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A computer is only as useful as the software you run on it, so you should keep your PC's software current--and not necessarily with the latest version of a program that's getting long in the tooth. Sometimes, switching to a new application can help you speed up your work or make your system more efficient.
PCWorld examined software tools for handling 11 categories of common (and essential) PC tasks: presentations, financial planning, note taking, file management, photo editing, email, word processing, music organizing, remote access, cleanup/optimization, and backup. In each instance, we identified the dominant program, a promising challenger, and (where applicable) an online alternative. Our category coverage invites you to consider the pros and cons of each type of contender: incumbents, up-and-comers, and Web apps.
• Incumbent: Microsoft PowerPoint. The 600-pound gorilla in the world of presentations is Microsoft's PowerPoint (available as a component of various Microsoft Office bundles or separately for $140). The application is so dominant that the phrase “send me the PowerPoint” has become ubiquitous in business circles.
• Up-and-comer: Prezi. Easily the most interesting alternative to PowerPoint, Prezi has both local and online components. The free, public (and Web-only) version lets you create arguably better presentations than PowerPoint can deliver. Instead of being slide-based, Prezi uses a single-pane approach. The process may seem strange at first, but Prezi's tutorials and inline help will get you up to speed in a hurry. Prezi is collaborative, so multiple users can work on the same presentation simultaneously via Prezi Meeting. When it's time to give the presentation, you can play the show online (it's Flash-based) or download a .zip file, extract it, and play it locally using the included prezi.exe file. Signing up for the pro version of Prezi ($59 a year) entitles you to download Prezi Desktop, and you work on presentations locally.
• Web app: TransMedia Glide Presenter. Part of the browser-based Glide desktop operating system (free with 30GB of storage, or $50 a year with 250GB), Glide Presenter works in a slide-by-slide format. It's easy to use, and you can export creations as PowerPoint files or PDF files. You can stream audio and video in presentations, and create presentations collaboratively.
• Incumbents: Intuit Quicken and Intuit Mint. Though Quicken (starts at $30) is desktop software and Mint is a free Web-based service, both offerings are go-to resources for budgeting, and both come from the same company: Intuit.
• Up-and-comer: You Need A Budget. Part budgeting tutorial and part money management guide, this intuitive program walks you through setup and fund allocation, helping you add accounts and project spending in dozens of categories. YNAB then maintains a running tab of your spending, with graphs that illustrate how much you've spent over the months and how your net worth has progressed. Security-conscious users will appreciate that YNAB can't automatically download activity from your bank account. You can import OFX, QFX, and QIF files into the ledger, but YNAB encourages self-reporting because that approach forces you to think more concretely about your spending habits. You can try out You Need A Budget for free, but it costs $60 to keep. The price of admission also buys you entry into YNAB forums and financial-planning classes, where you can glean advice from experts.
• Web app: HelloWallet. If you need to balance your books but you have trouble finding time to record everything you earn and spend, try HelloWallet. This app syncs with online accounts and lets you flag spending as 'wish I hadn't', 'glad I did', 'had to', and so forth, so that you can identify expenditures to eliminate in the future. For a monthly $9, the site walks you through budget setup and notes how much, on average, other people in your city with your income spend in each expense category. Correction: this article originally stated that HelloWallet is a free app. It in fact costs $9 per month for individual users.
• Incumbent: Evernote. A multipurpose tool for note taking, note syncing, offline bookmark creation, and information organizing, Evernote (free) keeps coming up with ways to make the data you need easier to keep track of. Its latest iOS apps, EvernoteHello and EvernoteFood, are designed to keep records on all of the people you meet and all of the food you eat.
• Up-and-comer: Microsoft OneNote. Microsoft's note-taking program comes bundled with the most basic version of Microsoft Office (it costs $80 when purchased by itself), and it's easily the most overlooked program in the 2010 Office Suite. That's too bad, because this little notepad makes capturing your thoughts incredibly easy. Press Windows-S to capture any portion of your computer screen and automatically drop the image into your notebook. It's a great way to generate Web clippings if you're shopping around for something. Also, you can click anywhere in the notebook and start typing, so your notes have more visual appeal than a simple list might have.
• Web app: Springpad. Some people believe that note taking works better online, because syncing is faster, notes don't take up local storage space, and sharing is easier. To exploit these advantages, Springpad's free Web service and mobile apps let you add not just notes but also links, photos, videos, and files to your box of “stuff”--in much the same way as Dropbox, but with a clear notebook and to-do list function. You can also check out files that your Springpad-using friends unlock, making it an easy way to share videos and create collaborative lists.
Next: File management, photo editing, email, and word-processing software.