Here, we’ve compiled our top 50 downloads – from apps that are measured in kilobytes to the Google Pack’s 200MB – all of which are guaranteed performers. We’ve covered a wide range of applications, including everything from browser add-ons, security software, music packages right through to Photoshop alternatives.
Before you start downloading, a little housekeeping: although we’ve taken great care to personally test each of the software downloads we recommend, we haven’t installed all 50 on the same machine. So while we’re happy to vouch for them individually, we can’t guarantee that any of these downloads will be compatible with each other or with other software on your PC. We’d also implore you to download the software from our recommended sites and scan it for malware before you install it.
1. Google Pack
Size: up to 240MB
Google’s ever-expanding compendium of free software is now so impressive that it outstrips the bundled applications that come with most PCs. The latest addition to the family is StarOffice, the slightly enhanced version of the open-source OpenOffice. With a high-quality word processor, spreadsheet, PowerPoint-like presentation software and database, it’s a genuine alternative to Microsoft’s premium-priced market leader.
Spyware Doctor sifts through your hard disk with commendable diligence, ripping out malware that even our paid-for security software failed to detect. Skype remains the best and most widely used VoIP application on the market, while Firefox is our browser of choice.
All that’s before we’ve mentioned Google’s own-brand software: the elegantly designed Picasa excels at organising and making basic edits to your digital photo collection; Google Desktop keenly sniffs out files and documents that you’d long since given up hope of seeing again; while the Google Toolbar includes a useful pop-up blocker and other enhanced search features for both IE and Firefox.
There are a couple of makeweights in the Pack, but the smartly designed installer makes it easy to pick and choose the applications you want. Google Pack also provides regular reminders when there’s a new version of an application or fresh additions, meaning you don’t have to keep checking back. For a company that focuses on online apps, Google’s not half-bad at desktop software.
Anyone who’s interested in digital imaging but doesn’t want to shell out for Photoshop (or even Photoshop Elements) could do a lot worse than download this sparkling gem.
Paint.NET started life as a Microsoft project to replace the woefully underpowered Paint application that’s bundled with Windows, and is now being lovingly maintained by former project members. It’s updated regularly with bug fixes and new features, although it already offers almost everything you’d expect to find in paid-for rivals – and then some. Paint.net will prove invaluable for photographers, with control over curves, hue and saturation, as well as both manual and auto-level adjustment. There’s full support for layers, plus a generous selection of artistic effects to add fizz to lifeless photos. Like Photoshop, extra features (such as the ability to import RAW files) can be introduced with a dazzling library of free plug-ins, and there’s also a huge selection of online tutorials to dive into. For us, it just holds the edge over The GIMP (www.gimp.org).
It’s no coincidence that this tiny utility ends up installed on all the PCs and notebooks that come into the PC Authority Labs: it takes mere seconds to tell you everything you need to know about the core components. Constantly updated to support the latest CPUs, it gives you real-time clock-speed readouts, along with details of steppings, multipliers and cache; motherboard model and chipset; RAM speed, timings and even the memory slots you’ve filled. In short, it’s a Rough Guide to your own PC.
Pidgin handles your every IM need, allowing you to communicate using one interface across a huge array of networks, from AIM, MSN and Yahoo, to the less common Zephyr, Bonjour and others.
It’s a little rough around the edges, but its open-source roots mean it’s constantly improving. And while many would argue for the inclusion of the more polished Trillian (www.ceruleanstudios.com), Pidgin gives you access to all these networks for free.
5. Startup Control Panel
We’re not going to pretend this application does anything particularly glamorous, but for quickly gaining control of your system’s startup programs it’s invaluable. Categorised by the locations that startup programs can hide themselves away, each entry can be disabled, deleted or edited – the latter being particularly handy for changing command-line switches. Once you delete an entry, it stays in a holding area rather than disappearing completely, keeping everything tidy but giving you a backup if something stops working.
We know that many PC Authority readers wouldn’t touch Internet Explorer with a bargepole, but for those who do IE7Pro is a must-have. A customisable inline spellchecker and inline search are on par with Firefox, of course, but the mouse-gesture support, sophisticated ad-blocking and powerful cut-and-paste features make for a more pleasurable experience. The fact that it runs discreetly is the icing on the cake, and new features (as well as a handy selection of user-written add-ins) appear in each of the regularly updated new versions.
