It’s a mobile world, but we have not fully abandoned the desktop. The real work (and a lot of the play) of computing requires a full personal computing system, and to get the most out of that, you need software.
Software can be expensive, but free programs have been a mainstay of the desktop experience for decades, and today’s offerings are pretty powerful. Software developers can adopt an ad-based model, donation-ware to keep things afloat, or a shareware/freemium model that charges for extra features.
Something to always watch for: crapware installers. To make ends meet, many creators of otherwise great free software, or the services that offer the programs for download, bundle in things you don’t want. Worse, the installation routine obfuscates the steps, so you provide the unwanted program tacit permission to be installed. For more about how to spot and avoid this problem, see How to Rid a New PC of Crapware, and check out the Uninstaller section below.
A pro tip: only download desktop software from the maker of the software directly. It’s not foolproof—after all, developers want to eat, too—but it helps. That’s why one of the criteria for inclusion here is that the program is available directly from its maker.
The software must be available directly from the developer/creator/original publisher.
The software should (typically) have a Windows-based download. However, we’ve included web-based apps that are as good, or better, than some downloadable programs.
If the software is on a tiered sales model, the free version cannot be trial-ware. It has to have at least a free-for-life option.
Preferably the program has had an update in the last year or two.
The program should have little or no advertising to support it. Some freemium software depends on showing ads to exist, however. We’ll include some if they don’t suck.
Software for productivity is what this list is about; there are plenty of other places to find free PC games.
For more free software, check out The 100 Best iPhone Apps and The 100 Best Android Apps.
Open-source Audacity can record and edit audio files on more tracks than you can imagine. It then outputs exactly what you need, even to MP3 if you use a plug-in. It is perfect for noobs and pros alike, on any desktop OS.
If This, Then That, aka IFTTT, is a service with a website and apps that let you create automations that hook up your various web and smart home services and devices. Want your lights to come on when you walk in the door? Want a backup created when you make a new contact? Want email or text warnings when the weather turns bad? The combinations and permuations are endless and limited only by your imagination. (Some tools don’t give you full access, but hey). (Read our review of IFTTT.)
Another in the world of automations between services and apps, Zapier puts the focus on businesses and helps them get the most out of all the disparate services they use. Prepare for productivity to soar. The free version lets you perform up to 100 automated tasks per month. (Read our review of Zapier.)
Back-Up & Synchronization
Put files in your Dropbox folder on the desktop, and they are uploaded to the cloud and synchronized with any other PC on the account. Files are also accessible via apps or the web. If you delete a file by accident, you can use the website to get it back. Dropbox offers 2GB of free online storage. (Read our review of Dropbox.)
Consider OneDrive the most flexible and all-encompassing sync and back-up tool going. It’s the official cloud storage for users of Microsoft Office and Windows 10 (it’s built right into the OS). OneDrive includes 5GB of free online storage. If you subscribe to Microsoft 365, that storage jumps up to 1TB per user. (Read our review of Microsoft OneDrive, a PCMag Editors’ Choice.)
You get 5GB free from IDrive to back up files from all your devices. If that’s enough, you’ll find this service more than up to your needs. It’ll even back up your photos and videos from Facebook. (Read our review of IDrive, a PCMag Editors’ Choice.)
(Wondering about Google Drive? It’s on the list, but down under Office Suites.)
The standard, free version of this tool can create a full system image, back up entire drives or specific partitions, schedule backup of files and folders you specify. Sorry, the option to clone a full drive to another will now cost you the price of the pro version.
The venerable browser Firefox remains our Editors’ Choice. That’s because it’s highly customizable, strong on security, privacy, and performance, and supports a slew of new standards. (Read our review of Firefox, plus our Top Firefox Tips.)
Chrome still ranks high as a browser to keep in your arsenal. Especially if you’re a devotee of Google products—and it’s built right into Chrome OS on Chromebooks so it practically is the OS. However, it’s probably not the browser you want if you’re a privacy advocate, even if it is going to stop supporting tracking cookies in the future. (Read our review of Google Chrome, plus our Top Chrome Tips.)
Clean-Up / Maintenance Utilities
The first C is for Crap! CCleaner deletes extraneous files that gunk up the OS and browsers. Get it and run it, regularly. It’ll even delete some apps you didn’t think you could get rid of. (Read our review of CCleaner Professional Plus.)
Defragmenting a hard disk has become a little passé in the age of terabyte drives, but it’s still a smart thing to do to eke out a little more data-access speed. Defraggler’s interface makes it brain-dead simple to do. It even works with solid-state drives (SSDs).
