10 great hardware tools you never knew existed
21st Apr 2010 | 09:30
Get the very best from your PC with these essential free utilities
Great hardware tools you never knew existed: 1-5
Buy just about any item of PC hardware and it'll come with a disc packed full of utilities.
And if you're like us then you'll grab the bare minimum from it, probably just the drivers, then file the disc away, never to be looked at again.
That's a shame, though, because many hardware manufacturers produce excellent utilities to identify, monitor, test and optimise PC devices.
There are easy-to-use graphics card overclocking tools, motherboard monitors that keep you updated on voltages and temperatures, disk diagnostic utilities, network monitors, printing tools and more, all costing you nothing more than the time it takes to download them.
Some of these utilities will only work with hardware from the same company, of course, but a surprising number are more generally useful. MSI produce an excellent graphics card overclocker (see below) that's worked on every card we've tried, for instance, both ATI and Nvidia.
You're taking an extra risk if you use a tool in this way - there are no guarantees it'll work, in theory you may even damage your hardware - but we've yet to experience any significant problems.
There really is more to a hardware manufacturer's site than driver downloads and BIOS updates, then. They often have some very useful hardware-related tools, too - and here are ten of the best.
1. EVGA Precision 1.9.10
Are you getting the best from your graphics video? EVGA's Precision is a versatile overclocking utility that will fine-tune your video card for the maximum possible performance. You're able to tweak your core, shader and memory clocks by dragging a slider. It's possible to create up to 10 profiles with different settings, and you can even assign hotkeys to them for instant switching.
In theory, Precision is for EVGA 6, 7, 8, 9 or 200 series graphics cards only. But in practice, we've found it works on other GeForce cards, too: when RivaTuner wouldn't overclock our BFG GeForce 8800GTS, for instance, EVGA Precision stepped in and did the job very well. Just keep in mind that this isn't supported, and there may be a risk that Precision will adversely affect non-EVGA graphics cards.
2. ATTO Disk Benchmark 2.46
ATTA are experts in manufacturing high-end storage connectivity products, like host adapters and storage controllers. So who better to produce an accurate, reliable hard drive benchmark?
ATTO Disk Benchmark is highly configurable. You can try different transfer sizes (512KB - 8MB) and lengths (64KB - 2GB), there's support for overlapped I/O and a variety of queue depths, and a direct I/O option carries out testing with no system caching. Results appear on a graph, or you can save them for reference later.
ATTO Disk Benchmark is also surprisingly compact, at a tiny 237KB, and even better - it's portable. Unzip it to a USB drive and it's ready to use on any nearby PC.
3. D-Link Network Monitor Widget
If you need to keep an eye on your network's activity then D-Link's monitor widgets could be very useful. Web, wireless and wired network send and receive rates are displayed in real time on an attractive, if somewhat bulky interface. And more in-depth details, like IP addresses of networked devices, security settings, port connections and more are just a click away.
You'll need a D-Link DIR router (DIR-625, DIR-628, DIR-655, DIR-825, DIR-855), or the DGL-4500 for the display to work. But the program is available on three widget platforms: Yahoo!, Mac Dashboard and the Windows sidebar.
4. Seagate DiscWizard
Seagate don't just make hard drives - they give away some useful drive management software, too, and DiscWizard has to be one of their better freebies.
The program works well as an image backup tool, for instance, quickly creating an exact copy of the drive you specify. It's able to create a bootable recovery disc, which can then restore the last backup if your hard drive becomes corrupted and Windows won't start.
But you can also mount the image as a temporary drive within Windows, letting you restore just the specific files and folders you need.
But if that's not enough, then you can also use DiscWizard to help add a new drive to your system, or clone your existing partitions to a new drive so you can boot from that instead.
The program works with Seagate and Maxtor hard drives.
5. MSI AfterBurner
MSI AfterBurner is an interesting video card overclocking tool that's based on RivaTuner, but with a flashy interface that's also rather easier to use.
