Following is a list of recommended software that the average user will find invaluable. None of the programs listed require any technical expertise to use, and they all will give you some really nice added functionality. And the good news here is that all of these programs are absolutely free! Well, assuming you are using them for personal use, they're free......
If you use email much at all (which these days pretty much means everyone!), inevitably people are going to be sending you file attachments of all different types, and so having a good set of file viewers in order to be able to see these files is an absolute must. Here's a set of programs that will pretty much cover everything that you are going to need to "view".
IrfanView -- Probably the most popular category of files being exchanged is that of pictures and graphics -- jpegs, gifs, bmps, etc. This program handles virtually every type of graphics file that you will ever encounter, and easily let's you manipulate those files however you like -- zoom in, zoom out, cut/crop, special effects, print, and many, many more tools.
Acrobat Reader -- Another popular file type is "Acrobat" files, aka .PDF files. This has become somewhat of the de facto standard for exchanging document files. Not only are you liable to see these files showing up in your email, but you will also run across them at many web sites. This program allows you to read these files much like you would read a book.
WinAmp -- Although Windows comes with a built-in music player (Windows Media Player), many people find it cumbersome and inadequate for simply playing music. Although there are now tons of alternative music players available, WinAmp was the first really good alternative available, and even today remains as one of the best. If you want "new and cool", check with your resident teenager -- but if you want solid and reliable, this is the one to use.
VLC -- Video files are also becoming quite popular, and again the built-in Windows Media Player will also do a good job of playing videos. However, an alternative that you might want to look at for videos is VLC. It has a much cleaner interface, and tends to be more robust than WMP.
PPTViewer -- You'll need this program if anyone ever sends you a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, and you don't have PowerPoint installed on your computer. This will allow you to view presentation files, but obviously you won't be able to make changes to them -- for that you will have to obtain a copy of the full PowerPoint program.
Excel Viewer and Word Viewer -- Similar to PPTViewer, these programs simply allow you to view Microsoft Excel (.XLS) and Word (.DOC) files, in case you don't have one of those programs installed. Since Windows comes with WordPad, which can be used to view most Word files, the Word Viewer is rarely needed. However, many people don't have Excel installed -- and thus, in order to view Excel files, you'll need the Excel Viewer program.
Since Windows comes with Internet Explorer (IE) pre-installed and configured as your default Internet browser, most people seem to take it for granted that using IE exactly as it came on the computer is the only way to browse the Internet. And nothing could be further from the truth -- from day one, there have always been superior browser programs like Netscape, Mozilla, Firefox and Opera. All of these programs have always been way ahead of IE. If you are using IE, you are using an inferior browser.
Firefox -- This is the best browser to use, period. It's faster than all the others, more reliable, more secure, has more functionality, easier to use, and on and on. About the only downside is that some web pages are designed to work only with IE, so occasionally you will run on to a web site that does not display properly with Firefox. But even then you can install add-ons (see below) that will allow you to easily switch over to IE when you do encounter one of these aberrant web sites.
Firefox Add-ons -- One of the biggest advantages of Firefox is that there are tons of features that you can add to it by simply installing a particular "add-on". You should definitely explore all the available add-ons (click here), but here's a quick list of ones that you will definitely want to have:
One of the big downsides to using the Internet is that you potentially open up your computer to problems with viruses and ill-meaning hackers ("crackers"). For more info on this issue, see our notes here. But this doesn't have to be a major problem -- as there are several free programs that you can use to keep your computer quite safe and protected from all the mayhem out there.
AVG AntiVirus -- An antivirus program is a "must have" in this day and age, and fortunately there are a number of very good antivirus programs available, many of which are free for personal use. Of these, AVG is one of the best if not the best. It's simple to install and will automatically update it's virus definitions database on a timely basis. Highly recommended.
Zone Alarm -- This is what is called a "personal firewall program", and what it does is it basically keeps other people on the internet from accessing your computer. Note that firewalls and antivirus protection are two totally separate animals -- you need both. Unlike antivirus software, there aren't nearly as many options for firewall software, particularly free ones. Although past versions of Zone Alarm have been a bit unreliable, the current version seems to be quite stable. And although it's not a great firewall program, it's certainly good enough for the typical user.
