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Being a member of the computer age can be very expensive. First you have to buy a computer, then software, then software licenses, then internet access, then media such as CD-ROMs and USB drives to store data, etc. The process can be very tedious, intimidating, and expensive. However, there are many pieces of software out there that work just as well as their retail counterparts and are actually free. Having been a technician as well as a consumer with limited resources for a while now, I have found several very good free programs that I think belong on any Windows PC. What follows is a list of the best of these, as well as descriptions of what they do and why you would find them useful. They are listed in no particular order. Please note that while I use and can recommend all of these programs, I take no responsibility for their use, any damages occurring from their use, or their availability. Please also note that due to limits on active links placed by this site, I can not link the location of obtaining these programs. However, you can easily find them on Google.
1. AVG Products:
OK I'm kind of including a few programs here from the same company but they are all good and in many cases free. AVG anti-virus is one of the free ones as well as one of the best utilities in its class. If you are running a business you can still get it, you will just have to pay for the commercial version. Grisoft, the developer, keeps it updated very regularly and I have had as good of luck if not better luck then some of the big name software packages such as Norton and Mcafee. Another very good product in this line is their spy-ware removal program. It seems to remove more mal-ware (programs that are kind of in that gray area between legit and true spy-ware) and for the trial period provides active scanning mean it will protect you whenever its running in the background. Even after the trial runs out you can still update it and run scans.
2. Spybot Search and Destroy
Another good spy-ware removal utility. This one is completely free, although its supported by donation if you so desire. Spybot is very easy to use, regularly updated, and is pretty much a functional no-frills tool. Combined with AVG or Lavasoft's Adware program and you'll get most if not all of the spyware off your computer in a timely fashion.
3. Mozilla Firefox
In the beginning there was Netscape and Internet Explorer …. and Federal anti-trust suits. Now, we have Mozilla Firefox which is a very full featured browser and a personal preference over Internet Explorer which in the past has been riddled with security holes and victim to endless popups. Firefox is very successful at blocking them (although Internet Explorer has gotten much better as of late) and also seems to be a little faster and more stable. If you're having trouble with Internet Explorer or you're just looking for an alternative this is a real winner. You may also check out their other free software such as Thunderbird, an alternative to Microsoft Outlook.
4. Belarc Free Advisor
Ever had a video card, sound card, or even program installed and really had no clue what it was? Just run this utility and you'll get a nicely organized list of everything in your computer: every piece of software, every piece of hardware, every single driver version you are currently using. It goes even further then that and gives you product ID codes too for the programs you have installed (The ones you legitimately installed of course.) So, if you're not really sure what you have in your PC or you've lost the product ID for a piece of software you really own, this tool can be invaluable.
5. Open Office
Everyone these days needs an office package. If you need to type up a document in a word processor, put together a presentation to be delivered on an LCD projector, or create a spreadsheet of your personal finances its just a requirement for general PC use. There is the obvious choice of Microsoft Office or Word Perfect and both are very good options, but both also cost a decent amount of money. There is a free alternative in Open Office and it is a good one. It is quite similar to Microsoft Office in its appearance and can even open files created in that package. Also, backed by Sun Microsystems and a dedicated group of developers you know that its going to keep evolving and will be around for a long time.
Not a very pleasant name but a very good program. This one is a graphics editor much like Adobe Photoshop. You can create and manipulate images in many different formats and file types and convert them as you please. For a free program it is amazingly full featured, though I would warn you to save fairly often because I have had it crash on me before. But for the cost, you can not complain.
7. Knoppix Live CD
This one might sound counter-intuitive because its actually a Linux operating system, but it can be a life saver. This is an operating operating system running off of a CD. Lets say that Windows crashes but you really need an important document immediately. Just load the CD and as long as you have some type of removable media such as a USB drive you can get to your file and save it. You can also surf the web, use Open Office, send and receive e-mails, and even chat on the most popular messaging services such as AIM and Yahoo.
Speaking of messengers. This was typically known as GAIM, but after a legal dispute with AOL the developers changed it to Pidgeon. This is a multi-client messenger, meaning in one window you can simultaneously connect to your Yahoo, AIM, MSN, ICQ, etc. You can keep them organized, keep logs over every conversation, transfer files, and basically do anything you could with any single messenger just all in one convenient place.
9. Google Picasa
A very good program by Google that lets you organize all your digital pictures. It will scan your drive for them, so be careful if there are any you ummm … do not want the grandkids to see. Beyond that you can easily touch them up, categorize them, and even password protect albums in case the previously mentioned accident does occur.
10. Safe XP
I would not suggest using anything but the automatic settings on this program if you are not a fairly experienced Windows user. However, it gives you a lot more control over Windows XP allowing you to make it more secure and faster. Just do not change anything if you're not sure what it is and do not try this yet on Windows Vista.
One last essential to any Windows PC is a good media player. You can download anything these days from music to movies and and VLC is your one stop source for playing them all. One little media player that will play everything from mp3's to divx to dvd's and in good quality while using very few system resources.
12. Microsoft Power Toys
For the final choice, I had to go with one Microsoft product and this one is free. Well technically products as this is a list of applications that were developed by Microsoft after Windows was released. Programs include tweakui which gives you even more control over Windows, several different programs for creating slideshows of your images, tools to match up the colors you see on your monitor to those that come out of your printer, and even a tool to improve the clarity of text in case you're having trouble reading this.
So there you go, twelve programs that will increase the productivity, speed, and efficiency of your Windows PC without costing you a dime. Just remember that I am in no way associated with these programs nor do I offer any support in their use. I take no responsibility for any damage caused by their use as they are completely the property and responsibility of their developers. This article was written solely as advice for those looking for good free programs. If you like this article, please visit me on my website for more tips and a chance to respond with any suggestions or questions you might have.