When it comes to free software, the open-source community certainly has a monopoly on high-minded posturing and puffy rhetoric. Just take a look at the Philosophy page of the GNU operating system’s website:
"Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer. Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms."
But when it comes to free software, those free-loving, free-wheeling open sourcers have an unlikely challenger: Microsoft. Yes, you heard us right, Microsoft: the ice to Fedora’s fire; the night to Ubuntu’s day.
But as unlikely as it may seem, Redmond actually has a thriving â€“ though largely unsung â€“ library of free applications available to download. And we’re not just talking about freeware cobbled together in bedrooms by people who don’t get out much.
We’re talking well-engineered, high-quality programs written by the same people who created Windows and all the rest. It’s stuff we’re sure that Microsoft would love to charge for, but with uncharacteristic benevolence, it’s chosen to give it away.
The only difficulty is finding the stuff : it’s hidden here and there in and around Microsoft’s sprawling website. We’ve played detective and tracked down the best free Microsoft apps.
Our travels through the world of Microsoft freebies started by looking for utilities. Could we find 15 worth including on our list? Half an hour later, with a shortlist of 40, we realised that finding enough wasn’t going to be an issue â€“ the real problem would be deciding what to leave out.
Sysinternals produces some of the best Windows tools around. With more than 70 utilities on offer, we could fill our pages with nothing else, but that would make for an unimaginative selection. We picked just two, then, but take a look at the site to see what else is available.
Microsoft’s Research Labs, technical blogs and Download Centre also proved fertile, revealing everything from simple utilities to an app that used to sell for آ£360 but can now be yours for nothing. Sounds like a good deal to us.
This handy file transfer tool is multi-threaded, copying several files in parallel for improved performance. Versatile file filters let you customise exactly what is copied, while you can also pause and resume operations, which is useful if your network connection goes down.
2. Scalable Fabric
Install Scalable Fabric and any windows you minimise simply shrink to thumbnail size and slide to the side of the desktop. This helps program content to stay more visible, which means that it’s easier to pick out the window you need. Restoring windows is as easy as dragging the thumbnail towards the screen centre.
3. Debugging Tools for Windows
What’s causing your blue-screen crashes? If Windows won’t tell you, just install the debugging tools and open the crash dump file. Within a minute or two you’ll often get your answer. Browse the Ask the Performance Team blog for more advanced debugging tips.
It’s annoying when your Windows 7 PC goes to sleep while you’re downloading a big file, running a backup or doing something else important, but there’s an easy solution â€“ just run Insomnia. It’ll disable sleep mode for the moment, allowing your tasks to go ahead without interruption. To get back to normal, all you have to do is close the program. Easy.
5. Process Monitor
Process Monitor logs all your PC’s file and Registry activity, making it easy to identify over-active processes that might be hogging your system’s resources. It’s also good at diagnosing odd application behaviour in general, and can be handy when you’re on a malware-hunting expedition.
6. Virtual PC
Virtual PC makes it easy to run different versions of Windows on your own desktop. It’s the central technology behind Windows 7’s XP Mode, which allows the new OS to launch old software that would otherwise be unable to run on your updated system.
7. Learning Content Development System
LCDS is a powerful tool for creating what Microsoft call ‘e-learning content’: Silverlight-based online courses that feature quizzes, games, assessments, animations and other interactive features.
You work with pre-defined forms, so no programming skills are required in order to create good looking, impressive content.
8. Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer
Let MBSA scan your PC for a couple of minutes and you’ll get a detailed report on all of its security holes, including missing system patches, user account or password issues, problematic Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office security settings and a whole lot more.
9. Process Explorer
A Task Manager on steroids, Process Explorer displays in-depth information on every process your PC is running right now. You can use it to spot big resource hogs, diagnose memory leaks or find out which process has opened a particular file.
It’s also handy for pausing badly behaved programs that grab all your CPU time, closing them down safely when all else fails and generally troubleshooting all kinds of other odd Windows behaviour.
This fully featured 3D authoring package contains everything that you need to build 3D models, add textures and lighting effects, render the models and even create cinema quality animations.
It used to cost around آ£360, but then Microsoft bought the technology for Virtual Earth and now it’s available for free. Pretty impressive, huh?
11. Expression Encoder 3.0
Expression Encoder is targeted at web developers who want to "publish rich media experiences with Microsoft Silverlight", but in reality this is an excellent tool for anyone who wants to play around with video.
