A dozen free & essential apps for Windows

A dozen free & essential apps for Windows

Summary: Every time I build a new Windows computer, there are a dozen free and essential applications that I always install for other people. These applications all seem to fill essential functions and they all seem to be well-behaved installers and uninstallers, in other words it won't crash your computer or drag it down with gunk.


Every time I build a new Windows computer, there are a dozen free and essential applications that I always install for other people. These applications all seem to fill essential functions and they all seem to be well-behaved installers and uninstallers, in other words it won't crash your computer or drag it down with gunk. Since they've served me so well, I thought I'd compile the list here and share them with you. Without spending a dime of your hard earned money on software, you can now make the most of your computer.

 Image Gallery: I've created a gallery of screen shots of these 12 free Windows tools.  Gallery: Free and essential Windows apps Gallery: Free and essential Windows apps 

uTorrent - This is the BitTorrent client that is a must have for anyone who wants an effective file sharing application that allows you to download large files. It was developed by a lone old-school programmer Ludvig Strigeus who wrote a BitTorrent client in a few hundred kilobytes (yes, that's not a typo) which is a real pleasant surprise in this age of bloated Java applications with 100 MB memory footprints. It was bought out by BitTorrent Corporation which raised some concerns among the user base but the client has retained all of its functionality and the new owners have done a good job of maintaining it.

Skype - This is another killer-app for the modern personal computer. If you haven't already heard of it and installed it, go get it. It's the first and one of the few VoIP applications on the market that "just works". Couple it with a good analog microphone or something like the Polycom Communicator and you will be able to send superb wideband audio which is amazing compared to the normal narrow band audio you get on a telephone. If you add Whiteboard Meeting which has a free limited version, you now have a mission critical business collaboration application.

Add a Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000, Quickcam Pro for Notebooks, or Quickcam Orbit AF for as little at $80 for the first two models and you have yourself a very high-quality 640x480 video conferencing solution. Skype's HQ (High Quality) video conferencing is something you just have to see to believe. The only downside to the HQ mode is that Skype does not support IEEE 1394 camcorders so you have to buy those Logitech webcams if you want the HQ mode. The camcorder supporter would have allowed much longer zoom for use in the living room but unfortunately they don't have that feature yet. Also note that you need a minimal of 384 kbps uploads to maintain HQ mode.

<Next page>

Paint.NET - This is just a nice free replacement for Windows Paint. It requires .Net Framework 2.0 but that's included in Windows Vista. For a managed programming language, it's not that bloated and loads relatively quickly. I would love to see RAW image file support along with Lanczos3 image resizing algorithm but these aren't supported. That softens my enthusiasm for Paint.NET but it's still a simple image editing application that is very useful.

Infra recorder - If you don't have a Nero (OEM or retail) for your CD or DVD burner or some other burner application, Infra recorder is a good free alternative. Not only that, it's a lot less bloated and it has a small memory foot print. While Nero has some great functionality, it comes with too many applications and extra features that gunk up the system though you don't have to install all those features. It won't let you do simultaneous DVD or CD burning or other advanced things that Nero lets you do, but it does what it does well and it's a lot better than what comes with Windows XP or Vista.

Dr. Divx - For anyone who wants to take their movies on the go or backup their DVDs to a smaller format, this is an excellent free solution. Unlike the commercial Divx encoder (which I bought and can't use), Dr. Divx actually works in Windows Vista. A really cool feature is the ability to handle .dvr-ms files including HD footage from HDV cameras as input. The Divx output can be played in something like this $40 up-converting Philips DVD player on your TV set or it can be played back on any computer. The down side to Dr. Divx is that it is single threaded which means it can't take advantage of both CPU cores nor can it take advantage of SSE4 on the new Intel 45nm processors which can have a huge impact on performance. Hopefully this will be addressed in future versions. For now I'm just happy that I finally found something to encode my .dvr-ms HD content. Note that you do need to download and install the Divx codec for Dr. Divx to work.

