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.

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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.

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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:

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