Essentially, it’s a grown-up version of Media Encoder: you can import clips, carry out basic cut editing, crop or deinterlace them, add visual or audio overlays and then encode the finished results to WMV files with complete control over all the video settings (bit rate, size, aspect ratio, encoding method and more).
Extras include a powerful screen capture tool that will record whatever’s going on in the window or region you specify. There are a few limitations with this free version (no H.264 output, and it’s WMV-only), but it’s still a capable program in its own right, and one that will never time out. It’s well worth a look.
12. Windows Automated Installation Kit for Windows 7
The Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) is an advanced tool that can create a custom Windows 7 set-up disc with your own settings, device drivers and other tweaks.
If you’re looking after several Windows 7 PCs then this can save a great deal of time, as every time you reinstall Windows 7 it’ll have the default settings and files you need ready and waiting.
13. Windows SteadyState
Are your kids always breaking the PC? Then you may need Windows SteadyState. With this clever tool you first take a snapshot of a PC the way you’d like it. Then, no matter what any users happen to do â€“ delete something important, install malware, or just poke around in the Control Panel â€“ any changes will be reversed on rebooting, and everything will be back to the way it should be. This app works with XP and Vista.
With only five spots to fill in the Makeover section, competition was tough. There are plenty of Windows Media Player skins around and Microsoft offers plenty of free wallpaper images, too â€“ the images of Singapore are particularly attractive â€“ but picking a single winner seemed futile, as everyone has their own opinion on what’s best.
And while the Live Messenger 10-year anniversary gift pack really is "crammed with emoticons, backgrounds, scenes and winks", that still wasn’t quite enough to make the top five. So what did? Keep reading to find out.
14. Microsoft Office 2007 Templates
The standard Microsoft Office 2007 templates are rather basic, but fortunately Microsoft does offer more templates to help you expand your documents’ horizons. The examples featured here are still fairly business-like, but they do cover a wide range, with templates for presentations, invoices, spreadsheets, letterheads, business cards, email blasts and newsletters available.
15. Microsoft Egypt Nile Theme
If you’re tired of the standard Windows XP look then Microsoft’s Egypt Nile Theme certainly makes a refreshing change, with attractive wallpaper, custom-designed icons and an animated screensaver all included.
16. Yule Log Visualisation
‘Tis the season to be jolly, so why leave your PC out of the festivities? This Yule Log Visualisation for Windows Media Player was originally released back in 2001 as part of the Windows Media Bonus Pack, but Microsoft manager Sean Alexander has unofficially released a revamped version that works on 32- and 64-bit Windows Vista.
So go on â€“ get yourself some mulled wine and relax as the flames festively flicker in time with your music.
17. Microsoft Office Clip Art
Microsoft Word can easily handle the text-based mechanics of, say, writing a Christmas newsletter, but to create something really special you often need to add a little clipart. This free library is packed with images â€“ searching for ‘penguin’ returned more than 90 images, and even ‘hedge’ returned 24, along with some animations and sounds.
18. Windows 7 theme packs
Windows 7 has some gorgeous themes, but if you haven’t found the one for you yet, look no further than Microsoft’s site. It has a good selection of ‘product placement’ themes (Coca Cola, Ferrari, Ducati and so on), but even better are the 20 international themes, which feature spectacular landscape shots from around the world.
Microsoft offers all kinds of interesting productivity related freebies across its various websites, but its Research and Office labs often provide the most intriguing examples.
The Excel 2007 Chart Advisor, for instance, intelligently selects the most appropriate graph for your data. StickySorter is a useful brainstorming tool that captures data in the form of virtual sticky notes, then lets you collaborate with others to organise them into affinity diagrams.
And the Email Prioritizer is an Outlook 2007 plug-in to help you cope with email overload. A ‘Do not disturb’ button pauses email delivery, while a 0 to 3-star rating system helps you set priorities for messages.
Impressive though these were, they still didn’t make the final cut: a trawl of Microsoft sites revealed 15 even better ways to save you time, hassle and money.
19. Microsoft Research Image Composite Editor
Stitching multiple photos together to produce a panorama can take hours to do manually, as well as requiring guru-level Photoshop skills. Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor (ICE) takes your digital photos, figures out how they should be placed, tweaks the lighting to cope with different exposures and then exports the results in a wide variety of image formats.
20. Search Commands
If you often find yourself poking around the Office 2007 ribbon trying to find an elusive command, this simple add-on should appeal. Click on the new Search Commands tab in Word, Excel or PowerPoint 2007, type a word or phrase that’s a part of the command you’re looking for and all the related commands will appear immediately.