7. Foxit Reader
Few people look further than Adobe Reader for opening PDFs, but Foxit
is a worthy alternative. The first thing that strikes you is its speed. After years
of viewing PDFs at Adobe’s dawdling pace, the swift response of Foxit is a revelation. Pages packed with high-quality pictures and text open with minimal fuss and scroll without the irritating lurches so common to the industry standard bearer. The install is very quick, and the 2.2MB download snack-sized when compared with Adobe’s 20MB meal. Despite the small footprint, most familiar features are accounted for, although thumbnail views of pages are conspicuous by their absence.
8. Sun NetBeans
Sun’s free Java IDE (integrated development environment) is a stunning programming tool. As stable as you could ever expect an IDE to be, it has every feature you’d find in commercial offerings. Download the profiling tool and you have a powerful method of developing the fastest Java apps possible. You can even use it for C and C++ development with the add-on pack – all free. Other open-source projects, notably Eclipse (www.eclipse.org) are an alternative, but nothing can touch NetBeans for its stability and ease of use.
For anyone who’s realised they forgot to record the latest episode of CSI, WebGuide is ideal: this nifty program lets you remotely access a Windows Media Center system to schedule recordings, and manage recorded TV programmes from any internet-connected computer. Now completely free WebGuide offers features such as streaming video, TV, music and photos, and is ideal if you forget to schedule a recording. And there are versions for both XP Media Center Edition, Windows Home Server and Vista, too.
10. Microsoft SyncToy
SyncToy is one of Microsoft’s PowerToys, and is an excellent tool for backing up files over a network. The program allows you to create folder pairs – each folder can be anywhere on your network – and then keeps the contents of the two folders synchronised. It even keeps track of when you rename files, so changes are reflected in the other folder. This also applies when you move or delete files.
Webaroo lets you search and browse the web when you’re on the go without an internet connection. It does this using pre-made web packs, which you can download from the website. Alternatively, you can download pages from any website you like. Once you download the content onto your laptop or mobile device, you can browse it like normal, and when you connect to the internet again your device will be updated with fresh versions of the pages.
12. DupKiller 0.8.2
You’d be surprised at how much disk space you can free up by running this program, which detects duplicate files on your hard disk. It will also search network drives, removable storage and CDs or DVDs. You can choose to exclude certain folders or file types from your search, and opt to delete the files to the Recycle Bin or directly from your hard disk. Binary comparisons mean the files don’t even have to have the same filename. Very clever.
Size: 3 MB
Windows already supports FTP transfer, but as anyone who’s used it will testify it’s pretty basic. FileZilla allows you to store frequently used FTP sites along with their accompanying usernames and passwords. You can also send server commands, making FileZilla a godsend for those who run websites hosted elsewhere. Secure FTP (SFTP) is supported as well – a feature lacking even from some paid-for FTP software.
Spend a lot of time with Linux? If so, you’ll be familiar with the hassle of finding software that can handle ISO files. ImgBurn weighs in at a shade over 1.5MB, yet is incredibly handy. You can burn ISOs to CDs and DVDs, and there’s a utility for erasing RW discs. Alternatively, you can capture an ISO image from an existing disc, which is useful for long-term archiving.
It’s only natural to be curious about the health of the components in your PC, but to be absolutely certain you need this brilliant little utility. SpeedFan collects the information from the temperature-sensing components in your PC, allowing you to determine whether your noise-killing fan adjustments are making your CPU run too hot, for instance. You can also control fan speed and see the SMART status of your hard disk, giving you access to your disk’s early warning system.
Size: 14.7 MB
|You can view your TV and photo collection and access other media files wherever you are, courtesy of Orb (www.orb.com)|
There are plenty of other applications designed to let you access your PC remotely, but there are none with the media-handling capabilities of Orb. Once installed, you can access your PC, of course, but besides being able to browse your hard disk and open your documents you can also get at music and film files. Click on one of them and Orb will transcode the file on-the-fly, adjusting quality settings for the speed of the networks you’re connected over.
17. Sun VirtualBox
Sun (formerly Innotek) VirtualBox is a complete virtualisation system that can run any x86-compatible operating system within Windows or Linux. The virtualised OS runs at almost native speed and can use the host’s network connection and even much of its hardware (drivers permitting). It isn’t the only virtualisation package in the world, but it’s our favourite thanks to its ease of use and its custom extensions that improve performance and usability in common operating systems.
Thunderbird is a POP3 mail client that does everything Outlook Express can, and more. Multicoloured tagging and almost instant searching make it easy to get around your inbox. The Firefox-like find-as-you-type feature is also handy for swiftly tracking down buried messages. Best of all, hundreds of plug-ins let you extend the software to your taste, adding optional features such as integrated encryption, a localised spellchecker or navigation by mouse gesture.
