UPDATED: 28th March 2012
A computer is only as useful as the software you run on it, so you should keep your PC's software current - and not necessarily with the latest version of a program that's getting long in the tooth. Sometimes, switching to a new application can help you speed up your work or make your system more efficient.
Here, we'll look at software tools for handling 10 categories of essential PC tasks: presentations, note taking, file management, photo editing, email, word processing, music organizing, remote access, clean up/optimization, and backup. For each type we'll compare the dominant program with a promising challenger and - where applicable - an online alternative.
• Incumbent: Microsoft PowerPoint.
It practically goes without saying that the king of presentation software is Microsoft's PowerPoint (available as a component of various Microsoft Office bundles or separately for around £75). The application is so dominant that the phrase “send me the PowerPoint” has become ubiquitous in business circles.
• Up-and-comer: Prezi.
Easily the most interesting alternative to PowerPoint, Prezi has both local and online components. The free, public (and web-only) version lets you create arguably better presentations than PowerPoint can deliver. Instead of being slide-based, Prezi uses a single-pane approach. The process may seem strange at first, but Prezi's tutorials and inline help will get you up to speed in a hurry. Prezi is collaborative, so multiple users can work on the same presentation simultaneously via Prezi Meeting. When it's time to give the presentation, you can play the show online (it's Flash-based) or download a .zip file, extract it, and play it locally using the included prezi.exe file. Signing up for the pro version of Prezi (approx. £37 per year) entitles you to download Prezi Desktop, and you work on presentations locally.
• Web app: TransMedia Glide Presenter.
Part of the browser-based Glide desktop operating system (free with 30GB of storage, or approx. £31 per year with 250GB), Glide Presenter works in a slide-by-slide format. It's easy to use, and you can export creations as PowerPoint files or PDF files. You can stream audio and video in presentations, and create presentations collaboratively.
• Incumbent: Evernote.
Evernote is a multipurpose tool for note taking, note syncing, offline bookmark creation, and information organizing. The makers of this free tool keeps coming up with ways to make the data you need easier to keep track of. Its latest iOS apps, Evernote Hello and Evernote Food, are designed to keep records on all of the people you meet and all of the food you eat.
• Up-and-comer: Microsoft OneNote.
Microsoft's note-taking program comes bundled with the most basic version of Microsoft Office (it costs around £45 when purchased by itself), and it's easily the most overlooked program in the 2010 Office Suite. That's a shame, because this little notepad makes capturing your thoughts incredibly easy. Press Windows-S to capture any portion of your computer screen and automatically drop the image into your notebook. It's a great way to generate Web clippings if you're shopping around for something. Also, you can click anywhere in the notebook and start typing, so your notes have more visual appeal than a simple list might have. There are also free iOS and Android OneNote apps, too.
• Web app: Springpad.
Some people believe that note taking works better online, because syncing is faster, notes don't take up local storage space, and sharing is easier. To exploit these advantages, Springpad's free Web service and mobile apps let you add not just notes but also links, photos, videos, and files to your box of “stuff”- in much the same way as Dropbox, but with a clear notebook and to-do list function. You can also check out files that your Springpad-using friends unlock, making it an easy way to share videos and create collaborative lists.
Next: File management, photo editing, email, and word-processing software.
• Incumbent: Microsoft Windows Explorer.
The file management utility that comes preloaded on all Windows PCs does an adequate job, and most people tend to overlook it. Generally it loads quickly if you're searching for local files (network searches are a different story, though); and in Windows 7, right-clicking any file allows you to perform a multitude of actions, depending on what other programs you've downloaded to your computer. Overall, Windows Explorer is easy to use and intuitive, but it isn't always for everyone.
• Up-and-comer: CodePlex Better Explorer.
Maintained by CodePlex, an open-source software development community, Better Explorer (aka BExplorer) looks and behaves the way Windows Explorer will in Windows 8, except that it runs in Windows 7.
At the top of the file-finder window, Better Explorer adds options that behave much as the Ribbon at the top of Microsoft Word's newest layout does, letting you more easily arrange, copy, move, and delete files. The free tool also has a button for accessing a file's properties when you're using a device (such as a tablet) that doesn't support right-clicking. Best of all, you can view folders in tabs at the top of the window, so you can see multiple folders at once without getting lost.
(For more, see How to Get Windows 8 Features Now.)
• Incumbent: Adobe Photoshop.
The de facto standard for photo editing, Photoshop (which costs around £600 on its own) remains in a class by itself, with a vast array of tools and plug-ins, plus an unparalleled ability to automate repetitive tasks. The free, almost-as-powerful alternative (if you can live with a slightly clunky interface) is GIMP: the GNU Image Manipulation Program.
• Up-and-comer: CyberLink PhotoDirector.
CyberLink may be best known for its video-editing and disc-burning software, but it has put a lot of its tech prowess into an independent photoediting program called PhotoDirector. It's currently on its third version and costs £90. The program is actually closer to Adobe's Lightroom than Photoshop, being a combination librarian, editor, and slideshow creator, with good import capabilities.
