Top 25 free apps for Windows 10
Windows 10 represents a bifurcation of sorts in the free Windows tool ecosystem. Thanks to “Universal Windows Programs,” recommending an essential toolkit of free Windows apps isn’t so universal anymore. Folks opting to stick with Windows 7 and 8.1 and the desktop alone will have their own set of must-have free tools, and those who embrace Windows 10—which presents its own priorities, advantages, and quirks—will have another.
Windows 10’s unique advantage is its ability to run Universal Windows Programs—formerly known as Metro apps—in their own sandboxed corner of your PC. In theory, UWP/Windows Store apps run on all Windows platforms, including Windows Phone, tablets, and the Xbox. In practice, however, the lines aren’t quite so clear. Plus, the stampede to UWP greatness has yet to materialize. Maybe someday all the truly great Windows programs will run on UWP. For now, well, we’re mostly waiting.
As you’ll see in this list, most outstanding Windows programs still run on the desktop, but there are a handful of up-and-coming UWP/Windows Store apps that deserve your consideration. That’s the beauty of Windows 10—mix and match and take advantage of the diversity open to you. Good stuff.
Hedge your bets on Edge: Use Chrome, Firefox, Opera
Microsoft really wants you to use the new Microsoft Edge browser. For some people, Edge may be all the browser you need. For most, Edge doesn’t fill the bill. Many users have grown accustomed to the more-advanced features in other browsers, and for them there’s no substitute for a more mature browser. The main options:
Opera, long the top underdog in the browser wars, has pioneered several features not previously seen in competitive browsers, including pop-up blocking, private browsing, and native ad blocking. It’s now available on Windows, OS X, and Linux.
Firefox is an excellent choice if you don’t want to send your browsing history to the folks at Google. Coupled with a search engine like Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t track anything, you minimize your trackable presence on the Web. I use Firefox all the time.
Chrome, however, is my browser of choice. In spite of its snooping ways, it has the best collection of extensions, easiest operation, and best integration with Google Apps in the biz. On the downside, if you open a bunch of tabs, it sure sucks up a lot of cycles.
Whatever you do, don’t run Internet Explorer. Microsoft has put it out to pasture. So should you.
Incremental backup: File History
If you haven’t heard, Windows 10 users can keep full, incremental, easily accessed copies of all of their files with a couple of clicks—using a utility that ships with Windows. Once enabled, Win10’s File History takes snapshots of your files. You can go back to older versions with a simple right-click.
To set it up, you need a second hard drive—internal, external, over a network—with enough free space to store your data file backups. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security > Backup. If “Back up using File History” isn’t set up yet, click the button marked “Add a drive,” and specify which drive you want to use. After the first run, you see the “Automatically back up my files” slider shown in the screenshot.
That automatically backs up all of the files in your User folder. You can click on More Options to add more folders.
After that, backups happen automagically. To bring back an old version, go into File Explorer, right-click on a file, and choose Properties > Previous Versions. You can get to versions of the files made long, long ago.
Secure your system: Windows Defender
If you’re in search of the best truly free antivirus tool, look no further than Microsoft’s Windows Defender.
If you’ve installed an antivirus program—or had one installed for you, by your mercenary PC company—uninstall it (Start > Settings > System > Apps & features). If Defender doesn’t immediately spring back to life, in the Cortana search box type “Defender” and press Enter.
Other “free” antivirus products come and go—some even score higher on the prestigious Virus Bulletin VB100 list. Defender isn’t the fanciest or most aggressive AV product available. It’s reliable, simple, boring, fast, easy to use, and most of all, free. It’s always free and never nags for more money.
Manage your passwords: LastPass (UWP/Windows Store and desktop versions)
I use LastPass religiously, in all of my browsers, on all of my computers—Windows, Android, iOS, ChromeOS, Mac, you name it.
LastPass keeps track of your user IDs, passwords, and other settings, stores them in the cloud, and offers them to you with a click. LastPass does its AES-256 encrypting and decrypting on your PC, using a master password you have to remember. The data stored in the cloud is encrypted, and without the key the stored passwords can’t be broken, unless you know somebody who can crack AES-256 encryption.
In addition to installing the LastPass browser extension for all of my browsers, I also use the UWP/Windows Store version, shown in this screenshot, on my Windows 10 machines. Why? It’s much easier to edit entries with the UWP/Windows Store version than with the odd click-here-then-there editing interface inside the browsers.
