I recently clean installed Windows XP on my laptop, and this meant that I had to re-install all the essential software that I use. It also presented an opportunity to write a posting about how you can outfit your computer with all the essential (and non-essential) software you need using strictly 100% freeware and/or open source titles.This posting could have been titled any of the following:
- How to never use a paid program again (aside from Windows).
- 53 essential freeware programs that can take care of the majority of your computing needs.
I am writing this from the perspective of myself clean-installing Windows and re-installing all the software I find to be essential afterwards. This post took a long time to write, please Digg and/or Stumble it ;).
Pre-installation: before reformatting my hard drive, I used the following programs:
1. Gparted Live CD: one of the easiest ways to preserve your data when you want to wipe your system clean is to create a secondary partition and move all of your data into it. Gparted Live CD is a fantastic program that can create and manage partitions and hold its own alongside any program of its kind, paid or otherwise.
2. Unstoppable Copier: I used this program to copy any of the data and files on the primary partition (C:) to the secondary partition. Unstoppable copier makes the process of moving large numbers of files easy because you can set it up and leave and be certain that the copying process will not be interrupted by pointless Windows dialogs such as “are you sure you want to move the read only file xxx” or any other possible prompts of this sort.
3. Amic Email Backup: can backup all of my Outlook email to the secondary partition ahead of the drive formatting (it can backup email from numerous programs except Thunderbird; if you use Thunderbird use Mozbackup). For another freeware alternative try EZ Email Backup.
4. DriverMax: I used this one to back up all my current drivers. DriverMax will backup all of your drivers locally and can optionally restore them for you. Although I have my manufacturer’s CD with all of the original drivers (and anyway they are all on the internet), I used DriveMax just in case; if it were the case that I am unable to locate a driver for any device after re-installing XP, I figure I could always go back to the drivers backup that I made with DriverMax and find it.
5. Produkey: used this program to keep a record of all the product keys for the Microsoft products that are on my system, including Windows XP and Office. Made a printout of this info and saved it on the secondary partition for later use. I found that unlike some other similar programs, this one doesn’t make antivirus/antispyware programs act up and react adversely to it.
Installation: re-installed Windows XP on the re-formatted primary partition. Used the CD that came with my laptop to install all the proper drivers without hitch. If you have drivers issues try to find the drivers you need on the internet and, if not 100% successful, use the ones from the DriverMax backup (#4 above). Once Windows was installed I did a Windows update (actually several, since it kept doing partial updates and restarting), then installed the Microsoft .NET framework and the latest Java RTE).
Post installation: now the fun begins.
6. PC Decrapifier: if you install Windows from a CD image disk provided with your computer then it is highly likely that it comes pre-loaded with all manner of junk software that the computer maker wants to foist on you. PC Decrapifier will batch-uninstall many of these for you; be careful, however, to check the list so as not to uninstall something you might want something you actually want.
7. DriveImage XML: used this program to create an image of my freshly clean installed hard drive. (A hard drive image is a backup of the drive as-is with everything in it; performing such a backup means that I can quickly revert to my clean install of Windows in the future simply by restoring the image). There’s a number of reasons why I like this program (a) it can split the image file into several files, allowing you to save an image that is larger than 4 gigs onto a hard drive that uses the FAT filesystem rather than NTFS; it features ’Volume Locking’ which contributes towards ensuring that your created images are error free, and it is featured on boot CDs such as BartCD, which means I can boot into it and restore the primary partition.
8. Launchy: everybody needs a good launcher, and Launchy is my favorite. Pressing a hotkey will prompt a dialog to appear whereby you can type in the first few letters of the name of the program that you want in order to launch it. Launchy will index your start menu and program files folders by default so that it will know all the programs available on your computer (you can define other folders for it to index as well). If you would like alternatives to this one checkout Key Launch and the very powerful Keybreeze.
