It can be quite a challenge to find effective software that can help you keep your PC in proper working order so in this article I will attempt to review some of the best free PC maintenance tools available as of the start of 2013.
It’s a well know fact that with use your PC’s performance will degrade if it is not properly maintained. When putting together your PC maintenance toolkit there are a number of key areas that you want to have covered. These categories include:
- The best firewall software possible
- An anti-virus program with good virus detection rates
- Specialized anti-virus tools to hunt the worst threats
- A file recovery tool
- A hard drive defragmentation utility
- A junk file / registry cleanup / general tune-up utility
- A hardware review tool
- A sandboxing tool
Junk File and Registry Cleanup
Over time your PC will get filled up with clutter including temp files, downloaded install files, and random garbage that will clutter up your hard drive and slow down your PC’s performance. To make matters worse, over time your registry file also becomes cluttered which absolutely destroys your system performance.
I’ll review two software products here that will help clear away the clutter: CCleaner and Comodo System Utils.
It’s a good idea to use both of these tools to try to clear the clutter from your hard disk drive and registry as much as possible. I also suggest using Belarc Advisor which is meant to audit all facets of your system and based on its findings it will suggest you take certain actions.
CCleaner will mop up junk Windows & application files and will help clear out junk from your registry. In my tests I have found that CCleaner works well with both Windows 7 and Windows 8.
Make sure when you set up CCleaner that you also install CCEnhancer. CCEnhancer is an extension library to CCleaner to boost CCleaner’s effectiveness by increasing the number of applications that it can clean.
I have found that its registry cleaner does a very good job of getting rid of garbage cluttering a system’s registry. As I mentioned before, registry clutter is a major problem that causes progressively worse system slowness as a computer ages. Having a good registry cleaner will definitely have a positive impact on your system’s performance.
Extra features that come with CCleaner include:
- An uninstall utility that makes sure that the programs registry entries are also properly removed.
- Checking your startup processes
- Managing your saved system restore points.
- This tool does not by default run run and update itself in the background so you will need to manually run and update it yourself. I actually like this behavior since the program doesn’t take up extra memory in your day-to-day computer use.
As an additional note: Make sure that you watch what CCleaner tries to do when you run the installation program. It currently tries to install Google toolbar on your computer which is unnecessary and can be annoying.
Comodo System Utils
Like CCleaner above, this tool cleans old junk files and registry entries from your computer. This software works with Windows 7 but does not run under Windows 8.
System Utils runs as a system process on your Computer’s startup and remembers to update itself. Its main features include:
- A cleaner to remove corrupt files
- A system junk file cleaner
- A registry cleaner
- A privacy cleaner.
The tool also features a permanent deletion utility so that files you remove are unrecoverable, and a force delete utility that will delete a file even if a system process is maintaining a lock on it (this feature is invaluable if you are manually hunting viruses or malware).
System Utils also has an Autorun manager that allows you to review and manage running processes and startup processes. The key feature with the Autorun manager is that it checks each running file’s signature and malware status, which can save you a lot of time in manually looking up and checking through your process list. I am not so convinced of the usefulness of the malware identification feature, since for me the tool was not able to identify the status of any of my running or startup processes.
Hard Drive Defragmentation
A significant cause of performance degradation on your PC is fragmentation of your files over time. The more read/write activity that happens on your computer, the more likely it is that your files will be written inefficiently on your hard drive, possibly split in random sectors across your drive. This inefficient file storage leads to your computer having to put more effort into searching for the parts of the files that it needs. File fragmentation takes an especially high performance toll if your hard-drive is a typical electro-mechanical drive, since the drive’s read heads need to physically scan for the various fragments that make up each of your files.
Over time file fragmentation will consume extra hard drive space, and will degrade your computer’s performance, so it is essential to run a proper defragmentation routine every so often. You can run an analysis of your level of fragmentation in the defragmentation utility of your choice to determine how often you need to defragment your machine. Naturally the frequency of defragmentation should be adjusted to the level at which you use your computer, ranging from once a month to once a year.
