SLIDESHOW

24 free, awesome Windows programs: Top tools for every task

Here are the free programs you need to keep your PC running right

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Top free desktop apps for Windows

It’s been nearly two years since we surveyed the best free programs for Windows desktops. Much has happened since then—most notably the advent of Windows 10 and the explosion of tremendously useful applications and services in the cloud.

If you’re one of the many sticking with Windows 7 or 8.1 for the foreseeable future—or simply prefer desktop software on your Windows 10 system—you should take a look at the following free-for-personal-use apps. I guarantee you’ll find more than a handful of them that are well worth the effort. They may even be enough to tide you over until Microsoft pries Windows 7 from your cold, dead keyboard. 

Say bye-bye to IE: Chrome, Firefox, Opera

Say bye-bye to IE: Chrome, Firefox, Opera

Once upon a time, Internet Explorer was arguably the best Internet browser. Those days have long passed, to the point where IE has been shunned by Microsoft itself. All of Microsoft’s browser efforts (except for bug fixes) have shifted to the Windows 10-only Microsoft Edge browser.

If Microsoft’s put IE out to seed, so should you.

Opera, long the top underdog in the browser wars, has pioneered several features not previously seen in competitive browsers, including pop-up blocking, private browsing, and native ad blocking. It’s now available on Windows, OS X, and Linux.

Firefox is an excellent choice if you don’t want to send your browsing history to the folks at Google. Coupled with a search engine like Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t track anything, you minimize your trackable presence on the Web. I use Firefox all the time.

Chrome, however, is my browser of choice. In spite of its snooping ways, it has the best collection of extensions, easiest operation, and best integration with Google Apps in the biz. On the downside, if you open a bunch of tabs, it sucks up a lot of cycles.

Secure your system: Windows Defender

Secure your system: Windows Defender

If you’re searching for the best truly free antivirus tool, look no further than Microsoft’s Windows Defender.

As long as you’re caught up on Win7 updates, installing Windows Defender is easy: Click Start and in the Search box type Defender, then in the resulting dialog box choose “click here to turn it on.” In Windows 8.1, Defender comes baked in.

Other “free” antivirus products come and go -- some even score higher on the prestigious Virus Bulletin VB100 list. Defender isn’t the fanciest or most aggressive AV product available. It’s reliable, simple, boring, fast, easy to use, and most of all, free. It's always free and never nags for more money.

Manage your passwords: LastPass

Manage your passwords: LastPass

If you’re in the market for a password storage vault, LastPass is for you. LastPass keeps track of your user IDs, passwords, and other settings; stores them in the cloud; and offers them to you with one click. LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password that you have to remember. The data that gets stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key the stored passwords can’t be broken, unless you know somebody who can crack AES-256 encryption.

LastPass works as a browser add-on for IE, Firefox, or Chrome, so all of your passwords are stored in one place, accessible to any PC you happen to be using -- if you have the master password. It also works well on Android and iOS devices.

Storage files in the cloud: Dropbox

Storage files in the cloud: Dropbox

If you haven’t yet used cloud storage on your PC, you should give it a try. Problems with reliability have pretty much disappeared. Questions about privacy continue, and it’s a good idea to encrypt anything that’s supersensitive, but if you’re like most people, the convenience of having all of your cloud data available anywhere, anytime, goes a long way.

Everybody and his brother wants to offer you free cloud storage these days. They’re gambling that you’ll get hooked on the service and want to stay and pay. I’ve never gone over my limit with any of the services -- Dropbox (2GB free for personal use, unlimited business use for $12.50 per user per month), Microsoft’s OneDrive (5GB free for personal use, many other options), Google Drive (15GB free for personal use), Mega (50GB free), Box (10GB free) -- and I use them all, in various ways.

Thumbnail comparison: Dropbox syncs with your computer remarkably well; for all intents, it works exactly like a File Manager folder (see screenshot), offering solid security, easy operation, amazing reliability, and integration with many programs (including Office). The current version of OneDrive has all sorts of implementation and interface problems, reliability is a major concern, and Microsoft has already reneged on storage promises. Google Drive space gets swallowed up by saved Gmail attachments, but the tools are best of breed. I use Google Drive for photos -- see my later recommendation. Mega is excellent, supersecure, and somewhat in limited features, but getting better. Box rates as the sine qua non of corporate storage, but it’s limited for freeloaders.

Best free email: Gmail

Best free email: Gmail

Like you, I spent years struggling with PC-based email. Outlook, in multitudinous versions: Outlook Express (which isn’t anything like Outlook itself), Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird. I can’t recall how many months I’ve lost trying to hassle with files, settings, quirks, and bugs.