9. AVG Antivirus: the reason this is the my free antivirus of choice is (a) it is very light on the system’s resources, (b) it does a simply excellent job,and (c) it supports email scan, which is something that I need (and which is why I use AVG rather than the excellent AntiVir). Secondary choice: Antivir. Third choice: Avast.
10. Spyware Terminator: provides very good real-time protection against spyware/malware. For system scans it also integrates the open source ClamAV virus killer, which it also auto updates. Overall this program provides a very good free antispyware solution. Note that it will attempt to install a “Web Security Guard” toolbar in the setup which I typically disable (I do not like toolbars installed in my browser thank you very much).
11. Comodo Firewall: this is not only an excellent free firewall, this program is a PC Magazine Editor’s choice and is possibly the best personal firewall out there, free or paid. According to Matousec.com’s latest firewall ratings, Comodo gets the highest overall firewall score as well as the highest anti-leak protection (these results as of the date of this writing Oct 20, 2007). (Thanks go to reader DevZero for mentioning this in the comments section of my Comodo Firewall review).
12. TweakUI: this powerful Windows tweaking tool from Microsoft is one of the best out there, IMHO. In general I do not like to have any of my data stored in the primary (C:) partition, and I use this program to switch many of Windows’ special folders (i.e. My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, My Favorites, and the Desktop itself) from their default locations to a new location on the secondary partition. Having no data on the primary partition means that I can create images of my hard drive with DriveImage XML (#7 above) and restore them at will at any point without having to worry about lost data. Later I will also change the default data storage locations for all programs that I use so that they are on the secondary partition as well. More interesting tweaks that TweakUI does that I should mention: customizing the placesbar in the windows open/save dialog and increasing the number of folder customizations that Windows would remember.
13. OpenOffice: a world class office productivity suite and Microsoft Office replacement. OpenOffice can read and write MS Office 2003 documents in DOC (Word 2003) ,PPT (Powerpoint 2003) and XLS (Excel 2003) formats, and can also output documents in PDF format. Note that some MS Office documents that employ VBA Macro scripts may not be fully compatible with OpenOffice. (Ok, I have a confession to make: I actually install MS Office 2003 and 2007 both on my machine rather than OpenOffice, because (a) I need to use Outlook for work, (b) because most of my Excel work is done with VBA script, and (c) the licenses are paid for by my work). For the average user and for the purposes of this article, however, OpenOffice would be my free productivity suite of choice.
14. Forcevision Image Viewer: this is a very competent and straightforward free image viewer. Image viewing programs tend to be either (a) simple lightweight programs with few features but get the basic job done, (b) mid-level image viewers that have a good range of image editing options and features, some of which can do image format conversions (c) larger programs that have a comprehensive set of features and are typically extendible by plugins, and typically include the ability to read/write all manner of image formats including obscure ones. And although I know many people swear by Irfranview and Xnview, which would belong to category (c) in this case, for myself I prefer a mid-level program that I find can handle 99% of my image viewing needs, and Forcevision is the one I use. (Another good alternative: Faststone Image Viewer).
15. JZip: my current compression/zip utility of choice. Based on the 7 Zip open source archiver, JZip Can handle a good number of formats, has excellent compression ratio and speed as well as context menu integration. Other options that are good in this category are TugZip, IZArc, and ALzip (this last one might come as a surprise to some readers, but I actually used the new beta version for a few months and liked it).
16. CDBurnerXP 4: is the free program I use to burn CDs and DVDs; it is a full featured CD/DVD burning program that can burn audio CDs, copy CDs/DVDs, burn/convert ISOs images, and handle a large variety of formats (including Double layer DVDs, Blu-Ray and HD-DVDs). My second program of choice would be InfraRecorder, which provides most of these functions as well.
17. JKDefrag GUI: this is the graphical user interface for JKDefrag a hard disk defragmentation program. There are 3 reasons why you should use this program (a) JKDefrag has recently been tested and found to be the best amongst x different defragmentation programs, free and paid, (b) it provides the option to install itself as a screen saver, which will kick-off the defragmentation process whenever your computer is idle and goes into screensaver mode, and (c) it is fast and delivers excellent performance (see this blog for an interesting comparison of free and commercial defraggers, where JKDefrag was deemed the best freeware defrag program)..