PhotoDirector's powerful editing and tweaking controls are easy to use, and they're readily available on a scrolling pane to the left of the main window. Compared to programs where you must endlessly open dialog boxes, windows, or panes to apply settings, it's a joy to use. PhotoDirector provides numerous presets for users who want to get creative, and the company's online DirectorZone lets you share those presets and explore presets made by others. You can post photos on Flickr and slideshows on YouTube from within the program. PhotoDirector is a bit pricier than some of the low-end competition, but the time that you'll save by working with its interface makes it well worth the premium.
• Web app: Pixlr Editor.
The free Pixlr is like a super-clean online version of Photoshop. Considering that it operates within a browser window, the software is amazingly robust. Pixlr's various tools have a distinctly artistic bent. For instance, the pencil tool simulates using the tip or edge of a pencil, depending on how you move the cursor. The software also comes with excellent filters galore. Your first impression is likely to be, “Is this really free?”
• Incumbent: Microsoft Outlook.
Seamless support for Microsoft Exchange and integrated calendaring functions explain the dominance of Outlook (available in assorted Microsoft Office bundles, or separately for around £90) in the business email market. Mozilla Thunderbird is a venerable free alternative that handles multiple accounts, but it doesn't offer Exchange support.
• Up-and-comer: eM Client.
Though it supports only IMAP and POP accounts, eM client is in other respects a virtual clone of Outlook. In some ways it handles multiple accounts better than Outlook does. eM also offers junk-mail control, task management, calendaring functions and contact management.
It even imports data from Outlook and syncs seamlessly with Gmail. In addition, eM Client works with various instant messaging services, including Facebook and Skype. In lieu of Exchange, eM Client relies on its own Sync2eM service, which works just like Exchange. At £31 per year, it costs much less than hosted Exchange does, and there are clients for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7 devices. For personal use at home, eM Client is free, but you're limited to two accounts unless you buy the Pro version. Still, even that option is a bargain compared to Outlook.
• Web app: Google Gmail.
The free Gmail lets you compose, read, and organise email from any Internet-capable device in existence. Conversations are arranged in threads, making it easy to track back through the discussion. You get around 7.5GB of free storage for emails and attachments.
Gmail has a variety of time-saving features including 'Important' mode which puts messages from people you regularly interact with at the top of the page. There's also a Priority Inbox mode which puts unread, starred and 'important' mail at the top.
You need a free Google account to get Gmail. This also gives you access to Calendar, Contacts and Chat functions, as well as access to Google Docs, where you can share and collaborate on documents.
• Incumbent: Microsoft Word.
The most widely used word-processing software around, Word is available in various Microsoft Office bundles or separately for around £85. It's expensive whether you get it as part of an Office suite or buy it separately, but it's the word processor that people are most familiar with, so you'll probably never get lost when using it.
• Up-and-comer: Pomarancha WriteMonkey.
Though it can save what you write only as .txt files, this free word processor clears away distractions so you can focus on writing your words down and worry about presentation later. Part of the "zenware" software movement, WriteMonkey is designed to occupy your whole screen, without toolbars or spelling-check lines. The program is compact, and there's no installation process. Just download the zip file from the WriteMonkey website, unzip the file, and run the application. Because it consumes little space, you can take the software with you on a USB drive and use it on different computers. Despite the absence of a toolbar, you can change your preferences, check spelling and look up words in your text thanks to reference websites such as Reference.com and UrbanDictionary.com. You can mark up font styles (bold, italic, and underlined) in the text that will become real formatting when you export or print the file. WriteMonkey manages to be full featured without being bloated or distracting.
• Web app: Zoho Writer.
You'd be forgiven for wondering why we haven't picked Google Docs here. The reason is that it isn't always intuitive and if your office happens to use it, your personal documents can get buried in an avalanche of shared-document spam. (Also, storing your email, your calendar, and your documents on a single company's servers is the very definition of putting all of your eggs in one basket.) In contrast, Zoho Writer is a "what you see is what you get" text editor that closely resembles an older version of Microsoft Word. You can store and share documents online, and toggle between multiple open documents by using the tabs at the top. Zoho Writer remains in beta despite having been around since 2005, so the service is unlikely to see an update anytime soon. Zoho Writer is a good cloud-based alternative to Google Docs - and to costly and weighty word-processing software.
Next: Music organizing, remote access, cleanup/optimization, and backup software.
• Incumbent: Apple iTunes.
The heavyweight music organizer is free and capable, and it makes syncing tunes to iOS and Windows Phone 7 devices a breeze. But its interface can drive non-Apple users crazy, and it has no easy way to sync to Android devices.
• Up-and-comer: Songbird.
If you don't use an iOS device, consider moving to Songbird. This attractive organizer's navigation largely mimics that of iTunes. The free program can sync with Android and other devices without proprietary operating systems. Songbird lets you edit track information and use various add-ons written by independent developers for such things as social media communication, lyrics and guitar tab music for your songs, and access to Last.fm and the 7digital music store.
• Web app: Google Music.