Windows comes with a native defragmentation utility that works quite well, but some freely available tools such as Defraggler come with additional features that can enhance your defragmentation experience.
Defraggler (by Piriform)
I have had excellent results defragmenting hard disk drives using this tool. It does run somewhat slowly, but I believe this is due to the software doing a very thorough job. Also the slowness is based on:
- The size of the hard drive being defragmented
- The level of fragmentation (very high levels will take longer to fix)
- The amount of free space on the hard drive for Defraggler to work with.
Defraggler is certainly a very good defragmentation tool to add to your collection of PC maintenance tools. I will sometimes run both the native Windows defragmenter followed by Defraggler to try to optimize the defragmentation job as much as possible.
A nice feature of defraggler is that you can step into quite some granularity with what you are defragmenting. Specifically, most defragmentation utilities will only defragment your entire hard-drive, but with Defraggler you can specify just a file or a folder to defragment. I personally do not make use of this granular feature, but I expect that it might come in handy to others.
The realm of antivirus tools and their detection rates is very complex, controversial, and unproven. In a related article I take an in-depth look into the problems with current antivirus tools that is worth reading.
I have read a number of reviews of the top free antivirus applications, and I’m listing below the top scorers for 2013. I’m also including the the average virus detection miss rates for each antivirus program. These rates are based on articles I have read for 2012 and early 2013.
From my personal experience with viruses I cannot agree with the detection and removal rates that most studies publish. I have found that antivirus software is almost useless in detecting and/or removing viruses. If you do suspect a virus on your machine, then I strongly suggest trying to hunt it down yourself instead of relying entirely on one or more antivirus tools.
On the flip side, it can’t really hurt to have an antivirus program installed and running on your machine. Adding an extra layer of security is just a good idea in general.
In descending order of effectiveness, here are the top free antivirus tools for 2013:
Avira – One of the best virus detection rates (1% miss rate) (Avira Download Site)
Avast – Good at detecting viruses (2% miss rate) (Avast Download Site)
AVG – OK at detecting (3-4% miss rate), bad at virus removal. Has an anti-rootkit scan feature. (AVG Download Site)
Windows Defender – Not so great virus detection rates. 5-7% miss rate. However Windows Defender also doesn’t feature the annoying advertising and stealth 3rd party software installations that the other free antivirus tools have. I guess there is a bit of give-and-take here: a lower detection rate, but no advertising and third party junk-ware.
You typically do not need to separately download and install Windows Defender since it comes integrated with your Windows system.
If you are working to harden your system against virus infection, then it is a good idea to install some specialized antivirus tools to run alongside your general antivirus software.
CWShredder (by Trend Micro) – This tool will help you remove the CoolWebSearch family of spyware. Since Trend Micro took over CWShredder they have not maintained the software. This does not bode well for CWShredder’s future. It is currently still useful somewhat software, but will soon be worthless unless action is taken to update it.
HijackThis (by Trend Micro) – This is a straightforward tool that outputs the running processes on your computer for analysis that is especially designed is especially useful for detecting browser hijack attempts. For less experienced users the process list is a useful feature, since one can post this to a forum or support site to help track down suspicious processes. Since the HijackThis software is open source and actively maintained it will likely continue to be a useful addition to your list of useful PC maintenance tools.
The realm of PC security software includes applications that can be used to remove the malware/spyware that standard antivirus applications do not catch. I suggest installing all of these on your computer since you want to maximize the amount of malware and spyware detected and removed.
Currently in 2013 it is really amazing how much junk can sneak onto one’s machine. Even if this isn’t considered a “virus”, it does slow your PC’s performance and it does compromise your privacy. It is best to go after programs, tracking cookies, and other garbage as aggressively as possible.
The leader in the anti-malware battle, this software should be on your computer if you are working on tracking down malware or spyware. Various reviews confirm that even though the software program itself hasn’t been updated in a while, the definitions are kept very up to date and do help to identify and remove infections.
MalwareBytes needs to be updated and run manually in the free version, but can be set to update/run automatically in the paid for version. Personally I prefer to manually manage my security applications rather than having them constantly taking up system resources, so I am happy with the free version.
