The Best Free Software

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Communicate and Browse Smarter

IM Improvements

A multitalented IM client, Gaim runs under both Linux and Windows. The app supports several IM services, including AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, and IRC. Gaim lets you log on to several services at one time, and it mimics many of the features of each while adding unique customization options, such as alerts for when specific people come online. It can live in your system tray, so you don't need a contact list window open constantly.

Make MSN Messenger more flexible with the Messenger Plus add-on. For instance, you can personalize your status message, organize your contacts better, and spiff up the look of your text.

A favorite of many PC World editors, Trillian lets you use one program to send instant messages to people using IRC, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo. You can customize the look of this clever little app with some nifty skins, too.

Trillian, like a United Nations of IM clients, can talk to many services at once.
Trillian, like a United Nations of IM clients, can talk to many services at once.

Better Browsing

Trim and slim Mozilla Firefox, the latest browser from Mozilla, packs in more than enough elegance and functionality to help you kick an Internet Explorer addiction. You get a download manager and bookmark-organization tools, and you can grab any of several small add-in tools from the Mozilla Web site that will do jobs like spelling checking, Web searching, and ad blocking. Firefox is one cool ticket out of Microsoftville.

If you like the experience of tabbed browsing, you could become a big fan of MyIE2 Lite. This Internet Explorer add-on shell lets you more easily navigate multiple browser windows, autocompletes URLs, and scrubs your cache, cookies, viewing history, and related info clean when you close the app. It's worth a peek, particularly if you're born to tweak.

Somewhat like My IE2 Lite but with a different look, IE shell AvantBrowser lets you use a tab-style interface to keep track of several open browser windows. It also allows you to block Flash animation downloads, customize your toolbars, do shortcuts with your mouse, and clean out your history with a single, convenient mouse click.

Can't help fiddling with that IE Toolbar? You'll like Toolbar Chest; this utility preserves your IE toolbar settings as you wish, and permits you to restore them easily if you inadvertently mess them up. If only fixing a ruined dinner were this easy.

If you shop online regularly, you might end up filling out virtually identical order forms on Web sites all the time. AI Roboform will save you from having to fill out the same fields over and over again; it stores and supplies vital data like your name, e-mail address, and home address. You can right-click to fill in a form completely, or instruct it to enter data only in certain fields.

Search Add-Ons

How do we love thee, Google Deskbar? Quietly sitting astride the system tray, you search without changing the current browser page. One needs only to select text in any application, then type Ctrl-Alt-G, to search for those highlighted words.

Mozilla browser users can share the love with the Googlebar plug-in for Mozilla. This plug-in emulates the Internet Explorer Google Toolbar, so you can search any of Google's archives from any browser window without having to load Google first.

The Googlebar for Mozilla puts Google at your beck and call.
The Googlebar for Mozilla puts Google at your beck and call.

Google certainly isn't the only search engine to deliver a free toolbar that travels with you wherever you roam online. The AltaVista Toolbar, which sports several Google Toolbar-like features (such as a weather search and a dictionary lookup), also includes AltaVista's Babelfish translator button, which can translate words or pages from any of ten non-English languages.

Free Communication

Mozilla's latest version of its Outlook Express killer Thunderbird 0.6, an e-mail and newsgroup client, has an improved installer for Windows users and better junk mail filtering. You'll find all the functionality you need and a customizable interface.

For those curious to try Internet phones for long distance phone calls, Free World Dialup's program runs on your PC and uses a broadband Internet connection to make calls. Caveat freeloader: Quality is far from guaranteed--some calls can sound like bad cell phone connections.

A good wireless hotspot is hard to find, unless you're using the JiWire service, a Web application that can locate Wi-Fi hotspots around the country (JiWire is a PCWorld.com partner). For example, you can use it to find fee-based or free hotspots within 10 miles of a certain address or airport.

Want to use JiWire to find hotspots with your PDA? To find and save lists of Wi-Fi hotspot locations, use the AvantGo Hotspot Locator tool (in concert with AvantGo, a free utility for Palm OS and Pocket PC devices and some smart phones that lets you upload up-to-the-minute data when you hot sync).

The extremely useful Netstumbler is well worth the download for any Wi-Fi user. The app can troubleshoot wireless woes (and shore up Wi-Fi security). By scanning for nearby gateways and revealing the strength of the signal you get in various locations, it can help you find a free, open-access wireless network. The Netstumbler site provides support forums and links.

Netstumbler delivers a list of every wireless network within antenna range.
Netstumbler delivers a list of every wireless network within antenna range.

Well-Read Readers

The small (less than 1.3MB) open-source FeedReader program works with all major RSS formats to aggregate and organize the online news you can use. This app will please the "less is more" crowd.

Adobe Reader, the ubiquitous free utility for viewing files in Adobe's PDF format, can also display (on your PC or PDA) electronic books published in the EBook standard.

Since people who post large files to Usenet typically break them into segments, you need a tool that will join the pieces into one downloadable file--otherwise, it can be hard to grab multimedia content. The Xnews Usenet newsreader for Windows stands out from the pack because it "threads" or "compiles" such large image, music, and video file segments into a single link for easy downloading.

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