Must-Have Free SoftwareMust-Have Free Software
Strangely, when I first started using computer software over 30 years ago, virtually none of it was free. Linux wasn't even a thought yet. Word processors really weren't either for that matter. As I was making this list, I realized that with the exception of Windows and the Microsoft Office suite, almost all of the productivity software I use is free. For a living, I do Java software development using Eclipse as my Integrated Development Environment (IDE), which is free. I used to test using the Apache web server and the Tomcat servlet container, both of which are free. Much of my other editing is done using EditPad Pro, which isn't free but has a free little brother that I did use for a number of years. I browse the web using Firefox (or Internet Explorer when forced to). To maintain this web site, I am using Drupal, which is also free. I use IrfanView to handle the images. For testing this site, I use Apache (running under Xampp. If you don't know what most of those are, don't fret. I won't be asking you to take a quiz. I won't dwell on the programming-specific software. Instead, this section is dedicated to the free software that I use often if not daily, and that I hope you find useful as well.
First, I'm going to start off with a simple list with short descriptions. As I get time, I will do reviews of some of these, but for now, it's just a list.
ALZip - ZIP File Program Everyone who uses the Internet needs a ZIP file to expand and unbundle files they've downloaded. Windows XP and Vista can open ZIP files if you click on them, but I still prefer a standalone program to un-ZIP archives and to create new ones. There are a number of free ZIP utilities out there, but AlZip is one of my favorite free programs. One thing you will probably want to change upon installation is the preference named "Create new folder." It is found on the Tools -> Preferences -> Context Menu dialog. Uncheck it if you don't like all your new folders to be named after birds rather than New Folder. WinRAR is still a superior program to AlZip, but WinRAR is not free. WinRAR can open things that AlZip can't, however.
CDex - CD Audio Extraction There are quite a few audio extraction programs out there to turn your audio CDs into MP3s that you can play on your iPod, in-car MP3 player, etc. WinAmp, listed below, is one of those. So it Microsoft's Media Player. CDex is at version 1.70 beta 2 and has been for years, and it's not clear that any development or updates are being done for it. That said, it has some of the most flexible and extensive configurations of the audio encoder that I've found. The variable bit rate recording even manages to capture the most dynamic, stubborn audio tracks. I've tried others, but I keep coming back to this one.
EditPad Lite - Text File Editor EditPad Lite is a very good, general-purpose text editor. It makes a wonderful replacement for Notepad. It has very good search and replace tools, extensive undo and redo, allows a large number of text files to be opened in tabs simultaneously. The program is perfect for opening readme and other text files that are released with drivers and programs. I used EditPad Lite for a couple of years, but eventually found that I needed some of the features only found in EditPad Pro - most notably the regular expression search and replace and the hexadecimal editing. If you're a programmer, the syntax coloring and highlighting in the Pro version makes it worth the $50 price tag, but for everyday use, the Lite version will serve you well.
Firefox - Web Browser Firefox is by far my favorite web browser. My favorite extensions make it indispensable. My list of must-have extensions is:
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IrfanView - Image Editor IrfanView's author describes it as an image viewer. That it is, but he's being modest. IrfanView can be used to crop, resize, rotate (even lossless JPG rotation), annotate (with standard paint tools), brighten, sharpen, recolor, resample, convert to grayscale, and just about anything else you can imagine you'd ever want to do to a photo or other image. Specifically for photos, it has red-eye reduction. It can use a scanner to get an image and the latest version can grab text from an image using OCR provided by a plug-in. It has the ability to batch rename images in a directory or batch convert them (such as to resize all images at once). It has a thumbnail tool that can be used to quickly create thumbnails, contact sheets and even a set of HTML to allow the contact sheet to reference the full-size photos. If that weren't enough, it has one of the best screen capture capabilities of any program I've used. Suffice it to say that if you see an image on this site, IrfanView has probably processed it in some way. Be sure to download the main program and the plug-ins. They are separate downloads.
|PureText PureText is a very small, simple System Tray application that serves a very singular and useful purpose. When the hotkey is used, it pastes whatever is currently in the screen buffer as plain text. This is wonderfully useful when grabbing text from a highly formatted source like a web page or Word document. If you've ever grabbed text from a web site to stuff into an email and got all the undesired HTML formatting with it, this is the app for you. PureText doesn't have a screen to really capture; it works by pressing Windows-V rather than Ctrl-V when pasting.
|Process Explorer This is another recommendation that's borderline "nerd-only." That said, it is useful to almost any user at some time. If you've ever found yourself in the situation where something is using all of your memory or all of your CPU, but didn't know what or why, Process Explorer can help. It can also answer that question about what processes are holding onto which files/folders that's preventing you from deleting them or ejecting that USB flash disk. It takes a while to get a feel for what it's telling you, but once you have the basics, it can help a lot with figuring out what your system is up to.
TCP View - Network Connection Tool This recommendation is another possible "nerd-only" one. It's called TCP View and hails from the same source as Process Explorer (namely Mark Russinovich who now works for Microsoft). Even if you don't particularly need to do a lot of network monitoring and testing, this little tool is great for investigating why your network may be running slow. This tools ties network connections to the tasks on your system that are using them. It's good for discovering connections you may not have been aware of and you can see the relative amount of activity on those connections.
|TreeSize Free - Disk Space Tool TreeSize Free from Jam Software is a tool to show where all the space on your hard disks (and disk partitions) has gone. Jam may say this best on their web site when they say, "Every hard disk is too small if you just wait long enough." They are right. You can easily drill down into folders and ferret out where all the disk hogs are. You may not be able to do anything about some of them, but it's amazing how many times one can make a copy of the same file and not notice or have backups of files that haven't been needed for years. It often just turns up some surprises.