Windows Defender -- This program protects you against spyware and other types of malware that tend to take over your computer and make browsing a nightmare. There are a lot of programs available to do this type of thing, but unfortunately none of them are all that good. Windows Defender, though, seems to be as good as any of them so you might as well use a free solution. The best way to avoid this crap though, as noted here, is simply (a) don't use Internet Explorer and (b) don't ever install any program that you are not 100% sure is legitimate. You follow those simple two rules and you don't need to ever worry about malware!
Working with Disk Files
Disk files are probably the least understood concept in the entire area of computers. This is not the place to go in to a discussion of how your file system works -- if you need help on file system basics, there's some good info here. But if you do have at least some grasp of the issue, here are some utility programs that you may find quite invaluable.
ZipCentral -- One of the most popular methods of distributing files is via "zip" files (so-called because they have a .ZIP extension). Using a zip file accomplishes two things -- it bundles up a whole bunch of small files in to one big file, and it also compresses the data so that the size of the one "big" file is less than the sum of the sizes of all the small files. This makes sending files back and forth a lot easier. When you get .ZIP files, you need some way to split up the big file in to it's components, and at the same time uncompress them. And that's exactly what ZipCentral does, all with an easy to use and understand interface.
xplorer²lite -- The program that comes with Windows that you use to manage all your disk files is Windows Explorer, and for the average user Windows Explorer is more than adequate. However, if you find yourself using it a lot you might want to take a look at xplorer² as a replacement. It's much more versatile and powerful.
TreeSize -- One of the most glaring omissions from Windows Explorer is a simple way to see just where all your disk space has gone. And that's where this handy little program comes in -- you can simply right-click on any drive icon or folder, select the "Tree Size" option, and it will total up the amount of disk space that is being used by folder and sub-folder. With a click you can sort that list in order by space used, and thus quickly see where the "disk hogs" are on your system.
Managing Your Computer
Your main tool for managing your computer is the Windows operating system itself -- but alas, for many tasks it is quite lacking. But that's where the following list of utilities comes in handy, making up for missing functionality in Windows itself.
Startup Inspector -- It seems like every program you install these days wants to always be running in the background, even when you aren't using it. Why this is is a long story, but if you do a [Ctrl+Alt+Del] right after starting your computer and look at the list of running processes, you will see exactly what we mean. Although a lot of what you see in that list are necessary tasks (like your antivirus program), many are superfluous and really do nothing but slow your system down and lead to potential instabilities. Startup Inspector for Windows allows you to see exactly what all is being started when you boot up your computer, and allows you to easily disable anything there that you don't think is necessary.
Belarc Advisor and Everest -- If you ever need to know exactly what all you have installed on your computer -- not only hardware like RAM, hard disks, graphic cards, modems, etc. but also software -- then these two programs are exactly what you need. You can generate a report that basically inventories for you everything that is on your computer.
FontViewer -- Windows comes with dozens of different fonts, and quite often various programs that you install will add even more fonts to your system. And whenever you want to get creative and use something other than one of the standard fonts, finding out just what fonts you do have and what they all look like can be perplexing. FontViewer makes that process easy -- you can type in an example of what you want to see, and it will list out that sample using every font that you have on your system.
Other Cool Stuff
Finally, here are some other free programs that you might want to look at!
PrintKey 2000 -- Taking "screenshots" -- a capture of exactly what you are seeing on the screen -- is an incredibly useful function to have, but alas it's a rather clumsy and convoluted process with the tools that Windows provides you. But this little utility makes screenshots a snap -- once installed, you simply press the [PrintScreen] key and you get a popup window from which you can outline what you want to capture, and then you can save it as an image file or simply print it. This is a must-have.
Picasa -- With the booming popularity of digital cameras there are now a ton of programs available which allow you to manage your picture collections. Indeed, every digital camera seems to come with yet another latest-and-greatest photo organizer. Well, ignore all those -- Picasa is THE best program for managing your digital photos, period. There's simply no argument here. If you do a lot of digital photography, get this program.