Bah! If you haven’t yet moved your mail to the cloud, it’s time to take a look. Although you have to jump through a few hoops, it’s relatively easy to keep your email address (me@myaddress.com) and push everything through Gmail -- and nobody will know the difference. All of the email services are free for personal use and come attached to more expensive packages (Google Apps for Business, Outlook 365, among others) for organizations.

Flipping to online email will add years to your life. The only real question is which service you should use. The two front-runners, Gmail and Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) have pros and cons, with features in one showing up in the other sooner or later. Both have so many capabilities that nobody uses more than a tiny fraction. There’s no clear winner.

Personally, I use Gmail -- and have for years -- because it’s better organized (which is a simple way to say that I’m used to it), it does a better job of trapping spam headed my way, separating “Important” messages from “Everything else” simplifies cleanup, and the tabs help occasionally. Microsoft counters by saying Outlook.com doesn’t serve ads targeted based on email contents (although they do serve up targeted ads), they have inbox organization by custom categories, there are time-based rules, and Outlook.com makes it easy to connect to Skype, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn.

Best free productivity suite: Office Online

Best free productivity suite: Office Online

While the titans rage for paid online “office productivity” packages -- we’ll look at Office 365 and Google Apps for Business in a future review -- those seeking free-for-personal-use productivity programs have two excellent choices, from those same two titans.

Office Online is so good, you’ll be hard-pressed to find features in the paid programs that aren’t available online for free. Google Apps work well, too, but Office Online’s features and rock-solid compatibility with desktop Office programs run way out ahead of the competition. Both run inside your favorite Web browser.

The big trick? You have to understand there is a free Office Online, it’s remarkably full-featured, and you don’t need to sign up for a free trial of anything (although you will need a free Microsoft Account). To get started, go to the Office home page, avoid the temptation to sign up for an Office 365 free trial at the top, and look further down for the free online apps.

Store your photos: Google Photos

Store your photos: Google Photos

If you’re a professional photographer, need fancy touch-up tools and extremely high-definition archival storage, or have to set up paid downloading services, you'll want a more capable client. But for almost everybody, Google Photos is a category killer. There’s rarely been a program, of any kind, with such broad appeal.

There’s free unlimited storage, although pictures are limited to 16 megapixels and video to 1080p (the program will automatically squeeze bigger pictures, or you can pay for Google Drive storage space for the biggies). Yes, it's free and unlimited with apps for iOS, Android, and all the major browsers on any platform. You can set Google Photos to automatically upload pics from your phone or Wi-Fi-enabled camera. Once they’re on Google’s servers, you can get at them from anywhere with your Google ID and password.

Google Photos automatically analyzes every picture. Face recognition is built-in (although it can be turned off). The organization and analytical capabilities are breathtaking -- “All the pictures of me holding a beer glass” or “Every picture we took of the pyramids.” Photos even offers to create montages, panoramas, storylines, or “animations” of similar pictures taken in succession. Of course, Google keeps track of everything you post and uses the info to serve ads, but that's the price you pay.

Install or update almost any app, any time: Ninite

Install or update almost any app, any time: Ninite

When you start looking at desktop applications, your very first stop should be Ninite. Simply click on the applications you want and Ninite will download the latest version, absolutely free of crapware, install them, and leave you in the driver’s seat.

Need to update your apps? Run Ninite again. (Or rely on Secunia PSI, coming up next.)

The beauty of the Ninite approach? All of these apps are a click away, no fuss, no nags, no charge. It’s the best way I know to install a bunch of good programs on a new PC in only a few minutes.

Keep your programs up to date: Secunia PSI

Keep your programs up to date: Secunia PSI

A key component in keeping your system up-to-date, Secunia Personal Software Inspector scans every program on your PC and tells you in no uncertain terms if you have any wayward programs that haven’t been patched.

You can tell Secunia PSI to automatically keep your programs updated, and unless some sort of odd manual intervention is required (such as “Select language”), everything gets patched behind the scenes.

I particularly appreciate the fact that PSI respects my Windows Update settings; while I have everything else updated automatically, it lets me install Microsoft patches on my own schedule. Free PSI is for personal use; CSI corporate editions are also available.

A security second opinion: Malwarebytes

A security second opinion: Malwarebytes

No doubt you already have an antivirus program. I use and recommend Microsoft Security Essentials (or Windows Defender in Win8.1, which is basically the same thing), but there are many good alternatives.

Malwarebytes is different. The free-for-personal-use version is designed to run manually -- I run mine once a week. Malwarebytes picks up all sorts of creepy crawlies that get past AV programs, and it’s surprisingly adept at running even if your machine is already infected.

When combined with the support on the Malwarebytes forum, Malwarebytes is the ultimate fallback for infected systems -- whether or not you know they’re infected.

