Twelve essential free Microsoft downloads
Microsoft don’t exactly have a reputation for generous product pricing, as anyone who’s just upgraded to Windows 7 will testify. But there’s a kinder side to the company. No, really. Explore the download centre and their various sites and you’ll find many excellent programs, from small utilities to full-scale applications, that Microsoft make available entirely for free. And we’ve uncovered twelve of the very best.
Tired of your current media player? Give Zune 4.0 a try. It’s an attractive program that makes it easy to find and play all your latest music, has a Smart DJ function to intelligently create playlists of related music, and is just as capable at managing images, videos and podcasts. (And you don’t need a Zune media player to use it.)
If your Windows installation takes forever to copy files then this clever tool could be a welcome alternative. It’s multithreaded, so copies several files simultaneously to improve speeds, and if there’s a problem during a lengthy transfer – the network connection fails, say – you can pause the process and resume it later.
Install Virtual PC and you’ll be able to run multiple versions of Windows on your desktop. If you need to run really old software but it won’t work on your Vista PC, say, then you can always create a new virtual machine, install an older version of Windows (assuming you’ve the installation discs) and run it from there. Very useful.
This industrial-strength 3D authoring package can help you produce cinema-quality 3D models and animations, which is why only a couple of years ago it cost around £360. Microsoft bought the company because they wanted to use the technology in Virtual Earth, though, and now truespace is yours for free.
Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer
The Baseline Security Analyzer scans your PC looking for security problems, like missing patches, user accounts with no passwords, insecure IE settings, and more. An in-depth report shows you what it’s found, and offers help on closing any security holes.
Expression Encoder 3.0
This free version of Microsoft’s video encoder allows you to import video clips, carry out some basic edits, then export the results to WMV files. You’ve complete control over all the video settings, so it’s a great way to shrink videos down for portable devices, or to put online. And as a bonus, a powerful capture tool can create videos of screen activity, perfect if you want to create software demos or troubleshooting guides.
This excellent Sysinternals tool makes it easy to uncover all the processes that are running on your PC, and find out just what they’re doing. We use it all the time to identify resource hogs, diagnose memory leaks or find out which program has opened a particular file – it’s a must for every PC owner’s troubleshooting toolkit.
If you still forget which functions are where in the Office 2007 ribbon then this add-on is a must. Simply click the new Search Commands tab, type the command you’re searching for, and it (and anything related) will appear right away.
Visual Studio Express
If you’d like to see what Microsoft’s latest programming environments have to offer then there’s no need to shell out big money for Visual Studio. The Express Editions may be cut down versions, but they’re in no sense crippled, and provide everything you need to explore .NET, and build programs for your own use, or even commercial sale.
This Microsoft Research project blends images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other sources to create a tool where you can fly around outer space, zoom in to the planets and moons, explore distant constellations, and even admire panoramic shots of the moon or Martian landscapes.
Microsoft Office Accounting Express
Microsoft’s latest Office tool is the perfect small business accounting package. It works with other Office components like Excel and Word to record basic data on your customers, suppliers and products, create quotes, invoices and orders, run a payroll, reconcile bank statements, produce reports, and more. The Express version is cut down, but still provides all the core functionality you’re likely to need and is well worth a look.
Microsoft Research Image Composite Editor
Last, but in way least, the Image Composite Editor stitches together multiple photos of the same scene, compensating for varying exposures and automatically cropping the results to produce an attractive panorama. No Photoshop skills are required, either – the program handles all the difficult bits automatically.