15 incredibly useful (and free) Microsoft tools for IT pros
We've dug through the jungle that is Microsoft Downloads and found 15 of the best free tools you've probably never heard of.
It's a sad story: Microsoft's recently revamped download portal hosts literally tens of thousands of downloads. And while some of them are well-known must-haves, like Mark Russinovichs Sysinternals tools, others rarely get the attention they deserve. These hidden gems (and even some more popular tools) get lost among thousands of whitepapers, security updates and a glut of PowerPoint presentations.
I've scoured the depths of TechNet, MS Research and Microsoft Downloads to find these 15 incredibly useful (and free) tools. Let's get started:
1. WSCC – Windows System Control Center
My first pick isn't actually a Microsoft tool per se: Windows System Control Center is a one-stop downloader for almost 300 maintenance tools from Microsoft's Sysinternals and the ever-popular NirSoft suites: simply download WSCC from KLS-Soft, check all the tools you need and hit "Install". Minutes later you're equipped with some of the most useful tools out there, including Disk2Vhd, Autologon and Autoruns (also described below). WSCC saves these files under C:\Program Files (x86)\Sysinternals Suite, while NirSofts tools are found under C:\Program Files (x86)\NirSoft Utilities.
Update: WSCC installs tools that access kernel or filesystem files and perform various registry operations, which may cause your AV scanner to pop up (in the case of WebBrowserPassView, for instance). There is nothing to worry about: we’ve dug into this and found that some of the NirSoft tools are trigger false positives due to their nature. NirSoft is aware of the issue. Thanks to Wayne Rash from Network World for this hint!
2. RichCopy 4.0
Yes, everyone knows Robocopy, the command line "Pro" version of Windows Explorer's built-in file transfer tool, which provides you with far more options for copying and moving folders. Except now, there's a great UI frontend for Robocopy -- RichCopy 4.0. This little Microsoft TechNet invention spares you the headache of learning, checking and retyping command lines. Here are just a few of reasons why RichCopy is way better than the built-in Windows Explorer file transfer mechanisms:
Copy data on a regular schedule (e.g. copy files from your HD to an external disk every night)
Serialize disk access: optimize disk access for ATA based devices over USB.
Faster file transfers (in some cases) by avoiding the system buffer for file operations.
Copy files asynchronously by using multiple threads.
Configure time stamps, file size checks and security settings.
Besides, RichCopy is more resilient against slow connections or transfer errors. While it doesn't really make sense for copying one file or a smaller folder, it's essential if you're regularly moving bulks of data from one place to another.
3. Microsoft Attack Surface Scanner
Ever wondered if your system's security is as tight as it can be? Microsoft's Attack Surface Scanner is a sort of checklist that helps you analyze security issues and plug possible vulnerabilities fast. MSATA scans ports, security event logs, autorun entries, services and firewall settings (amongst others) and consolidates results into a CAB file:
4. Microsoft Standalone System Sweeper Tool
Not so hidden, but a nice little gem nonetheless.In case of a (deep) infection of boot files by viruses or rootkits, there's not much a real-time scanner can do. In that case, MSSSST (yes, that's Microsoft's naming convention at its best) creates a bootable CD, DVD or USB key that hosts an offline copy of Microsoft Security Essentials -– including all the latest signatures downloaded from MS servers beforehand.
5. NoReplyAll add-in for Outlook 2007 and 2010
A nice little Outlook addition for sending e-mails in house: "NoReplyAll" (a Microsoft Research Project) prevents e-mail recipients from forwarding or using "Reply All" to spread your e-mail to other co-workers. You can even prevent the recipient from replying entirely. It only works on machines that share the same Exchange server, but it's still a pretty useful addition to your daily Outlook routine.
6. VMMap – A peek inside your PC's memory
Ever wondered how much address space, main memory and virtual memory a running process is using? VMMap has answers -– and lots and lots more. As one of my favorite Sysinternals Suite (see WSCC above), VMMap shows a graphical representation of the entire memory usage that helps you understand the memory cost of every single application you're running or developing. The lower block of VMMap also details which files are being used by the process and how much memory is taken up in the process.
Yet another Sysinternals tool that I couldn't leave out: Disk2VHD (also available via WSCC or directly from here) clones your physical system partitions into a virtual hard disk file (VHD) for use in Windows Virtual PC or to boot from natively (VHD boot is only supported in Windows 7 Enterprise in Ultimate, though). This is fantastic for evaluating software or for moving over to a new system: you can basically save your entire Windows OS, including all programs, settings and data, move to a system and still boot up your old Windows inside a virtual environment –- just in case you forgot something! Beware: Disk2Vhd doesn't support partitions larger than 127 GB and it also clones your entire partition record (including its partition signature), so you might run into issues if you're trying to mount the cloned ".vhd" file with the system you created it in the first place.
