So whichever gift-giving deity you believe in has smiled on you this season and you're the recipient of a brand-new machine. Or maybe the computer gods have decided that December was the time for your PC to join that great server farm in the sky.
Either way, you're in need of some new programs. Free programs. You're in luck: CNET Download.com has compiled a brand-new Windows Starter Kit, complete with all that your freeware-coveting heart could ever desire. This year we bring you a Web Browser, an E-mail Client, Office and Productivity tools, Image Editors, Music and Video Jukeboxes, File Compression, a PDF Reader, Chatware, a Torrent Client, and seven must-have Utilities. And you don't even have to stress about whether that shiny wrapping paper is recyclable.
Where's the antivirus apps? If you're looking for programs to make your PC more secure, check out our overhauled-for-2008 Security Starter Kit.
The built-in pop-up blocker, antiphishing protections, and enhanced extension security aren't enough reason for using Firefox. Add them all together, though, and you get a full-featured browser with an infinite level of customization.
Mozilla Thunderbird combines smart browsing with sharp innovations aimed at both Web mail clients and industry standards like Microsoft Outlook. Basics like junk mail filters, HTML support, multiple identities, and POP, IMAP, and Microsoft Exchange server support load fast and are bolstered by S/MMIE, digital signing, message encryption, and a phishing detector. Interface tweaks maximize message viewing, a necessity in an e-mail reader.
Back and forward browser-style buttons, customizable tags, and colors make it a cinch to keep things organized, even across folders. Gmail support is as simple as entering your e-mail and password, searches can be saved, and Thunderbird supports extensions like Firefox, allowing for serious enhancement tweaks.
A credible rival to MS Office, OpenOffice.org includes powerful applications for making text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, diagrams, databases, and HTML and XML documents. It handles complex equations and multipart documents as easily as simple letters and faxes.
Even advanced Office users will find the templates, collaborative features, macros, and programming language familiar. Extensible and open source, it lets you both import and save documents in formats as diverse as MS Office formats, PDF, HTML, WordPerfect, XML, and others. However, the default is to save files in the open-standard Oasis OpenDocument XML format for maximum compatibility with other applications.
Multilingual and cross-platform, OpenOffice.org is a compelling option for anyone in search of an alternative office suite.
If OpenOffice is too much, AbiWord, gives you just the word processor without the entire suite. It has a quick learning curve with an interface similar to those in Word and WordPerfect.
All the basics are here, including highlight, notation, and a bevy of common formatting tools. Although we did miss a grammar-checker, AbiWord has a multilingual spell-checker. A huge plus is the ability to open and save Microsoft Word documents, though the program also has its own proprietary file format. You can download plug-ins at the publisher's site to import and export a wide variety of other formats, including OpenDocument.
The volunteer developers of The GIMP have developed a polished, user-friendly, and open-source image editor. Although the separated palette windows may disturb users who prefer traditional layouts, your comfort level should grow as you discover how pain-free the program is.
Comparable with Photoshop, GIMP's features include channels, layers and masks, filters and effects, tabbed palettes, editable text tools, color operations such as levels, scalable brushes, revised selection tools, full-screen editing, printing, red-eye removal, perspective clone, lens distortion, and more. It even has regex-based pattern matching for power users, but it also might be much more powerful than what you need. We've recommended a more basic image editor below.
If all you want is a quick image retouch, The GIMP is overkill. Paint.NET, on the other hand, is an open-source editor with all the essentials, including tools to crop, rotate, resize images, adjust colors, and create collages. It supports common image formats but not high-resolution RAW files.
There are enough basic and intermediate effects and features to keep image-tweakers happy, though the red-eye removal tool is notably weak so those images may require manual attention. The pleasing interface boasts semitransparent windows for ease of use. Unlike most free image editors, Paint.NET supports layers and has an actions manager.
