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153. Free Stuff from Microsoft

By Andrew D. Wright

Microsoft has a lot of free software and product upgrades in addition to their well-known commercial products Windows and Office. Many of these require you to be running a genuine version of Windows or Office, but this should be the case in any event.

For users of Windows XP, which at the time of this writing is still the majority of home and office computers, there are free add-ons as well as free performance and security updates.

Microsoft DirectX is used by Windows for displaying video, 3D graphics and audio. DirectX is updated every few months with security updates and other optimizations.

Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP are more than a dozen different add-on programs which were not distributed with Windows. A taskbar magnifier, a virtual desktop manager allowing you to run four different desktops at the same time, a program for synchronizing folders on different devices and more are available.

Users with Windows Vista have a built-in anti-malware program called Windows Defender which receives updates to its malware definitions list through Windows Update. If your computer is set to automatically receive and install these updates, Windows Defender will be updated automatically, otherwise updates can be manually installed from the Windows Update page.

Now available for Windows XP, Windows Defender works the same way. Windows Defender and the monthly Malicious Software Removal Tool represent Microsoft's response to the ongoing aggressive efforts by criminal networks to take over Windows computers and use them for illegal activities.

A number of free and powerful tools for Windows can be found on the Microsoft SysInternals website. From Process Explorer, a superior replacement for Windows Task Manager, to Autoruns, which gives checkbox control over every program, service, and codec that is set to start with your computer, the SysInternals tools are indispensable additions to Windows.

Users with currently supported versions of Microsoft Office can receive program updates and service packs through Microsoft Update or download them manually from the Microsoft Office website. Also on the Microsoft Office website are a lot of program add-ons. There are also free viewers so people without Microsoft Office can open Office files.

For users who need or like to use multiple operating systems at the same time, Virtual PC 2007 supports all versions of Windows and with a little effort a list of other operating systems as well. So if you're using Windows Vista and need to run a program that will only work properly in Windows 98 (other than games, which usually require more video resources than the virtual machine will allow), Virtual PC 2007 may be your answer.

The new version of Windows due out later this year, Windows 7, will have a Virtual Windows XP mode as a free download for Windows 7 Professional and above. While only able to run on processors that support hardware virtualization (read: newer top end CPUs), Virtual Mode XP can be almost seamlessly integrated with the parent Windows 7 desktop so files can be easily shared between the two.

Microsoft Photosynth is a powerful picture organizing tool allowing a viewer to experience a three dimensional panorama made up of individual pictures of a scene. Take pictures of a town square, for example, and get closeups of details of the scene. Photosynth can then recreate the town square from your pictures, letting you turn and view the scene from any angle and zoom in on any detail you'd photographed. Free with some restrictions, pay service available.


DirectX for Windows XP updates (free):


Windows XP PowerToys (free):


Windows Defender (free):


Microsoft SysInternals (free):


Microsoft Update (free: requires Internet Explorer):


Microsoft Office site:


Microsoft Virtual PC 2007 (free: doesn't require hardware virtualization):


Microsoft Virtual PC (free: requires hardware virtualization):


Microsoft Photosynth (free with limitations):


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Originally published 29 May 2009


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