19. Avira AntiVir PersonalEdition Classic
|AntiVir beat many paid-for security apps in our Labs test.|
Everybody needs virus protection, and our antivirus group test (web ID: 108813) found AntiVir to be one of the most effective – and it’s completely free. True, it isn’t the most fully featured antivirus package around, and you have to live with the occasional nag window urging you to upgrade to the paid-for version. But for sheer effectiveness, AntiVir is almost unbeatable, with only the commercial Kaspersky Anti-Virus package doing better in our Labs test.
Hard disks are like sock drawers: they always seem to be inexplicably full. JDiskReport shows you where all your precious space has gone, visually breaking down your usage by folder – so you can see which directories are the fullest – or by type, enabling you to see at a glance whether your MP3s or your family photos take up more space. There’s even a simple ‘top 50’ file list, to lead you straight to the worst culprits.
UltraVNC is a powerful remote access system that lets you connect to any computer and use it as if you were seated in front of it. It isn’t the only free remote-access package, but it’s the most versatile, with built-in file transfer and a whole host of features for making remote computing practical and relatively painless.
22. SiSoftware Sandra
While techies love the raw figures provided by CPU-Z (see no. 3), Sandra gives a wider-ranging overview of your system, laying bare every detail of your BIOS and hardware in a series of easy-to-read reports. It can also benchmark components and compare scores against a huge database of hardware, so you can check how your system measures up. A paid-for version adds extra modules, but the free edition is fully functional and not restricted in any way.
HijackThis is a simple but extremely useful tool in the right hands: it lists every non-standard startup setting on your system, whether in the Registry or another configuration file, exposing unwanted startup items, browser helpers and even malware. A single click returns settings to their default value, preventing the unwanted software from launching with Windows. Use with care, though, as untutored meddling in the Registry can have dire consequences.
BitTorrent has a reputation as the technology of choice among pirates, but it also has plenty of legal applications, such as distributing Linux ISOs. In our view, the king of BitTorrent clients is Azureus, a standalone Java application that offers a great range of features, including watched folders, IP filtering, SSL encryption, extensive torrent statistics and a plug-in architecture to add even more features should you have more esoteric needs.
FFDShow is a DirectShow decoding filter for decompressing DivX, XviD, H.264, FLV1, WMV, MPEG1, MPEG2 and MPEG4 movies. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry – just install it and revel in the fact that Windows Media Center can now play movies in the popular DivX and XviD formats. More technical users will also appreciate the huge range of options the filter exposes, from closed captioning to custom audio mixing and adaptive video quantisation.
26. Stardock ObjectDock
The Start Menu is all very neat and logical, but let’s be honest: if you only use a few major applications the Mac OS X dock is a prettier and more accessible interface. And now you don’t need to buy a Mac to get it: ObjectDock is a beautiful, fast, free implementation of the OS X dock for Windows that’s even more versatile than the real thing, with customisable graphics and live mini-thumbnails in Vista.
IsoBuster is a handy tool for extracting files from a CD, DVD or Blu-ray disc image without needing to burn it to a disc. It supports a huge range of formats, including ISO, BIN/CUE pairs, Nero images and even Apple DMG files. In addition, you can use it to explore the structure of physical discs and attempt data recovery from damaged media. The free version has limited UDF support, but is otherwise fully usable.
Audiograbber’s interface may seem a little unpolished compared to the audio ripper built into Windows Media Player, but it’s a far more powerful package, letting you configure every aspect of the ripping and encoding process. It can normalise the volume of ripped tracks before encoding them, take tracks from a folder instead of a disc, and use a free online CD database to identify inserted CDs and automatically tag MP3s accordingly.
29. Rockbox Utility
Ever wished your portable MP3 player knew a few more tricks? Rockbox is a complete firmware replacement for a range of MP3 players, including Archos, iriver and Apple products.
It supports all the playback features you’d hope for, and lets you manage files and playlists on the move. Extra treats include bookmarks, gapless playback, real-time MP3 encoding (for devices with microphones), OGG and FLAC support, and a five-band EQ.
If you’ve ever felt the urge to revisit a classic adventure, you need ScummVM, a Windows-based virtual machine that can run a wide range of old LucasArts games based on the Scumm scripting language, including Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle and the Secret of Monkey Island. You still need the data files from the original game, but ScummVM handles everything else, leaving you free to concentrate on vanquishing the evil pirate, LeChuck.