A long-time contender on the anti-spyware, anti-malware scene. Its detection rates are just under those of MalwareBytes.You will need to manually run and update this software although there are also options for the software to run, scan, and update itself. Since I run several anti-malware tools I prefer to run and updated them manually instead of having multiple processes bogging down my system. If you are hardening your machine against malware, then it is a good idea to have SuperAntiSpyware running alongside MalwareBytes.
WinPatrol (BillP Studios)
This is a comprehensive PC system management utility that runs as a background process and that will warn you if a new program is trying to add itself to your list of startup programs. It has a number of system management tabs where you can see:
- Hidden files
- Recently used files
- Active tasks and services
- IE helper objects
- ActiveX objects
- Sheduled tasks
- Startup/delayed startup programs
- WinPatrol allows you to delete even locked files, which is very important when one is manually hunting down viruses or malware.
I have been using this tool for years and consider it to be a useful addition to my list of security related tools. On the other hand Winpatrol’s security is not foolproof and modern malware tends to easily circumvent it. However in the battle against all the viruses, malware, and junkware trying to install themselves on your system, Winpatrol is another useful addition to try to catch unwanted junk on your system.
A further point to note is that in Windows 7 WinPatrol does not peacefully run with System Explorer (by Mister Group). You will need to select one or the other tool to use since they do not peacefully co-exist. However in Windows 8 both tools seem to run side-by-side without any problems.
System Explorer (by Mister Group)
This software offers similar but also different features to WinPatrol, not to mention the native Windows Task Manager.
With System Explorer you are able to:
- View running tasks
- See active processes
- Review your system’s overall performance
- Also, a history function allows you to see everything that is happening on your computer and even to log this to a save file.
I consider the functionality offered by System Explorer to be essential to knowing what is going on behind the scenes of your computer. The downside of seeing all of this information in such minute detail is that it takes a lot of time to properly analyze the data by oneself.
Perhaps one of the neatest features of System Explorer is the ability to automatically scan and identify your running processes against an online security database. This helps reduce the tedious amount of searching one has to do to manually review each process. After the automated scan you are presented with a comprehensive security report with suspicious files clearly singled out.
In addition to the automated scan, the default view of your running processes in System Explorer comes with the option to automatically check and/or get details for each one. I strongly suggest using this software if you are willing to actively maintain your system’s security.
System Hardware Information
It’s always good to know what the hardware on your machine consists of. If you are experiencing performance problems with your system, then identifying a possible hardware issue is part of the process. It can be that poor performance is due to an obsolete component that can easily be replaced, and system crashes caused by overheating of various key components.
Speccy (by Piriform)
This tool does exactly what one expects it to, and it does it in amazing detail. It will show you exactly what hardware is running on your system including operating temperatures for your RAM, CPU, and Hard Disk Drive.
If you are tracking down mysterious system performance issues, then checking for potential hardware problems is made easy by using Speccy.
It goes without saying that file recovery can be useful to anyone who owns a computer. It’s easy to delete the wrong file and with tools like Recuva below it’s quite simple to recover any files that has been recently deleted.
Recuva (by Piriform) – This tool is used for deleted file recovery, and it is quite good at doing what it was built for. After a rather small 3.5mb download and installation, you will be presented with a wizard-style window that tries to narrow down where the deleted files were and what type of files they are. After answering the questions, you will see a detailed report of deleted files on your system as well as the chances of properly recovering each file. If you switch the view to advanced mode, you will be able to preview, and filter the files by file type. This tool is certainly a useful addition to a good selection of PC maintenance utilities.
The world of firewall software these days is very competitive. The native Windows firewall is becoming increasingly sophisticated so other firewall software makers are adding a number of tools and options to their software to entice users to choose their offering. In my opinion there are two main firewall developers that offer free software that has features beyond the in-built Windows firewall. Comodo Firewall and ZoneAlarm are two great free products that are worth trying out.
