The Windows Admin/Power User’s Toolkit

July 2, 2024
9 min read

As best I can recall, I started working with Windows somewhere around the 3.0 or 3.11 release date (May 1990 and April 1992, respectively). Ever since that first exposure to the Windows operating system and its applications, I’ve been a collector and an aficionado of Windows tools and utilities. Many of them come from Microsoft itself – either with the OS, or available online as a download (though back in the earliest days they were more likely to come on floppy disk or CD) – but many of them also come from third parties. In this story, I’ll compile and add to a list of short but hopefully compelling stories about individual tools, with some general information and guidance on why I’ve selected some tool (or suite of tools, as will occasionally be the case) to put in a hypothetical toolbox for your perusal and consideration.

Tool Sources and Selection Criteria

I find tools in a variety of ways, as do most Windows professionals. Mostly, they come from referrals via various websites or online forums including the various Microsoft forums such as the Microsoft Community (aka answers.com) and the Windows Community (aka Microsoft Tech Forums), as well as my personal favorites TenForums.com and ElevenForum.com (on both of which I am reasonably active).

To qualify for inclusion in my toolbox – and possibly also in yours as well – a Windows tool must meet various criteria. These include the following (but may qualify on other grounds as well):

  • Utility: Many of these tools are called utilities, but all of them must be able to do something useful and do it reasonably well. Ultimately, this means that what I recommend in the list also shows up on every Windows PC that I own and/or manage. I’m so used to working with them, I don’t want to function without them. I will explain another strategy that doesn’t require installing them on target PCs later in this story.
  • Low-cost/no-cost: Whenever possible I will recommend reputable, stable and reliable freeware (which may or may not be open source, depending on the specific license involved) or donationware. Only when free software is either not available or “crippleware” (software based on a commercial version that offers greater functionality) do I recommend buying tools. But for some applications – for example, data recovery from deleted files or partitions on a storage device – spending money on software you can run yourself could save big on commercial data recovery service charges.
  • East of use/Intelligibility: For any kind of Windows action or maintenance you will probably find numerous software options. To be worth my time and effort, the ones I use must be sensible, as easy to use as possible, and friendly enough to figure things out if not used every day.
  • Benign system impact: Ill-designed or -developed software can cause unwanted side effects that range from performance problems while in use to unwanted changes to system or software configurations as a consequence of use. To be worth your time and effort, you should be quite sure that using a tool won’t itself cause problems or make things worse instead of better should you use them. Preferably, tools should be fast, stable, secure and receive regular updates to keep up with Windows itself and the security landscape in which PCs run nowadays.

The Toolbox List I Use Almost Everywhere

I include two suites of tools in my list and then over 20 individual tools that you’ll have to chase individually from various publishers.

Tool/utility Suites

  • Microsoft SysInternals (download): A suite of tools from a company named Winternals that Microsoft bought in 2006. They acquired that company mostly to obtain the services of kernel expert and software engineer Mark Russinovich who immediately became a Technical Fellow at Microsoft. Today, he’s the Chief Technical Office (CTO) for Microsoft Azure. Winternals also offered a set of tools called Sysinternals, still available online through Microsoft Learn today, with an official troubleshooting guide, an update blog, a case study blog, and a raft of learning resources to back them up.
  • NirLauncher (website): Nir Sofer is an independent but prolific Windows developer who offers a collection of over 200 focused but helpful Windows utilities through his website NirSoft.net. He breaks those tools into the following categories: password recovery, network monitoring, internet-related, Microsoft Outlook, command line, desktop and freeware system tools. His entire collection is also available inside a single console called NirLauncher.

Individual/standalone Tools and Utilities

  • 7-Zip (website): A free (open source) and friendly tool for compressing and encrypting file archives or reversing either or both of those processes.
  • 8GadgetPack (website): Freeware that supports a broad selection of desktop gadgets, as originally https://8gadgetpack.net/ introduced in Windows Vista (Microsoft discontinued support for Windows 7 and later versions).
  • Advanced IP Scanner (website): Freeware that supports IP local-area network scanning, with right-click menu access to command line, remote access and other network controls.
  • CPU-Z (website): Freeware that inspects and reports on the CPU installed on a target PC’s processor, motherboard, memory, graphics capabilities, and more.
  • CrystDiskMark and CrystalDiskInfo (website): Freeware (MIT license) that supports disk benchmarking and disk information reporting, respectively. Same download page for both, grab “standard editions” to avoid ads and other distractions.
  • Driver Store Explorer [aka RAPR.exe] (GitHub page): Open source (GNU GPL) GitHub project that enumerates all device drivers in the Windows Driver store, and automates cleanup for duplicate and out-of-date drivers. Look specifically for Using RAPR for Driver Cleanup. See also.
  • FileZilla (website): Free open source (GPU Affero GPL) FTP software for secure internet file transfer (FTP and more).
  • TechPowerUp GPU-Z (website): Freeware that provides detailed information about the graphics processing unit or circuits on the target PC, including chipset, sensors, drivers, power and more.
  • HWiNFO (website): Free for personal use, HWiNFO requires a commercial license for professional or workplace use. Even so, it’s a comprehensive source for hardware information about Windows systems on which it’s run.
  • Macrium Reflect Backup (website): The best Windows backup solution in my personal experience, Reflect now requires a commercial license for professional or commercial use. Worth it!
  • Managed Disk Cleanup (GitHub page): This freeware GitHub project is a minor reworking of Microsoft Disk Cleanup. It lets you grow the window to see all available options at one glance (built-in version shows only five checkbox options at a time).
  • Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolkit (DaRT, website): Part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), provides tools to recover end-user computers that won’t boot or can’t be logged into.
  • Microsoft PowerToys (Microsoft Store): A useful collection of add-ins to Microsoft Windows for managing sleep behavior, picking colors, working at the command line, and a whole lot more.
  • Microsoft Snipping Tool (Microsoft Store): A built-in Windows tool for capturing screenshots and screen recording, Snipping Tool also offers most image markup and editing capabilities.
  • MiniTool Partition Wizard (MTPW, website): This utility comes in an (unrestricted) freeware version, with multiple commercial options also available. Essentially MTPW free can handle most disk partition tasks (including unallocated space assignment), but a paid-for version is required to use the program’s data recovery capabilities.
  • NotePad++ (website) is a free, open source (GNU GPL) text editor offers automatic support for numerous programming and scripting languages, plus a wide range of useful text handling features. I vastly prefer it to plain-vanilla Notepad.
  • Revo Uninstaller (website): This tool comes in freeware and for-a-fee versions. It offers a more robust uninstall capability that scans the registry and file system for leftovers after the developer’s own uninstall utility is run.
  • UUPDump.net (website) is an online source that builds scripts that download UUP (Unified Update Platform) files from Microsoft servers and uses them to build local ISO files for Windows OS images by version, edition, build number, language support, and more. Invaluable!
  • Ventoy (download) is free, open source (GNU GPL) software that lets you create bootable USB media to choose from any and all ISO files you deposit in the Ventoy partition on the device.
  • Voidtools (Search) Everything (website) is freeware that delivers a faster, more capable alternative to the built-in Windows Search capability. It usually finds things before I finish typing the complete search string (I have 10 drives on my production PC with around 50TB of storage).
  • Winaero Tweaker (website) is a general purpose, freeware Windows settings and preferences tweaking tool. Works like a champ to niggle away at Windows look and feel stuff.
  • WizTree (download) is a treemap disk inspection utility that comes free for personal use but requires licensing for professional or commercial use. Offers great disk space visualizations and analysis.

The preceding list includes 23 items across 22 entries. I’ve gotten in the habit of installing most of them on any Windows machine I set up for test or production use. FWIW most of them will also get installed on family members’ or other third-person PCs I’m asked to set up or manage. But there is another alternative to outright installation for most of these items, as you’ll learn in the next section.

Copy Your Favorite Windows Utilities to a USB Key or Network Share to Make Them More Portable

For admins looking to lighten the software footprint on the PCs (or deployment images) they set up and manage, there is another alternative when it comes to using most of these utilities on end-user machines (or VMs, or Windows Servers, or…). Often these utilities offer a so-called “portable” version. That means you can copy it to a USB drive or a network share and run it from there. Thus, you can use these tools on other PCs without necessarily installing them first. For the handful of options not amenable to such use (except Voidtools Search Everything and MiniTools Partition Wizard which require direct, extensive access to PC file systems) you can also try portable packaging tools like Cameyo (purchased by Google, June 2024) to make applications “virtually available” on any running Windows instance with internet access.

Taking the portable applications approach is a good way to package up and bring your toolkit with you to any Windows desktop on which you need to work. This is especially useful for big tool suites (e.g. Sysinternals or NirSoft Launcher) or special-purpose items (e.g. MTPW and RAPR) that end users are not likely to need – or want – in their local runtime environments.

Good Tools Find Good Uses

Each and every one of the items (or collection) I’ve suggested here I use regularly – some, even daily – and can give them a solid and positive recommendation. Once you get to know them, you may find them useful as well. My motto is: “Cool tools rule!” Let it be your motto, too.

Care to Add to This Collection?

If you know about some Windows tool or utility that’s both insanely great and missing from the preceding list, please email me and share a name and a link with me. If we all put our heads together, this collection should be something from which we all benefit.

Certain Windows tools and utilities – including some from Microsoft and others from third parties – are simply indispensable when it comes to setting up, managing, and maintaining Windows desktops. This collection of two-dozen plus standalone tools and software suites represents the best toolbox additions around.

Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a long-time computing industry writer, consultant, and occasional expert witness. He’s the author of over 100 computer trade books, countless articles, and other stuff. For more info, please visit https://edtittel.com.