The most recent WinAmp updates have made it competitive again. It now features strong device support, including iPod synchronization, AAC encoding, CD burning, and a robust file-management system. There's an optional new interface layout that joins the separate windows, podcast support, you can edit device synchronization while in progress, and a built-in browser for media discovery. We liked that clicking on an artist's name will get you related headlines and Web sites in a separate pane.
Unfortunately, MP3 encoding and full-speed CD burning requires the Pro version. Album art support is spotty, and there are occasional stability issues during video playback. WinAmp 5.5 is no iTunes killer, but it is a strong alternative and should be of interest to those looking for something with more meat on its bones.
Aiming to redefine how people manage and watch their videos, open-source Miro deserves its praise. It can subscribe to and play back video podcasts while comprehensively managing your saved videos. When you launch the app, a left sidebar hosts a folder tree for managing your videos. The central pane does double duty for viewing videos and searching for new ones. The bottom hosts a search box for parsing through YouTube and other sites, a video control panel, and volume control.
Features include full torrent support, so you can download and view torrents in the same app, folder watching to manage only the hard-drive folders you specify for new videos, resumable playback, topic-based channel surfing, video sharing, hosting, and vodcast creation assistance.
VLC Media Player offers a one-stop solution for the file-format problem. The program supports playback of every major and most minor file types, and can stream media. Because of its open-source foundation, it evolves quickly, with new features and fixes released frequently.
Though the interface varies from platform to platform, the Windows version is sparse. Skinning it perks things up, but also seems to cause unpredictable behavior. Beyond drag'n'drop, the basic task of opening a file is far more confusing than it should be. Overall, though, VLC Media Player is a must-have application for its ability to open just about any type of video file you throw at it.
7-Zip unpacks most archive formats, including ZIP, TAR, GZ, RAR, and its own 7z format. It can create TAR and GZ archives, which are commonly used on Unix and Linux systems. In our tests, 7z archives were up to 40 percent smaller then their ZIP equivalents, although compression did take longer. Advanced options include the ability to create solid and self-extracting archives, and to adjust the compression level and password protection. The program also has a command line module.
Though the main interface is overly simple, it's easy to use and self-explanatory. The context menu options indicate that 7-Zip should be taken seriously.
Foxit Reader is everything that Adobe Reader isn't: lightweight, effective, and streamlined. Foxit's main purpose is to read PDFs, but it also has annotation tools. The interface mimics Adobe's, so you won't have to change your reading habits. Text readability is nearly the same, and the 1.6MB Foxit starts surprisingly fast compared with Adobe. It's a nice touch that it opens PDFs from the Internet in their own Foxit window, instead of sucking resources from within the browser.
It's incredibly irritating that URL hyperlinks were unclickable, and that some features were blocked in the evaluation copy.
If you've need to use Yahoo, MSN, AIM, and Google, at the same time from the same window, Pidgin is the chatty bird for you. Like other third-party IM clients, this open-source messenger accesses multiple IM networks, including MySpaceIM, as well as lesser-known protocols such as Jabber and Gadu-Gadu.
The IM features are unimpeachable: smileys, file transfers, and multiperson chats. The Buddy Pounce feature automatically performs certain actions when a contact signs on or off. Pidgin gets lots of intangibles right: logging and time-stamping, for instance, are well-executed. Twenty-two plug-ins come prepackaged, but there are still some bugs. Still, Pidgin remains a highly recommended text-only messaging app.
Pidgin doesn't do video chat, but Camfrog does. Its chat rooms feature everything from music lessons to sign language to non-English chatting, and integrating video, audio, and text components are a great leap forward for since a Webcam is not a requirement. Be warned, though: There are X-rated chat rooms--this is not a program that kids should use without supervision.
You can create your own password-protected chat room, and the Contacts list has a section for favorite rooms and one-click contact adding, user searching, and profile management. Despite several toolbars it tries to foist on you during installation, if you're looking for a well-trafficked video chat program that serves a diverse community, CamFrog is cool place to land.
