Getting ready to go back to school is like getting ready to go to work: you're either excited and ready to rock or you couldn't give a rat's bottom about another year of eight-hour days, full of books, energy drinks, projects, and assignments.
Whether you're in high school or college, it's good to keep your PC equipped with the best programs so that you won't be hit with any surprises. Rather than scrambling around, trying to figure out which program to use for what assignment, check out our top picks for Windows and tell your professors to give you their best shot.
Top app for The PDF-Bomb: Load and read PDFs without the slowdown, with Foxit.
Foxit is a free alternative PDF program that's both lightweight and feature-filled if you're only looking for a rudimentary reader. It includes tabbed browsing as well as useful annotating tools to highlight useful sections so you don't miss a beat during lecture. Unfortunately, the free version doesn't include any PDF makers but it's a solid, free alternative to Adobe Reader.
Top app for the disorganized note-taker: Evernote keeps your notes in order.
Whether you're in class or on the go, chances are you'll be able to access Evernote by phone or computer. Even if you don't have access to the Web, you'll be able to save all your notes from class and have them automatically sync with Evernote's servers once you reach an access point.
Top app for the multitasker who can't afford another monitor: Dexpot is like Spaces for Windows.
There's only so much space on that tiny laptop screen of yours and this is where Dexpot comes into play. Similar to Spaces on Mac, Dexpot lets you create separate workspaces for your desktop and allows you to move windows around with ease. You can even view things in split screen via full-screen preview and set custom hot keys to cycle through your workspaces.
Top app for the next American Idol: Audacity captures the voice.
As a student, you're bound to run into some multimedia project that requires you to record audio. Audacity is one of the best open-source recording programs out there, packing plenty of EQ functions and support for a wide variety of audio formats.
Top app for turning lecture halls into movie theaters: VLC plays everything.
VLC will play any type of video file you throw at it. Little needs to be said about this universal media player, which is a must for not just students, but also any user that listens to music or watches movies. You can also adjust the video settings in real time using its built-in viewing options to improve dark or low-quality movies.
Mac: We actually recommend MPlayerX over VLC for Mac users. Both are open-source but MPlayerX retains a more native look and feel that gives it a slightly better edge over VLC, though both are excellent players.
Top app for sharing files with the study group: Dropbox is your Flash drive in the cloud.
If you ever find yourself in the situation where you need to send files to a classmate, Dropbox is the way to go. It's one of the most reliable ways to send and collaborate on large files. Dropbox is also available on a wide variety of devices, making it easy to sync files across computers, tablets, and phones.
Top App for writing essays without pirating Microsoft Office: OpenOffice pretty much does it all.
Can't afford Microsoft Office? If you prefer to save a few extra bucks over student discounts, then let OpenOffice power all your basic word processing and spreadsheet needs. OpenOffice has comparable support for most academic tasks, which includes compatibility with Office formats as well as open-source file types.
Top app for not going blind: F.lux eases the strain on your eyeballs.
With all those late-night study sessions, staring at your computer screen could strain your eyes quite a bit. F.lux adjusts your screen to look more like indoor lighting, reducing eye strain and keeping you from damaging your eyes. Remember to turn it off for color-sensitive activities, like editing photos or playing games.
Top app for the Power User: AutoHotkey does the work so you don't have to.
Unfortunately there are no shortcuts in life, but there are shortcuts for Windows. AutoHotkey is an open-source hotkey utility that lets you automate keystrokes and mouse clicks and write macros. You can do things like set abbreviations to automatically type out full words (ex. "btw" into "by the way") and create custom data-entry forms. Less time to do work means more time to play.
Mac: Unfortunately, AHK isn't available for OSX. There are a few alternatives, including the native AppleScript, but we weren't able to find a comparably free software. However, KeyRemap4MacBook does imitate some of the same useful features from AHK in the OS X environment.
Top app for making and breaking friendships: Team Fortress 2
It's free, co-op, and a crapload of fun. Since going free-to-play, Team Fortress 2 sets a pretty high benchmark for one of the most easily accessible multiplayer games, complete with a huge fanbase of dedicated players. Note that the Steam client is required.
Looking for more premium apps? Check out our affordable picks for some great back-to-school software.