Your PC is an entertainment powerhouse, just waiting to be unleashed. Its talents include recording and playing music, supporting editing of audio and video files, and burning DVDs and CDs. Unfortunately, the software that came with your PC probably won't handle these tasks with maximum effectiveness.
So to help you unlock your system's multimedia power, we've gathered a group of 15 downloads - most of them free, some of them try-before-you-buy - that all do great jobs.
We've chosen software in three categories: media players and burners, video software, and audio software. For working with media players, you'll find everything from Foxy Tunes (which lets you play media from within Firefox) to several superb players to Online Radio Tuner (which tunes in to internet radio stations) to Express Burn (the best media burner you'll find anywhere).
Our video software selections include programs for saving YouTube videos to your local hard drive, for uploading YouTube videos, for editing video, for converting video to an iPod-friendly format, and for getting TV shows into your Zune.
Finally, our audio downloads offer unique tools for performing such tasks as recording music from vinyl and cassettes to your PC, and eliminating pops, hisses, and clicks.
So if you want to unlock the entertainment power of your PC, it's time to start downloading.
Click on the links below to go directly to your favoured tools:
MEDIA PLAYERS & BURNERS
Here are five great downloads designed to handle all of your media-playing and disc-burning needs.
If you spend a significant portion of your life surfing the web while listening to music on your PC, you probably have to put up with an annoying problem: Your media player (Windows Media Player, say) is probably a rather bloated application, and all too often you must switch back and forth between your browser and your player to pause songs, jump to the next track, increase the volume, and so on.
Foxy Tunes corrects the problem. Though it runs as an unobtrusive toolbar in your system tray, it offers you a full set of media controls in the form of small clickable icons. The program identifies what's playing (including displaying the album art), is skinnable, and can be controlled via keyboard shortcuts. It supports more than 30 media players, and runs as a Firefox extension, though it also works in SeaMonkey and Flock browsers, as well as in Mozilla's Thunderbird email client. A beta version of Foxy Tunes for Internet Explorer is in the works.
Not happy with your current media player? Then it's time to switch to this surprisingly full-featured freebie. It plays many kinds of audio and video files, of course, and it also lets you rip music, burn CDs, and even record music from various incoming sources. Its built-in internet radio player displays dozens of internet-based radio stations.
And if confusing media players exhaust you, you'll welcome JetAudio's stripped-down interface and simple method of browsing for files. Another nice plus: You don't have to use the main player controls - a nifty little bar that appears across the bottom of your screen supports such options as playing music, ripping music, and burning CDs.
Download JetAudio Basic.
VLC Media Player
In a world that seems to see a new type of media format launched every day, it's easy for media players to run into problems playing certain types of files. In particular, Windows Media Player often tells listeners that they need a special codec in order to open a particular media type. But finding a specific codec can be aggravatingly problematic.
The free VLC application plays an astonishing array of media types - so many that you may never encounter a type it can't play. Minimalists will love its simple interface; in fact, it's about as stripped-down a program as you'll ever find.
Download VLC Media Player.
Online Radio Tuner
The internet is bursting with free radio stations that offer specialised formats - jazz, classical, dance trance, alternative rock, or just about anything else.
How do you navigate through the embarrassment of riches to find the stations you want? With Online Radio Tuner. This shareware categorises radio stations into several dozen genres, and lets you listen to any of them with a click or two. It constantly updates its list, too, so you always have the access to latest stations. And since the player is small and unobtrusive, it can sit in the background while you listen.
Download Online Radio Tuner.
Sometimes all you want to do is burn, baby, burn. For those occasions, you'll want this program, which has pretty much every feature you could ask for in burning software. It can handle music and data CDs, video and data DVDs, data HD DVDs, and even data Blu-ray disks. Before you burn, you can see how much space is left on the disk, so you can make sure that it will all fit. You'll find that it's easy to remove or add data or audio and video.
Prior to burning audio CDs, the program normalizes all of the tracks so that they record at a consistent volume, instead of jumping from a whisper to a scream without warning. You can copy entire discs, too. Express Burn is shareware, and it costs $27 (£14) to register.
Download Express Burn.
From YouTube downloaders and uploaders to file converters and file shrinkers, we've uncovered a great set of video tools.
Ever wished you could save a YouTube video to your hard drive? This simple freebie lets you can do the trick, rendering any YouTube video as savable .flv file. Afterward you can play the video with any media player, send it to friends, burn it to disk, or whatever. You'll need your media player to do handle those operations; this program simply converts and downloads the files.
To copy the videos to your hard disk, just copy their links to TubeMe, and click a few buttons. You can queue up multiple files and download them en masse. Windows Media Player, by the way, won't play .flv files. But the ever-useful VLC Media Player plays them without a hitch.