21. Microsoft Office Outlook Connector 12.1
It has an odd name, but the Microsoft Office Outlook Connector 12.1 actually does something very useful: it lets you access Windows Live Hotmail and Live Calendar from within Outlook 2003 and 2007, providing a simple way to synchronise your schedule and Live Hotmail contacts with your work email.
22. Microsoft AutoCollage
Point AutoCollage at a folder of photos and it’ll analyse them, use face detection and ‘saliency filters’ to pick out all the interesting bits and then blend them into a collage. If it delivers for you, this app could save hours of work. Unfortunately this particular freebie is restricted to teachers only, though the rest of us can download a trial version from here.
23. PowerShell Pack
PowerShell is a versatile Microsoft scripting technology that’s now included with Windows 7. The PowerShell Pack contains 10 modules that show off just how much you can do, allowing you to create rich user interfaces, monitor files and folders, check for duplicate files and even convert, rotate, scale and crop images.
24. Microsoft Producer for PowerPoint 2003
This handy tool can help you to create online presentations in three straightforward steps. First, you import the images, audio or video files and PowerPoint slides you’d like to use. Then you arrange your media so that the sounds, video and images are all synchronised correctly. Finally the Publishing Wizard exports your work to web pages of your choice, either locally or an a remote web server.
25. Forgotten Attachment Detector
It’s easy to fire off an email and forget to add an important attachment, but this Outlook 2007 add-in could help. The program looks for keywords in an Outlook 2007 email to indicate that you intend to add an attachment. If there isn’t one when you click ‘Send’, it displays a pop-up warning and provides a chance to correct the mistake.
Why restrict your PowerPoint presentations to the usual dull linear format? With pptPlex you’re able to move around within slide sections, or easily jump back or forward to a slide that you might need. You’re also able to zoom in on part of a slide to show more details.
If you find one desktop too restricting then this utility could help â€“ it lets you organise your apps on up to four virtual desktops. Switching between these is easy: you can use a system tray icon or hotkeys to swap the current desktop.
28. Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack
If you’re still using Office XP, or even 2003, then you can’t read the new document formats introduced in Office 2007. The Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack lets you open, edit and save files in both the old standards and the new formats.
29. Windows Live Sync
If you work on more than one computer, you’ll know all about the problems of file synchronisation. Install Windows Live Sync on each client (Mac OS X or Windows) and you’re able to synchronise up to 20 folders with 20,000 files each â€“ so everything is always available and up to date.
30. Microsoft Math
This Office accessory adds geeky computational fun to Word 2007. Once it’s installed, you can use the add-in to solve equations, simplify algebraic expressions, calculate numerical results and plot functions, equations or inequalities in 2D or 3D.
31. Microsoft SharedView
When you need to collaborate with friends or colleagues on any kind of project, Microsoft SharedView can help. It reaches out through firewalls to create a virtual meeting for up to 15 people and then allows you to share screens and even give control of your desktop to others.
32. WMI Code Creator
This app makes it easy to create scripts that query your PC for all kinds of useful information: which programs you’ve installed, which ones are running at the minute, your services’ configuration, how your RAM is used and much more.
33. Windows Command Reference
As a knowledgeable PC user you’ll probably build a batch file from time to time and you won’t be afraid of the occasional session at the command line. Microsoft has added many new command line tools over the years, and enhanced others with new switches, so it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re up to date. An easy way to do this is to use Windows Command Reference.
It’s nothing complicated â€“ just a single CHM help file â€“ but Windows Command Reference contains in-depth details on just about every Windows command line tool there is. We learned a great deal just by scrolling down the list and clicking on commands that we didn’t recognise or hadn’t used for a little while.
If you ever use Windows command line tools then you must grab a copy of Command Reference â€“ it’s sure to boost your command prompt productivity and improve your use of the command line.
Microsoft has always provided interesting free programming tools. Today there are powerful and complete development environments with everything you need to build attractive, feature-packed, data-driven websites.
OK, they don’t quite have everything â€“ there have to be reasons why you’ll pay for the full product, after all â€“ but the Express Edition tools can produce good work and are perfect for discovering exactly what the technology can do. But there’s more to Microsoft web freebies than development tools.
Years ago, Microsoft used to provide fun browser extras in its PowerToys, handy utilities that extended IE’s capabilities in many different directions. These petered out somewhere between IE4 and IE5, but now Eric Lawrence, a manager on the IE team, has filled the gap with his own IEToys, tiny tools that add simple but essential features to IE6, 7 and 8.
34. Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Edition
You could just use this to build web pages â€“ but add an ASP.NET Starter Kit and you’ll have an attractive template for business, blogging or personal sites.
