Turning Your Home PC into Home Base
While smartphones and tablets may have the edge on portability, there's still nothing (yet) that beats the raw power, configurability, and wealth of options available to a desktop user. Still, taking advantage of all the power that a desktop can bring takes some learning, a little patience, and a good helping of the right apps to make the most out of your desktop machine. You supply the patience, and we'll help out with a list of apps for new users.
Avast! Free Antivirus
avast! Free Antivirus is a good, free internet security suite to start with. Armed with real-time scanning capabilities, web and email scanning, a behavioral blocker, and a sandbox mode, even the free version of avast! Free Antivirus provides users with a lot of great features. You will eventually need to register the free suite by providing an email address, but that's a small price to pay for what avast brings. With Microsoft Security Essentials recently taking a beating in AV-Test's benchmarks, we'd rather recommend avast for the moment.
Verdict: A free antivirus security suite that provides good coverage for your computer
Editor's Note: If avast! isn't your bag, you could also consider alternatives, such as AVG & Avira's free antivirus suites.
Google's web browser offers an appealing alternative to Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. A minimalist interface, true separation between the browser and the vulnerable parts of a PC, fast load times, and the omnibox combining the address and search bar are among the reasons for Chrome's growing appeal. The Chrome store also features tons of extensions if you want to get more out of the browser. If you're signed in on your Google account, Chrome also features solid cross-device syncing, which allows you to take your desktop browsing session straight to mobile, and vice versa
Verdict: Fast, functional, and free, Google Chrome is an excellent choice for browsing.
Alternatives to consider: Firefox or IE.
Mozilla's Thunderbird is a solid email client, but what really makes it shine is the add-on support it inherited from its cousin, Firefox. With Thunderbird's large library of add-ons, you can customize the program as you see fit, tweaking it to your specific needs and preferences.
Verdict: Taken as stock, it's a solid email client. But once you get busy with add-ons, it's a great, highly customizable program.
Free Download Manager
Free Download Manager is exactly what it says on the tin: a free download manager that accelerates downloads, enables BitTorrent support, Flash video downloads, and resumes broken downloads. A traffic usage feature offers the ability to adjust your bandwidth use, allowing you to keep some free for browsing the net without interfering with your downloads. FDM also includes actual file management solutions, allowing you to organize downloaded files by type and place them in defined folders once they're on your HDD. FDM is free under the GNU Public License, does its job, and integrates well with many popular internet browsers.
Verdict: A free download manager with file management and acceleration features thrown in? Sign me up!
Secunia's Personal Software Inspector is a free and useful system update manager that focuses on the safety of the software you have installed. PSI scans frequently targeted software, such as browsers, and flags those that are in need of updates or no longer maintained and potentially unsecure. PSI can automatically run some drivers but, for most other programs, you'll be given download links to do the install yourself. Reliable, simple to use, and best of all, free, Secunia PSI is an excellent for the security conscious user.
Verdict: PSI will keep most of your software updated and will patch security leaks, but it won't actively hunt for incoming threats. You'll still need a good AV and firewall, but PSI does add an extra layer of protection.
7-Zip is a free file archiver that lets users archive several files into neat one package for easier sharing via email or flash drive. 7-Zip is similar to popular shareware options like WinRAR or WinZip and packs support for popular archive formats like RAR or ZIP files. A key difference? It's completely free—users will never need to pay money to get rid of regular "buy now" reminders.
Verdict: Utalitarian and free, 7-Zip is a great program for handling archive files.
Microsoft's default Windows Explorer is a decent enough tool for file and folder management, but PC users looking for extra oomph with their file management systems have a wealth of options to choose from. Zabkat's xplorer2 is an excellent alternative to Windows Explorer that also comes as a free 'lite' version. A highly customizable, dual-paned interface makes searching through and moving files a breeze, and it can be set to replace Windows Explorer, so that when you fire up "My Computer" or open a Desktop folder, xplorer2 stands ready to serve. The paid version unlocks even more functionality, but the lite version is certainly no slouch.
