Every PC, Linux or Mac user worth his or her salt has their own personal collection of ultra-handy free programs, or apps. What's impressive is the range and breadth of quality free apps available - small utilities that extend your computer's abilities in all sorts of ways, from recording digital TV, playing games over your own virtual private LAN, getting your computer to wakeup and operate when you're not there, to building stunning 3D photoscapes.
In this feature we've gone in search of the unmissable gems that we think are the essentials. Some you may have heard of before, and we've included them because they're regarded as the best in their field, and some are lesser-known apps that we think deserve your attention. The best bit is that they're all free.
Also, this time round we're including a new section for phone apps. The iPhone commands a great share of the current smartphone apps market, and we've included a list of some incredibly useful tools for the platform.
As the smartphone market expands, we're expecting even more exciting apps to emerge for other platforms, and we'll be keeping an eye out for these so we can share them with you.
We value your feedback, so if you're a fan of any of these apps, or if you've tried them and found them useful, or if you've got a better suggestion, please let us know so we can share it with the rest of our readers. Email your comments and suggestions to email@example.com
99 Apps You Can't Do Without - PC
The last time we brought you our list of the Web's Best 50 Free Downloads, among the list was ScummVM, the gaming engine for reliving VGA adventure classics like Maniac Mansion. Equally as entertaining is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, which can load and play arcade games (in the form of ROM files) from classic arcade machines from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Wikipedia claims there to be more than 4,000 unique games that can be played using MAME.
LimeWire may be hugely popular (you can also download Limewire via our Downloads area), but for those in the know, uTorrent is the essential app in every BitTorrent users' toolkit. The file itself is less than half a megabyte, but BitTorrent users love it for the built-in RSS subscriptions and bandwidth prioritization, so you can avoid maxing-out your download quota during peak hours.
In case you're wondering just how useful it is, we have an article explaining how to make a customized uTorrent Season Pass.
It's often used in the testing and benchmarking of graphics cards, but Fraps also lets you record in-game footage while you're playing. The upshot is the emergence of Machinima - or movies created using in-game video footage. Fraps works with DirectX and OpenGL platforms, and records up to 2560x1600. The free version has a time restriction on the videos, but does the job if you want to record short bursts.
|Create stunning "3D" photoscapes with Microsoft's Photosynth
If you've never seen a 'synth before, head to the Photosynth site
to see these sometimes stunning "3D" photographs, made by stitching together lots (ideally, 20-300) of your regular photos.
Take your photos, upload them using the Photosynth tool, and viewers can view the entire screen as a slideshow or by clicking different spots in the scene to see it from a different angle. The effect is particularly impressive for grand outdoor vistas, big sporting or festival events, or big group photos of crowds.
OffiSync lets you save your documents directly to Google Docs, so you and other people can share them and access them over the web. This has two benefits - first, you get access to your files anywhere on the Web.
Second, this app could also be used as a way of backing up your Word docs (if you're not already using a specialised syncing or backup tool). At PC Authority we are heavy users of both Word and Google Docs, and OffiSync allows us to combine the best of both.
If you find the idea of someone being able to follow your online activities annoying, this downloadable app may provide some peace of mind. Rather than encrypting your data, Tor works by sending it through a network of relays. The system relies on community involvement - users can volunteer to run relays that become part of the Tor network. Use Tor to stop Web sites knowing what country you are in.
Still carrying around a USB key with copies of your important work files and personal photos? Or maybe you're still battling with email to send photos or work to colleagues or family? Internet syncing tools like Dropbox aim to solve all that by letting you keep a central repository of your file - anytime something changes, it's synced to the Web. It also means your files can be accessed anywhere via the Web.
We'd recommend also having a local backup plan, such as an external drive, but this adds a handy way to share big files, or backup the data you're currently working on, though free users only get 2GB of space. Also available for Mac, Linux and iPhone.
If you like the idea of a second monitor, but don't have the space or cash to afford another, then another option is to install a virtual desktop manager. There are a few free managers, and VirtuaWin is perhaps the best known. Once installed, press a hotkey to switch to one of several hidden desktops - it's a handy way to separate your work from your personal email and Web, or to keep different work projects in different screens.
9) Paragon Drive Backup
PC backup is still a minefield of choices and approaches that's getting even more confusing with tools like Live Sync and DropBox that sync your data to the cloud (Internet). Paragon is one of the few well known brands offering a free tool that lets you take the traditional approach and backup an image of your system to an external hard drive. Windows 7 may have improved incremental backup to external drives, but if you're still not convinced, Paragon is a basic alternative.
This app is one of those incredibly useful apps that makes us wonder how it can possibly be free. Hamachi aims to connect you, anywhere in the world, to the computers of friends, family, or perhaps your office PC, as though you were on the same local network.
Other tools do this, but Hamachi's strength is the way it can set up these VPNs with a minimum of fiddling around with complicated settings. The exciting thing is that gamers have taken to Hamachi as a way to play each other on private networks with less lag.
11) Microsoft Live Sync
This is another excellent idea for those people sick of juggling multiple USB keys and versions of files - install Live Sync on your work and home computers, and the software syncs your designated files and folders so you have the same copies on both.
It saves you carrying files with you, functions as a sort of crude backup mechanism, and avoids potential confusion from having different versions of the same file on two PCs. Unlike DropBox (or Microsoft's Live Mesh), Live Sync doesn't store your data on a central server, but you can still download files from any of your "synced" computers via the Web. Also works on Mac.