Store files in the cloud: Dropbox (desktop version)
If you’re using Windows 10 for anything more than a doorstop, you’re no doubt familiar with cloud storage. I prefer the desktop version of Dropbox, which integrates directly into File Manager. (The UWP/Windows Store version, at this point, isn’t worth the bother.)
Everybody and his brother wants to offer you free cloud storage these days. They’re gambling that you’ll get hooked on the service and want to stay and pay. I’ve never gone over my limit with any of the services—Dropbox (2GB free for personal use, unlimited business use for $12.50 per user per month), Microsoft’s OneDrive (5GB free for personal use, many other options), Google Drive (15GB free for personal use), Mega (50GB free), Box (10GB free)—I use them all, in various ways.
Thumbnail comparison: Dropbox syncs with your computer remarkably well; for all intents, it works like a File Manager folder (see screenshot). It features solid security, easy operation, amazing reliability, and integration with many programs (including Office).
The current version of OneDrive has all sorts of implementation and interface problems, reliability is a major concern, and Microsoft has already reneged on storage promises. Google Drive space gets swallowed up by saved Gmail attachments, but the tools are best of breed. I use Google Drive for photos—see my later recommendation. Mega is excellent, supersecure, somewhat limited features, but getting better. Box rates as the sine qua non of corporate storage, but it’s limited for freeloaders.
Best free email: Gmail (browser)
Like you, I spent years struggling with PC-based email: Outlook, in multitudinous versions; Outlook Express (which isn’t anything like Outlook itself); Windows Mail; Windows Live Mail; Thunderbird. I can’t recall how many months I’ve lost trying to hassle with files, settings, quirks, and bugs.
Bah. If you haven’t yet moved your mail to the cloud, it’s time to take a look. Although you have to jump through a few hoops, it’s relatively easy to keep your email address (email@example.com) and push everything through Gmail—and nobody will ever know the difference. All of the email services are free for personal use, and come attached to more expensive packages (Google Apps for Business, Outlook 365, among others) for organizations.
Flipping to online email will add years to your life. The only real question is which service you should use. The two front-runners, Gmail and Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) have pros and cons, with features in one showing up in the other sooner or later. Both have so many capabilities that nobody uses more than a tiny fraction. There’s no clear winner.
Personally, I use Gmail—and have for years—because it’s better organized (which is a simple way to say I’m used to it), it does a better job of trapping spam headed my way, separating “Important” messages from “Everything else” simplifies cleanup, and the tabs help occasionally. Microsoft counters by saying Outlook.com doesn’t serve ads targeted based on email contents (though they do serve up targeted ads), they have inbox organization by custom categories, there are time-based rules, and Outlook.com makes it easy to connect to Skype, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn.
Best free productivity suite: Office Online (browser)
While the titans rage for paid online “office productivity” packages, those seeking free-for-personal-use productivity programs have two excellent choices, from those same two titans.
Office Online is so good, you’ll be hard-pressed to find features in the paid programs that aren’t available online for free. Google Apps work well, too, but Office Online’s features and rock-solid compatibility with desktop Office programs run way out ahead of the competition. Both run inside your favorite Web browser.
The big trick? You have to understand that there is a free Office Online, it’s remarkably full-featured, and you don’t need to sign up for a free trial of anything (though you will need a free Microsoft Account). To get started, go to the Office homepage, avoid the temptation to sign up for an Office 365 free trial at the top, and look further down for the free online apps.
Store your photos: Google Photos (browser)
If you’re a professional photographer who requires fancy touch-up tools and extremely high-definition archival storage or you have to set up paid downloading services, you need something more capable. But for almost everybody, Google Photos is a category killer. There’s rarely been a program, of any kind, with such broad appeal.
There’s free unlimited storage, although pictures are limited to 16 megapixels and video to 1080p (the program will automatically squeeze bigger pictures, or you can pay for Google Drive storage space for the biggies). Yes, free—unlimited with apps for iOS, Android, and all the major browsers on any platform. You can set Google Photos to automatically upload pics from your phone or Wi-Fi-enabled camera. Once they’re on Google’s servers, you can get at them from anywhere with your Google ID and password.
