Stack your system full of software without paying a penny, with our guide to essential downloads
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.