31. Google SketchUp
After SketchUp’s original developers added the ability to produce 3D buildings for Google Earth, Google bought the company, improved it further and then – amazingly – made it free. While there’s still a paid-for version, the free edition would be superb even if it cost hundreds. It’s all you need to model and render complex objects, as well as simpler items such as text.
It’s blissfully easy to use (and comes with excellent tips to get started), and you can even model and texture your own house with photography and put it onto Google Earth. An essential app for the budding architect or designer in all of us.
With the burgeoning popularity of RSS feeds, a host of readers have popped up to satisfy our inner news junkie, and Feedreader is among the best. This latest version supports all major syndication formats and is packed with preloaded feeds for those still searching for their own favourites. The user interface is sparse, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s highly configurable, quick and simple to use, which makes handling multiple feeds a doddle. All in all, Feedreader is good news.
AbiWord is billed as ‘word processing for everyone’, and with versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux it pretty much has the whole computing gamut covered. As you might expect from a word processor that arrives in a mere 5MB download, there’s no great sophistication here: its basic feature set is roughly comparable to Google Docs & Spreadsheets, but without any of the online service’s grating delays or awkward interface.
The streamlined feature set and large icons make it a great choice for the kids’ computer, and it writes to virtually all the major document formats (including DOC, RTF and ODT), so compatibility won’t be an issue. A DOCX converter is on the way.
This deceptively powerful little app is a fuss-free backup manager. Simply point the software at the files you wish to back up, set the destination drive and SyncBack does the rest. Handily, the software runs a simulation of the backup first, so you don’t spend half-an-hour backing up your C drive only for it to choke on a troublesome file near the end.
The scheduler can be set to wake your PC for out-of-hours backups, and there’s a bevy of advanced options to perform backups to an FTP server, compress documents into a Zip folder or close certain apps before running.
35. Free Download Manager
So much more than just a download accelerator, FDM handles everything from the basics like resuming broken downloads and finding mirrors, right through to creating multiple connections and setting up scheduled downloads. It can download everything from a website in one go, or just selected file types and extensions, and there’s even a social side, as you can request other users’ opinions of a file before you download it. Better still, it’s open source.
Quite rightly nicknamed “the Swiss Army knife of audio”, dBpoweramp has long been a staple of PC Authority’s Real World Benchmarks. With a no-fuss interface, it supports just about any format known to man via plug-ins. Licensing restrictions mean the LAME MP3 encoder and AMG’s music guide expire after 30 days, but they’re no huge loss and there’s no nagging.
There are two paid-for upgrades, but the free version will still interest audiophiles with its wide support for obscure and lossless formats, along with tidy integration into the Windows Shell.
If evidence were needed that open-source software is capable of greatness, this is it. This tiny download is a surprisingly comprehensive multitrack audio recorder and editor; capable of recording a full band, yet perfect for podcasts or simpler setups.
The number of simultaneous tracks you can make is naturally limited by your hardware inputs but, crucially, there’s support for real-time input monitoring and playback while recording, so you can make any overdubs you need. MIDI support is limited, and editing slightly idiosyncratic, but it’s astonishing how much this program is capable of.
The free ZoneAlarm firewall has been a favourite in the PC Authority office for many years, delivering dependable security without the constant nagging of other security software. ZoneAlarm will alert you when apps attempt to access the internet for the first time – handy for knee-capping those apps that snidely report back to base without any prior warning.
There’s also a one-click Internet Lock that immediately shuts off all net traffic if you suspect something’s gone horribly wrong on your system. It’s undoubtedly inferior to ZoneAlarm’s paid-for protection, but sturdy enough for those who don’t need granular control over their security software.
HandBrake is an open-source DVD-to-MPEG4 converter for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It allows you to watch your movies on a portable video player, or store them on a hard disk for on-demand playback using Windows Media Center or a network video-streaming device.
HandBrake can work directly from a DVD or a VIDEO_TS folder, and can output to MP4, AVI or OGM formats, using either MPEG4 or H.264. For audio, you can select AAC, MP3, Vorbis or AC-3 passthrough.
40. VLC media player
If you have a strange media file that no other video player will touch, throw it at VLC and the chances are it will play. The interface is nothing to write home about, but it will deal with anything, even ISO images containing video CD or DVD content. In fact, the only thing it won’t touch is RealPlayer files. Its name stands for Video LAN Client, stemming from the fact that it can act as both client and server for media-streaming apps using a range of streaming protocols.