Verdict: There are a lot of good file managers/explorers out there and every techie's got their favorite. xplorer2 Lite strikes a good balance between utility and interface, and the fact that you can get most of its functions for free is excellent.
Few other PC applications are as important as an office suite and LibreOffice provides what you need for free. Type out that financial report, crunch the numbers in a spreadsheet, or build a presentation that summarizes everything point-by-point. As for those switching from Microsoft Office, Libre supports all Office files, even documents created with the 2011 version!
Verdict: A free office suite that supports common document formats such as those created through MS Office. If you don't want to spend money on a paid office package, LibreOffice is a good bet.
PDF-XChange Viewer is a free and fast PDF viewer that also comes with a host of annotation and markup features, OCR support, document search, and more. Fast and light without compromising on performance, it's a great PDF viewer with numerous extra features that are great for squeezing out a little more utility.
Verdict: There are leaner programs out there that focus more on just viewing, like Sumatra, as well as more feature rich ones with more editing options, but PDF-XChange strikes a nice balance as both a light-weight and feature-rich option.
Also consider Nitro and Sumatra PDF as alternatives.
One of the most ubiquitous VoIP and video chat networks around, the Skype client allows users to make audio and video calls to other Skype users for free, as well as call landline numbers for a nominal fee. There are even smartphone and tablet optimized versions if you want to call contacts on the go. Support for plugins allows you to customize the client with just the functionality you need.
Verdict: A solid VoIP and video calling system with a broad user base. Check out these tips and tricks for getting the most out of Skype.
Pidgin is one of the best IM aggregators available for Windows desktop machines. A universal chatclient compatible with a whole slew of networks from the ubiquitous to the obscure, Pidgin is free, open-source, and lightweight. Pidgin also features plug-in support that adds new levels of functionality and support for networks that aren't supported via the stock package.
Verdict: It's not the prettiest client out there, but it works great. About all that it really lacks is support for voice and video chat, so look elsewhere if you need that functionality. Otherwise, the extension options for Pidgin are top-notch.
For more popular IM clients, check out this list.
EASEUS Todo Backup Free
EaseUS Todo Backup Free is a good piece of backup software that straddles the line between disk cloning and file backup. EaseUS Todo Backup Free gives users a well rounded toolkit, offering full system backup and recovery, disk cloning, and selective file and folder backup and recovery. Scheduling tools allow you to automate the backup, and a helpful, wizard-driven interface keeps things user-friendly while still providing a wealth of options. With this tool, an external data dump, and a little discipline, you'll never lose your data again!
Verdict: Powerful while still user friendly, this makes for a great data backup tool.
Piriform's CCleaner is another excellent maintenance utility. It clears your browser's cache, history, and temporary internet files as well as cleaning the recycle bin, registry, and more. Simple, free, and powerful, CCleaner is a great disk maintenance and performance optimization tool.
Verdict: Compact, useful, and free, CCleaner a great tool that should, at the very least, be a part of your maintenance toolkit, if not part of your daily browsing habits. The only (very small) thing we'd hold against it is the inability to schedule tasks from within the program itself. However, you can still handle that with a little work and the Windows Task Scheduler.
Another great utility from the folks behind CCleaner is Defraggler, a free deframgentation program. As a PC moves files around, gaps inevitably form between the chunks of data stored on the drive. This can slow down your hard disk, as its reader heads are forced to jump all over the place to load files. Defraggler reorganizes files so that their data chunks are in sequential order, ensuring that the hard disk can read faster and with less wear-and-tear.
Verdict: A solid defragging tool that's a step up from the stock defrag.
