Truly awesome tools for Windows 7 power users

Improve system performance, sync with colleagues, and transform your PC into a Wi-Fi hotspot with these nine essentials

The quest for the perfect personalized Windows setup is too often derailed when it comes to finding the right tools for your needs. Top 10 lists abound, but few of them offer truly helpful utilities, especially for those of us steeped in Windows.

More often than not, the best bets come from hard-won research and trusted colleagues. With that in mind, I set out to compile a list of Windows 7 essentials, polling friends and trolling the Internet, a fruitful process through which I cleaned up my system, fenced in my desktop, and transformed my laptop into a friendly sharer of Internet connectivity for all to use around me at the airport. Here are the best tools I found:

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Windows Live Essentials

Set up a Windows Live account, and you can leverage a wealth of free tools from Microsoft on your Windows 7, Vista, or, with some exceptions, XP machine. SkyDrive, for example, provides 25GB of protected free online storage, allowing you to access your documents, photos, and videos from anywhere, and to share those files with whomever you choose. Windows Live Essentials remains my favorite set of tools to date. This suite includes Photo Gallery, Mail, Movie Maker, Messenger, Writer, Family Safety, and Toolbar, among others.

Windows Live Gallery

Windows Live Gallery offers a wealth of gadgets, several of which provide insight into your CPU use, network activity, and so forth. One of my favorites is the Xirrus Wi-Fi Monitor. This Wi-Fi monitoring gadget shows available wireless network connections, verifies wireless coverage, and comes complete with a really cool radar display. Also available at the Windows Live Gallery are Twadget and TweetZ, two worthwhile Twitter gadgets for Windows.

Connectify

Connectify allows you to turn your Windows 7 laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot to share the Internet with friends, coworkers, and mobile devices. This free tool takes advantage of a feature in Windows 7 that allows users to create a virtual Wi-Fi adapter out of a real Wi-Fi adapter, making it appear as if you have two connections -- one an incoming connection, the other for sharing -- when in fact you have only one. Whereas the feature in Windows 7 is buggy and requires you to play in the command line, the Connectify GUI solution makes it work effortlessly. Released just this past month, Connectify 2.1 Beta 2 boasts support for PlayStation 3 and XBox 360. There are also improvements in terms of speed, connection stability, expanded wireless device support, and more.

Windows 7 Manager

The recommendation for this über system utility from Yamicsoft Software that helps you optimize, tweak, and clean up Windows 7, thereby allowing you to increase system speed and security, comes from Raphael Barini, chief solutions architect for ENow and an MCT. Windows 7 Manager offers a 15-day trial, after which it costs $39.95, and I have to say, it is an amazing all-in-one management tool. So many features for managing Windows 7 have been built into this tool, including network and security utilities, as well as those for optimizing and cleaning your system. But be warned: This essential tool is definitely not for beginners.

PerfectDisk 11

PerfectDisk 11 from Raxco Software uses an intelligent file placement strategy called Advanced SMARTPlacement to organize files according to usage patterns. The end result of this strategy is the elimination of fragmentation before it even happens. PD11 promises faster disk defragmentation passes, unlimited single drive size support, quicker server boots, slower rate of refragmentation (or fragmentation), reduced resource consumption, and overall improved system performance. The tool is free for a 30-day trial; $39.99 to buy.

Stardock Fences
If you're anything like me, Stardock Fences is essential. My dual-screen desktop was littered with icons for docs, videos, PDFs, folders, and so on until I found Stardock Fences. This tool helps clean up and organize all those icons. There is a free version and a Pro version (with more customization features) for $9.99. In less than five minutes, I had my desktop organized into fences that made sense for my needs.

Dropbox
Recommended to me initially by Brian Green from Train Signal, Dropbox is a great alternative to FTP file sharing that allows you to sync and share automatically. It takes a minute to install, and all you have to do is drop files/folders into your Dropbox, and it syncs up with everyone you are sharing with. Security is solid through file encryption (AES-256) on the servers. You get 2GB of free online storage with 100GB for paying customers, and the service syncs automatically when you are online and resumes where it left off should you lose the connection. You can sync with Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, and there is also an app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.

PowerISO
Recommended by Tom Arbuthnot, PowerISO is a CD/DVD image file processing tool that allows you to open, extract, create, edit, compress, encrypt, split, and convert ISO files, as well as mount these files with internal virtual drives. Personally, I'm a MagicISO fan, and I make it a point to download MagicDisc on pretty much every system I use to mount ISO files. But regardless of which you choose, you can rest assured that you have several options to chose from.

Laplink PCsync 6.0
Laplink PCsync 6.0 includes support for a Windows-to-Mac sync with one-way or two-way support. This enables you to move data over a Laplink cable (which runs about $30 to $40), an Ethernet cable, or the network. You can even enable SSL for a more secure transmission of data. Keep in mind, this is mainly a Windows-oriented product. There is no support currently for a Mac-to-Mac sync (although they say they are working on it). If you are looking for more of a Mac-oriented product, one that was recommended is SyncMate Expert from Eltima Software.

Have an essential tool to add to the list? Be sure to mention it in the comments below.

This article, "Truly awesome tools for Windows 7 power users," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in business software and Windows at InfoWorld.com.

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