by Lee Mathews
Our regular readers can probably rattle off a list of their 20 favorite apps without breaking a sweat — as the comments on this post will no doubt prove. But for our less in-the-know friends, family, and co-workers, it can be challenging to figure out where to download high quality programs that actually do what they need them to do.
We’ve put together an assortment that will help you hit the ground running with your new Windows PC. If you’ve got your own suggestions to add, feel free to post them in the comments.
Now let’s take the jump and check out the apps!
Antivirus and antimalware
It’s always best to get your protection in place before you do anything else. Microsoft’s Security Essentials is an exceptionally good program and provides excellent, always-on defense against all kinds of malicious software. Version 2.0 is even better than the original, and it’s ready for download onto your shiny new system.
For added protection, we also like to keep Malwarebytes on hand. It’s a dependable program for times when we want to perform a more intensive checkup on our system and has proven itself to be a malware-removing powerhouse.
Download Microsoft Security Essentials
Download Malwarebytes (from Filehippo)
Backup and sync
With security out of the way, it’s time to look at protecting your future data. By setting up a good quality backup or sync app (or both), you can ensure that you’re never going to lose those precious photos or important scholarly articles you saved in your Documents folder. SugarSync gets the nod for sync services, thanks to its 5GB of free space (more than double what most providers give for free) — and mobile apps for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry.
For straight-up backup duties, Mozy is tough to beat. A free account gets you 2GB of backup space, and a paid account will only run you $4.95 per month for unlimited storage. Mozy can also simultaneously backup to an external hard drive, giving you a second layer of disaster preparedness.
We certainly recommend installing an alternative Web browser, but because Google Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all have unique features, it’s very hard to pick a ‘best’ browser. All three browsers are fast, secure, customizable, and offer synchronization — which is very useful if you browse on more than one computer. Spend some time seeing what makes each one special, or download ‘em all and go for a few test drives. You can always uninstall them later!
If you’re the adventurous type and you like Internet Explorer just fine, you may even want to download the Internet Explorer 9 beta version. It’s not fully complete, but it’s a big improvement over its predecessors.
Download Google Chrome
Watching, converting, and burning videos
For viewing just about any kind of video file, VLC is ready to rock. From MP4 to AVI to VOB, it plays them all — and without making you hunt for codecs (which is especially handy if you’re not sure what a codec is in the first place). When it comes time to burn those videos to a disc or make them play nice with your new smartphone, Freemake Video Converter is up to the task. It’ll even burn your videos to a DVD or Blu-ray disc.
Download Freemake Video Converter
Listening to, transferring, and buying music
Just about everyone who’s touched a keyboard knows about iTunes. It’s a good enough program, but you have other options available. DoubleTwist is a very good alternative, and it can even synchronize songs to your iPhone, iPod, or iPad — something most other apps can’t do. It’s also got built-in access to the Amazon MP3 Store, which offers very good pricing on music downloads — as long as you’re in the U.S. and U.K.
If you don’t own an Apple device, Songbird is another nice choice. One big reason to consider Songbird is that it integrates 7digital for music purchases — and 7digital is available darn near everywhere.
Communication and instant messaging/chat
Skype now handles a mind-boggling number of voice and video calls every single day, and it’s one of the best programs around at adapting to your Internet connection’s speed. That’s important when you’re trying to make sure the person on the other end isn’t seeing a pixelated version of you which stutters and freezes constantly.
As for instant messaging, we’ve got two picks. Windows Live Messenger is a good way to go if you’re primarily going to chat with Windows Live contacts (obviously) and Facebook friends. For those of you who really need to chat with friends on ICQ, Yahoo, Google, Live, and ICQ all at once, do yourself a favor and check out Pidgin. It’s a much better idea than installing three or four different chat apps.
Download Windows Live Messenger 2011
Photo management, editing, and sharing
Both Microsoft and Google make terrific photo apps for home users. Picasa and Live Photo Gallery offer plenty of quick-fix tools for adjusting colors, removing redeye, cropping, and otherwise tweaking your pics. Both programs make it easy to generate slideshows for sharing online or on disc. Photo Gallery also works well with Facebook and Flickr — so it’s a better choice if you plan on posting a lot of photos to either site. It also comes bundled with Movie Maker, which is a nice way to bundle your pictures and videos.
Download Windows Live Photo Gallery / Movie Maker 2011
At this stage in the game, Steam is a must-have application (or at least very, very nearly one). There are so many good games available in their extensive catalog that everyone can find something enjoyable to purchase and play. From first person shooters to racing sims to addictive (and typically cheap!) casual games, Steam has become a bit like the iTunes for games.
Office and student work
If you plan on getting productive with your new computer — and you probably will at some point in the new year — you may as well install the apps you’ll need now. For general note-taking and research, Evernote is a champion and it’s made even better by the availability of mobile apps for virtually all smartphones.
For straight-up word processing and spreadsheet chores, both OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony offer Microsoft Office-like functionality for free. They’re not 100% Office compatible, though, so if you’re worried about documents formatting properly you may want to check into Microsoft’s free Office Web Apps. They run in your browser, so you won’t even need to install anything extra — all you need is a Facebook account!
Download Lotus Symphony (from Softpedia)
Visit Microsoft Office Web Apps
The more Web sites you sign up for, the more important a good password manager becomes. KeePass is easy to learn, can store everything you throw at it, and it will even generate hard-to-crack passwords which you can use to replace your current ones. All you’ve got to do is remember the master password to open your KeePass vault, and you’re good to go!
Unzipping, extracting and managing file archives
7-Zip is the name to know. Unlike the more well-known WinZip and WinRAR, 7-Zip is completely free and will never nag you about how many files you’ve opened with it or why you should buy a copy. Using 7-Zip is dead simple: just click any compressed file you download and choose the 7-Zip menu from the pop-up, and then extract your files.
Download 7-Zip for 64-bit or 32-bit Windows
Tune-ups and Maintenance
Windows 7 doesn’t really need to be defragmented, and any new system you buy at this point will be running the OS. A ‘tidy up’ tool like CCleaner is a better choice. It provides an easy way to remove temporary files that are eating up valuable drive space, and cleans your registry. Run it regularly to keep your system spic-and-span, and don’t forget to add CCleaner Enhancer to clean out files from more than 200 additional programs.
Present photo by flickr user paulidin