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Top Free Apps for Your Computer

There’s an old saying that “the best things in life are free.” Few people know that some of the best applications written for the PC (and the Mac) are available free of charge. I’ve put together a “short list” of programs that may be of interest to the average Windows user. If you use a different OS (such as Mac or Linux) these programs may or may not be available, but with a little research (i.e. “Googling”), you should be able to find some plausible alternatives. Also, if you intend to use any of these programs in an enterprise/work environment, be sure to first read the license information as some programs (mainly antivirus/malware applications) are only free for personal use.


Antivirus

I’ve put this at the top of the list because no Windows based PC should be without some form of updating virus protection. I say updating because those “free” trials of Norton, Symantec, or McAfee that came pre-installed on your computer usually expire after a month or two and then are next to useless until you purchase a license for about $40 a year. This is not to say that these programs aren’t effective at protecting your computer when they are receiving updates. What most people don’t know, however, is there are some free antiviruses available that are just as good, and they never expire. Below are the two antivirus apps I recommend for the average user. Just be sure to only have one antivirus on your computer at a time, since having multiple antivirus apps will cause all sorts of weird errors.

  • Avira: This antivirus is one of my favorites and is what I run on my Windows computers at home. It is fast, easy to use and has a very good detection rate with very few false positives. Its also very light weight, so it runs well on both old hardware and high-performance gaming rigs alike. The only downside I’ve found is the free version displays a popup ad every time it updates (about once a day). Simple Instructions to turn off the ads can be found at the wikiHow website, but be aware that doing so is probably a violation of Avira’s End-user license agreement. Does this mean that disabling the ads will cause men in dark suits to visit your house in black helicopters? Probably not, but if you want to play it safe, check out AVG as a good alternative. You can get Avira Antivirus free at http://www.free-av.com/.
  • AVG: As mentioned above, AVG is a great alternative to Avira. It uses a little more resources than Avira, but is also very dependable and easy to use. I often recommend it to people who don’t want to be bothered by ads, but also want dependable, free virus protection. In fact, up until I discovered Avira, this was my antivirus of choice. You can get AVG for free at http://free.avg.com/.

There are some additional antivirus apps out there (such as Avast! and ClamWin) that will also give you some free protection, but due to Avast!’s registration issues and ClamWin’s lack of features, they don’t quite make the cut.


Chat/Instant Messaging

I used to be a huge fan of Pidgin Instant Messenger because of its support for a wide variety of chat clients in one easy-to-use package. I found it to be perfect for people who used multiple chat clients, because they could just use one program rather than three or four to stay in touch with people…

Then along came Digsby. Digsby not only does what pidgin did by supporting multiple chat clients at the same time, but it also lets you receive email alerts and keep tabs on your social networks (such as Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook). And if that wasn’t enough, it does it while packaging it all into a stylish, customisable side-bar that can be minimised to a small set of icons in your right-hand part of the task bar. Simply put, Digsby is awesome! The only complaint I have is that it isn’t available yet for Mac and Linux (but they are working on it). You can download Digsby from http://www.digsby.com.


Web Browsers

Internet Explorer sucks. That’s all there is to it. It’s insecure, slow, and doesn’t always display websites correctly (mainly because Microsoft tends to make up a new set of standards for every version of IE it releases). To be fair, a lot of improvements have been made since it was first packaged with Windows. Changes have been made to fix it up, speed it up, and give it a new coat of paint. When you get right down to it though, these changes are like dressing up a turd; underneath that fancy top hat and coat tails, it still stinks. If you are currently using Internet Explorer to read this blog post, stop and download one of the following recommended web browsers right now.

  • Firefox: Most of you are probably not surprised this web browser is at the top of my list. Its secure, fast, reliable, and full of features. It also completely follows XHTML standards that have been created by the World Wide Web Consortium (of course, almost everyone except Microsoft does this). Simply put, this means that it will always display valid web pages correctly. If all this wasn’t enough, there is a plethora of free plugins available that will let you customise and add additional functionality to your web browser. You can get firefox at http://www.firefox.com.
  • Chrome: While this browser isn’t nearly as feature-rich as Firefox, it is by far one of the fasted web browsers around. This browser made by Google has an amazing startup time and can load web pages at a rate that will blow almost any competitor out of the water. Finally, its completely open source software, so anyone can contribute code to make Google Chrome better. You can download this cool, new browser from http://www.google.com/chrome.


Office Suite

What if I were to tell you that you could have the same functionality as Microsoft Office without the hefty price tag? Why pay over $100 for a decent word processor or spread sheet editor (or around $400 for the Microsoft Office Standard version) when you can use OpenOffice for free! OpenOffice has a word processor, spreadsheet program, database, slideshow, a math formula editor, and even a simple desktop publishing program. Finally, it can both save and open Microsoft Office file formats (including the new .docx format), and even create PDF documents with a push of a button. Get OpenOffice by going to http://www.openoffice.org.


Like I said before, this is just a “short list” of free and useful programs available for the PC (there’s a lot more than what I’ve just mentioned). Please feel free to comment on which free applications you enjoy, or even ask questions about other free alternatives to your favorite programs (The Gimp being a great alternative to Adobe Photoshop for example). Since the main way people find out about these free applications is usually by “word of mouth,” the more commentary, the better.

  1. August 21, 2009 at 10:46 am

    I just realised that when I posted this entry, I left off one of my favorite free apps: Keepass Password Safe.

    If you are anything like me, you probably visit multiple locations a day that requires some sort of password (work computers, online shopping/banking, websites, etc.). How do you deal with trying to remember all those passwords? Most people either:

    A) Have a perfect, photographic memory (I definitely don’t fall into this category)

    B) Use easy to remember passwords such as names of family members, anniversary dates, etc. (a really bad idea)

    C) Use the same password for most/all sites (also a really bad idea)

    D) Use a password safe like Keepass

    The way a password safe like Keepass works is you only have to remember one password (the password to the safe) to access an encrypted list of all of your other passwords. This way it is extra secure, and you can even have Keepass randomly generate a strong password for you, making it even harder to crack (and also saves you the effort of coming up with a new password each time you need one). Keepass also uses two encryption schemes (AES and Twofish), which makes it really secure (AES is actually used by the US government to encrypt all of their files). Its definitely worth checking out.

    You can get Keepass at: http://keepass.info/ or you can get a portable version at http://portableapps.com/apps/utilities/keepass_portable if you want to run it off of a usb device like a thumbdrive.

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