FastStone Photo Resizer - This is an absolute killer application for anyone who deals with images. It can batch resize, rename, and convert images of all formats and sizes. Unlike Paint.NET it does support Lanczos3 image resizing which is a superior algorithm for maintaining as much image fidelity as possible. It installs simply and operates quickly. If you've ever taken a load of 2 to 4 MB digital images and you need to distribute them via email or web, you don't want to spend hours uploading and making your family and friends mad when you make them wait for 100 MB of downloads. FastStone is the perfect mate for digital photographers and bloggers. The only criticism I have is that it doesn't support RAW files as an image source.

<Next page>

K-Lite Mega Codec pack - If you (or someone else you know) are the kind of person who likes to download videos (especially from questionable sources promising adult content) and you don't want to end up with malware, K-Lite Mega Codec pack plus QuickTime Alternative is for you. This is CRITICAL security advice that everyone needs to know about. If you can't play whatever you downloaded with K-Lite's included codecs and QuickTime Alternative, then trust me, DELETE that file immediately and DO NOT run it. Malware pushers will give you these video files which need special video codecs to play, or so they claim. You download those special codecs and install them and I can assure you that it is no longer your computer.

IZArc - As good as the built in CAB and ZIP utility is in Windows XP and Vista, it isn't enough because you need compatibility with all the other compression formats out there. IZArc will open any compression format under the sun and it's free unlike a lot of other utilities on the Internet. Get it, install it, and never worry about some compression format again. If you download something from BitTorrent that claims to be some special compression format and you need another one of those special utilities to open it, the safe bet is to delete that file because there is a good chance that the utility to decompress the file is malware. Don't fall for it!

CCleaner - CCleaner stands for Crap Cleaner. It is a great registry cleaner and temp file cleaner (note that the built-in disk cleanup utility in Windows XP or Vista will also do a lot of this). I've used this application to clear out gigabytes of trash on PCs. It also has an excellent uninstaller and you'd be surprised to see how much junk you can find with it. One note of caution, it does come bundled with web toolbars so be sure you uncheck it if you don't want it.

Autoruns - Autoruns is an essential tool from Sysinternals (now owned by Microsoft) in the war against crapware. See How to fully de-gunk crapware (experts only, don't try it unless you know how to recover Windows).

Process Explorer - Process Explorer is another essential tool from Sysinternals for diagnosing computer problems and finding potential malware on your computer. It shows you exactly what's going on in your computer in an easy to read tree view.

AVG Antivirus Free Edition - Most people who have read my blogs in the past know that I am not a fan of anti-virus. To me the only good anti-virus application is no anti-virus but I realize that most consumers need some kind of protection from the hostile Internet and often themselves. So a really nice compromise is AVG Antivirus Free Edition which has a really small footprint and doesn't slow your computer down to the point where your dual-core PC feels like an 80286 computer circa 1982. Best of all, it won't hold you hostage for another $80 to renew your annual anti-virus signature subscription since this is FREE. If you bought a new computer, be sure to remove all of the demo AV software first.

<Return to top>

Topics: CXO, Apps, Windows, Software, Security, Operating Systems, Microsoft, Hardware, Collaboration, Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Not a very wide appeal to these tools

    There are only 2 or 3 mentioned here that most people would find useful, but still worth mentioning none the less.
    • I agree

      I have Skype, and use Avast Anti Virus, and 7zip. The painting and codecs are not need for me. Avast is also free, you do have to register, but there is no adware/maleware.

      I have tried AVG, and personally I did not like it. I also tried Avira which is good, but when it updates you get one pop-up selling their own stuff. It also interferes with games like Oblivion because when it updates it has to be in front.

      Avast updates it the background. You will see a pop-up, but it has not interfered with my gamming.

      PS Please excuse all my bad grammer/spelling. :)
      • Another vote for Avast Anti Virus!