Is your laptop battery dying way too soon? Does your desktop suck up way more power than it actually should? Joulemeter might just be the right tool for you. This MS Research invention monitors total power usage and helps you calibrate your laptop's battery. Furthermore, it's capable of actually monitoring power usage of each process running: Go to "Power Usage", enter the name of one of your running applications ("itunes.exe", for example) and hit "Start" to measure its overall impact on power usage. This is great for the battery runtime obsessed. By avoiding such power-hungry executables, you'll squeeze the very last bit out of your laptop's battery life and even save some Watts on your desktop.
9. Microsoft Image Composite Editor
Microsoft ICE helps you stitch photos -– and even videos -– together and create nice little panoramas and sideshows. ICE supports the usual pictures formats (JPG, PNG, GIF, TIF…) and video file types (WMV, AVI, MP4…) and makes them "one".
10. Microsoft Windows Performance Toolkit
Number 10 is one of these little helpers I can't live without. Microsoft's performance tools are the most reliable speed tests for accurately measuring PC performance over a certain period of time. For analyzing PC usage over a certain amount of time, use the "xperf –on DiagEasy" command to start and "xperf –d trace.etl" to stop.
I use it to troubleshoot a slow or stuck boot-up, shutdown, standby and hibernation. It ties in closely with all these processes and gives IT pros an overview of what's causing delays or problems. Simply launch XBootMgr.exe (via a command line or shortcut) and use one of the following parameters:
Testing boot time: xbootmgr –trace boot –traceFlags BASE+CSWITCH+DRIVERS+POWER
Testing shutdown: xbootmgr –trace shutdown –traceFlags BASE+CSWITCH+DRIVERS+POWER
Testing standby: xbootmgr –trace standby –traceFlags BASE+CSWITCH+DRIVERS+POWER
Testing hibernate: xbootmgr –trace hibernate –traceFlags BASE+CSWITCH+DRIVERS+POWER
Now, go to your Start menu and fire up "Windows Performance Analyzer" to open the ".etl" file created by the trace.
You'll end up with a detailed analysis on
a) how long the entire boot takes (from loading the first boot file to initializing the last service) and
b) which process, service or driver is causing delays.
11. Speed Launch
Back in 2008, Officelabs launched an interesting productivity tool dubbed "Speed Launcher". You can use this to launch a series of programs, websites or shell commands at the same time -– with just one click or by using WIN+C keyboard shortcut and selecting the appropriate tile. For example, I created a series called "Research" that automatically opens Microsoft Word, OneNote and www.wikipedia.com at the same -– yes, that's quite a simple one but you get the idea. To create a new series, simply drag & drop shortcuts onto the Speed Launch icon or right-click on it and go to "Manage Icons".
12. Screen Recorder
Sick of repeating your instructions once, twice…tens times to PC newcomers or coworkers? Don't want to use TeamViewer each and every time to show your family how to burn a DVD or make a photo slideshow? Just use Screen Recorder and record the instructions –- step by step! This free little recorder isn't exactly Microsoft-owned but is now a featured download over at TechNet and combined with Windows Media Encoder. It records either the entire screen or just single windows and saves the clips into the WMV format.
Suffering from a slow connection? You get the feeling that something's bogging down your WiFi or Ethernet adapter? TCPView (also a part of Sysinternals and available via WSCC) is your chance to figure out which process is costing you how much bandwidth and deal with this connection hog. Simply launch TCPView and sort all processes by clicking the "Sent Packages/Bytes" or "Rcvd Packages/Bytes" header to get the top bandwidth hogs.
There's no better way to manage Windows boot-up than "Autoruns". This little Sysinternals gem doesn't just provide you with a better way of turning off unwanted startup entries (à la "msconfig"). It's capable of disabling scheduled tasks, drivers, codecs, gadgets, IE add-ons and more. But be careful what you uncheck: many of these drivers and services are necessary to boot your system.
15. Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 2.0
EMET strengthens security for applications without having to recompile them or waiting for the developer to release a new version. It adds several mitigations to the application of your choice, including SEHOP (Structured Error Handling Overwrite Protection), Dynamic Data Execution Prevention and mandatory ASLR (Advanced Space Layout Randomization).
Simply go to "Configure Apps" and select the ".exe" file you want to protect. Note: though I haven't experienced any problems with the applications I tested, some of these security features might interfere with certain program features (think 3rd party plug-ins that need to access the .exe regularly).
So those are my 15 favorites. What free Microsoft tools have you discovered that you can't live without?