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Best free apps from Microsoft

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 – though largely unsung – 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 – 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 £360 but can now be yours for nothing. Sounds like a good deal to us.

1. RichCopy

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.

Download RichCopy

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.

Download Scalable Fabric

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.

Download Debugging Tools for Windows

4. Insomnia

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 – 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.

Download Insomnia

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.

Download Process Monitor

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.

Download Virtual PC

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.

Download LCDS

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.

Download MBSA

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.

Download Process Explorer

10. Truespace

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 £360, but then Microsoft bought the technology for Virtual Earth and now it's available for free. Pretty impressive, huh?

Download Truespace

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.

Download Expression Encoder

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.

Download Windows Automated Installation Kit

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 – delete something important, install malware, or just poke around in the Control Panel – 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.

Download Windows SteadyState


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