• Incumbent: Microsoft Windows Explorer.
Good software doesn't have to cost the Earth
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.