Have you just unpacked a brand-new PC, or are you planning to pick up a bargain in the January sales? Thousands of people across Britain take advantage of rock-bottom prices at this time of year to get their hands on a new computer, and the first thing most do when they first connect it to the internet is install all of their favourite applications.
An almost limitless number of free tools is available online, and it can be difficult to remember which ones have proven essential to you in the past. So we’ve picked out our selection of the top software programs available on the web, ranging from essential security suites, the best entertainment packages and the necessary web tools that'll get your PC up to speed today.
Even if you're had your PC up and running for a while, read through the list of must-have applications below to make sure you’re not missing out on anything.
First things first
If you're planning to download several files in a short period, a download manager such as Download Accelerator Plus is a must. This free utility lets you gather all of your downloads, schedule when you want them to begin, and recover them after a lost connection or error.
Secure your PC
One of the most popular free antispyware apps, Lavasoft's Adaware SE Personal has a solid real-time scanner and is easy to use. It lacks real-time scanning, but is a decent basic precaution against the fastest growing form of net threat.
Microsoft's first foray into antispyware software, Windows Defender will come pre-installed on Vista PCs. But you don't have to wait until you've got the new OS, this product is available now as a free download. It's designed to protect you against pop-ups, slow performance, and other security threats caused by unwanted software.
Generally regarded as the best free firewall, ZoneAlarm is intuitive and blocks the most obvious threats. It allows you to control your PC’s level of protection (“High” is recommended for Internet traffic, “Medium” is recommended for home networks), and is based on the same engine used by ZoneLabs' paid-for version of ZoneAlarm.
Clean up the junk that builds up on your PC with this free spring cleaning-app. Ccleaner lacks the thoroughness of many paid-for alternatives but it handles the removal of many extraneous files and traces of files.
The iPod is by far the world’s most popular portable media player, so most people won’t need telling about iTunes. But if you don’t have an iPod, Apple’s service is still a great download, allowing you to listen to podcasts and video podcasts for free, whether you do so from your PC, or take the content with you.
Microsoft’s updated media player will come pre-installed with Windows Vista, but you can download it for free now. While iTunes remains the king of online stores, Microsoft is making every effort to get WMP up to speed. UK users can now access various online service – including eMusic, Packard Bell Music Station and Tiscali Music Downloads - via the upgraded version. Apart from the addition of these services, WMP 11 has a refreshed interface and an intuitive new policy on organising and presenting your files.
RealNetworks’ media player is another handy tool for accessing content, and many websites require it to stream video and music to your PC.
Professional audio recording and editing packages cost a fair whack, but this free tool offers all the basics for hobbyists. The open-source software has plenty of features, with tools for various effects and edits, and is fairly simple to get the hang of.
10. Google Pack
The king of the free downloads, the Google Pack contains all of Google’s best free tools, including; Google Earth, the addictive 3D Earth Browser; photo organiser Picasa; the Google Desktop search tool; Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer; and the Google Pack Screensaver. It also includes trials of security software, and other Google-specific trials, including the Google Talk voice and instant messaging app and the Google Video Player.
Winzip is regarded as the best for dealing with ZIP files, but Stuffit gives it a run for its money for expanding compressed or encoded files.
12. Adobe Reader
A must for accessing PDF files, Adobe Reader is the free document viewing tool that was formerly known as Acrobat Reader. Its recently redesigned interface is easier on the eye and provides quick-and-easy access to your most-used tools.
Many techies already use OpenOffice as their preferred office suite, and not just because it’s free. All of the major components of OpenOffice offer a usable alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite, with the Writer word-processing app, Calc spreadsheet app and Impress presentation utility catering for most people’s needs. If you want to get off the Microsoft upgrade bandwagon, or are currently using Microsoft’s Works suite, OpenOffice is a valuable alternative.
Most entry-level to mid-range XP PCs come with Outlook Express pre-installed, and Windows Vista will bring a new alternative – Windows Mail. But you needn’t stick to Microsoft’s default email tool. Mozilla’s Thunderbird is a viable alternative, and has recently increased its security provisions. It’s as simple to use as anything Microsoft has to offer, and moving your backlog of emails to this open-source tool is a breeze.
Think free calls over the internet, and most people will think of Skype. While many other – and arguably better - Voip (voice over internet protocol) applications are available, Skype succeeded in becoming the first to reach the wider public consciousness. Whether you want to phone a Skype user on the other side of the world for free, or call a traditional landline at low-cost, this tool is sure to save you money.
Most people who browse the web are likely to have to download QuickTime before too long. Apple’s video player is the preferred choice of many websites that offer video online, and in many cases you won’t be able to watch clips unless you download it.
Another essential app for viewing online content, Flash is installed on over 700m PCs and mobile devices worldwide, according to Adobe. You’re bound to need it before long.
Firefox is the only product that’s managed to take a significant chunk out of Internet Explorer’s domination of the web browser market. It beat IE to the punch with tabbed browsing, offers RSS support, a plethora of add-ons and at 5MB, is much smaller than Microsoft’s product. For everyday use, there isn’t much to choose between IE7 and FireFox 2.0, but why not support the underdog?
Much has been made of the Windows Sidebar that Microsoft is introducing in Vista. It allows you keep handy tools such as calendars, calculators, media players and RSS feeds in a prime position on your desktop at all times. But why wait until you buy a Vista system? You can download a version of the Sidebar now for free.
20. Vista Start Menu
Another of several Vista-esque features that you can install now. Vista’s Start Menu rejigs the way you access the most-used functions on your PC, and is designed to provide a more attractive and efficient way to navigate Windows.