New hardware needs new software
The best free PC software programs aren't about the cost (lack thereof), they’re about a fresh opportunity—collections of code that puts the dumb hardware in your computer to smart use, tools that could accomplish anything from balancing your household budget to helping to cure cancer.
Stocking your PC is an intensely personal task. Even still, some programs are so helpful, so handy, so useful across the board that we heartily recommend them to everybody. These free PC programs—a mix of must-haves and delightful auxiliary apps—have earned a place on almost any computer.
Before you roll up your sleeves and start slinging software around, make sure to snag your web browser of choice. Using Windows’ default Internet Explorer or Edge browser when you’re accustomed to something else feels like wearing somebody else’s shoes. (Blech.)
Our money’s on Chrome and Firefox, which share top honors in PCWorld’s extensive best browser showdown. But hey, they’re all free! Try before you “buy.” And if the big names aren’t your thing, there’s a legion of highly specialized alternative browsers begging for your attention.
Ninite makes loading up a new computer a breeze. Simply head to the Ninite website, select which free software you’d like to install on your PC—it offers dozens of options, including many of the programs named here—and click Get Installer to receive a single, custom .exe file containing the installers for those programs. Run the executable, and Ninite installs all of them in turn, and it automatically declines the offers for bundled bloatware so many free apps try to sneak in. No muss, no fuss, no hassle. It’s wonderful.
Accidentally installing unwanted bloatware is one of the greatest dangers of free software, the sanctity of Ninite aside. For everything else, use Unchecky. Unchecky automatically unchecks all of the checkboxes when you’re trying to install a program, and warns you if shady software is trying to sneak something ugly onto your machine. It’s a godsend.
MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free
The Windows Defender software enabled by default in Windows 10 provides solid protection for most users, but no single antivirus utility offers bulletproof protection, especially against the latest and most clever threats. MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free was designed specifically to find and eliminate those cutting-edge “zero day” vulnerabilites. You can’t schedule scans or even use it as a regular antivirus program, but it’s invaluable when you think that something nasty has slipped by your primary antivirus utility.
Premium antivirus options strike a balance between excellent protection, a worthwhile selection of features, and minimal impact on your PC’s performance. PCWorld's guide to the best antivirus for Windows PCs can walk you through your options.
Most boxed PCs come chock-full of bloatware intended to make dough for the PC makers, and you probably don’t need (or want) most of it clogging up your system resources.
That’s where PC Decrapifier comes in. This pint-size wonder program scans your PC, brings up a checklist of the bloatware installed on your machine, and helps you wipe ’em all away in one fell swoop. Yay! A secondary screen lists all of your programs if you want to nuke even more. Ignore it, or just be careful to avoid erasing something important.
Microsoft introduced its own tool to blow away Windows 10 bloatware, but it involves performing a complete reinstallation of the operating system. Don’t mess around with it unless you know what you’re doing.
On the surface, Launchy is a simple app launcher, and that’s swell all on its own! App launchers let you activate software far faster than navigating Windows, even if you use the Windows key and search for an app by name. But Launchy can do much, much more: open any file or folder in mere seconds, shut down your PC, or even kill processes and perform math calculations with the right plug-ins. Read Lifehacker’s superb tutorial and forget about your Start menu.
Launchy is donationware, so you can snag if for free, but we highly recommend tossing the developers a few dollars for this excellent program.
Windows can create and extract ZIP files natively, but if you find yourself staring at another compressed archive you’ll need a dedicated program to handle it. A lot of them cost money. 7-Zip is open-source and completely free, ready to perform all your archiving needs from Windows’ right-click context menu. You can even encrypt 7-Zip archives with a password to send them securely.
Another must-have system tool: the legendary CCleaner. It does all the dirty work required to keep your PC running in tip-top shape, including ditching unwanted cookies, wiping your browser history, deleting unnecessary files, and keeping your Windows Registry sparkling clean.
Note: CCleaner recently got mud in its eye when it was hacked for the purposes of industrial espionage. Piriform now has a safe version of the program available to download from its site.
CCleaner is powerful, but even better, it’s free! (A $25 Professional version with premium support, scheduled cleanings, and automatic updates is also available.)
Windows 10 has a prickly problem: Unlike Windows 7, it’s incapable of playing DVDs out of the box. Your PC might have a DVD-playing program installed if you bought a boxed system, but if not, the simply wonderful VLC media player can play your flicks (and music, and podcasts, and…) for free. It can even play (some) Blu-ray discs with a little fiddling.
Don’t let Paint.net’s freebie status fool you: This image editor may not have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but it packs everything that most people need (even layer-based editing) and costs hundreds of dollars less.
If you’re a graphics professional, and you can’t afford Photoshop but require more than Paint.net offers, check out GIMP. It has a challenging learning curve, but its capabilities are damned impressive once you wrap your head around it.