Best disk imaging/system backup: Comodo Backup

Best disk imaging/system backup: Comodo Backup

Windows 7 has a decent -- but not perfect -- backup and restore function. Windows 8.1 basically throws it all away. Yes, you can find vestiges of Win7 backup buried in the dregs of Windows 8.1, but it’s a pain. Microsoft wants you to use its new backup method, stick everything on OneDrive, and use Refresh/Restore should the proverbial crap hit the fan. Comodo Backup runs rings around all of them.

Comodo wants to back you up to the cloud, gives you 10GB of free online storage, then sells you the rest. But even if you choose to back up the old-fashioned way, Comodo Backup is free and works like a champ.

If you only want to put your backups on your own drives, when you install it (see screenshot) skip the free Install eCloud option, and you won’t get confused. But if you want to put up to 10GB in the cloud for free, give it a shot.

Best media player: VLC Media Player

Best media player: VLC Media Player

Another poster child for open source software, VLC Media Player plays almost anything -- including YouTube Flash FLV files -- with no additional software, no downloads, no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos.

Unlike other media players, VLC sports simple, Spartan controls, built-in codecs for almost every file type imaginable, and a large and vocal online support community. VLC plays Internet streaming media with a click, records played media, converts between file types, and even supports individual frame screenshots.

VLC is well-known for tolerating incomplete or damaged media files. It will even start to play downloaded media before the download’s finished. It's available via Ninite.

There’s an up-and-comer called PotPlayer that’s a strong contender. Want to try an alternative to VLC? Give it a look.

Best picture resizer: Image Resizer

Best picture resizer: Image Resizer

It’s such a simple process you’d think Windows itself would have one built in -- but no.

Once upon a time, the Windows XP PowerToys included a fabulous, simple, fast image resizer. Right-click on a photo and choose Resize Pictures; the photo’s reduced in size to a fraction of the original. With options for Small, Medium, Large, Mobile, and Custom, you can make the resized file as small as you like and maintain a lot of image fidelity in the process.

But XP came and went, and Microsoft didn’t keep the PowerToys updated. Enter Brice Lambson, a Microsoft employee with a heart of gold -- and a mission to bring the free Image Resizer to the latest versions of Windows. Microsoft still doesn’t support Image Resizer. But Brice does.

It's free for everybody.

Best free text editor: EditPad Lite

Best free text editor: EditPad Lite

Notepad? Notepad? Nobody uses Notepad any more.

Even with all of the fantastic new brightly colored file formats running around today, everybody, sooner or later, needs a text editor. Let’s hear it for EditPad Lite.

With tabs, undo/redo, Unicode support, cut copy and paste, search and replace, and all in a svelte and fast package, EditPad Lite works wonders. Free for personal use, the pro/corporate package costs as little as $9 per user. Pay for the product and you get a spell checker.

I have a confession: My text editor of choice is Notepad++. I’ve been using it for years, and I’ve tailored it to do exactly what I need. My fingers know exactly where to go. For most people, though, Notepad++ is overkill. (If you have to write native HTML, it’s great.) EditPad and EditPad Lite is the way to go. It's available through Ninite.

Best image editor: Paint.net

Best image editor: Paint.net

With dozens of good -- even great -- free image editors around, it’s hard to pick one above the others. Pixlr Desktop is a surprisingly full-featured, free photo editor from Autodesk. Irfanview has tremendous viewing, organizing, and resizing capabilities.

For powerful, easy-to-use photo editing, with layers, plug-ins, and all sorts of special effects, along with a compact and easily understood interface, I’ll stick with Paint.Net. Although it requires Windows’ hard-to-keep-updated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a nonprofessional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.

There’s a trick to installing Paint.Net. If you go to the company’s website, you’re faced with a daunting array of junk-filled download sites. Instead, take a two-step approach to downloading a clean copy. Start by installing the latest version of .Net Framework from Microsoft’s official site. Then use Ninite (mentioned earlier) to install a clean copy of Paint.Net.

Light PDF viewer: Sumatra PDF

Light PDF viewer: Sumatra PDF

When I need to open a PDF file on the Internet, I use Chrome. The PDF viewing capabilities inside Chrome are more than adequate for most needs.

When I have PDF files from other sources -- say, forms from the IRS -- I’ll fire up Sumatra PDF. It’s a small, lightweight, stable, and very secure viewer that handles PDFs, ePubs, MOBI files, and several other formats. The big-name PDF viewers try to cover it all, and in the process invite infections, stalls, and crashes. Sumatra is a simple viewer, without the fluff. The document takes center stage.

It's free for everybody, open source, and available through Ninite.

Tip-top zipper upper: 7-Zip

Tip-top zipper upper: 7-Zip

Every desktop user needs 7-Zip. While Windows 8.1 has the ability to look into ISO files -- you still need 7-Zip to see them in Win7 -- Win8.1’s Windows Explorer doesn’t support RAR compressed files, which are becoming more and more common as Mac use rises. 7-Zip also creates password-protected Zip files and self-extracting Zips.

