The complete n00b’s guide to free and reliable Windows software

by mcastellon on January 27, 2006

How to keep a system clean, stable and inexpensive

I’ve wanted for some time to make a streamlined list of really effective Windows-based freeware that I think a lot of people will find useful in maximizing not only their computer’s performance and security but also their personal budget. I plan on updating this list as I find and test more freeware and open source software, so bookmark this page and consultant it regularly. You may also wish to send it to friends or family who recently purchased a new system and don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on new software for common tasks.

Keep in mind this is a non-Geek’s guide to Windows-based freeware. You will find that these programs are easy to install and use. The super tech-savvy will engage in endless debates on what freeware is best for a particular task, but I’m confident these programs offer bar none the most usability, stability, and value than anything else a “common user” or tech novice would need for everyday or semi-advanced purposes.

Few things are more frustrating than buying expensive software then having to spend a lot of time learning it only to find out it was over packed with features that will remain largely unused. Spending hundreds of dollars on Photoshop to merely remove redeye from your holiday pictures might be a good example of this. Many lay users will purchase Photoshop simply because that brand has mindshare. The purpose of this list is to remind you that just because some developers don’t spend millions of dollars advertising their software doesn’t mean their products aren’t effective. In fact, because many of these programs are open-source, you’ll find that they are far superior to the big boys.

This is a list of software I currently use or have at least tested for a considerable amount of time and have found to be safe alternatives to their commercial counterparts.

This is the software I usually insist friends and family install on their new computer the moment it comes out of the box. This stuff is safe and oftentimes more stable than their commercial counterparts. Best of all, it’s all free.

AVG Antivirus. A must have to protect your system from malicious viruses. It’s crucial that you keep your virus definitions up-to-date. I update mine at least once every two days.

ZoneAlarm. Despite recent privacy concerns, I’m a pretty big proponent of ZA, especially for broadband connections. ZA will block third-party attempts to enter your system through your network. If you’re not running a firewall you are seriously at risk and have likely already been compromised.

OpenOffice Some people choose to run a Microsoft-free environment on their computers. I’m not necessarily one of them and it’s difficult for me to find a better alternative to Microsoft Word. Despite all of Microsoft’s evils, Word is a superior piece of software. If, however, you cannot or will not buy Word, OpenOffice is a good word processing alternative. Keep in mind you may need to learn a few workarounds in order to maintain compatibility if you share documents, say, with your Word-utilizing workplace or consultants. OpenOffice comes bundled with alternatives to most of the programs that come bundled in Microsoft Office, including a spreadsheet utility.

Mozilla FireFox This is a gimme. Internet Explorer’s security issues and vulnerabilities make it a significant risk to both your machine and your sanity. Firefox circumvents these issues, and I find the browser to be more usable and customizable than any other browser on the market.

Mozilla Thunderbird Also from the Mozilla Foundation, this is a very solid and reliable email utility that serves as a replacement for Outlook. I use web-based Gmail, but if you have to use an email client this is your best choice.

Paint.net A superb alternative to Photoshop. I’ve done several Photoshop tutorials this past week and I tested Paint.net on them. It’s virtually seamless and has most of the same features you will use to make funny pictures of your friends or of politicians. You can do comprehensive photo illustrations or just standard photo enhancement tasks. Here’s a great list of Photoshop tutorials that will teach you many wonderful things.

Adaware A great way to clean your machine of the nastylittle bugs that accumulate while web browsing. Don’t rely solely on your browser’s cookie settings. Use Adaware to protect your privacy and keep malicious bugs out of your system. I recommend running a scan at least once a week.

Audacity An excellent audio editor and recorder. Especially useful for editing your MP3s and recording podcasts.

iTunes This is what I use to play, burn and buy my digital music, mainly because I own an iPod. Some critics are skeptical of Apple’s Digital Rights Management, but I haven’t had any major problems with Apple’s restrictions on the music and audiobooks I’ve purchased.

Winamp If the above issues with iTunes concerns you, Winamp will be the best alternative for you. Winamp features lots of customizable skins and offers a little more freedom than iTunes, but at the cost of a slightly sloppier interface. Keep in mind Winamp does not include a music store.

Skype Voice Over Internet Provider, or VoIP, is a true competitor for old-school telecommunications. Skype will let you voice-chat and IM with other users over your broadband connection. Just think of the money you’ll save on long-distance. Use your own mic and speakers or buy a USB telephone. You probably won’t hear the difference in quality.

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