If you need to record or mix audio without spending big bucks on pro software, Audacity is hands-down the best option around. This powerful open-source audio editor offers excellent production capabilities—and a dizzying array of buttons and options. Snag it, then read PCWorld’s Audacity primer to wrap your head around the basics.
When you delete software using Windows’ default uninstallation utility, it can leave a lot of remnants behind in weird places, sucking up precious storage space. Revo Uninstaller wipes out everything. It’s great. A $40 pro version adds handy-dandy additional features, but the free download gets the core job done.
(Pro tip: If you encounter a program that says it can’t be deleted because it’s currently in use by your system, IOBit’s free Unlocker can shake the grasp loose.)
But what if you want to bring a deleted file back to the realm of the living? Recuva is a clean, simple undelete program from Piriform, the makers of CCleaner.
Be warned: Recuva won't be able to recover all deleted files, and the odds are even lower if you erased a program with a secure delete tool like Eraser (another top-notch free program). Even still, Recuva has saved my bacon on more than one occasion. A $20 pro upgrade adds automatic updates, premium customer service access, and support for virtual hard drives.
Adobe Reader may be the go-to PDF reader for many people, but it’s clunky, constantly updating, and frequently targeted by malware peddlers. If you need only basic functionality, go with Sumatra PDF instead. Sumatra lacks the fancy extras found in many full-featured PDF readers, but when it comes to straight-up reading Portable Document Format files, Sumatra PDF is blazing-fast and completely accurate. Oh, and since it’s less ubiquitous than Adobe’s offering, hackers tend to stay away from Sumatra PDF.
If you’re willing to pay for more advanced features, check out PCWorld’s guide to the best PDF editors.
Spotify or iTunes
Sometimes, blasting tunes is the only thing that makes slogging through a spreadsheet or a stuffed inbox even remotely tolerable. The exact music client you’ll want will depend on whether you’ve already bought into a service, naturally. For musical neophytes I recommend two programs: iTunes and Spotify.
The iTunes Windows client notoriously sucks, but it gets the job done—and that job includes giving you access to a vast universe of premium music downloads and keeping your iPhone’s music library synced with your PC. Spotify, meanwhile, is an all-you-can-eat streaming service with millions of top-tier tunes available, all for free if you don’t mind listening to a few ads.
A password manager
The high-profile hack attacks of the past few years have driven the point home: You need strong passwords, and you need a different password for each site you visit. Rather than juggling dozens of alphanumeric codes in your noggin, download a password manager.
There are several options available, but our favorite is LastPass, a cloud-based password manager that generates strong, random passwords and keeps track of your credentials across all your devices for free. Dashlane is another stellar option, but the free version is limited to a single device. PCWorld’s guide to the best password managers can help walk you through all the available options.
A productivity suite
PCs excel at helping you Get Things Done—but few of them ship with a productivity suite installed. Fix that, stat! Even if you don’t plan to use a productivity suite regularly, it’s smart to have basic editing capabilities available on your computer.
Legions of people swear by Microsoft’s legendary Office; I do, too. But you don’t have to drop big dollars on Office if you don’t need its myriad bells and whistles. Free—and good—alternatives abound, with LibreOffice (pictured) being the flagship free-and-open-source option. The online-only Google Docs also rocks. PCWorld's guide to the best free Microsoft Office alternatives explains your various options.
Macros sure are great in Microsoft Word and Excel, aren’t they? AutoHotKey lets you create customized keyboard shortcuts for any program or action on your PC. It’s not exactly beginner-friendly, as configuring AutoHotKey requires some very basic scripting that most people will be able to pick up quickly enough. It’s downright magic once you wrap your brain around it though.
The free version is limited to just 500MB of data per month, though. If you need more data or want to use a VPN to stream video from overseas, PCWorld’s guide to the best VPN services can walk you through premium options.
Steam and other free PC games
All work and no play makes Homer something something! Valve’s outstanding PC game marketplace, Steam, makes it easy to shrug off the stress of the workday and blow off some ... well, you know. You’ll find tons of free games available on Steam, and games are frequently given away free for a limited time. EA’s rival Origin service also has an On the House program that often provides games for free-as-in-beer free.
Those aren’t your only options though. Check out PCWorld’s guide to the best free PC games for more options than you’ll ever be able to actually play.
Bonus: Back up your PC!
This isn’t an official recommendation because the best way to back up your PC for free is to use a hodgepodge of native Windows utilities and no-cost third-party solutions. But backing up your data is so vital—especially in this rising age of ransomware—that it needs to be highlighted here.
If the idea of using a mish-mash of tools makes you wince, check out PCWorld’s guides to the best Windows backup software and the best online backup services for more options. You’re going to need some portable storage to stash your bits on, too. PCWorld’s best external drives roundup can help there.
Master your Windows 10 PC
Now that you’ve loaded up your PC with the best free software around, it’s time to put Windows itself to work. Head on over PCWorld’s best Windows 10 tips, tricks, and tweaks guide to seize even more control over your PC for the low, low price of nothing.