The down side to buying a low-cost PC (See our: Ultimate guide to buying ultra low-cost PCs) is it’s likely to come with little more than an operating system. But don’t shell out for pricey software – here are some handy bits of freeware
Here at PC Advisor, we like a nice piece of free software as much as the next person. Faced with the pretty but blank canvas of our freshly installed copy of Windows Vista, the first thing we did was go online and hunt down copies of our favourite free software to see whether it would work with the new OS. And, more importantly, whether we could get by with freebies alone.
The answer: of course we could – at least as long as we weren’t expected to open Office 2007 documents or use the latest Adobe design software.
For general-purpose computing, email, web browsing and performing basic photo edits, as well as printing, music playback and playing simple games, the following applications more than did the business.
And since almost all these programs were originally designed for XP, you can be sure they’ll work with your new PC, regardless of the OS you end up with.
Best free day-to-day software
Adobe Reader 8.0
Almost every program you buy or download, as well as many hardware items you install, will come with an instruction manual provided as a PDF (portable document format).
In many cases, the necessary PDF reading software will be provided on the disc or as an optional download on the site from where you buy your programs. Adobe’s Reader has become the de facto applet with which to view such electronic manuals and digital documents.
You’ll increasingly find PDFs on websites as companies realise the value of being able to display an online catalogue of products or produce electronic versions of their print magazines, but not every site is set up so that you can view their wares without having to launch your desktop version of Adobe Reader.
Get Adobe Reader 8.0 here
Depending on the PC you choose, you may have to source all the software you need yourself. Office PCs often come with Microsoft’s Office suite bundled or preinstalled, but home users are not so fortunate.
Thankfully, there are several free or low-cost productivity software suites around. Tesco and Woolworths now flog budget word processors, spreadsheet apps and money management programs costing as little as a 10th of the amount Microsoft charges for Office. If you’ve chosen a PC from them, you may want to consider their inexpensive software alternatives. Another worthy consideration is Ability Office.
But if you’re on a really tight budget, try one of the freebies. OpenOffice, as its title suggests, is an open-source set of tools (see our review of OpenOffice 2.2 here).
The constituent programs look and work along similar lines to the Microsoft programs you’ll recognise.
Flash animation is used for all sorts of things. It’s the basis of lots of games and is used in web and email marketing presentations.
If you want to be able to enjoy the video and cartoon-based animation found online or distributed on CD and DVD by musicians, filmmakers and others, you’ll need a copy of Flash.
And for those of you who want to enjoy free games to while away a rainy day, sites such as flash-game.net and flashgamecodes.com are likely to prove as much of a hit as they are with certain people at PC Advisor Towers.
Winzip Shareware Evaluation 11.0
Large downloads can be unmanageable and sometimes stumble and fail. A Download Manager can assist, but you'll want to be able to zip up and unpack files so they can be uploaded efficiently or sent by email.
With photos and video doing the rounds, the restrictions of email programs that generally allow only a couple of megabytes to be sent mean that bouncebacks from large messages are all too common. YouSendIt is a mini applet that lets you upload to a secure site, then email the intended recipient to notify them that a compressed file is waiting for them. They click on the link, nab their package and then use a decompresser to unpack it.
More free essential software on the next page
More best free day-to-day software page
Google isn’t just a search engine. It’s got a fantastic web-based email client known as Google Mail, which you can now sign up to from the Google home page without invitation.
The Google Pack is another useful set of items to download. Google has helpfully bundled together a collection of its freebies, as well as other programs from respected third-parties such as Adobe and Norton.
The Google Pack includes such invaluable items as PC Tools’ Spyware Doctor (load this from our cover DVD if you prefer, since it’s an 18MB download). You get Picasa (which Google owns), Google Photos Screensaver, Norton’s Security Scanner and both Google Toolbar and Google Desktop.
If you want to make free and cut-price calls via your PC, Skype is included as an option, although this can be downloaded from the Skype site, too (skype.com).
While there’s a basic photo viewer built into XP, it can do little more than turn images through 90 degrees, flip them or invoke a slideshow of your snaps. Vista caters far better for photo fans and supports tags, which makes it much easier to catalogue and find your photos.
Its Photo Gallery falls down, though, if you need to do much in the way of prettying up your images. Use Picasa 2.0, a freeware photo manager and image editor, which offers a more extensive feature set.
Windows Media Player 11.0
Windows Media Player 11.0 comes with Vista and offers far greater integration between photo, TV, video, music and online stores than previous versions. Use it with XP for tagging, better visual thumbnails and media management.
If you decide to plump for a Mac, you’ll find iTunes preinstalled. This music, podcast and video manager is straightforward and ties in with the iTunes online store where you can buy clips, podcasts, music tracks or albums, as well as downloading games.
You get iTunes for free if you buy one of Apple’s music players, but you can use this music manager regardless of whether or not you’re an iPod fan. A PC version is available.
Best free web browsing and email software
We highly recommend Firefox as your web browser, since it’s less bloated than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and is less of a target for attack, too. It supports tabbed browsing, which makes it much easier to work with multiple pages.
Internet Explorer has pulled up its socks and now offers some of the useful functions that both Firefox and the recently updated Opera browser offer. Even so, we like Firefox for the ease with which you can prevent pop-ups and the array of add-ons with which you can customise it.
The developers of Opera appear to have had a long hard look at what the likes of Google and Mozilla do well with their popular web browsers. Opera has emulated these browsers’ streamlined look and cleanliness.
Widgets such as newsfeeds, BitTorrent downloads, in-browser search engines and thumbnail previews of the multiple tabs you have open at any one time make Opera a very strong contender for the title of web browser of choice.
Mozilla Thunderbird 2.0
An alternative to Microsoft’s Outlook Express, Thunderbird's appeal lies in its ability to siphon email from any POP3 or SMTP account.
Best free security software
Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Free
When Microsoft added a Security Center to XP with Service Pack 2, it made a huge difference to how safe users felt. Prior to this, XP seemed vulnerable to all sorts of viruses and exploits.
That said, a third-party antivirus application is a must. You shouldn’t consider using the internet or email without being protected. It’s vital that your antivirus is up to date.
Even the lowest-cost PCs tend to come with an antivirus program, even if it’s just a 30-day trial of a well-known brand such as Norton or McAfee. ZoneAlarm is another good option. It quarantines suspicious programs and is customisable.
Get Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Free here
Spybot Search & Destroy 1.4
Spybot is a long-standing favourite of PC Advisor’s and, until commercial applications designed to ferret out the most deep-seated of keystroke loggers and other snoops came along, was our first port of call to check we weren’t being monitored.
Spybot tracks down items that have installed themselves on your PC behind your back with the express intention of telling tales to whoever sent them. It sends them packing.
Ad-Aware SE Personal Edition
Advertising messages that appear whenever you surf the web are annoying, but what you may not know is that they can be dangerous. Malicious software often hides behind what seems nothing more harmful than advertising, so be careful what you click on.
Ad-Aware alerts you to any adware that’s tracking what you do and the sites you surf. It may not send your personal details to someone keen to exploit them, but adware certainly compromises your privacy.
PC Tools Firewall Plus 2.0
Vista users get a two-way firewall to prevent both incoming and outgoing nasties. XP’s firewall monitors only outbound data. We’ve included PC Tools’ Firewall Plus on our cover DVD to ensure you don’t go near the web before covering your back.