The Best Free Software

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The easiest thing you can do to become a power user is to use better software. With the best programs, you can greatly leverage your computing effectiveness. Whether it be internet browsing, email, media, office work, or practically anything else; you can significantly improve your computer experience simply by using the best software. I’ve found that most people don’t use the top programs, mainly because they don’t know about them and are happy enough with the default software. Hopefully, this article will help people to become more powerful computer users by showing them greener pastures. All of the programs listed below are free, and many are open source. Generally, free and open source software is better because it often has more users and because anyone can look at the source code and improve it.

My list of top software is based on a Windows operating system. Most of these programs can be downloaded from the excellent site, File Hippo.

Note: This list is actively kept up to date. Last updated: March 5, 2011.

Internet browser

Firefox (open source): The ever popular browser. Firefox Add-ons allow you to do some incredible stuff.

Google Chrome (open source): A simple and very fast browser built to run the next generation of web applications. Now that Chrome has extensions, I’ve made the switch from Firefox.


Gmail [Must have!]: No contest. If you aren’t using Gmail yet, stop reading this and go create an account. Incredibly powerful, fast, and featured. You have to try it to understand how good it is.


Gmail: Another reason to get Gmail is that you can chat with your Gmail contacts right inside Gmail. You can also do voice or video chat right inside Gmail and even call landlines.

Pidgin (open source): A popular chat client that can handle any type of account.

Media player

Winamp or other strong contenders: see this LifeHacker article on all the good media players out there.

Media Player Classic (open source): A very simple and light media player which can handle almost any file type.

VLC Media Player (open source): Similar to Media Player Classic, but with many powerful advanced features.

MusicBrainz Picard (open source): Not a music player—Picard finds metadata for your music using the excellent online MusicBrainz database.

Online tools

Google account [Must have!]: If you don’t like having a lot of different web accounts and sign-ins to deal with, a Google account is fantastic. (If you signed up for Gmail, then you already have one.) It comes packed with great services, which are seamlessly integrated with each other:

  • iGoogle: a start page that you can customize with loads of gadgets.
  • Gmail: if you don’t have it yet, go sign up now! I don’t know anybody who’s been less than astounded by it.
  • Docs: an outstanding online office suite that lets you share documents with others to collaborate on. Plus, it auto-saves your files as you work on them, so you’ll never lose your work. Now you can store and share up to 1 Gb of files.
  • Reader : a top-notch RSS reader.
  • Calendar: a very well-developed application. Excellent integration with Gmail for email reminders and adding events.
  • Tasks: a slick little task list built into Gmail. Great keyboard shortcuts.
  • Finance: track your portfolio and get stock quotes
  • Google+: a social network with some cool features like group video chat.
  • Picasa Web Albums: store and share your photos online. Integrates nicely with Picasa (mentioned below).
  • …and more! Google is continuously adding and improving services, so your Google account is constantly getting better.

Evernote: This incredible notebook program can even read the text within images, allowing you to search for text within images taken from your camera phone. Sign up for a free online account to sync your notes between your computer and your phone.

Dropbox: A great file syncing tool for accessing your files anywhere and sharing them with others.

PrintFriendly: Use before you print. Lets you remove stuff you don’t want to print, for neater and smaller printouts.


AutoHotkey (open source): A hotkey or macro program is a must have to save time through automation. AutoHotkey lets you program key combinations (e.g., Ctrl + 1) to automate anything (e.g., launch a program, or paste predefined text).

Vimium: A Google Chrome extension that lets you browse the web from the keyboard. Firefox users can try Pentadactyl (more advanced). Very nice for keyboard ninjas!


Launchy [Must have!] (open source): A small but powerful application launcher that unleashes the power of the keyboard to speed up program opening.

GridMove (open source): A window manager that lets you resize windows to custom sizes. Works great on widescreen and multiscreen displays: you can place two windows side by side (like Windows 7′s snap feature), or make any custom layout.


Picasa: Google’s photo/video management software. Great for importing and viewing your digital camera photos and videos, as well as uploading to Picasa Web Albums.

PDF viewer

Sumatra PDF (open source): A great alternative to—and in many ways an improvement over—Adobe Reader.

Office suite

Google Docs: An incredible online application for doing basic word processing, spreadsheets or presentations. Collaboration is a godsend for group work. Also see above entry.

LibreOffice (open source): the open source community’s office suite of choice (it has overtaken OpenOffice).

Text editor

Notepad ++ [Must have!] (open source): A notepad for power users. It has tabs! A must have replacement for the default Windows Notepad.

Graphics editor

Aviary: Amazing web app offering a powerful graphics suite (and an audio editor too!)

GIMP (open source): The open source alternative to Photoshop.

Paint.NET: Paint for power users. Formerly open source, now freeware.


7-Zip (open source): Great little program for all your compression needs. It does it all—zip, rar, gz, etc.

Peazip (open source): Another great archiving program, with some nice extra features.

BitTorrent client

uTorrent: The best Bittorrent client out there—light and fast.

Anti-virus / anti-spyware

Microsoft Security Essentials: An effective security solution. It’s free if you have genuine Windows.

Avast!: A solid and popular security solution.


CCleaner [Must have!]: A must have for keeping your PC running fast and smooth! Cleans out junk files and temporary files. Also has a registry cleaner and start up manager.


Auslogics Disk Defrag: Defrags and optimizes; a very nice program.

MyDefragGUI: Another good disk defragmenter, formerly open source. Defrags and optimizes.

Defraggler: A simple and popular defrag from the creators of CCleaner.

Password manager

LastPass [Must have!]: Awesome web-based password manager. Excellent security, anywhere access, and it integrates with your browser to autofill your web passwords.

KeePass (open source): Another good option for managing accounts and remembering strong passwords.


Mint [Must have!]: This amazing web service automatically fetches all your transactions (bank, credit card, stock trades) from your financial institutions, cutting out most of the work. Mint is very secure and has become very popular.

GnuCash (open source): Powerful accounting software with double entry bookkeeping.

Money Manager Ex (open source): A good free alternative to Microsoft Money or Quicken.

Xpenser:  A handy online expense tracking service. Submit expenses by text message, chat, email, or phone. Great for keeping a record of your spending.

CD/DVD burning

InfraRecorder (open source): Copy and burn CDs and DVDs.

ImgBurn: Copy and burn CDs and DVDs.

DVD authoring

DVD Flick (open source): Burns video files to DVD (so you can watch them on a TV).

Ripping and conversion

CDex (open source): A very good CD ripper.

DVD Shrink: In addition to ripping, this program can also compress dual layer 8GB DVDs to fit on a 4GB DVD±R.

Handbrake (open source): Great for ripping DVDs.

Super: An incredible little conversion program that converts between any audio or video file type.

FTP client

FileZilla (open source): A solid FTP client.

Website/Content management

WordPress (open source): Easy to set up and use, infinitely customizable with themes and plugins, and very well supported (it has a huge user base). It has been developed as a blogging software, but can easily be used for static content sites. (You can make it do anything with plugins.)

Google Apps: Lets you use Gmail as the mail server for email addresses from your own domain. (You can also use Gmail’s Mail Fetcher to send and receive mail from other email addresses.)


Lifehacker: Best Windows Downloads (Aug 2011)
Lifehacker: 50 Free Apps We’re Most Thankful For (Nov 2011)
PC Mag: The Best Free Software of 2011

Gizmo’s Freeware Reviews

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