You like messing around with your PC, right? The right tools can dig into the far reaches of the Registry or uncover obscure portions of the file system, improving performance and avoiding trouble. I can tell you all about some of those tools - and they're free - so read on...

Pull your PC out of its trance

The hassle: My system boots, but immediately after the icons appear in the System tray, the machine completely jams up. For exactly four minutes, only the mouse works - and then the PC snaps out of its trance and behaves normally. Any ideas?

The fix: To troubleshoot a quirky system, you have to investigate what's going on behind the scenes - what files are loading, say, or what applications are modifying the Registry. For insight, you need the triplets: Filemon, Regmon, and Process Explorer, all from Microsoft's Filemon reports on every file that opens, closes, or gets accessed; and it records and time-stamps each action that an application takes.

When troubleshooting, watch a particular program's behavior just before a freeze. Filemon's report is usually enormous - an amazing number of files open and close - but you can set a filter to watch specific filenames or documents. Regmon handles similar duties to Filemon's, except that it monitors the Registry, watching for new Registry entries. Regmon is immensely useful if you're trying to track down spyware or malware and need to see the Registry location where it's hiding. The last tool, Process Explorer, resembles Windows Task Manager, but with muscles. It tracks everything that's running, including programs, services, and process trees. Pick up all three free tools from our Downloads library.

But wait - when you're troubleshooting, even three sleuthing utilities might not be enough to track down the problem afflicting your system. Enter XP's File System Utility. You'll need administrator rights and a love of Windows esoterica to use this Command line tool, also known as Fsutil. It collects tons of data on your FAT and NTFS file system tasks. Fsutil is already loaded on your PC; access it from a CMD box. But first, scroll to a couple of enlightening pages from Microsoft TechNet and ITzero for lots of tips on how best to use the utility.

Kick-start your internet connection

The hassle: My router is ancient, and I often have to unplug it to reset it. Should I just bite the bullet and replace it?

The fix: When equipment starts getting a little long in the tooth, you can't always tell if the time has come to give it the heave-ho. To help you decide whether to replace your router, use Microsoft's Internet Connectivity Evaluation Tool, a freebie that tests router capabilities. Among other things, the tool tests for Internet connectivity, NAT capabilities, traffic congestion, TCP high performance, and multiple simultaneous connections.

Oh, and if you do decide to get a new router, here's a tool that'll help if you ever lose your router's wireless network keys - the WEP or WPA codes. (We've all been there, right?) NirSoft's free WirelessKeyView lets you recover them all, saving everything to a file or right onto your clipboard.

Quick tip: The old trick for kick-starting a stalled cable modem is to unplug it from power for five minutes. But that gambit doesn't work on newer modems - the kind that handle phone, data, and TV transmissions, such as with Comcast's Triple Play service - because they have a battery inside to keep phone service working during a power outage. To get these devices back on track, you have to power off the modem, remove the battery (check the manual for instructions), and wait for five minutes before reinserting it.

Beep throat: understand your PC's coded messages

Is your system DOA? I'll bet that you hear a few beeps when you try to boot it. These Power-On Self Test codes (aka Post codes) offer a wealth of information about your PC. For instance, one long and one short beep indicates a problem with your system board. One long and three short beeps could mean that a memory chip isn't seated properly. But many of the codes need to be matched to a specific Bios. That's where comes in: it lists tons of Bios manufacturers' Post codes.