All year long, we PCWorld reviewers immerse ourselves in desktop programs and Web software. After evaluating a program, often we uninstall it—but several of this year's finds earned places in our workflows and/or our hearts. These programs and services are the ones we reviewed for PCWorld Downloads and also kept using for our own productivity and enjoyment. Perhaps you started using them this year, too…and if not, well, a shiny new year is right around the corner.
(To get all of the download links in one convenient list, see our "PCWorld's Favorite Downloads of 2011" collection. And click on each image below to see it in full size; click on "Close" in the image's bottom right to return to this list.)
Improve Your Productivity and Security
If there's one thing I could use more of, it's time. Well, and money, too. And sleep. CloudMagic may not be putting money in my bank account or helping me catch more Zs, but this handy little Firefox extension sure is saving me time. It searches my Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Twitter accounts in what seems like record time. And its results are unfailingly accurate, too. What more could I want?
Read the full review and download CloudMagic beta (free).
If you love words, think that reading a dictionary is great fun, or simply need a more organic way to search for synonyms, Visual Thesaurus is a great online resource. The dynamic, intuitive graphical interface is intelligent, playful, and educational. On the surface, it offers a tree-like visual structure that displays related synonyms in branches, surrounding the word you looked up. Click a synonym to display the next level of related words. Definitions are also a click away. We've found Visual Thesaurus so helpful that it is always open in one of our Internet browser tabs, so we can refer to it quickly while writing.
Read the full review and download Visual Thesaurus ($20, free trial).
--Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta
The original lightweight alternative to Adobe Reader strayed from the winning formula for a while by getting fat, installing junk, and generally trying to do much. It's back on point with a clean, intuitive interface--and back on my PC opening PDFs faster than Adobe Reader and rendering them every bit as cleanly.
Read the full review and download Foxit Reader 5 (free).
I used to waste a lot of brain power remembering all of my passwords. The ones for my email accounts. And my credit card accounts. And my online shopping accounts. Now, I'm relying on LastPass instead. It not only remembers and organizes all of my passwords for me, but it also generates secure ones. With all of the brain power I'm saving, I could spend my free time solving complex mathematical equations. I'm not, but I could be. Maybe.
Read the full review and download LastPass 1.8 (free).
Expand Your Artistic Horizons
ArtRage Studio Pro
I can't go into an art supply store without buying something, because I always go, "Ooooh! I'd love to try that." I have boxes of paint sets, canvases, and brushes that I've never used. With ArtRage Studio Pro I can paint to my heart's content, without having to buy the supplies. And even though I don't have much artistic talent, ArtRage is intuitive, gives me instantly beautiful results, and makes me want to practice more.
Read the full review and download ArtRage 3.5 ($80, 30-day free trial).
I really enjoyed reviewing Corel Painter 12, because I felt it manages to meld the world of soft "analog" painting with the digital sophistication of a modern graphics editor. Making pen strokes on my Wacom tablet and watching them dry and blend with what I already put on paper was an inspiring experience. It made me want to paint.
Read the full review and download Corel Painter 12 ($429, free trial).
What I like about Carrara is that it makes 3D design feel accessible. It does take longer to master than Google SketchUp, but you can create commercial-level 3D graphics and organic-looking objects with Carrara. Creator DAZ 3D offers a huge catalog of models, characters, and character costumes that you can buy and integrate into your scenes. Carrara is complex, but well-made and fun to use.
Read the full review and download Carrara 8 ($150, buy-only).
Beautify Your Desktop (and Beyond)
Lonely Landscapes Windows 7 Theme
I'm tired of the typical landscape photography fare: tropical sunsets, green meadows, majestic mountains. I prefer a more original take on the world that surrounds us. I love the Lonely Landscapes Windows 7 theme because the contributors each bring their own unique perspective to landscape photography. For example, instead of a mundane dock scene, you get an ethereal image of a lonesome jetty; instead of the typical orange sunset, you get a desaturated and almost ghostly take on the scene.
Read the full review and download Lonely Landscapes Windows 7 Theme (free).