        Avast Anti Virus just plain works. It's small and fast. I got McAfee free from Comcast and it was slowing down my computer to the point where it was unusable.
        • Avast vs AVG

          I tried Avast before switching to AVG. This was a couple of years ago, but I had problems getting Avast to update properly. AVG also "just works" for me. As always, YMMV.
          big red one
          • Avast vs AVG

            I run both, Avast always and avg in the background. One catches what the other doesn't, because neither catches everything.
          • Actually thats not a very good thing to do

            Anti-virus software always carries a risk in that it goes deep into your software installation. Two anti-viruses running simultaneously may cause software conflicts, may delete files that you quarantined in order to check later, and cause system instability, not to mention that antiviruses are also security risks in some ways. Two anti-viruses may actually cause more trouble. The best thing for a Windows user to do is to keep on the default UAC in Vista, follow safe practices and be security minded. An anti-virus is the very last line of defense and totally secondary to a knowledgeable user as a security tool. Use one good anti-virus, that should be enough.
            I have also, in my experience, seen that many of the files caught by a second anti-virus are actually false positives.
          • Vista? Still on XP!!!

            For those of us smart enough to still be on XP, AVG Free works just as well...Actually, better! than Noon, McAfee AND CA AV programs!

            Maybe I'll go to Win 7 when its been 'in-the-wild' (i.e., user debugged for M$) for a few months; but I digress!

            I've been using AVG Free for almost a year on several computers and haven't had anywhere near the kinds of problems (i.e., updates that COULDN'T INSTALL; endless warnings with directions on how to fix he problem which DID NOTHING as the same error message kept popping back up weekly; etc.).

          • AVG crosses the line, sticking with Avast

            I used the free version of AVG for awhile, then noticed one day that it was DELETING (not putting in quarantine) files without any prompting--files that I knew for a fact were false positives. I don't care how good the rest of the software may or may not be, this behavior alone makes it an unacceptable solution for anyone to be using, period.
            The "full hard drive scan every day at 8am and there's nothing you can do to change it without buying the full version" behavior also made my computers very sluggish during the scan.

            Avast, on the other hand, actually prompts the user how to proceed when it encounters something it doesn't like, and I've never had an issue with it slowing things down.
          • Sounds like configuration issues

            I've run AVG since it came out and never had problems with it. As a matter of fact, I use the network version at my church because it is a cost effective solution. At the church, I allow it to run the daily scan, but at home I have the daily scan shut off. You can configure this in the schedular.

            As far as deleting, I believe it will only do this at the users prompting. Here is a quote from the user manual, "Once an infected object is detected during scanning, and AVG Free is not able to heal it automatically, you are asked to decide what to do with the suspect object. The recommended solution is to move the object to the AVG Virus Vault for further treatment.".
          • exactly - I agree

            I've had AVG for ten years. Some I paid for a two year license and some I didn't and got it free. Never had one problem except a virus which I was asked whether I wanted to put it in the vault - YES. It told me it was from an attempted video download. I think you can configure it to fix your complaints.
          • That is right.

            I have had this complaint once before, as I too have run AVG for years and prefer it as well. One customer came in on week one complaining he was being asked what to do every time something was detected. I told him to check his preferences, and a week later he complained it was deleting without quarantining. He, (as endusers are wont to do) clicked without reading his checkboxes under detection preferences.
          • AVG Configuration options

            You mention the "network version" of AVG is a "cost effective solution," which means you're talking about a paid-for version of AVG, and NOT the free version.

            The free version's configuration menus are incredibly limited, and I can assure everyone here offering suggestions about configuration that I never went in and changed any preferences to automatically delete files without prompting, which either means this behavior is turned on by default and/or something that can only be changed in the paid-for version (which is scary!). I'm the type of person who will install programs (like firewalls, anti-malware, and antivirus) and then configure them in such a way to INCREASE the number of prompts to the user, as I always want to have the final say in what happens on my computer, and I don't recall seeing much of anything in the free AVG to allow me to make that happen.