Free YouTube Uploader
As its name indicates, this program is designed to upload videos to YouTube. Run the program and enter your user name and password, and it logs you into YouTube. Then select your video, write a title and description, add tags, and walk through the simple steps of uploading the video, including selecting a category.
Free YouTube Uploader does more than just automate video uploading. Because YouTube enforces a limit of 10 minutes or 100MB per video, the program includes an easy-to-use video trimmer that you can use to pare down the video you want before uploading it.
Download Free YouTube Uploader.
This wonderful file for video processing geeks serves as a kind of free, open-source ‘Photoshop’ application for video.
At a basic level, it can capture video and enable you to save it. But beyond that, it's a very good tool for cleaning up and trimming video - especially if you want to use it in concert with a more full-featured video editing program. It lets you crop or compress video, remove and replace audio tracks without changing the video, and use filters to sharpen and blur. You can even delete individual frames. Highly recommended.
It's your own personal on-disc therapist! No, actually it's a handy program for people who want to create backup copies of DVDs on their PC's hard drive. Later, they can use Windows Media Center or another DVD media player to play the DVDs on their computer. DVD Shrink lets you rip the DVD to your hard disk in various formats, including a lossless one that retains the original disc's image and audio quality. Other format options let you save hard-drive space. And you can customize the quality setting for any new DVD.
DVD Shrink preserves all of the original DVD's content, including menus, trailers, and subtitles. Or if you prefer, you can eliminate any such content. Best of all, the program is free.
Download DVD Shrink.
Suppose that you have movie clips in various formats - say, .AVI, .MPEG, Real Media, and .WMV - that you'd like to combine into a single large clip. Don't bother to invest time and money into learning some powerful video-editing software package. Instead, give AVI/MPEG/RM/WMV Joiner a try.
With this tool you choose the clips you want to merge, then rearrange them in the order you like, and finish by clicking the Merge button. It's that easy. You can save the merged video to the format of your choice - MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, or Divx, among others. The shareware is free to try for 10 days, after which keeping it costs $20 (£10).
Download AVI/MPEG/RM/WMV Joiner.
Xilisoft iPod Video Converter
Though there are plenty of videos in the world, few of them can play on your iPod. To convert them to an iPod-friendly format, you need Xilisoft iPod Video Converter. It does a fine job of converting just about any file format you can name into a format viewable on your iPod, including AVI, MPEG, WMV, MOV, RM, RMVB, DivX, ASF, VOB, and 3GP.
In addition, Xilisoft can convert a multitude of audio files to iPod-friendly formats - including WAV, WMA, MP2, AC3, RA, OGG, CDA, and APE - to iPod MP3, M4A, or AAC. And it supports the latest iPod specs for MPEG-4 video at 640 by 480 resolution. The program does more as well, including ripping CDs. This shareware costs $29.95 (£15) to register.
Download Xilisoft iPod Video Converter.
These three applications give you superb control over myriad sound-related activities.
Spin It Again
If you have a vinyl and cassette collection gathering dust in the basement, you'll want this program. It can record your obsolete-format oldies to your PC, and then clean up the hiss, clicks, pops, and other audio flaws that mar so much analogue music. What's old and waxy becomes new again
Spin It Again walks you through the process of connecting a turntable or cassette player to your PC, and offers plenty of advice along the way. Multimedia wizards show and tell what needs to be hooked up where. The software includes automatic track detection, so it can properly split your album into individual files for playing on your PC or transferring to your iPod, Zune, or other multimedia player. It cleans up your files, lets you record music to a variety of formats, and more. This shareware is free to try; it costs $34.95 (£17) to register.
Download Spin It Again.
Focus MP3 Recorder
Few audio tools are as multifaceted as Focus MP3 Recorder. It can do everything from recording audio from a wide range of sources to splitting audio files to joining them - along with ripping, burning, and more. Though the program can play audio files, too, that's not its strength. Its fortes involve recording and similar tasks.
The program labours under a number of artificial constraints until you register it. For example, the hobbled version limits recordings to 120 seconds per track (better focus on Minutemen tunes if you want whole songs), and it lets you join no more than three files. The registered version, which costs $29.95 (£15), imposes no such limits.
Download Focus MP3 Recorder.
AV Music Morpher
For aspiring sound editors, the free AV Music Morpher is a godsend, offering a remarkable suite of tools for editing music. With this program you can add countless special effects - including 3D sound, the intriguing "shaman" effect, and the "tipsy singer" effect - to any audio file. You can change the file's pitch and timbre as well. And you can even create different voices from the same artist, and have them sing simultaneously.
Further tools in the package support ripping music, burning music to CDs, and creating CD covers. But the editing tools are what make AV Music Morpher special.
Download AV Music Morpher.
Freelance writer Preston Gralla is author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell.