Windows is complicated and needs many different system utilities and security tools to run well — or does it? We recently covered the many types of system tools you don’t need. Here are the few utilities you actually do need.
Rather than making your life complicated by piling questionable system tool on top of questionable system tool, focus on what’s really important. These are the tools that will actually do something for your PC.
Yes, you do need an antivirus on Windows. Even if you never download a single desktop program and you’re extremely careful, you could still be compromised by a zero-day vulnerability in a browser plug-in like Adobe Flash or your web browser itself.
No antivirus program is perfect, so you’ll still need to exercise some common sense, like not downloading and running programs you don’t trust. But an antivirus can give you some measure of additional protection and stop you if you’re about to make a mistake, which is particularly useful for less experienced users.
When it comes to choosing an antivirus program, you don’t need a paid security suite with a huge set of additional built-in tools. Just get yourself a solid antivirus — you can do this for free. We like to recommend Microsoft Security Essentials for being free, lightweight, and not trying to upsell you to a paid security solution. On Windows 8, Microsoft Security Essentials is named “Windows Defender” and is included by default.
Microsoft Security Essentials hasn’t been getting the best ratings in comparative antivirus tests. If you’re worried about that, you should try the highly-recommended avast! free antivirus instead. Paid antiviruses would work, too — they just aren’t essential when good antivirus protection can be had for free.
Regular backups are crucial. Many people don’t perform backups until they lose their important files in a hard drive crash and are unable to recover them. Don’t be one of these people — get yourself a solid backup solution and make regular backups.
There are many ways to back up your files. You could use the built-in Windows backup features and back up to an external hard drive, or you could use a cloud-based backup solution like CrashPlan. You could also just dump your files into Dropbox or another cloud storage service, encrypting them to ensure their privacy if they’re particularly sensitive.
How you back up your files is up to you — just be sure you have backup copies of your important files so you’re protected from disaster. Consider setting up backups to run automatically on a schedule so you won’t have to worry about them.
Temporary File Cleaner
You don’t need to constantly clean your computer’s temporary files, but they do build up over time. Such temporary files take up additional space on your hard drive, wasting space that you could be putting to use — this is especially true on computers with small solid-state drives.
If you haven’t wiped out your computer’s temporary files in a few years, you may notice a speed increase after you wipe them out. Microsoft even says that having useless temporary files on your hard drive can slow Windows down.
We recommend using CCleaner for this. It’s the best utility of its type, and it’s completely free. You could also just use the Disk Cleanup tool included with Windows. You don’t have to run these programs constantly — even once a week would be more than enough. Most people would even be fine using them once per month or even less often. But every Windows user would benefit from occasionally wiping out temporary files, if only to free up space on their hard drives.
Windows Update and Built-In Updaters
The software we use every day — our web browsers, plug-ins like Flash and Java, and even Windows itself — is full of security holes. These security holes are found regularly, and security updates are constantly being released for them. To stay secure, it’s important to be up-to-date with the latest security patches. That’s why it’s essential to keep Windows, your web browser, and especially your browser plug-ins updated.
You can have Windows and most other applications automatically install updates in the background, so you don’t have to worry about them. We include this here because some users may disable automatic updates — it’s important to regularly perform updates, even if you set Windows and other programs to alert you instead of automatically installing updates. Regularly updating your programs will give you a much bigger security benefit than using a third-party outbound firewall will.
There’s no need for third-party software update checkers — if a program needs security updates, it should automatically update itself or prompt you.
If you have Java installed, uninstall it if you can. Java is a security disaster — most web users have an outdated, vulnerable version of Java installed. This is bad because most people don’t even need Java installed. Worse yet, Java tries to install obnoxious software like the terrible Ask toolbar when you install Java security updates.
What About Everything Else?
Windows has come a long way. Many system tools that were once necessary have been integrated and aren’t essential. For example, here are some tools you no longer need:
- Disk Defragmenter: Windows automatically defragments your hard drives in the background. You don’t need to worry about this. If you’re using a modern solid-state drive, defragmentation isn’t even necessary.
- Firewall: Windows includes a built-in firewall that blocks incoming connections. You shouldn’t need a firewall that lets you manage outgoing connections — if you don’t trust a program enough to let it contact the Internet, you probably shouldn’t be running it in the first place.
- Phishing Filter: Whether you’re using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Opera, your browser has an integrated phishing and malware filter that helps protect you from bad websites. There’s no need to install a third-party one.
Other system tools aren’t useful at all. For example, registry cleaners, driver cleaners, memory optimizers, game boosters, third-party uninstallers — these tools aren’t useful or important.
Of course, many other system tools have situational benefits. For example, you may want to use a startup manager like the one built into Windows 8 or CCleaner to manage your startup programs. The above programs are the main ones average users need to worry about — if you’re a typical user, you don’t need PC cleaners, registry cleaners, or many of the other system utilities being pushed all over the web.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 09/28/13