This app performs quite an impressive trick - set it up on several Windows or Mac machines sitting side by side, and you can jump between the two monitors and machines by sliding your mouse to the edge of each screen. This means you can use the one keyboard and mouse, and switch effortlessly between a desktop PC and a laptop, or a Mac and a PC. Synergy even lets you cut and paste from one computer to another. Also available for Mac and Linux.
If you're not using an anti-virus program that protects against "zero day" threats, you're probably not getting very good protection. The big names in anti-virus are catching on with heuristics and reputation-based file scanning, but if you're using a free anti-virus program it's possible you're not getting the same level of protection.
Threatfire aims to add extra protection by looking out for and stopping suspicious activity, rather than relying on virus signatures. It's no substitute for a solid security suite, but instead works alongside these programs.
14) Image Composite Editor
This app automatically stitches together lots of individual photos to create giant panoramas - something you can try with varying degrees of success in other apps, but Microsoft seems to have nailed with Image Composite Editor (ICE).
The key is the software's ability to cleverly mask the appearance of any joining points between each photo - panoramas appear as though they were taken in one photo. The killer is the lack of any file limitations. It's possible to create "gigapixel" panoramas.
So you store your password in a password protected zip file, or worse, an ordinary Word document? Not only are you risking having your bank accounts and PC logins exposed to spyware, but you're probably having to go looking for passwords whenever you need them.
KeePass stores your logins in an encrypted database, and automatically enters your passwords whenever you need them. You can also run it from a thumb drive so you can take your passwords with you. Also available for Mac and Linux.
You can tell your Windows PC to automatically wake-up while you're not there and perform some functions, like opening a web page and running a file. The ability to set these scheduled tasks is built into Windows itself, but tools like WakeOnStandBy offer an easy way to set your PC's alarm clock. The software lets you set what time your computer wakes up, what it does afterwards (running a file, or batch file), and when it should go back to sleep.
We mentioned this completely mesmerising software in our list of The 101 Greatest Web Sites. The creator's website describes it as "a form of artificial life", that "recreates the biological phenomena of evolution and reproduction through mathematics". Did we mention it is also a screensaver? The app creates fascinating and constantly morphing abstract shapes and designs that evolve, depending on how popular they are with other Electric Sheep users.
99 Apps You Can't Do Without - Mac Apps
Adium is an instant messenger client with a difference: it never met a chat protocol it couldn't eat for breakfast and come back for seconds. It adds new features to GTalk, handles AIM and Yahoo! Messenger with flair, tackles MSN, Bonjour and practically everything else you can throw at it. Certain aspects aren't as intuitive as we might like - managing status for multiple accounts can become a journey through a maze of twisty submenus, all alike - but mostly it's magnificent.
Miro is a combination of podcast-aggregator, video player and bittorrent client. It does everything you expect from the likes of iTunes and Vuze, only more effectively and simpler. Sound too good to be true?
Just add a podcast or bittorrent URL to Miro, and it will handle the downloading for you - it automatically starts bittorrent downloading without needing to save the intermediate torrent file, and plays downloaded podcasts and videos within the software interface without the need for codecs, external players or other fiddling. We think it's a great one-stop multimedia centre.
It's a little tricky to explain what QuickSilver does without a handy video tutorial. At first glance, it looks like an application launcher, but it's much, much more, allowing you to connect applications with actions, as well as automate sequences of steps.
Fortunately, the Apple Blog has a nice beginners video and a quick search through YouTube reveals that there are many advanced how-to guides for anyone wanting to make the most of this sublime application. It may be difficult to wrap your head around, but it's easy to actually use - just start typing into the Quicksilver interface. First choose an application, then an action, and you're off!
|Appfresh, for the Mac user has everything
What do you get the Mac user who has everything? AppFresh checks for application updates, using the OS X updater
, and Microsoft updater as its basis for judging "freshness". The interface categorises your applications, so you can see at a glance what's been changed. Updating everything from your OS to your tiniest widget is a simple matter of clicking a single button - some application updates will need to be run after download, but many will update seamlessly from within AppFresh itself.
|Make text easier to read on screen with Tofu
Tofu has a very simple concept: make text easier to read onscreen. To accomplish that, it lays out any document as a multiple column view, with each column 12-14 words long for the most comfortable reading experience. You can adjust the font, line spacing, font and background colours and more to ensure that the everything is set up as comfortably as possible for your eyes. Resizing the window increases or decreases how many columns are displayed. It's perfect for reading Project Gutenberg texts.23) Seashore
|Edit images the easy way with Seashore
Seashore is an image editor based on many of the GIMP's program components. Although it's in some ways similar to Photoshop and in some ways similar to GIMP, in reality it is what it aims to be - a well-documented, Mac-friendly, open-source image editor that covers the basic editing functions most users will need. It's a delight to use, and given that the Mac Preview and iPhoto editing is so basic, it fills a much needed gap in Mac applications.
Xee is intended as a Mac-based homage to one of the oldies-but-goodies of PC applications: the venerable ACDSee. As an image viewer and management tool, Xee tends towards the simple: it displays files by folder as a default, but doesn't provide thumbnails for the entire folder, so you're forced to skip, mouse or keyboard your way through files. On the other hand, the image editing is excellent, with lossless rotation making Xee worth the download all by itself.
|Istatmenus can track memory and CPU use at a glance
This simple app lives in your menu bar and keeps track of a thousand little details about your system. It tracks memory usage, monitors CPU voltages and temperatures, displays data about which threads, apps and processes are consuming CPU resources - and best of all, this information is viewable as drop down displays when you click on the appropriate icon in the menu bar. It's so straightforward and comprehensively useful, we wonder how we ever lived without it.
Continued on next page - apps 26 - 50