18. Folder Size: this free Windows Explorer extension provides a “Folder Size” column in Windows explorer’s ’Detail’ view that shows the size of both files and folders (Windows shows the size of files but not that of folders). My second choice for a for a free program that does this would be “Aurionix FileUsage“; the latter offers more columns but requires .NET and therefore much more resources than Folder Size does.
19. Pidgin: a fantastic IM client that supports multiple messaging protocols including AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, XMPP, ICQ, IRC, SILC, SIP/SIMPLE, Novell GroupWise, Lotus Sametime, Bonjour, Zephyr, MySpaceIM, Gadu-Gadu, and QQ. It enables you to access all of your instant messaging accounts for the above networks simultaneously in the same client. You can use it to communicate individually with other people or to create chat rooms where multiple people interact simultaneously. Pidgin has been improved continuously and it is my favorite IM client (they finally implemented minimizing to tray which was inexplicably lacking forever). My second choice in this category: Miranda IM, which also has matured greatly, or try Meebo, which performs this function but is a web service that you can use from anywhere rather than a program that you install locally.
20. Google Toolbar: this is the only toolbar that I install. Google Toolbar provides a quick searchbox your browser’s toolbar, but it also provides the ability to fill simple forms, quickly translate pages, and spell check your text that you enter in internet forms. See this posting for a description of how to do that.
21. CCleaner: a fantastic hard drive cleaner that can rid your system of temp files, internet traces such as your surfing history, cookies, logfiles, cached files and other unused files from your computer. Installer comes with Yahoo toolbar included, so be careful to uncheck that during the installation process so it doesn’t install on your computer. Also includes a registry cleaner.
22. Shock Sticker: a really nice desktop ’sticky notes’ program that provides rich text editing and minimizing notes to floating icon (which is why I like it). This is my favortie desktop notes program, although Stickies, another similar program, is also extremely good and has more features.
23. FolderICO: I really like to differentiate my folders with different colors and/or icons. FolderICO installs an entry into the Windows context menu that does this, but it also saves the changed icons within the folders such that the changed icon is preserved if, say, the folder is accessed on a network from another computer from a different operating system (or after a Windows re-install).
24. BeCyIconGrabber: if you work with icons you will love this one. It enables you not just to extract icon resources from files, but to do the opposite (save individual icons into libraries) which most like-programs do not. Very cool.
25. Alpass: an excellent password manager (for Internet Explorer only) that can store, encrypt, and fill in passwords and logins into forms for you. For another excellent program that performs a similar function check out Keepass.
26. Picasa: an excellent program from Google that can help manage your picture libraries as well as share/upload them online. Provides many picture enhancement functions, and is also a very nice viewer to boot.
27. Faststone Capture: a really powerful image capture program that is extremely easy to use and has a built in editor for adding annotations and image manipulations. Unfortunately this program has recently become shareware but you can still download and use the last freeware version (5.3). Check out Screenshot Captor for another excellent screenshot capture program. If you know another excellent screenshot capture program please mention it in the comments (I’d like to try something new).
28. GOM Media Player: a fantastic player that plays DVDs as well as video formats, including Real Media, Quicktime, DivX, Xvid and FLV. Whats is really nice about this program is that it is self-contained and uses all internal codecs (meaning that in most cases it will not install codecs on your system). If, however, it encounters a video file that it cannot play it will automatically download it for you.
I chose this one over my other favorite, VLC media player, because it handles FLV videos better (allows you to jump to the middle of an FLV video, which the current version of VLC does not). It also has a nicer look and feel, IMHO, esp. when playing DVDs.