It excels with more in-depth projects, too, from creating Facebook apps to building SQL Server-powered websites.
This collection of tools works with IE6, 7 and 8, adding features like the one-click removal of web page images, easy text highlighting, the ability to copy an image even if the right-click option is disabled and quick dictionary, Wikipedia and Google lookup. What’s more, it’s all contained in a 123kB download.
36. Web Platform Installer
Web Platform Installer cuts out all the hassle of configuring a web server by detecting the components you’ve installed already, displaying everything else that’s on offer and deploying it in a couple of clicks. So you can ask it to download and install new IIS modules, web apps, development tools and more.
Some sites demand you use certain tools; a site might prevent anything other than QuickTime downloading their videos, for instance. UAPick helps fix this by letting you change your identifying User-Agent string to anything you like.
38. Coding4Fun Dev Kit
This tool provides code for all kinds of apps. Examples include communicating with Bluetooth devices, interacting with Vista calendar, creating handlers for Windows Explorer and more.
There’s more to Microsoft than Word and Excel: when the work is done, Windows likes to handle all your entertainment needs, too. If you’re running Windows Vista or 7 then the increasing focus on entertainment is already obvious, from the inclusion of Media Center as a standard Windows component to improved media streaming and some great new games.
These integrated efforts won’t hold your attention for very long, though, and you might soon be tempted to part with big money for new games, music and other goodies to brighten up your spare time.
But wait! Don’t open your wallet just yet. We’ve been scouring the web for Microsoft entertainment-related freebies and have made some very interesting discoveries. There are weeks of fun to be had here for no more investment than a little download time. Honest!
39. Games for Windows â€“ LIVE 3.0 Client
If you’re a fan of Microsoft games then installing this simple utility will keep you up to date with all the latest releases, demos, videos, add-ons and new levels. You can quickly access most content in a couple of clicks, so it’s a time-saver too.
40. Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties
The Age of Empires games are always a good mix of compelling gameplay and real-time strategy.
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties heads east for a whole new set of challenges and stories. The trial version adds a new random map and a new game to the mix.
41. MechCommander 2
If your old PC isn’t up to playing the latest games, you’ll be happy to know that Microsoft still hosts the trial versions of old classics like MechCommander 2. The graphics are basic, but then they only require a "SVGA 2D video card with 8MB of video RAM" â€“ so you can be sure they’ll run on just about anything.
42. Bing Maps 3D
What was Virtual Earth has become Bing Maps 3D. The maps service is good, but you can make it better still by enabling the 3D mode, which enables you to rotate, zoom and fly around many famous landmarks.
43. WorldWide Telescope
This Microsoft Research project stitches together gorgeous images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other sources, creating a virtual telescope that lets you pan around outer space and zoom straight to planets, moons, constellations and more.
44. BlueScreen Screen Saver
Could this be the most evil PC-based practical joke of all time? Copy it to the System32 folder on a PC, set it up as the default screen saver and when the time comes it’ll pop up a simulated blue-screen error message guaranteed to strike fear and panic into the heart of your luckless victim. We just hope they see the funny side.
A Microsoft-sponsored project at ReverbNation means you can download 1,000 interesting tracks from new artists (and a few old ones) for free. You won’t have heard of most of them, but there are some quality tracks here in many different genres â€“ they could be just what your MP3 player needs.
Silverlight allows web developers to add powerful interfaces and advanced graphics capabilities to their websites. At least, that’s the idea, but right now most of them seem to be using Silverlight to create some attractive and highly playable free games. Download the free Silverlight plug-in, then sample what’s on offer at sites like Silverlight Club and Mashooo.
47. Tetris / Backgammon / Connect4 / Sudoku
These four entertaining games aren’t an official Microsoft release, but they still make a colourful and fun addition to any Windows Mobile smartphone or PDA. You don’t have either? Pay a visit to the site anyway for the many other interesting coding projects.
48. Zune 4.0
Zune 4.0 is the management tool for Microsoft’s Zune media player, but you don’t need a Zune to take advantage of it â€“ there’s plenty to recommend the program as a standalone media player in its own right.
A new Smart DJ function, for instance, creates related playlists based on the artists you give it, making it easy to keep things upbeat or downbeat, depending on your mood.
It only takes a moment to find your favourite music, as newly added and recently played tunes are displayed upfront, and others can be added to a ‘Quick play’ list in just a couple of clicks. And the program looks great throughout, appearing streamlined and stylish, with excellent use of album art.