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People's Choice: Best Free Stuff on the Net

Who better to judge the world's best freebies than you? Hundreds of thousands of PC World readers have downloaded countless files and used myriad free Web services, and you're not shy about declaring what you like and what you don't like.

So we turned to you, the experts, and asked you to vote for our People's Choice Awards, recognizing the best free stuff online, as part of our annual freebie bonanza. Think of this competition as American Idol for Web freebies, without the annoying British guy.

We heard from more than 1800 PCWorld.com readers, who rated their satisfaction with the most prominent free software or services in seven main categories.

And the winners are...


Antispyware utilityExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Ad-Aware SE Personal18%37%55%
Spybot Search and Destroy13%32%45%
Windows Defender5%16%21%

Winner: Ad-Aware SE Personal
Keeping your PC safe from malware, spyware, and other nasties is today's chief concern. That's why we're glad Ad-Aware SE Personal turned in the second-highest satisfaction score in our entire survey, with 55 percent of its users either extremely or very satisfied with the product, according to our poll.

This freebie is a longtime antispyware favorite. Polled readers say they love its thorough scans, as well as its user interface, which makes customizing spyware and adware scans a breeze. "It regularly updates, it's easy to use, and it detects and removes all the malware on my computer," says survey respondent Eric Levesque of New Orleans.

Coming in a close second is another perennial favorite, Spybot Search and Destroy, with 45 percent of surveyed users expressing satisfaction. Windows Defender, meanwhile, lags far behind, with only 21 percent of respondents reporting that they are very or extremely satisfied with the program.

Clearly, many of you are shopping around for the best spyware protection: Ad-Aware devotees who are familiar with the competing products claim that Ad-Aware can detect and remove malware that Spybot Search and Destroy and Windows Defender can't.

Web-Based E-Mail

Web e-mail serviceExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Google Gmail30%33%63%
Yahoo Mail19%24%43%
Windows Live Mail6%10%16%

Winner: Google Gmail
There's no doubt Gmail takes the prize as the preferred free Web e-mail service. Even against worthy contenders Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Mail, Gmail destroyed the competition, besting Yahoo by a full 20 percent.

You probably know already why PC World readers favor Gmail -- bigger is clearly better, and our respondents love its spacious storage capacity. Says one reader: "It's fast and has lots of space. It's easy to get around and find things."

Overall design and extra features are big benefits, as well. One reader notes that Gmail "can open PDFs as HTML." Another says Gmail earns his vote because of the service's "ease of use with downloading attachments and photos from e-mails," and he especially likes the clutter-free design.

Chuck McNevich, owner of Your Memories Remembered in Lexington Park, Maryland, praises Gmail for its ability to quickly search through messages he has received from customers. He adds, "The interface is considerably faster than Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. I don't have to pay for the huge amount of storage I use."

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging clientExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Windows Live Messenger10%28%38%
Yahoo Messenger12%23%35%

Winner: Microsoft Windows Live Messenger
Windows Live Messenger wins by a nose over Yahoo Messenger, with 38 percent of respondents favoring Microsoft's offering versus 35 percent expressing satisfaction with Yahoo's service.

Readers cite Windows Live Messenger's easy file and video sharing as a big plus, and they say the video is particularly smooth. One reader sums everything up thus: "Very good for personal messaging, with 'winks' and icons, and provisions for video chat. Wouldn't use it for business, though." And another reader says that Windows Live Messenger's "video quality is better, smoother than Yahoo's."

Still, nearly as many survey respondents prefer Yahoo Messenger. Many polled say that it delivers a superior photo-sharing experience and that VoIP calls sound best on Yahoo Messenger.

Of the Trillian users who replied to our poll, 30 percent say they are either extremely or very satisfied with the product. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), however, received an anemic combined satisfaction rating of 23 percent.

Media Playback

Media playerExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Nullsoft Winamp14%21%35%
Apple iTunes12%22%34%
Windows Media Player 109%24%33%

Winner: AOL Nullsoft Winamp
If this were a presidential election, we'd have to do a recount for this category, keeping an eye out for hanging chads. Winamp eked out a victory by the slightest of margins over iTunes and Windows Media Player, with 35 percent of Winamp users declaring their satisfaction versus 34 percent for the Apple program and 33 percent for Microsoft's player.

But the truth is, polled readers aren't overwhelmed by any of these players. One reader puts it succinctly when saying why he favors Winamp over the competitors: "It always works." Another reader cites the "fast interface," while a third likes the feature that displays live media streams and channels.

Survey respondent Josue Acevedo of Guayama, Puerto Rico, says he likes Winamp over the Apple and Microsoft offerings because it supports a wide number of audio and video formats, and in use it rarely freezes or crashes.

Apple's iTunes came in a very close second, with many people citing its ease of use over that of the competition. However, even the most enthusiastic of iTunes fans don't love it unconditionally; one respondent says the program seems to "take over the PC."

Desktop Search

Desktop search applicationExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Google Desktop13%23%36%
Windows Desktop Search7%9%16%

Winner: Google Desktop
Need to find something on your PC fast? Our readers recommend downloading Google Desktop. Google's program earned a 36 percent satisfaction rating, compared with just 16 percent for Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search.

Simplicity is the key here, according to reader comments. One reader favors Google Desktop because it's "easy to learn, and like Google search, Google Desktop has a clean and simple interface." Another reader says Google Desktop "uses little resources" and doesn't bog down his system.

Video Sharing

Video sharing serviceExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Google Video14%21%35%
Yahoo Video6%9%15%

Winner: YouTube
PC World readers are no different from the rest of the world when it comes to their favorite video site: YouTube rules. It received a combined satisfaction rating of 48 percent, versus 35 percent for Google Video and 15 percent for Yahoo Video.

One reader aptly expresses what we heard from most respondents: "Billions of videos. Loads fast." Another YouTube-er cites the sizable storage space. And another reader speaks directly about why people like video sites in general, calling YouTube "a decent diversion to kill some time." We couldn't agree more.

Image Editing

Image editing programExtremely satisfiedVery satisfiedTotal extremely/
very satisfied
Google Picasa22%30%52%
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)13%21%34%

Winner: Google Picasa
Google Picasa has everything you'd expect from a basic image editor, plus extras such as photo sharing, visual effects, a slide-show editor, and library organization. It's no wonder Picasa is the king of the freebie heap among image editors.

In our survey 52 percent of respondents said they are either extremely or very satisfied with Picasa. Respondents like Picasa's task-oriented interface, which steps users through common jobs like red-eye removal and color correction.

The image editing competition was stiff, though, and it was no ground-ball-through-the-legs, Bill Buckner-type moment for runners-up Irfranview and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). Surveyed Ifranview users gave the adroit image editor a total satisfaction score of 40 percent, followed by GIMP with a 34 percent rating.

Preston Gralla

At a Glance
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