Google Photos automatically analyzes every picture. Face recognition is built in (but can be turned off). The organization and analytical capabilities are breathtaking—“All the pictures of me holding a beer glass” or “Every picture we took of the pyramids.” Photos even offers to create montages, panoramas, storylines, or “animations” of similar pictures taken in succession. Of course, Google keeps track of everything you post, and uses the info to serve up ads, but that’s the price you pay.
Install or update almost any desktop app, any time: Ninite (browser)
When you start looking at desktop applications, your very first stop should be to Ninite. Simply click on the applications you want and Ninite will download the latest version, absolutely free of crapware, install them, and leave you in the driver’s seat.
Need to update your apps? Run Ninite again. (Or rely on Secunia PSI, coming up next.)
The beauty of the Ninite approach? All of these apps are a click away, no fuss, no nags, no charge. It’s the best way I know to install a bunch of good programs on a new machine in a few minutes. The downside? It misses a few of my favorite desktop apps—and it doesn’t touch UWP/Windows Store “Metro” apps.
Keep your programs up to date: Secunia PSI
A key component in keeping your system up-to-date, Secunia Personal Software Inspector scans every desktop program on your computer and tells you in no uncertain terms if you have any wayward programs that haven’t been patched. (Secunia PSI doesn’t scan for UWP/Microsoft Store programs—which should be updated automatically by the Store.)
You can tell Secunia PSI to automatically keep your programs updated, and unless some sort of odd manual intervention is required (such as “Select language”), everything gets patched behind the scenes.
I particularly appreciate the fact that PSI respects my Windows Update settings—so while I have everything else updated automatically, it lets me install Microsoft patches on my own schedule, using wushowhide. Free PSI is for personal use; CSI corporate editions are also available.
A security second opinion: Malwarebytes
No doubt you already have an antivirus program. I use, and recommend, Windows Defender, which comes baked into Windows 10. It’s good enough, and it’ll never beg you for more money.
Malwarebytes is different. The free-for-personal-use version is designed to run manually—I run mine once a week. Malwarebytes picks up all sorts of creepy crawlies that get past AV programs, and it’s surprisingly adept at running even if your machine is already infected.
When combined with the support on the Malwarebytes forum, Malwarebytes is the ultimate fallback for infected systems—whether or not you know they’re infected.
Best media player: VLC Media Player (desktop)
Another poster child for open source software, VLC Media Player plays almost anything—including YouTube Flash FLV files—with no additional software, no downloads, no headaches. I use it exclusively for videos—but only the desktop version. The UWP/Windows Store version, at this point, has all sorts of problems.
Unlike other media players, VLC sports simple, Spartan controls, built-in codecs for almost every file type imaginable, and a large and vocal online support community. VLC plays Internet streaming media with a click, records played media, converts between file types, and even supports individual-frame screenshots.
VLC is well-known for tolerating incomplete or damaged media files. It will even start to play downloaded media before the download’s finished. The desktop version’s available via Ninite.
There’s an up-and-comer called PotPlayer that’s a strong contender. Want to try an alternative to VLC? Give it a look. UWP/Windows Store media players still have a way to go.
Best free text editor: EditPad Lite
Notepad? Notepad? Nobody uses Notepad any more.
Even with all of the fantastic new brightly colored file formats running around today, everybody, sooner or later, needs a text editor. Let’s hear it for EditPad Lite.
With tabs, undo/redo, Unicode support, cut copy and paste, search and replace, all in a svelte and fast package, EditPad Lite works wonders. Free for personal use, the pro/corporate package costs as little as $9 per user. Pay for the product and you get a spell-checker.
I have a confession to make. My text editor of choice is Notepad++. I’ve been using it for years, and I’ve tailored it to do exactly what I need. My fingers know exactly where to go. For most people, though, Notepad++ is overkill. (If you have to write native HTML, it’s great.) EditPad and EditPad Lite are the way to go, and they’re available through Ninite.
Best image editor: Paint.net
With dozens of good—even great—free image editors around, it’s hard to pick one above the others. Pixlr Desktop is a surprisingly full-featured, free photo editor from Autodesk. Irfanview has tremendous viewing, organizing, and resizing capabilities.
For powerful, easy-to-use photo editing, with layers, plug-ins, and all sorts of special effects, along with a compact and easily understood interface, I’ll stick with Paint.net. Although it requires Windows’ hard-to-keep-updated .Net Framework, the program puts all of the editing tools a nonprofessional might reasonably expect into a remarkably intuitive package.
