The 7 Free Things You Must Have for a PC

So you've spent a fortune on your PC. You've probably spent a fortune too getting yourself properly licenced software. You've also realised that it's an expensive business owning a PC and there's so much more you can do with it to make things a bit safer for you, particularly if browsing the Internet or indeed for any other general utilities that might help you enjoy the whole computing experience.

Using my own knowledge and experience, I've put together seven essentials that you really should have, and if you haven't already downloaded them now would be the time to do so and get them all set up. You too can have the same feature set as me and not have to pay a single penny for them. They cover all sorts of usage for the PC as such but some of them are also available not just for Windows based PCs, so I'll try and highlight that where possible to make the experience a whole lot nicer. So without further ado, that top ten in full:

1 - Mozilla Firefox
(available for Windows, MacOS and Linux)
Nothing else could possibly be top spot for me, and if you're browsing the web, this really is the choice of the true user. In the early days when Firefox was first called Phoenix and then Firebird, it clearly showed the way forward for web browsing, to be clean, clutter free of useless icons and toolbars no one wants, and adding essential and useful features such as RSS support (try it on BBC News for example) and many things that even IE7 can only dream out implementing like as well, such as tabbed browsing, a simple and effective search bar at the top right, pop-up blocking, even in the newer versions detection for online scams is planned. It's fully customisable too, so you can have the browser looking the way you want rather than the other way around, and there's many many free add-ons which extend the functionality to the way you'd like it. In short, one of the very first things I install after the operating system, primarily because it is so useful.

2 - Mozilla Thunderbird
(available for Windows, MacOS and Linux)
What Firefox does for web browsing, Thunderbird does for e-mail. Again, the premise with their email client is to keep it simple for the average user but have that extended flexibility for the advanced user too. So as such you can have it up and running in minutes and then train it so well to deal with junk and spam mails, as well as being able to in newer releases check for those fake bank "phishing" scams that you read out too. In terms of sending and receiving emails, the layout from default is nice and simple for everyone, and allows you to do what you need to to quickly and easily. Add to that multiple account support, remote blocking of images and such like, and you're just on a winner. Who needs that pile of insecure rubbish that is Outlook Express?

3 - IrfanView
(available for Windows only)
It is a real shame that such an excellent picture viewer is only available for Windows, but suffice to say that it does a rather excellent job at being able to open and display pictures in whatever file format imaginable, including plugins for brand new raw digital camera formats such as Canon's CR2 (ever tried opening one? Not much fun is it?) and also having that rather nice function of showing off all your pictures in a slideshow quickly and easily. I've done many full screen slideshows of pictures from my digital camera this way without having to chuck them all in something like Powerpoint and do it that way, and in turn you can now also do some limited editing with the images should you wish to do so. And.. if you have a raw format you want to turn into a a nice universal standard JPEG image, you can do that too. It's so useful, you'll wonder if you work with images how you managed to live without it.

4 - OpenOffice
(available for Windows, MacOS and Linux)
So, don't like the direction Microsoft Office is taking? Well, I don't either. Office 2007 and its brand new incompatible file formats are just going to be the death knell of many people who want to use that product and don't realise what they're saving out, and it's just a bit too.. like it wants to do everything for you. Step forward and take a bow, OpenOffice. Just for Writer alone (which is actually better than MS Word in many respects) it would win hands down, but the fact that the spreadsheet, presentation and database programs are also just as good shows that they've listened to users who want to get things done, their way. Add to that you can save is MS Office formats for interopability with your work colleagues or other friends, and you can see why it's now very popular. And if you can't afford the cost of Microsoft Office, it's a very good alternative instead. Oh, and did I mention you can create Adobe Acrobat PDFs on the fly?

5 - AVG AntiVirus
(available for Windows and Linux)
There's so many antivirus programs, and many of them are either too system intrusive (Norton for one) or take up too much system resources (Kaspersky) or just generally slow your PC down while having to scan. From a user's point of view, you just want to have real time protection and automatic virus definition updates as well as email scanning that works without any problems. And it's free, you say? Why, yes. Step forward AVG. It's unobtrusive, easy to configure and use, and it's regularly updated to catch all the nasty viruses out there. In addition to all that, the email scanner works brilliantly to check all attachments as they come in (well it did with Thunderbird and Outlook Express on a test rig I did a while back) and you also have the added bonus that it's paid for by all the corporate users, keeping it free for the home user. How good is that? Needless to say, get it. Now.

6 - Audiograbber
(available for Windows only)
So, you'd like very much to digitally extract your audio CDs to MP3 format for your portable player, but you'd like something to do most of the work for you, such as filling in the MP3 ID3 tags and also getting you the correct CD track listing off the Internet, and you, like me, absolutely detest Windows Media Player for insisting it rips everything is WMA. Well, this is for you. Download this and the free LAME MP3 encoder and you'll soon have a very handy CD extraction program that can extract from CD straight to MP3 very quickly and accurately. Pop in the CD, click freedb to access the free CD internet database, select the tracks you want, and off you go. By default the ID3 tags are filled in, perfect, and you can tweak how it extracts to as you want it. I use this for taking stuff from CD to the PC for transfer to my portable players, and it works perfectly and reliably.

7 - Audacity
(available for Windows, MacOS and Linux)
If like me you do enjoy being able to edit audio and also be able to record sound as well as maybe yourself, then this is the baby for you. You can edit files, splice them together, mix them in and out, change the speed of any recording, and because you can work with multiple sources, it's very handy for people who want to put together their own podcasts on a limited budget, as you can work with up to 16 channels at once too. It's very simple to use and the ease is primarily to focus on people who just want to edit stuff without having to learn one of the major sound editors out there. I personally have used it just for putting together mix CDs with crossfade, and that works really well too.