Skype is synonymous with video conferencing. There’s a reason our Editors’ Choice review says Skype, now run by Microsoft, is “a highly polished, hugely functional service that runs on every platform you can think of (including the browser) and offers more communication options than any of its competitors.” For free, you can make unlimited video calls between Skype users, even with groups of users. Plus, its real-time translation ability is straight out of science fiction. (Read our review of Skype for Windows, a PCMag Editors’ Choice)
Up to three people on PCs can use this service to video chat and even share screens, all without fees or any setup other than sharing a URL or organizer code. Sign up for an account or sign in with your Google or Facebook accounts, and claim a regular-to-use meeting “room” online. Because it’s web-based, it works on any desktop or laptop. (Read our review of the full GoToMeeting.)
Want to host an online conference for you and 100 of your closest friends? Zoom can let them all view what you’re showing for up to 40 minutes from any device, even a smartphone. It will also allow direct one-on-one HD video meetings. Plus you can chat all you want. (Read our review of Zoom Meeting, a PCMag Editors’ Choice, plus our Top Zoom Tips.)
Ebooks and Comics
Amazon-owned Comixology is the store for purchasing digital comics from just about all the major funny-book publishers. You read them in the app, and it’s a wonder, making page-by-page or panel-by-panel reading a delight, especially on a comic book page-sized tablet. The synced view means you stop on one device and pick up at the next one in the same spot. Pair it with Comixology’s unlimited reading subscription option or buy new comics the same day they appear in stores. For comic book nerds, it’s a must. (Windows users are stuck with the web-based interface.) (Read our review of Comixology, a PCMag Editors’ Choice, plus Everything You Need to Know about Digital Comics.)
Practically the de facto reader for ebooks these days, the Kindle brand is more than just hardware—it extends to apps and programs for reading ebooks (which you have to buy from Amazon, of course). Start the book on any device, continue it elsewhere—the Kindle WhisperSync feature knows where you stopped reading. X-Ray gives you insight into the book; GoodReads integration gives you a social aspect. PageFlip lets you keep your page while scouring the rest of the book.
If you’ve got a lot of ebook files, Calibre is the open-source tool you need to organize them. It converts files into different formats, so you can use ebooks on many different devices, with which it will also sync. It’s constantly updated with new features and support for non-Amazon ebook reader hardware, like the devices from Kobo.
If you’ve got a Microsoft account, you have access to Outlook.com, the successor to Hotmail and Live mail and our Editors’ Choice for web-based email. There’s still the Outlook program itself for Windows and Mac—it comes with Microsoft Office—but this free option is a perfect, minimalist, consumer-based webmail, complete with OneDrive integration. Interesting features include Sweeps, so you can, for example, delete all messages from one sender at once, and built-in chat—including Skype video chat. The version for iOS is particularly great. (Read our review of Outlook.com, a PCMag Editors’ Choice.)
The ultra-popular option for individuals and businesses alike, Gmail sports a clean interface and works with a lot, if not all, third-party email apps you can imagine. Plus, it probably has the best spam filter you’ll ever use. (Read our Top Tips for Gmail.)
Mozilla’s email client extraordinaire still has all the features that made it great years ago: account setup wizards, multiple languages, hundreds of add-ons, a tabbed interface, great search, junk mail and phishing tools, and the option for a personalized email address with your own choice of a domain name. Migration from previous versions is a breeze and worth it if you’re on the desktop.
If you use a desktop email client like Outlook, Thunderbird, or even Windows Mail, you’re probably not getting as much spam-fighting power—especially with POP3 email accounts. Stick SPAMfigher on the system—it works directly with Microsoft to make it as tough against spam as possible. The Windows version is totally free for home use.
File Recovery and Deletion
Recuva (say it out loud) is a must on the tool belt of any techie: it’s the key to helping recover a lost file. It’s easy to understand, though should really be installed before you lose a file. It’s portable, so you have the option to run it from a USB thumb drive. (Read our review of Recuva.)
TestDisk does a lot more than just find lost files. It can recover an entire lost hard drive partition, and makes what was once a non-bootable disk drive bootable again. It’s open source so it might not have as fancy a user interface as you’re used to, but it’s powerful. Companion tool PhotoRec specializes in recovering lost images.
The opposite of file recovery is utter destruction—the thing you do to keep a file out of someone else’s hands. Eraser does that, writing over the spot on your drive where the file(s) lived until it’s scrubbed clean, with no chance of it coming back to haunt you. Use it to schedule a wipe of the free space on the disk, or just to purge your recycle bin.