Also check out CodecInstaller, an excellent program that can identify, download, and install the codecs needed to play any media file (regardless of the player you are using)
29. Quintessential Media Player: supports most audio formats. It is simultaneously (a) a very nice player, (b) a competent tag editor, (c) a CD ripper with CDDB database support, and (d) and audio formats converter. Also features an equalizer, visualizations, and skins and is extendable through plugins. One of the nicer abilities is autotagging, which it does through digital thumbprinting and CDDB. (Note: album art is supported through a plugin, or use the cool CD Art Display).
Mediamonkey is another excellent program that also provides CD ripping, mp3 tag management, downloading of album art, audio format conversion, visualizations, skins, and equalizer, etc. Mediamonkey is vastly extendible though plugins and has a large community following.
30. MP3Tag: a fantastic MP3 tag/metadata manager that can download album art from Amazon and save it into the audio file itself. I’ve used a number of similar programs but like this one most because of it’s straightforward interface and user experience. Try The Godfather for another free alternative (note that the audio players mentioned in #29 above also provide MP3 tag management, which might be sufficient for most people’s needs).
31. MusicBrainz Picard: use this program if your audio files have incomplete and or missing tags. Picard uses sophisticated digital fingerprinting to compare audio files to the community-created MusicBrainz database. It employs a different technology than Quintessential Media Player (#29 above) and can in the most cases auto-tag audio files that have no tags whatever.
32. Exact Audio Copy: an audio CD ripper that reads audio CDs “almost perfectly” (i.e. produces very high quality MP3s), connects to CDDB/Freedb to get track information, and supports a handful of audio file formats. Another favorite of mine that does the same thing is BonkEnc. (Note that the audio players mentioned in #29 above also provide competent audio CD ripping). If you are looking for an excellent audio file converter try Any Audio Converter which supports most audio formats as well as FLV and can demux audio from video files.
33. MP3gain: this program can analyze a group of MP3s and determine the average volume for each, and then raise and/or lower the volume of the files in order to “normalize” them (such that volume differences that might occur when one song transitions to another largely disappear). The cool thing is that it does this without re-encoding the files and its intervention is reversible. Another program that has this same function: MP3Trim.
34. Unlocker: this small memory resident program will pop-up whenever you encounter a file that is locked by a process or another program which prevents you from deleting or moving it. Once you install and use this you will start to consider it a must have program. (Also see this related post).
35. Orbit Downloader: is an excellent download manager that has the unique ability to download streaming media (audio and video, as well as flash SWF) from video sharing and other sites. Another excellent download manager: FlashGet.
36. WinSCP: if you need an FTP client WinSCP is an excellent program that supports FTP and SFTP (as well as the legacy SCP), allows for secure transfers, and features dual pane file-manager like functionalities (such as sorting and comparing directories). It also allows for session saving (i.e. a bookmarking functionality), with the option to create entries in the Windows’ send-to menu for uploading files straight from Windows.
FileZilla is another competent, free program that is constantly improving and supports FTP, SFTP, and FTPS. If you want a very nice program that integrates FTP support into explorer through the Windows’ right-click context menu check out RightLoad.
37. Local Website Archive: is a program that saves individual webpages locally on your hard drive, including pictures and formatting, and allows for later viewing even if offline. What’s cool about this one is that it saves websites in the original HTML format and therefore allows you to reference the local URL of the saved webpage in your notes program or other applications. Another alternative that I used for a long time until I found Local Website Archive: Evernote.
38. Flashnote: a quick and handy scratch-pad that pops-up when you press a hotkey and disappears back into the background again when you minimize it (or press the hotkey again). You can store multiple notes in it and quickly retrieve them when needed (its not a full-fledged notes program, but nonetheless has become a must install on my machine).
39. Revo Uninstaller: my uninstaller of choice, Revo Uninstaller will uninstall a program and then look for any files and/or registry entries that were left behind by the program’s uninstaller (and does a beautiful job at that). Be carful to look at the entries that it identifies for deletion post-uninstall, as it will sometimes list registry entries and/or files that should not be removed. Revo also provides a slew of other tools such as a startup manager and hard drive cleaner.