Can a piece of software be free, neatly designed, and packed with a ton of powerful features all at the same time? µTorrent (µ = "micro") is proof that it's possible. A lightweight but powerful torrent manager, µTorrent is easy on the eyes and intuitive with a wealth of features in its preferences and context menus. Casual users can simply install and fire up the program, loading up torrent files and happily downloading away. More seasoned users have a plethora of features at their fingertips. Customize your bandwidth allocations, set the maximum for simultaneous downloads and uploads, prioritize particular files and packages, selectively download individual files, and more.
Verdict: Free, fast, and powerful. If you plan to do any sort of torrenting on your desktop, µTorrent is the best place to start.
The open-source media player runs light and fast, and can load almost any kind of video and audio file that's out there. VLC also has numerous features for advanced users, including an option that boosts the audio track of low-volume movies. Not as powerful when it comes to library management solutions, VLC nevertheless gets a recommendation for being able to play almost anything that you throw at it.
Verdict: VLC is a great one-stop video and audio player. Don't expect it to help it manage your media collection like other programs, but do expect it to play your media files and play them well.
Music players are a dime a dozen and, when it comes to picking your favorite, it's all down to personal taste. If backed into a corner, we'd probably recommend WinAmp for a free, feature-rich music player. Armed with strong playlist and library management tools, remote access options for streaming music, podcast subscription options, and auto-tagging, WinAmp is loaded with features. And if that wasn't enough, it also supports plugins for further customized functionality. Did we forget to mention it also plays music?
Verdict: WinAmp is a great, free music player with tons of configuration options. Still, there are also a lot of other alternatives out there, such as MediaMonkey and Foobar2000.
Note: The installer will try to bundle a lot of extra programs and toolbars, so pay attention during installation.
Freemake Video Converter supports hundreds of video formats and converts movies so they can played on devices like the iPad and phones running earlier versions of the Android OS. Freemake's utility also helps users download movies straight from popular online video sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
Verdict: Can't play a particular format? Need to compress a video or audio file down to a mobile friendly size? Freemake should do the job for you.
As more people try their hand at showcasing their musical expertise online, free sound editors like Audacity become even more valuable. Audacity won't auto-tune your voice into super-stardom, but it covers all of the editing bases (cut, copy, paste) and features a variety of filters that can change the character of any sound.
Verdict: Armed with a variety of audio editing features, Audacity is great for the audio hobbyist who can't spring for high-end professional software.
Looking to do some advanced photo editing and digital painting but can't justify the expense of Adobe Photoshop? Try GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program. A free, open-source graphics editing software packed with the ability to add on layers and masks, GIMP is a powerful set of editing and manipulation tools for the amateur and budding pro alike. Plugin and scripting support allow for additional automation of repetitive tasks and the ability to work with animation.
Verdict: GIMP's main strength is its power and versatility, but it can be daunting to learn how to use. Once mastered, though, you can get professional looking edits and performance with this free tool. Users looking to do more basic editing or those that don't need as many advanced features may want to try out Paint.net.
As utilities go, this one's pretty simple: need to burn image files right on a CD or DVD? ImgBurn is perfect for the job. The program can also build images from files on a PC, for later burning. A great freeware utility to have around, whether you're burning your own CDs & DVDs or making rescue live disks from .iso files downloaded online.
Verdict: Excellent freeware image burning software. While the interface might not be polished the functionality is all there.
Part of the Gizmo Center of freeware tools, Gizmo Drive is a virtual drive emulator that can mount a whopping 26 virtual drives. With support for many types of image files, such as the ubiquitous .iso, you can mount images, or create new ones ready for burning through the likes of ImgBurn.
Verdict: Gizmo Drive offers the ability to keep a massive number of virtual drives online, supports many image formats, has a neat interface, and comes free. All of this makes it a good bargain.
Editor's Note: For a simpler alternative, consider DAEMON Tools lite.
We hope these apps cover most of the basics, but of course, there's a wealth of utilities out there. Have any more that you'd like to recommend to new users? Make yourself heard in the comments section below!