Windows Starter Kit

The Windows Starter Kit is a collection of some of the best and most essential freeware to get your new PC going. From browsers to productivity to utilities, we cover all the bases. If you're looking for the best in security freeware, check out our Security Starter Kit for all your antivirus needs. Essential utilities have earned their own kit, too: the Windows Utilities Starter Kit.

Web browsers

Competitive and diverse, this most essential of software categories has seen tremendous growth in the past year. Although we recommend Mozilla Firefox overall, check out why Opera and Chrome are strong alternatives.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox made tabbed browsing mainstream and redefined the browser wars. The easiest browser on the market to customize, the huge user-developed plug-in database makes it supremely powerful, but that's not the only reason to use it. Specialized versions like Flock and Songbird emphasize social networking and music obsessions, but that's not why you need it, either. A JavaScript debugger is standard, and Firefox displays the page-source code in a new window, using indents and color-coded tags like an HTML editor. Again, not enough--on its own.

Even the built-in pop-up blocker, antiphishing protections, and enhanced extension security aren't enough of a reason for using Firefox. Being one of the fastest browsers on the market? Aren't they all? But add together all those things under one roof, and you've got a full-featured, safe browsing experience with a nearly infinite level of customization.

Google Chrome

Chrome is Google's attempt to make the Web browser disappear and to focus on the applications and pages users are viewing, rather than on the border with its tools. Some of Chrome's basic underpinnings are quite novel, but people will recognize other features, as they exist in other open-source Web browsers on the market today.

Chrome is blazingly fast and is easily the quickest browser available. Based on Webkit, the same open-source engine that powers Apple Safari, Google's Android mobile platform, and several other Web-browsing tools, Chrome's interface is a drastic departure from other browsers. Instead of the traditional toolbar, Chrome puts its tabs on top. Moreover, the tabs are detachable: "tabs" and "windows" are interchangeable here. Detached tabs can be dragged and dropped into the browser, and tabs can be rearranged at any time. By isolating each tab's processes, when one site crashes, the other tabs do not.

Chrome made some major improvements toward the end of 2009, and skins are now available. Extensions are limited to the developer's version, but they're expected soon, too. Only time and benchmarking tests will tell if they slow the browser down, but Chrome's rising popularity is undeniable.

Opera

Although not as popular as Firefox or Chrome, Opera is nothing less than an excellent alternative. The program is known for striving to be the fastest, smallest, and most full-featured browser available. Even if sometimes it doesn't hit all of those marks, Opera has developed a dedicated following of both desktop and mobile users. Of course, Opera covers the basics with tabbed browsing, mouse-over previews, a customizable search bar, advanced bookmarking tools, and simple integration with e-mail and chat clients. Mouse-gesture support, keyboard shortcuts, and drag-and-drop functionality round out the essentials.

Out of the box, Opera has just about all you need, and its extras are equally strong. Integrated theme support, desktop widgets, the Wand autofill/saved password utility, torrent support, the new browser-server API platform called Unite, and anti-malware protection courtesy of Haute Secure make it a favorite. Throw in always-on access to your bookmarks and other personal settings via Opera Link, and Opera has what it takes to unseat even the biggest-name browsers. You just need to hear it sing.