            I don't remember if there was an option to disable the daily scan or not, but I distinctly remember that if the scheduled scan is going to run, there is NO option to change how much of the computer is scanned (it has to be the whole hard drive), and NO option to change the time at which the scan runs (it must be 8am).

            Sure, there's always the old adage "you get what you pay for," as many of the options are marked as things you can't change in the free version, but the Home version of Avast behaves the way it should right after a default installation, for free.
          • Schedule complete test ANY time

            You're right, that you must run a 'complete' test, but there is an option to edit the schedule to run this complete test at ANY time you choose.
          • AVG vs Avast

            Not having used Avast long enough to evaluate it I cannot give my opinion or which is better than the other, but the comments about the free version of AVG from mrh829... were so far off the mark that I just had to respond!
            AVG will only delete files automatically if you have configured it to do so. There is an option within the Control Centre that allows you to chose whether to be prompted or to carry this action out automatically and as for the daily scan occuring at 8am every day, that option is also something that can be easily altered with the Control Center as well.
            I think that mrh829 should really think again and really evaluate AVG. I have used it for going on 12 years and had one infection in that time, which was due to my turning it off to carry out some maintenance. I run my own PC Solutions business and I also a Lecturer within my local college and I recommend AVG (Free and the paid for version)to all of my clients and students.
            Keep up teh good work AVG!
          • AVG automatic delete

            quote from len.prosper:
            "AVG will only delete files automatically if you have configured it to do so. There is an option within the Control Centre that allows you to chose whether to be prompted or to carry this action out automatically..."

            Where is this option?

            Everyone seems to think I'm out of line for making these comments, so I have installed the free version of AVG on a virtual machine, version 7.5.516

            As for the scheduling part, I have found the option to change the time, so I concede that argument. However, I note that AVG gives you an option of whether or not to enable the scheduled scan when installing--would it be so difficult for it to just ask when it should be scheduled rather than requiring a manual change later?

            For the automatic deletion, I still do not see anything in the Control center where I can specify prompt or delete behavior. The closest thing I can see is on the "Test Center" page, under Tests->Complete Test Settings. Scanning parameters say "Scan files without interruption" and "Automatically heal infected files."

            Is automatic healing what is making AVG delete files it cannot heal? If it is, that's bad. And, if it is, these are the default settings, NOT something that has to be user-enabled to make the software automatically act without prompting.

            As a side note, installing this again reminded me of another annoyance--when it updates, it opens windows and brings them into focus...something that's really quite irritating if you're in the middle of typing an email or something. Is there any way to make the updater a little more silent (or perhaps just give a system tray notification upon completion, like Avast)?
      • I agree too

        What has been listed here are no-doubt useful utilities, but by no means essential. The title could have been otherwise.
        Arun (sreearun)
    • But which 2 or 3

      I'm betting you'd get a different 2 or 3 depending on who you asked.
      • Well, almost all of them are essential to me

        K-Lite, IZArc, Skype, uTorrent, infrarecorder, Sysinternals stuff, FastStone resizer, and everything else.
    • Hear hear

      - I use Process Explorer because I got hooked on it before M$ acquired SysInternals. It's still a nice utility despite that drawback, as are others from them.
      - But this list isn't even on the radar as "essential" for the most part. Registry Cleaner? I use regedit and do it manually; as if I'd trust someone else's idea of what's trashable in my Registry! Codec set? I have ZoneAlarm set to deny internet connection for any and all media players, which is as is should be. If I need a codec or want to play some file I'll get it manually, thank you, and bypass the automatic infections. For simple picture tweaks and image conversions I've been using XNView for years and years - it won't actually edit pixels but it crops, resizes (in batch), changes formats, and does color corrections on literally hundreds of formats. Autoruns are managed from the Registry as well; it's so simple using a "tool" for that seems like a waste of download time.
      - And TweakUI is missing. How can one even boot winbloze without that? (wry grin) It's the very first thing I load on any M$ system. Period.
      • I guess you have no need for a good video codec can-opener.

        Most of us do need it.