There’s a trick to installing Paint.net. If you go to the company’s website, you’re faced with a daunting array of junk-filled download sites. Instead, use Ninite (mentioned earlier) to download a clean copy: choose both .Net Framework (it’s under Runtimes) and Paint.Net.
Tip-top zipper upper: 7-Zip (desktop)
Every desktop user needs 7-Zip. While Win10 File Explorer has grown the ability to look inside ISO and other kinds of compressed files, Explorer still doesn’t support RAR compressed files, which are becoming more and more common as use of Macs is on the rise. 7-Zip also creates password-protected Zip files, as well as self-extracting Zips.
You don’t need to register or pay for 7-Zip.
Don’t fall for a website with a similar name. To get the real, original, one and only free 7-Zip, with a crapware-free installer, go to 7-zip.org or, better, get it from Ninite. There’s support on the 7-Zip Sourceforge page. Make sure you get the desktop version—UWP/Windows Store programs with similar names aren’t the same.
It’s free for everybody and open source.
Best system administration tool: Autoruns
Microsoft’s venerable and free-as-a-breeze Autoruns finds more autostarting programs (add-ins, drivers, codecs, gadgets, shell extensions, whatever), in more obscure places, than any other program, anywhere.
AutoRuns not only lists autorunning programs, it lets you turn individual programs off. There are many minor features, including the ability to filter out Microsoft-signed programs, a quick way to jump to folders holding autostarting programs, and a command-line version that lets you display file hashes. AutoRuns doesn’t require installation. It’s a program that runs and collects its information, displays it (with a rather rudimentary user interface), lets you wrangle with your system, then fades away.
It’s free for everybody, personal or corporate.
The other best system admin tool: Process Explorer
Process Explorer tells you which files are currently open by what program. That feature alone has saved me half a head of hair because, once identified by Process Explorer, the process that has locked up your file can be killed. Process Explorer also gives you full information on all of the svchost processes running on your PC. That accounts for the other half a head.
Mouse over a process, even a generic svchost, and you can see the command line that launched the process, the path to the executable file, and all of the Windows services being used. Right-click and you can go online to get more information about the executable.
It’s another must-have product from, yes, Microsoft and free for everybody.
Best free system snapshot: HWiNFO
If you’re curious about the hardware that beats inside your system, do I have a utility for you. HWiNFO delves into every nook and cranny. From the summary (shown here) to detailed Device Manager-style trees of information—entire forests of information—HWiNFO can tell you everything anyone could want to know about your machine.
There’s a separate real-time monitoring panel, which tells you the current status of everything under the sun: Temperatures, speeds, usage, clocks, voltages, wattages, hard drive SMART stats, read rates, write rates, GPU load, network throughput, and on and on.
It’s free for everybody. (I downloaded a clean copy from FossHub.)
Top torrent downloader: Tixati
If you aren’t yet using torrents, now’s the time to start.
Try Tixati. It’s simple (no Java, no .Net), fast, and easy to use, and it supports magnet links (which really simplify downloads), with extensive bandwidth reporting and management.
There’s no spyware, no adware, and no nonsense.
There are good visual tools for monitoring bandwidth and throttling if need be—or blast your connection wide open and let ’er rip. With Tixati it’s easy, and you don’t have to worry about all the garbage that’s frequently associated with torrent handlers.
Best way to get the junk out: Revo Uninstaller
Revo Uninstaller well and truly uninstalls desktop programs, and it does so in an unexpected way. (To get rid of a UWP/Windows Store app, you have to use Win10 itself with, for example, Start > Settings > System > Apps & features.)
When you use Revo, it runs the program’s uninstaller and watches while the uninstaller works, looking for the location of program files and for Registry keys that the uninstaller zaps. It then goes in and removes leftover pieces, based on the locations and keys that the program’s uninstaller took out.
Revo also consults its own internal database for commonly left-behind bits and roots those out.
The not-free Pro version monitors your system when you install a program, making removal easier and more complete. Pro will also uninstall remnants of programs that have already been uninstalled.
Get it from Ninite.
Handy tool for bad patches: Wushowhide
Unless you’re attached to a corporate network with a well-managed Update Server, Windows 10 gives you all of Microsoft’s patches according to Microsoft’s schedule, aka forced updating. Yes, you can usually keep the reboot limited to a time when you aren’t working, but the patches come whether or not you want them. Worse, if you uninstall a patch, every time you reboot or log on again, the same patch comes barreling at your machine. It’s like Sisyphus 10.0.
