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8 excellent free software downloads that just get better

These freeware programs just keep getting better with age

Wine gets better with age. Men get more distinguished looking (or so my wife tells me). Even some cars seem to improve as time passes (I'm looking at you, 1965 Mustang). But there's nothing glamorous about old software apps, which just get less and less useful the older they get--right?

Not always. Some programs are like garden perennials, returning each year with fresh blooms and stronger stems. Think of some of the world's best productivity tools and system utilities, and I'll wager that some of them were "planted" at least five years ago--decades in computer years.

Let's look at eight of these blossoming apps, all of which are more awesome than ever, and all of which are, amazingly, free.

CCleaner

Perhaps no program has evolved more over the years than Piriform's CCleaner, which began life in 2003 as "Crap Cleaner." True to its name, the tool scours your PC for unwanted crud that accumulates in Windows' arteries: temp files, Registry fragments, log files, browser cookies, and so on. Then, with one click, it clears all that stuff away. No wonder CCleaner remains one of the most popular system-optimization tools ever.

OpenOffice.org

Speaking of popular, who doesn't have mad love for OpenOffice.org? This open-source office suite gives Microsoft Office a run for the money--but it doesn't cost you a dime. Stocked with a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, a presentation manager, and a drawing program, OpenOffice has matured nicely over the years, spiffing up its interface while adding full file compatibility with its Microsoft Office counterparts. Sometimes I still think it's too good to be true.

Stickies

OpenOffice is a big program. Zhorn Software's Stickies is tiny by comparison, but no less valuable. This to-do list manager takes the form of sticky notes, which you "paste" to your desktop instead of to your actual desk. And unlike the Sticky Notes program built into Windows 7, Stickies is actually useful (sorry, Microsoft). You can assign timers, add checkboxes to your lists, and even set up recurring notes that pop up at designated intervals (such as every three months). Author Tom Revell is now on version 7 of Stickies, and the program just keeps getting better.

RoboForm

Same goes for Siber Systems' RoboForm, one of the oldest apps in the group. Debuting in 1999, RoboForm stores your passwords and login IDs, making it easier for you to sign into various websites. It also keeps track of your personal information (name, address, phone number, and more), pasting everything into Web forms with one click. You can use RoboForm to store secure notes, generate secure passwords, and make your entire online experience more secure. The free version, available only for personal and nonprofit use, stores your information for up to 10 Web sites. Beyond that, you'll need a RoboForm subscription ($20 per year).

WinPatrol

Another longtime security champ, WinPatrol from BillP Studios, tackles the other side of online safety: It monitors your system for unauthorized changes-- the kinds made by malware and browser hijackers--and then lets you delete any offenders. It can also disable or delay startup programs so that your system boots faster. For users who want to know more about the programs running on their PC (including hidden and cryptic ones), WinPatrol Plus ($30) includes a database of tens of thousands of them. Amazingly, this program is now on version 20.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition

Alas, WinPatrol can't defend your PC against viruses and the like. For that you need something like AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, one of the most robust free security tools ever. (In a recent test, it detected 98.5 percent of known malware.) And this is no mere scanner; AVG offers real-time protection against malware infections, plus a LinkScanner component that thwarts Web attacks while you surf. Why pay for antivirus software when this ever-improving gem does the job gratis?

IrfanView

Irfan Skiljan's IrfanView has long been my go-to tool for cropping, resizing, and otherwise manipulating images. It's not an editor so much as a tweaker, enabling you to make simple changes to a screenshot or photo, and to add a few special effects when the occasion warrants. IrfanView loads within a second after you click its icon, and it occupies just 1.5MB of space on your hard drive. The program hasn't seen many major changes in recent years, but that's a good thing.

GNU Image Manipulation Program

Of course, IrfanView doesn't support Photoshop-level image editing. For that, turn to the GNU Image Manipulation Program, affectionately known as GIMP. It replicates many of Photoshop's best features, offering filters, special effects, masks, layers, and everything else you need to create digital works of art (or works of digital art).

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