderbird - as email and rss client, calendar, to-do 9. ExplorerXP - can view hidden file and folder size.. 10. Ext2Explore - Read ext partition All except doPDF can be made portable which is become very handy tools for me..

tsssys
tsssys

Several of my Windows favorites: [b]IZArc[/b] for file compression/decompression [b]IrfanView[/b] for image viewing/simple manipulation [b]7-PDF Printer[/b] (does what the name says - any doc as a PDF) Got tired of the limitations and watermarks in Foxit about 2 years ago. Switched to [b]PDF-Xchange Viewer[/b] and haven't "looked" back. [b]PuTTY[/b] and its associates (PSFTP, Pageant, and PuTTYGen) I use daily now. I know it's not a GUI but it's indispensible for managing a remote *nix server from Windows. Definitely second iansoady on [b]Revo Uninstaller[/b]. Always use it to uninstall now. Have just started using [b]Free Clipboard Manager[/b] and so far so good. Thanks for Everything. I've just installed it and think I'm going to like it. And will check out Fing, especially on a USB stick. After rpb_'s experience, don't think I want to install to the HDD. Too many custom environment variables to have to recreate. Never thought of it this way, but I think I better back those up as a text file...

LxwebSolutions
LxwebSolutions

i have been using most of them and they are nice but one thing you can compare between foxit reader and adobe reader that adobe has the read a loud option for pdfs but Foxit Dont

rpb_
rpb_

I just tried fing for the first time, and it overwrote my PATH environment variable (instead of appending to it), which broke most of the apps on my machine! (Fortunately System Restore recovered it.) I think there must be a bug in the installer.

Silverlokk
Silverlokk

Please don't confuse freeware with Free/Open Source. Freeware does not necessarily include the source, and if it does, it doesn't necessarily allow you to modify that source or redistribute it.

micwilli
micwilli

1. Obligatorily Windows 8 related post, all the IT pro's I know aren't ready to jump on that band wagon. 6. After the LastPast snafu last year I detest password managers. 7. Love me some Foxit 8. Android fanboi here 9. Combofix is a stable of my malware removal toolkit. Kudos 10. Why is this here? Unless you are praying to the server gods or working on a NASA pc this is useless to me.

dobbino
dobbino

Super article - thanks for the tips (Stellarium and Foxit specifically).

omb00900
omb00900

Easily the best online chat program. Mind boggling that it's free! Incredibly well written!

ultimitloozer
ultimitloozer

Latest version is 4.1.10, not 4.1.8. It was released on the 13th.

beechwoodf
beechwoodf

you also didn't mention Glary utilities, my fav.

mailpowys
mailpowys

I can't count how many times this utility has got my customer PC's up and running - it cleans out malware that others can't. PDFcreator - for converting any printable image into a PDF file Freedownload manager - great for managing downloads (I use it to download podcasts into a specific folder which is then sync'd with my phone) PicPic very handy image editor +1 Sysinternals Suite

hyoi
hyoi

Spiceworks is one of the best helpdesk and inventory systems that I've worked with and it is free, http://www.spiceworks.com/referrer/Sosipater. It also has an excellent, helpful, and professional community of people that pitch in and help out when you have a knotty problem on your hands.

register2@optonline.
register2@optonline.

I like NITROPDF, It creates, reads and annotates PDF Files. If you can print a file, you can make it into a PDF file.

ccsilex
ccsilex

I'm amazed you didn't mention the mobile version of Fing. it's one of the first things I open on my tablet when I arrive at a new or existing client. Also, if this is for IT pros, how could you not mention sysinternals suite? I know its old, but every bit as useful on W7 as it was on XP. as mentioned earlier, ccleaner - I can't count how many times ccleaher has restored performance on any number of windows systems I've worked on. use combofix as a last resort before wipe/reload - I've had combofix hose too many systems to consider it a first line of defense. any program by stardock should not be on an 'IT Pro' list. sure they make nice GUI stuff, but at the cost of system resources and stability. who is in charge of these lists? you really need me on payroll....

kpdriscoll
kpdriscoll

Great free tool for encrypting files, taking some insecurity out of email attachment sending.

Bogdan Peste
Bogdan Peste

If you want to see exactly what's eating up your HDD space, this is one of the best in my opinion. Not only does it provide per folder/subfolder statistics in ascending/descending order, but it gives you a nice visual representation of your file system. I also used it as an "assessment tool" to plan a backup strategy.

Scott.Geiger
Scott.Geiger

Not to be the grammar police (but I will anyway) I think you mean dessert and not desert - which would be the dry, sandy place with cacti. Stellarium is a neat little app, played with a several times. Good list too, I had not heard of Ninite or Fing before, have to check them out.

marlene1020
marlene1020

I like these. Thanks! But the best I've ever heard of or used has to be Spiceworks! A free network inventory and monitoring tool along with a free helpdesk solution. I don't know how I lived without it!

hstufforu
hstufforu

You also forgot Defraggler that I consider to be the best free defrag programs around.

TBoneTerwilliger
TBoneTerwilliger

it will just be a matter of time before MS writes this into the OS anyway. Enterprise adoption of Windows 8 will be non-existent until the start-menu is back. The rest of the industry hasn't caught up to Windows 7 yet, so most applications won't be functional without a start menu anyway. I know the idea is to push for a more command-line driven server OS, but you can't alienate legacy equipment. Some of us (not me) are still running Windows NT.

glnz
glnz

I'm not a tech person, but I have found Codestuff Starter to be invaluable in keeping my home PCs running (all WinXPPro SP3). It's free. Shows all startups, running processes and services, and lets you turn them on and off (or from automatic to manual) very easily - much easier than using msconfig or autoruns.. http://CodeStuff.mirrorz.com

Slayer_
Slayer_

I have literately searched for files I can visibly see in the folder, and it couldn't find them. The Windows 7 search is utterly useless. I have resorted to using the DOS FIND command.

josh.garon
josh.garon

Very nice and will certainly download some. However, I find the title of your blog misleading. ???Freeware tools for IT pros??? I was expecting that all 10 would be for ???IT Pros???. #7, 8, and especially #10 won???t be very helpful to do my job as IT Systems Admin. But, still cool freeware.

peterharding
peterharding

You forgot Ccleaner, one of the most useful free utilities around.

CBHSoft
CBHSoft

Ninite is great I have used it extensivly since first coming across it!

ian
ian

Great free utility removes all associated files & directory entries as well as the program's built in installer.

prikryja
prikryja

Not free for commercial use.

Marshwiggle
Marshwiggle

... I think they shot themselves in the foot when they adopted MS' Ribbon-style interface. It takes up too much work space, and all of a sudden a whole lot of keyboard shortcuts don't work (e.g., Alt+F won't drop down the File menu). We'll see if FoxIt is an improvement.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I keep reading 'fing' as 'f-ing'. Don't know why...

John_LI_IT_Guy
John_LI_IT_Guy

Have used it many times to track down what was eating up drive space.

Jody Gilbert
Jody Gilbert

Thanks for the policing. Fixed it. Too bad the app in question wasn't, in fact, Cacti. :> j

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I find it difficult to believe there's anything easier than autoruns...except possibly Ccleaner.

Jody Gilbert
Jody Gilbert

"must-have" is a stretch for a subjective list like this one -- that was my bad, not Gina's. I'll change the title. Thanks! j

JNygren
JNygren

Everything is great, but I really wish they supported FAT32 disks, too.

mark.cooper
mark.cooper

You can point the Hunter mode 'sights' at the shortcut to an installed program to un-install. This is great when the program's uninstall file is hosed.

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