VirtualDub is a legend among open-source apps. Written according to old-school principles, it aims to be the fastest tool for capturing, processing and re-encoding video files from one format to another. Performance-critical sections are hand-coded in assembly language – a practice almost unheard of in these modern times, but it certainly pays off, with VirtualDub regarded as one of the fastest encoding applications there is. It isn’t especially easy to use, but technically it’s near-flawless.
42. Gainward ExperTool
Is the whine of your Nvidia graphics card’s fan driving you up the wall? Nvidia’s latest driver control panel lets you control fan speed, but only in 3D mode, which doesn’t help when it decides to spin up while you’re editing a Word document. Intended only for Gainward cards, ExperTool nonetheless works with a great many other Nvidia-based cards, and allows you to control the fan in both 2D and 3D modes for blissful silence – without forking out S100 for a quiet heatsink. A little gem.
43. Process Explorer
Process Explorer is a powerful replacement for the Windows Task Manager. It gives you full diagnostic and descriptive information for all the processes running on your system, including details of which DLLs and memory-mapped files have been loaded by each process. Colour highlighting lets you see at a glance what state processes are in, and naturally anything unwanted can be killed with a mouse click. It’s the system-monitoring tool that should have been bundled with Windows.
44. TVersity Media Server
TVersity is a completely free media server that offers many benefits over using Windows Media Connect or other servers. The program (still in beta) lets you manage all your media and create a tailored entertainment guide – a personalised line-up of channels. It can serve this media to almost any networked device in your home – or an internet-connected device such as a PSP – transcoding video and audio on-the-fly so that, for example, you can watch DivX videos on your Xbox 360, even though the console doesn’t support DivX.
TweakUI gives you easy access to all of Windows XP’s hidden user interface settings that the normal Control Panel won’t let you play with. Want menus to pop up more quickly? Don’t like the little arrow that appears on shortcut icons? TweakUI lets you change these defaults and many, many more. It isn’t just cosmetic, either: useful functions include automatically logging on a particular user at startup and disabling autoplay on selected drives.
46. Password Safe
There are lots of utilities around that act as a secure repository for all your passwords, but few can claim a world-leading cryptologist as their author. Password Safe uses internationally renowned cipher man Bruce Schneier’s Twofish algorithm, rendering your online credentials as safe as you could expect them to be.
The idea is you let it remember all your passwords – bank, webmail and so on – then choose and remember just one super-secure password to protect them all. The project is now open source, but Schneier was the original author – visit his page at www.schneier.com/passsafe.html
47. LogMeIn Free
If you thought Windows’ Remote Assistance was an impressive remote-support tool, prepare to be amazed. LogMeIn Free is Dom Perignon, Remote Assistance is Strongbow. Once you’ve downloaded the utility onto your PC (or the person you’re supporting has), you can access it from any location via the LogMeIn website – and, perhaps best of all, as the service is web-based it works through any firewall or router, which is the key advantage it holds over UltraVNC (see no.21).
So if you want to access your own computer, you can do so: send and receive email, browse directories, run programs and so on. Likewise, fixing someone’s PC becomes as simple as walking them through the installation of LogMeIn Free. Unlike UltraVNC, however, file transfers aren’t possible.
48. VMware Server
VMware has established itself as the world’s leading virtualisation software company. Previously a commercial product, VMware Server is now free, although you still need to register and get a product key. Don’t let the name fool you – you can install graphical non-server OSes and use any standard PC hardware. What’s more, you can download a huge range of ready-to-run ‘virtual appliances’, complete virtual hard disks with operating system and applications already installed.
We’ve found VirtualBox (see no.17) an easier system to set up, with simpler networking, but if you have trouble installing a particular operating system or application, or just want to use the industry-standard virtualisation application, give VMware Server a whirl instead.
49. Taskbar Shuffle
No prizes for guessing this tool’s party trick, but you might be surprised at how useful it can be, particularly for those with a dozen applications open at once. With support for XP and Vista, Taskbar Shuffle adds the much-needed ability to rearrange not only your taskbar buttons, but System Tray icons, too, as well as swiftly changing their auto-group settings. Best of all, you can set it to be transparent, so all you get is the extra features with none of the shouting.
50. Cypherix Cryptainer LE
Encyrption isn’t just for ASIO agents: anyone who handles sensitive information should consider it. And you can’t hide behind too-difficult-to-use excuses: not only is Cryptainer LE free, it’s also simple to install and use. It creates a secure volume (under Vista, this appears as a “device with removable storage” in Computer), which you then drag and drop your data into.
The main restriction of this product is the vault’s maximum 25MB size, but there’s no compromise when it comes to security, as Cryptainer offers you the choice of either the highly respected Blowfish448 algorithm or AES256.