The former computer-science project is now one of the best standalone file transfer protocol (FTP) clients around. It’s a must-have for website owners who transfer a lot of files to a server, fast. It comes in a client and Windows-only server option.
Windows copies files between folders and drives just fine. TeraCopy takes over that job and makes it sing—it’s faster, better looking, provides more information/feedback, and can recover from transfer errors.
Still one of the biggest clients for downloading and uploading torrent files, this works on its own or paired with web or mobile accounts for remote downloads. There’s a web-based option and desktop download-based options for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android for more experienced users.
There are many, many attempts out there to replace Windows Explorer (a file manager marinating in weak sauce). Multi Commander stands out, providing multiple tabs, a file viewer, and dual panels to efficiently show you everything.
Eventually in this life, you’re going to run into an archive file—a single file with multiple files stored (and compressed) inside it. They have different extensions, from RAR to ZIP to 7z and many more, and sometimes the program to open them costs you. Not 7-Zip. It opens all of those and more, and allows creation of new archives. It’ll even encrypt the contents for safety. It’s entirely open source.
Don’t let the XP in the name fool you, this is a frequently updated tool for burning ISO images and much more to CDs and DVDs. It comes in multiple languages and lists all the drives with which it’s compatible. It works on all versions of Windows.
File Viewers and Converters
IrfanView (pronounced ear-fan-view) has been the leader in file viewing for over two decades. Not only does it view multiple file types, it can convert them, batch process changes, even play media. Plug-ins and add-ons give it even more power.
With an enhanced version that works across platforms, XnView MP actually has multiple uses, like batch file conversion and support for 500 image formats. It’s only free for private or educational use.
FastStone Image Viewer
View, manage, and compare your images with this fast and intuitive freebie. It supports a slew of image formats, plus a ton of RAW image formats from specific digital camera manufacturers. It has companion apps for screenshots and photo resizing.
Graphics and Imaging
(Mahmut Serdar Alakus / Anadolu Agency)
Adobe Photoshop Express
When you don’t need the full strength of Photoshop, but still want Adobe in your arsenal, the low-end, consumer-oriented Express is there to help you with the basics of image editing. It’ll auto-fix a lot in your images, plus has photo filters and, of course, in-app purchases to extend functions. (Read our review of Photoshop Express for iPhone.)
The GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) remains a top pick for free image editing for good reason. It has all the high-end tools you could want for playing with graphics and, naturally, costs 100 percent less than Photoshop.
Vector graphics illustration tools typically cost a lot but not Inkscape. You’ll be designing, drawing, and shaping gorgeous SVG formatted files in no time with this tool. Check the online gallery for excellent examples of its capabilities on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Icecream Image Resizer
Icecream Apps has many nice programs, but the most useful for designers with a batch of graphics that need a quick resize is the aptly named Image Resizer. Drag images to it, pick a size and a destination folder, and they’ll be converted in an eye-blink.
Is Paint.net a perfect replacement for Photoshop? Nothing is as powerful, but at this price—free—it is pretty close. For any minor (and some major) picture manipulation, it’s fast, comprehensive, and easy to use.
Pixlr X is a “next generation” web-based photo editor for making quick adjustments and retouches to a photo when more advanced tools aren’t available. Every change is automatically saved and it also works directly with Dropbox.
As if high-end software that lets you fly across the globe isn’t cool enough (especially with all the same features of its online sibling, Google Maps), Google Earth Pro for the desktop—with advanced features like high-res printing, distance measuring, and global guided tours—is totally free. It also comes in a web-only and mobile versions now.
If all you need in life is a constant shuffle play of your music (with the occasional advertisement), then Spotify is for you. It offers 50+ million song possibilities no matter where you are, on every possible device you can think of. The free version is ad-supported, which is why Spotify wants you to subscribe for $10 per month. But if you can get over those confines, you’re no worse off than when listening to FM radio, and arguably far ahead. (Read our review of Spotify and Top Spotify Tips.)
VLC media player
The premier way to watch just about any video, ever, no matter what the weird codec, VLC has features like auto-rotating smartphone videos taken at the wrong orientation, and resuming playback from where you stopped. Seriously, VLC plays back anything on all desktop platforms, and guarantees it comes with no ads, tracking, or spyware. (For more, read How to Play DVDs in Windows 10.)
Kodi has become the open-source serious media center. Run the software in one place and stream all your media (you bring the content) to other devices. It’s all about content, so it’s the best option in many ways for a home media center. (For more, read How to Install, Update, and Use Kodi.)
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