Straightforward sliders give you immediate control over voltages, core, shader and memory clocks, as well as fan speeds. You're able to save your settings in up to 5 different profiles, which can then be called up whenever it's appropriate. And a history window tracks your GPU temperature, GPU usage, clock rates and more.
The program works with both ATI and NVIDIA technology on most MSI graphics cards. We've found it works with cards from many other manufacturers, too, but as ever - be careful if you go experimenting. Mistakes when tweaking voltages, for example, could cause real physical damage to your card.
Great hardware tools you never knew existed: 6-10
6. Hitachi Drive Fitness Test 4.160
How healthy is your hard drive? If you're not entirely sure then the Hitachi Drive Fitness Test (DFT) may be able to provide an answer.
The program comes on a bootable ISO file, so you must burn it to a CD first. Start your PC from this, let the DFT launch its tests, and it'll report on problems like temperatures, media errors, S.M.A.R.T.-reported issues, and more.
You'll get the best results with Hitachi and IBM drives, where for instance DFT can even attempt to repair unreadable sectors. But the program will run some tests on other drives, too, including the Exerciser, which can keep the hard drive active for hours at a time - perfect for picking up intermittent temperature-related problems.
7. Intel Processor ID Utility
The recent news that a US retailer was found to be inadvertently selling fake Intel CPUs suggests that it's a very good idea to check any hardware you buy, just to be sure you're getting what you've paid for.
And in the case of Intel CPU's, there's no better place to turn than the company's own Processor ID Utility. Run this and it quickly reports everything you could ever want to know about your processor: speed, number of cores, L2 cache size, the technologies it supports, the packaging, and more.
There's also a bootable version that you can use to check the CPU in a system that won't otherwise start (or isn't running Windows), but beware - this can be difficult to get working.
8. Seagate SeaTools 184.108.40.206
SeaTools is Seagate's own hard drive diagnostic tool, that will quickly check the condition of USB, 1394, ATA (PATA/IDE), SATA and SCSI drives.
Tests available include a S.M.A.R.T. check, the option to call the drive's own internal self-tests, a quick scan of key drive areas, or a full check of every drive sector (with the option to repair any that are faulty).
The program works best with Seagate and Maxtor drives. Seagate say it also works with other drive types, but we found these weren't always detected.
Still, it could be a useful diagnostic tool to have around. SeaTools isn't supported on Windows 7, unfortunately, but there is a bootable alternative you can use, and this can also be used to check PCs with no operating system at all.
9. HP Photo Print Gadget
This clever Windows gadget makes it much quicker and easier to print photos. Just configure it with the print size you need, and you're ready to go.
Now, when you want to print an image, all you need to do is drag and drop a file onto the gadget. Or, if you're viewing one of the supported websites, (Flickr, PhotoBucket, MSN Mail, Gmail, Snapfish) you can also drag and drop an image directly from the page. And then the program goes to work.
First, it detects the orientation of your image (portrait or landscape). Then it uses HP Smart Crop technology to ensure your subject's head isn't cropped out in landscape photos. And finally, it sends your image to the printer, using the print size you've defined (so no need to change it manually beforehand, then back again for the next regular print job).
Best of all, you don't need an HP printer to take advantage of it. Well worth a try.
10. Asus PC Probe II
Is your PC behaving oddly? Maybe there's a hardware cause, a temperature or voltage problem. To find out you need a hardware monitor, and the first place to go looking is your motherboard manufacturer.
Asus PC Probe II, for instance, displays live information on motherboard voltages, temperatures and fan speeds. Play games or otherwise stress your hardware, watch the figures change, and you just might discover the real cause behind your PCs crashes, hangs and other issues.
If you'd like to give it a try then visit the Asus support site, search for your motherboard and check the available downloads.
Most motherboard manufacturers have their own equivalent tools, though, and many go much further. MSI Dual Core Center lets you overclock your system from Windows, for instance. And Gigabyte EasyTune 6 provides easy access to many BIOS options from the desktop.
Check your motherboard manufacturer's support site to see what downloads are available - you might be surprised just how powerful they can be.
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