You don’t need to register or pay for 7-Zip.

Don’t fall for a website with a similar name. To get the real, original, one and only free 7-Zip, with a crapware-free installer, go to 7-zip.org or, better, get it from Ninite. There’s support on the 7-Zip Sourceforge page.

It's free for everybody and open source.

Best free DVD ripper: Handbrake

Best free DVD ripper: Handbrake

Windows doesn’t rip DVDs. Period.

While you’re bound to get a hundred different opinions from any collection of a dozen different RIAA lawyers, ripping DVDs for your own use (say, to play them from a computer that doesn’t have a DVD player, or to keep your three-year-old’s fingers off the shiny side) is a common, debatably illegal activity. Ask your lawyer how she rips DVDs.

I rip DVDs all the time (so sue me), and when I do, I use Handbrake. It’ll rip to MP4, or if you like, it’ll create video files specifically tailored to iPhone, iPad, Android, or Apple TV. Open source software at its finest, HandBrake has an enormous number of options that should cover even the most convoluted cases.

Top disk space sleuth: SpaceSniffer

Top disk space sleuth: SpaceSniffer

Want to know what’s taking up all the space on your hard drive? Run SpaceSniffer.

No installation required -- it runs from a simple EXE -- no malware, no funny stuff. You end up with a patchwork quilt of files and folders. Click on a folder or file to get more details. Double-click on a folder to see all of the components. When the scan’s complete, SpaceSniffer shows you a list of all the files on your hard drive, grouped by type. You can use that list to prune and crop the detritus that has no doubt accumulated.

There’s even a filtering capability, so you can look at all of your MP4 files or JPGs. It's a great way to zoom in on the space hogs.

Best system administration tool: Autoruns

Best system administration tool: Autoruns

Microsoft’s venerable and free-as-a-breeze Autoruns finds more autostarting programs (add-ins, drivers, codecs, gadgets, shell extensions, whatever) in more obscure places than any other program, anywhere.

AutoRuns not only lists the autorunning programs, it lets you turn off individual programs. There are many minor features, including the ability to filter out Microsoft-signed programs, a quick way to jump to folders holding autostarting programs, and a command-line version that lets you display file hashes. AutoRuns doesn’t require installation. It’s a program that runs and collects its information, displays it (with a rather rudimentary user interface), lets you wrangle with your system, then fades away.

It's free for everybody, personal or corporate.

The other best system admin tool: Process Explorer

The other best system admin tool: Process Explorer

Process Explorer tells you which files are currently open by what program. That feature alone has saved me half a head of hair because, once identified by Process Explorer, the process that has locked up your file can be killed. Process Explorer also gives you full information on all of the svchost processes running on your PC. That accounts for the other half a head.

Mouse over a process, even a generic svchost, and you can see the command line that launched the process, the path to the executable file, and all of the Windows services in use. Right-click and you can go online to get more information about the executable.

It's another must-have product from, yes, Microsoft, free for everybody.

Best free system snapshot: HWiNFO

Best free system snapshot: HWiNFO

If you’re curious about the hardware that beats inside your system, do I have a utility for you. HWiNFO delves into every nook and cranny. From the summary (shown here) to detailed Device Manager-style trees of information -- entire forests of information -- HWiNFO can tell you everything anyone could want to know about your machine.

There’s a separate real-time monitoring panel, which tells you the current status of everything under the sun: Temperatures, speeds, usage, clocks, voltages, wattages, hard drive SMART stats, read rates, write rates, GPU load, network throughput, and on and on.

It’s free for everybody. (I downloaded a clean copy from FossHub.)

Top torrent downloader: Tixati

Top torrent downloader: Tixati

If you aren’t yet using torrents, now’s the time to start.

Try Tixati. It’s simple (no Java, no .Net), fast, and easy to use; it also supports magnet links (to really simplify downloads), with extensive bandwidth reporting and management.

There's no spyware, no adware, and no nonsense.

There are good visual tools for monitoring bandwidth and throttling if need be -- or blast your connection wide open and let ’er rip. With Tixati it’s easy, and you don’t have to worry about all the garbage that’s frequently associated with torrent handlers.

Best way to get the junk out: Revo Uninstaller

Best way to get the junk out: Revo Uninstaller

Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls programs, and it does so in an unexpected way.

When you use Revo, it runs the program’s uninstaller and watches while the uninstaller works, looking for the location of program files and for Registry keys that the uninstaller zaps. It then goes in and removes leftover pieces, based on the locations and keys that the program’s uninstaller took out.

Revo also consults its own internal database for commonly-left-behind bits and roots those out.

The not-free Pro version monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. Pro will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.

Get it from Ninite.