Currently only available in the US, Google Music is slated to be opened up to the UK very soon. You can transfer up to 20,000 of your songs to the free service, from which you can access and stream them over any Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The online interface permits you to categorise tracks by title, artist, album, and genre, and create your own playlists. Google Music even lets you divide your music between tunes that you've uploaded and tunes that you've purchased from Google Play (formerly the Android Market).
• Incumbent: Citrix GoToMyPC.
This program sits quietly in the background of a computer, waiting for you to log on from another device via the company's online portal. You can then access files remotely and control the remote computer as if you were sitting in front of it. GoToMyPC works well and costs £6 per month, or £60 per year.
• Up-and-comer: TeamViewer.
Very fast, and free for personal use, TeamViewer can be configured to sit ready in the background for an always-available connection to your desktop; or you can simply run it as needed. The program uses a simple connection ID and password for security. You can provide those credentials to a colleague if you want to allow that person to view or take over your screen. TeamViewer also has a feature for moving files onto and off the host machine, and it supports multiple connections and users. For high-volume professional use, prices start at £12 per month. Considering the quality of the service, that's a bargain.
• Web app: Join.me.
For occasional use within a browser, Join.me is an even simpler option than TeamViewer, since using it doesn't even involve signing up for an account. Simply browse to join.me, click share, send the generated code to the person that you want to share your screen with, and have that person enter it at join.me after clicking join. You can also invite multiple users to attend ad-hoc Web presentations. Performance isn't great, but viewers can request control of your computer and have remote access similar to GoToMyPC.
Cleanup / Optimisation
• Incumbent: Piriform CCleaner.
CCleaner has long been the standard for optimising PCs. It helps you remove unnecessary programs, clear cookies from your browsers, tidy your system's Windows Registry, and perform similar tasks. This utility is free, stable and proven.
• Up-and-comer: SlimWare SlimCleaner.
SlimCleaner is now on its second version, and is looking better than ever. The free utility provides color-coded and graphic descriptions of what's on your computer, all the way down to CPU and RAM dials that tell you how much of each you're using. Tabs on the left side toggle between different SlimCleaner functions: the desktop cleaner, the optimisation tool, the uninstaller, and so forth.
SlimCleaner also assigns ratings (ranging from Unnecessary to Good) to most of the programs, apps, and files on your computer. It draws these ratings from reviews that other users have posted, and from SlimCleaner's own proprietary antivirus scanner. In our tests, the ratings were fairly accurate, and they certainly simplified decisions about which files to keep and which ones to delete - no Google searches necessary. If you want to delete files permanently, SlimCleaner offers the same levels of overwriting or 'shredding' that CCleaner does, though in slightly snazzier fashion.
• Incumbent: Acronis True Image.
Although this £30 mainstay among consumer PC backup programs has many worthy competitors, it combines drive imaging, file and folder backup, and disaster recovery in a very professional package.
• Up-and-comer: Easeus Todo Backup Free.
These days, you don't need to pay a penny to get a capable backup program. Easeus Todo Backup Free is a sterling backup suite that provides 90 percent of what you'd get with paid-for software: drive imaging, file and folder backup, mounting of backup images as virtual drives, scheduling, and a lot more. Todo Backup's interface is obtuse at times, but even the least technical user should be able to set up a backup without much fuss. The software provides full disaster-recovery features, including a Windows PE-based recovery boot disc. And unlike many paid-for competitors, it also supports Windows Dynamic disks and RAID.
• Web app: CrashPlan.
Graced with an elegant interface, this program backs up to a local destination as well as online, and it carries an extremely competitive price: approximately £31 per year for unlimited backup. You can even let friends back up to your account. Combine that flexibility with clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, and even iOS and Android mobile devices, and you have a winning service. You'll like its style.
Five Reasons Why Desktop Software Is Still Vital
Working with online applications makes a lot of sense for a lot of computer users these days, especially when travel may take people far from their primary work PC. Nevertheless, in some situations the ability to work with software that's installed locally on a desktop system can be indispensable. Here are five advantages that come with having apps loaded and ready to run on your own PC.
Security: Companies evolve, and though storing your information on someone else’s servers is usually safe, even a seemingly stable company may fold or change its privacy standards. When handling important documents, family photos, and business presentations, you might want to use desktop software just to ensure that the preservation and confidentiality of that information don't depend on the good behaviour of some potentially capricious company.
Guaranteed connection: Web apps are great when you can access the Web. But if your Internet connection goes down, or if you can’t pick up a wireless signal while you're on the go, you need on-board software to stay productive. Conveniently, many tools have a 'sync' button to enable your online database to catch up with your offline database when you regain your connection.
Speed: Even when you do have an Internet connection, web services can be agonizingly slow at times. Their servers can even go down. Though offline programs can feel sluggish, too, you can clean unnecessary files from your hard drive to make the software run faster, or you can upgrade your RAM. The point is that you aren't at the mercy of external conditions.
In-box utilities: Cleanup and file management utilities aren’t the most exciting applications in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Web services can’t keep your computer up and running the way local tools can.
Raw power: Web-based photo editors are getting better and better, but it’s still next to impossible to edit video from a browser. To do that job, you must draw on the resources of your own machine.