As long as Microsoft’s patches all work, all of the time, that’s great. But the minute there’s a problem—a driver that doesn’t work right, a cumulative update that refuses to install, a conflict between the patch and one of your programs—forced updating can cause all sorts of problems.
Fortunately, Microsoft has created a program that allows you to block and hide specific updates. Wushowhide, known by its cryptic Knowledge Base number KB 307930, scans to see which updates are pending and lets you hide individual updates.
To use it, head over to KB 307930, download and stick wushowhide.diagcab on your machine. Run wushowhide.diacab, click Hide updates, and you see a list like the one shown in the screenshot above. Check the update(s) you want to forgo, click Next, then Next again. The chosen patch won’t be installed, until Microsoft releases a new version of the patch.
Some people slow down updates using a setting called metered connection, then wait to run Wushowhide when they hear of updates—either an all-clear, or a botched patch warning. That gives you somewhat granular control over which patches get applied and when.
Best voice, text, video messaging: LINE (UWP/Windows Store)
I’ve tried Skype so many times—and been so frustrated with it—that you couldn’t get me to go back to Microsoft’s product for all the tea in Asia. Come to think of it, that’s where I first found LINE. If you know people in Asia, chances are very good they already have it and depend on it. LINE may be the most popular online calling/messaging program in the world.
LINE covers the gamut from plain old phone calls to text, images, video, and audio—including audio messages. It’s completely free, and it runs on anything, including Android, iPad and iPhone, Mac OS X, ChromeOS (which is to say, on Chromebooks). The Windows Store UWP app is brilliant, stable, and eminently usable.
LINE makes its money by selling zillions of sets of emojis and “stickers.” Right now, more than a billion stickers are sent every day. Ka-ching.
LINE has one significant limitation: When you create a new account, it can only be used on at most one mobile device and one PC. If you want to run LINE on two Windows desktops, you have to sign up for two (free) accounts.
Best music streamer: Elpis
If you have an account on Pandora, you have everything you need for Elpis. Although it looks like a UWP/Windows Store program, in fact it’s a plain old desktop app, designed to stream directly from Pandora. You don’t have to run Pandora in a Web browser any more—Elpis will go grab the stream for you.
Free, open source, with most of the features you expect from Pandora, Elpis doesn’t nag you with the “Are you listening?” notices that make Pandora so, er, challenging. Note well, from the distribution documentation: “Elpis (as well as its libraries) and its creator are not affiliated with or endorsed by Pandora Media, Inc. As such, Elpis depends on an independent implementation of their private API, meaning that changes made by Pandora can, and may, break compatibility with Elpis at any time, without warning.”
Look for the latest release on the Elpis download page.
Change to-do into to-done: Wunderlist (UWP/Windows Store)
Microsoft liked it so much, it bought the company.
I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to turn other tools into to-do lists: Google Calendar, Outlook, even Word and Email. I always end up with duplicated entries, lengthy messes—and heaven help me if I want to update the list from my PC, my phone, and my iPad, or share it with someone.
That’s where Wunderlist takes the cake. I can create a shopping list and share it with other members of the household. I can make a to-do list and stare in wonder as it backs up weeks, months, even years of overdue tasks. There are due dates and automatically generated reminders. I can even assign a task to someone else, and keep track of whether they’re on task or comatose.
Get it for Windows 10, for your tablets and phones of any pedigree—even your Mac, Kindle Fire, or Chromebook. If you prefer to run it inside a browser, yep, Wunderlist is there, too.
Shoot your screen: ShareX
I’ve used a lot of screen grabbers over the years, but never a free grabber in this league. Windows 10 has a reasonably capable Snipping Tool, now that there’s a countdown timer. ShareX runs rings around it in every imaginable respect.
It’s free, open source, easy to install and use, with optional hot keys. You can shoot rectangular selections, the currently active window, polygons, record the screen, or record scrolling windows. ShareX will automatically save your file to a designated location and/or to the cloud (Dropbox, Pastebin, Imgur, many more). It has a full set of annotation tools, image editor, QR code generator, watermarking, and so many other features you could make a career out of customizing it.
It’s very fast, very small, and very free, with no ads—an amazing piece of software overall.
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