Another nice uninstaller which I used previously is ZSoft Uninstaller; this one will not uninstall programs as thoroughly as Revo does, but on the other hand will not erroneously remove registry entries or files that should be left alone.
40. BitTyrant: this is the free torrent client that I’ve been using for some time. What it is is a modified version of Azureus that, controversially, picks and chooses peers to allocate bandwidth to such that those who are providing more bandwidth for downloaded files receive more of your own bandwidth (which is why it is sometimes called the ’selfish’ bittorent client). It is claimed that this can result in up to 70% faster downloads, but the reason this is controversial is that peers with lower connection speeds or are not sharing files may be overlooked by this program (read more about it here). Other excellent free torrent clients: uTorrent, Azureus.
41. Starter: a small, no-install program which does a fantastic job managing the programs that start with Windows. (I’ve tried many, and this is the one I like the most). Note that Revo Uninstaller (#39 above) provides a built in startup programs manager as well.
42. Send To Toys: use this program to add any folder to the explorer “send to” menu, which allows you to quickly copy or move any file to your favorite or most used folders.
43. Returnil: a system virtualization program that allows you to surf dangerous sites and/or install and test software or implement any desired changes then restart your system to get it back to the state it was before said changes.
44. SysTrayMeter: a small program that shows your processor usage and free memory in the system tray. Invaluable if you like to keep an eye on your available resources, and very useful in troubleshooting a problematic or slow system.
45. SweepRAM: a tiny, no-install RAM optimizer that frees system RAM by allowing applications all the RAM that they need, but no more (i.e. does not deprive programs from RAM). Use it to free RAM whenever your available memory plummets and/or your system becomes sluggish.
46. VSO Image Resizer: installs an entry in the Windows right-click context menu that enables image resizing and format conversions on-the-fly. One of the nicer things about this software is the ability to create custom image profiles that you can save in order to access them quickly at any later point. Another program which I also used for a long time: Easy Thumbnails.
47. Photoscape: is an all-in-one image management and manipulation suite that includes an image editor, a screen capture program, image formats conversions, an image viewer, GIF animation editor, mass image renamer, page creator, as well as a handful of other functions. While it does most of these functions competently, what I like about this program is its ability to combine and/or overlay images and easily add annotations. If you have to use a lot of images in presentations (as I do for work) you will find this program a great help.
48. PDF-XChange Viewer: a very nice PDF reader that allows for form filling as well as annotation and adding notes. The only thing I would change about this program is the icon it displays for PDF files (but that can be done with a program like Icon Phile).
50. HobComment: this will add a “file/folder comments” in Windows details view, and a right-click “add comment” extension in Windows explorer (the latter only for NTFS partitions). The end result is a very easy way to add comments to files and folders that can be displayed in the Windows details view.
51. I.Mage: I use this image editing program as a replacement to Windows’ “Paint” program; it’s simple and straightforward and sufficient for my occasional image manipulation needs. If you need a more powerful Photoshop-replacement freeware bitmap editor try Gimpshop or Paint.net (both excellent programs).
52. Flashfolder: an explorer extension that adds user-defined favorites folders (and recent folders) to Windows’ open/save dialogs. A favorite of mine that I always have on my machine.
53. JOCR: can snap any area of the screen (or simply load an image) and provide instant (and excellent) optical character recognition. This one might be a little out of place for an article that advocates using only free software because it needs a library installed with MS Office, whereas I list OpenOffice (#13 above) as the MS Office alternative. Still, I use this program a lot and find it to be a must-install, which is why I decided to list it.
Create Disk Image: now that I have my system decked out with all the software that I use, I create another image with DriveImage XML so that I have 2 images; one that contains Windows XP clean installed with drivers, and one with all the software that I use. Should I need to for any reason I can quickly and easily revet back to any one of these setups.