The 20 (Mostly Free) Downloads You Can't Do Without

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General Windows Tools

Windows comes with assorted built-in applets and tools, such as the Clipboard and Notepad, but these tools barely do the tasks they're intended to do. As you'll see with these must-haves, though, there are plenty of ways to improve on what ships with Windows.

jZip

Windows comes with basic file-zipping features, but it leaves much to be desired. Every PC toolbox needs a good compression program that can compress and extract files and create archives. No doubt you've heard of for-pay compression programs such as WinZip and WinRAR, but you may not know about the free jZip, which offers everything you want from an archiving and compression program but doesn't cost a dime.

It handles popular archive formats such as Zip, RAR, 7z, TAR, and GZip, and gives you high compression ratios to save the most disk space possible. It's exceptionally easy to use, yet it offers great flexibility, such as including subfolders when you archive, splitting archives, and encrypting archives. You also have a half-dozen compression levels to choose from, depending on how small you want archives to be and how quickly you want to compress them.

Download jZip

NoteTab Light and NoteTab Pro

Is there a piece of software more useless than Notepad? It can't even do something as basic as open more than one document at a time. Replace it with either the free NoteTab Light or the shareware NoteTab Pro, which are everything that Notepad isn't. The free version opens multiple documents, handles large files, includes autocorrect features, lets you save text clips for later reuse, offers different fonts, permits macros, and plenty more.

If that isn't enough for you, move up to the Pro version ($30), which includes multiple levels of undo, offers a spelling checker and thesaurus, and allows you to bookmark documents, among other capabilities. It has a slew of features for programmers, as well. For anyone who edits HTML, it's ideal, as it includes a variety of useful HTML tools.

Download NoteTab Light

Clipmate Clipboard Extender

One of Windows' most basic features is the lowly Clipboard, which is nothing more than a temporary waystation for clips. That's where ClipMate comes in: It lets you save clips of all kinds so that you can reuse them--for example, boilerplate text you use time and time again, or software registration codes that you'll need handy for reinstallation.

Not only will the program save clips for you, but you can organize them into groups as well. You can combine individual clips into larger ones, edit clips, and preview clips, too. Also useful is the tool's ability to handle any kind of clip, including graphics.

We have the 30-day trial version in our Downloads library. The software costs $35.

Download Clipmate Clipboard Extender (trial version)

SnagIt

Here's the best utility for capturing a screen shot in Windows or any application. Though plenty of screen-capture programs exist, none come close to what this one does. It will capture live windows, your entire desktop, portions of your screen, menus, scrolling Web pages, and short videos. You can even capture menus only. And it outputs in many formats, as well as directly to a printer.

It also offers great tools for enhancing and annotating screen captures, including adding special effects such as sharpening and embossing, and inserting borders and watermarks. It's the program I use for all the screen captures I take for PC World and for my books.

We have the 30-day trial version in our Downloads library. The software costs $40.

Download SnagIt (trial version)

IrfanView

If you ever use graphics for almost any reason, you need this program. It's small, it's fast, it's free, and it does its work better than any competitor can. What more can I say?

IrfanView's main task is to display graphics files, and it does a superb job. You can view just about any file format you can imagine, and show it lightning fast. It can also display thumbnails, present your files as slide shows, and play multimedia files. Given that it's a file viewer, the program also has a surprising number of graphics editing tools, including effects and cropping. And if you need to convert files from one format to another, it can't be beat; it's particularly effective at batch-converting large groups of files.

Download IrfanView

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