I would like to mention that I am not convinced that third party firewall software is in fact a better choice than the default Windows firewall. With the constant advances of Windows firewall, I would be reluctant to replace the native Windows 7 or Windows 8 firewall in favor of a free third party firewall. There is an interesting discussion on the topic on the Microsoft forums. The bottom line is that if browser security has taught us any lessons, then it’s the fact that third party software installed with the browser is a major source of security issues (currently the main source of system infections through a Web browser happen through loopholes in the Java and sometimes Adobe reader browser plugins). From what I have read, third party firewall software in fact lowers your system security rather than enhances it. However Comodo firewall and ZoneAlarm do a good job of being competitive and offer a number of interesting features that are not standard with the native Windows firewall.
This firewall application is an entire suite of useful tools, including some that you can download separately. I won’t do a comprehensive walk-through of the Comodo firewall software, but I will cover some of the key features in point form.
- For starters, Comodo has a useful feature to run your browser in a virtual sand-boxed environment, or even to create a virtual & sandboxed desktop. From a security perspective this is great since anything that installs or downloads in the sandboxed environment is automatically removed after you have finished using the program. If you want this functionality without installing Comodo Firewall,
- One annoyance that I have with this software is that it comes bundled with a help support system called GeekBuddy. Maybe this add-on is interesting for others, but I did not find it useful and did not want it installed on my system. I uninstalled it as soon as I was able to and have not regretted my decision.
- Based on what files you allow and disallow, Comodo keeps logs of the programs and network activity it has blocked for you to review in detail. This is pretty cool.
- Comodo features an option called Stealth Ports which allows you to block or alert you of all incoming connections.
- Comodo’s behavior blocker is disabled by default, but adds another security layer to the firewall that is worthwhile enabling. Without the behavior blocker Comodo firewall gets low reviews for security, but the security ratings increase when the behavior blocker feature is enabled.
- Another nice feature with Comodo Firewall is that it lets you scan your files and quarantine them. I am unsure of the effectiveness of their system although it does conveniently summarize the scan results including files that are bad or that the software is unsure of. You can then tell Comodo to trust files you are sure are safe to connect through the firewall.
- If you like more granular control over processes that are communicating with the Internet, you can access the inbuilt Comodo Killswitch utility. Killswitch let’s you track your running processes, services, and applications in order to see network usage and other useful statistics on each. Killswitch also comes with some useful tools such as Program Usage Analyzer which shows you the most commonly used programs on your computer. Another very useful tool that is part of Comodo Kilswitch is AutoRun Analyzer which scans your system for programs that start themselves with your commonly made system actions such as when your system starts itself, when you start Internet Explorer, or when you connect to the local network. Unknown or untrusted autorun entries are conveniently flagged for you. The information shown is incredibly granular and fascinating.
I thought I’s mention ZoneAlarm as well since although I haven’t used it myself, I have read many rave reviews about ZoneAlarm. ZoneAlarm receives top marks as free firewall software, especially in the realm of security. Note, however, that the free version of ZoneAlarm is considered safest of the free firewall software, but not as secure as paid for solutions like Norton’s firewall. I plan to try out ZoneAlarm in future and expand on this entry.
An incredibly useful function for keeping your system safe from viruses, malware, and general junk is a sandboxing tool. Sandboxing tools work by running any application you choose in a virtual sandbox. To the application being run everything looks like it is being run as usual on your computer. However, once you have finished using your application, all of the history and junk that comes with running the application will be automatically removed like it was never there. In my opinion this is genius, so it is a shame that sandboxing tools are so seldomly used and that there are so few options available.
Where can you get sandboxing tools?
- Comodo Firewall comes with the ability to host a sandboxed virutal desktop, or to run any application you want in sandboxed mode.
- With Windows 8 professional there is a free sandboxing tool included called Hyper-V which even lets you boot from a sandboxed virtual hard drive.
- For general application sandboxing, the tool called Sandboxie is supposedly good. The makers of Sandboxie claim that it runs on Windows 8 despite Windows incompatibility warning messages. This was not true when I tried installing Sandboxie on my Windows 8 machine. Sandboxie would not run at all. Thus if you own Windows 8 but don’t have the professional version, you do not have the option to install a proper sandboxing utility.