Chinese Watch Shop
Romantic script font Champignon, flirty brush script Doris Day, and futuristic Orbitron are fine additions to any font lover’s collection…but my hands-down favorite for the year is Downloads underdog Chinese Watch Shop by font folklorist Daniel Gauthier. Quirky to set, gawky on its feet, and boldly irreverent, Chinese Watch Shop breaks rules to stay true to its nature.
As a designer at PCWorld magazine I work with fantastic typographer-approved fonts every day, but on my own time I prefer the company of a difficult personality--a font that challenges and surprises me as the words hit the page. Gauthier spotted a handful of characters on a shop sign in Hamilton, Ontario, and forged ahead to produce this little gem. A little attitude does a long year good. My pork pie hat is doffed to Chinese Watch Shop and Mr. Gauthier.
Read the full review and download Chinese Watch Shop (free).
Day of the Dead Windows 7 Theme
Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and Latin America on November 2 every year. It's a time to celebrate departed loved ones and honor their memories by decorating altars, holding fiestas, and creating calaveras--whimsical skeletons or skulls. One of my favorite downloads this year, the Day of the Dead Windows 7 Theme, puts a parade of colorful folk-art calaveras on your desktop.
Read the full review and download Day of the Dead Windows 7 Theme (free).
Kittens Windows 7 Theme
I love felines, so it was pretty easy to choose my favorite Windows 7 theme this year: Kittens. Load up this theme and you get cuteness overload on your desktop with eight beautifully shot photographs of adorable kittens. The custom sound effects are fun, too--although one user complained that his real cats do not find them amusing.
Read the full review and download Kittens Windows 7 Theme (free).
Play These Games for a While…Or Forever…
DC Universe Online
DC Universe Online is truly the massively-multiplayer online game for those who hate MMOs. It's got DC Comics style all over it, is fast paced and arcade-y, and lets you level up swiftly. And you can play through the whole game by yourself, if you want. Since my review, it's gone free to play, meaning it's an even better deal. It does still have occasional bugs and crash issues, so make sure your video drivers are updated all the way.
Read the full review and download DC Universe Online (free).
Galactic 4X game Aurora is buggy, obtuse, and in appearance...well, you can't even say it has a great personality, because it's finicky, uncommunicative, and prone to sullen fits in which you know something's wrong but it won't tell you what. Despite all that, I've spent more time playing Aurora than I have any other game I've reviewed this year, and am still hooked.
On about my ninth restart, I made it 20 years into game time before mineral shortages made progress nigh impossible. On my tenth restart, I have better colonies and trade routes 6 years in than my last game managed in 20, and my first true warships (the Iron Duke-class jump frigates), have rolled off the line and are conducting fleet training exercises in-system. Despite this seeming mastery, I've barely scratched the surface. It would not be unfair to say that Aurora combines the adrenaline-pumping action of balancing your checkbook with the aesthetic appeal of Visual BASIC circa 1995... but it somehow keeps luring me back in for one more round of redesigning ordnance payloads, juggling command assignments, and dreading the "Unknown Thermal Contact" message that means it's time to see if I've finally learned how to design an effective combat force.
Read the full review and download Aurora (free).
Play With Music and Video Files
Amazon Cloud Music Player
Imagine a world in which your PC's digital music collection would be available to you wherever you were. Whether you were using a friend's computer, toting a smartphone or a tablet, or sitting down with an eReader like a Kindle or a Nook, you could listen to every track. That world exists, and you can get to it by using the Amazon Cloud Music Player. Install the Amazon MP3 uploader app, upload your files, and then listen via the Web or an Android app anywhere, anytime.
Read the full review and download Amazon MP3 Uploader for Amazon Cloud Music Player (free).
Freemake Video Converter
Freemake Video Converter is a free app that converts almost any video format into any other video format, can extract audio into MP3s, and can even create DVD or Blu-ray files suitable for burning. Be sure to deselect the third-party toolbar when you install, but otherwise, it's highly recommended.
Read the full review and download Freemake Video Converter 3.0.1 (free).