Kesu - Fotolia


Tools for system administrators that don't cost a dime

If you use the default Windows tools for everyday administrative duties, such as taking screenshots or editing text, there are better options that come without charge.

Windows admins can't solve every problem with System Center or PowerShell. There are times when a simple utility fills a particular need to assist a troubleshooting exercise or just make a daily task easier.

A system administrator handles a number of small tasks on a daily basis. They must often create screenshots for documentation or to pass along to the help desk to help illustrate an issue. There are many freeware utilities available that make the IT staff more productive. These helpful free tools for system administrators are worth a look.

Check on disk space use

Windows Explorer and PowerShell are fine for general file management, but some tools for system administrators offer more functionality than native software. Dirsize and SpaceSniffer are two freeware applications that give a quick overview of what takes up space on the disk. These utilities are portable on Windows, which provides additional flexibility.

Windows Explorer and PowerShell are fine for general file management, but some tools for system administrators offer more functionality than native software.

Dirsize: This is the more basic application. It provides a File Explorer tree view and shows the size of each folder. Admins can adjust the color coding to their preference; the default settings highlight folders with less data in green, while folders that take up more space show up as red.

SpaceSniffer: A more advanced tool for system administrators, SpaceSniffer offers a visual representation of boxes to show what folders and files use large amounts of space. These boxes are also layered to show the location of data within a specific folder. Admins cut or delete unwanted data from the application with a right click on a file or folder.

Capture screenshots in a snap

The native PrintScreen or Alt+PrtScr hotkey in Windows saves the entire screen or active window, respectively, to the clipboard. The Snipping Tool, which debuted in Windows Vista, selects a specific part of the screen for a screenshot. But there are even better free tools for system administrators for this purpose.

Greenshot: This tool runs in the background and uses both the PrintScreen option and combinations of the Alt, Shift and Ctrl keys to grab certain parts or the entire screen based on preferences. Configure the different commands to capture full screen, window, region, last region and a scrolling window in Internet Explorer. Greenshot also configures apps that automatically open screenshots, such as MS Paint or GreenShot's own editor, to highlight areas and add comments to the image. Admins then have several options, such as sending the screenshot to a printer or adding it to an email message. This is a useful tool for system administrators who take many screenshots to share information and get technical support. Greenshot also has a portable version.

ShareX: This utility is more feature-rich than Greenshot with its greater customization options and optical character recognition. ShareX also provides more upload locations. Some admins should look at this setting first since screenshots go to the Imgur image-sharing site by default. ShareX stores the Imgur URLs to share the full image, its thumbnail and the link to delete the image from the site. Users can automatically upload the screenshot to most major social media platforms, create a thumbnail of the image or choose from a wide range of other options. ShareX is the ideal freeware screenshot choice for advanced users, while Greenshot suits those with simpler needs.

Manipulate and store text

The Notepad and WordPad text editors are adequate for simple text handling, but there are several freeware utilities that make it easier for admins to type and store text.

Notepad++: This application touts a wide array of features. It numbers and highlights lines of text, allows tabbed documents and generates syntax highlighting for numerous languages, such as JavaScript, PowerShell and Extensible Markup Language.

Another advanced feature is macro recording, which is useful when search and replace is insufficient. For example, a user who wants to remove a trailing space off the end of each line can use the feature to record the End+Backspace+Down Arrow key combination and play it back for each line in the file. This just scratches the surface of the capabilities in Notepad++.

Ditto: This tool is a way to overcome the inherent limits in the Windows clipboard. For example, if the admin copies text with Ctrl+C but doesn't paste the content into a document or email, it invariably gets overwritten when the admin copies more text.

Ditto stores text and images copied to the clipboard, which admins can refer to at any time. The Ctrl+~ hotkey brings up the list of cached clipboard entries. The admin then chooses which item to paste. The program includes a setting to share clipboard entries to different computers. Admins who constantly copy and paste into the clipboard will appreciate the other features in this highly configurable application.

Gain remote control of servers

Windows admins spend a majority of their time on computers that are not physically near them. But sometimes they must manage multiple computers that are all within an arm's length. Microsoft offers a different freeware option that works in each scenario.

Remote Desktop Connection Manager (RDCMan): This Microsoft tool gives Windows administrators a single management console to select and then connect to a remote server. Admins don't need to memorize every server name and click on the right one. In RDCMan, each server can have its own remote desktop settings, whereas the native Remote Desktop app in Windows only remembers the last settings used. RDCMan produces a thumbnail view to show all the servers in the list and displays what the desktop showed in the last session. Admins use RDCMan to configure multiple desktop sets so they can group servers to their preference.

Mouse without Borders: This virtual keyboard, video, mouse (KVM) switch from Microsoft enables admins to control up to four PCs at once from a single mouse and keyboard over the network. The client must run on each device, but this is a great option if there are multiple physical PCs and laptops on the admin's desk. When the cursor moves off the edge of one monitor, it appears on the next computer. The admin can copy and paste files from one computer to the next, as well as key in commands from a single keyboard. Even if it's only a two-PC setup of a user box and an admin box, Mouse without Borders is worth the cost compared to a physical KVM. There are two caveats: It requires space for multiple monitors and isn't ideal if the hardware constantly changes.

Next Steps

Forget virtual desktop infrastructure -- Remote Desktop Session Host is the future

Dual Monitor Tools tailored for multiple monitor users

Avoid falling into the IT automation money pit

Dig Deeper on Windows client management