What computer would be ready for the broadband age without a dedicated torrent client? Miro supports torrents, but if all you want is a torrent, it can be a bit much. uTorrent is so light on resources and memory that it's small enough to run off an old USB key. uTorrent's clean button interface makes it easy to pause downloading.
Finding torrents can be hard, but included are both a torrent search bar and an RSS feed manager that will automatically download files as they publish. Adding, starting, pausing, and listing torrents takes merely a click or two each. A speed guide tests ports and adjusts system settings for optimal performance. uTorrent isn't feature-heavy, but has enough to make it the torrent program of choice for novices, intermediate, and advanced users.
Auslogics Disk Defrag couldn't be any easier for rejoining disparate hard-drive bits. Choose a hard drive from a pull-down menu, and Disk Defrag displays the size, space used, free space, and a pie chart. One click starts the program, with a sector map showing how much is fragmented, allocated, or free. As it churns, defragged sectors are displayed in blue.
Even on older XP systems the program is fast. A handy report is prepared after each session: the total files and folders defragged, and Detail lists the defrag outcome for each file. We only wish a final sector map was included in the report.
A lack of visual polish doesn't hurt this utility that replaces the cumbersome Windows Task Manager by showing running processes in an intuitive tree format. Process Explorer makes the job a lot easier by including program icons and other data, such as description, image, and processor time.
It also can identify the process for a given application window or look up a process name in Google--a handy way to spot spyware. Additional features offer detailed information on performance, DLLs, threads, handles, TCP/IP connections, security settings, and environments. Process Explorer is one of the best we've seen.
WinDirStat identifies how much disk space you're using. Based on Linux's KDirStat, it shows you an informative visual HD usage display. It can also analyze external devices. The initial WinDirStat scan may take quite a while, so be prepared to grab a cup of coffee.
When you return, you'll see your files displayed by colors according to file type. By default, the order is blue, red, green, but the Options menu can change these settings. It's also loaded with features for managing files. It's one of those apps that you didn't know you needed until you started using it, but once installed it's hard to imagine life without it.
A hectic interface can't stop the power of NoteTab Light. This replacement for Windows' built-in Notepad jumps in with Web browser-style tabs for managing different projects simultaneously, and it can automatically replace the tool it's based on.
However, there's much more to it. A list of commands on the left, called Clips, do anything from inserting bits of text to generating code. Libraries of clips appear as tabs at the bottom of the screen. The FTP library, for example, lets you create server profiles, connect, upload and download files, and issue various commands. The publisher's site offers many user-created libraries, or you can make your own.
Launchy lets you open nearly any program, file, folder, or Web site on your system with just a few keystrokes. It lives in the background, and a quick hot-key combo calls up the small, skinnable Launchy box.
Enter the first few letters of a file or program, and Launchy automatically displays the rest of the name. Simply press Enter to open or launch it. If the name displayed isn't what you want, wait a few seconds and the tool displays a drop-down list of other likely candidates. The tool is easily configurable, and it also looks at your default browser's Favorites file.
RAMBooster helps alleviate the RAM jam suffered by most users. Small and effective, installation is quick. Use program defaults, or modify through Edit/Preferences how much RAM you'd like it to free up and at which point of resource consumption. RAMBooster keeps track of RAM usage and scrub your RAM free of flotsam left behind by closed windows and background programs.
The tray icon indicates status: red and black if you're fine, escalating to yellow as free memory falls. Mouse over the icon to see exactly how much free RAM you have. You can also clean your RAM manually via the context menu or the full interface.
Although it lacks a few of the bells and whistles found in other cleaning applications, CCleaner offers more than enough to make it worthy. The logically-designed interface makes it easy to wipe away your tracks from browsing, various Windows system areas, and some third-party applications.
CCleaner doesn't support a large number of extraneous programs, but it can erase traces from such popular programs as Spybot and WinZip. Also missing is a secure file shredder, but it does supply a Registry-cleaning utility that quickly scans for invalid entries before removing them. The app can back up your Registry before altering it, and also uninstall any program on your machine.