Free tools

Free software

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! 

 

Web browsing

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 Firefox
Download Google Chrome
Download Opera

 

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 VLC
Download Freemake Video Converter

 

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 Skype
Download Windows Live Messenger 2011
Download Pidgin

 

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 Picasa
Download Windows Live Photo Gallery / Movie Maker 2011

Download Picasa
Download Windows Live Photo Gallery / Movie Maker 2011

 

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 Evernote
Download Lotus Symphony (from Softpedia)
Download OpenOffice
Visit Microsoft Office Web Apps