I usually subscribe to that old maxim, “You get what you pay for,” but in the case of free software, you can get powerful, fully developed programs that are in many cases superior to packaged software – at no cost.

Many of these programs are open source software, meaning that they’ve been developed in an open, collaborative manner.  The list that follows is a collection of free software that I use every week, without fail.

All are important to me, and a few – well, I couldn’t imagine being without them.

1. Firefox

I have to begin this list with Firefox.   I used to use Internet Explorer, but you can customize Firefox with numerous useful Add-Ons that extend and enhance its power and capabilities.  A few favorite Add-Ons?  iMacros, ReadItLater, and Greasemonkey.

If you’ve never tried an alternative to IE, please give Firefox a try – you can always go back to IE if you prefer.  But you won’t.

2. YouTube Downloader

If you’ve ever stumbled across the video on YouTube that you want to save, freeware YouTube Downloader is for you.

All you need to do is copy the URL of the video you’re interested in, launch YTD, and click a button, and you’re all set. You can specify the download quality and of course the folder in which you want to save the video.  It’s simple, it works, and it’s free.  Check it out here:  YTD

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3. AVG Antivirus

A confession:  I’ve used McAfee antivirus software for years. 

My $49.99 annual subscription enabled me to protect both our PC’s (desktop and netbook), and I was lulled into complacency; it auto-renewed each year.  Flashback to a few years ago:  my desktop became horribly infected by a Trojan and I couldn’t run McAfee, so I downloaded the free version of AVG Antivirus.  It worked great.  I eventually bought a new PC.  I promptly forgot about AVG.

A few weeks ago I received an email reminding me that my McAfee account was about to auto-renew, and I thought, “Why pay $50 a year for this?”   I canceled my account, deleted the program, and downloaded AVG.  The interface is intuitive, the program is unobtrusive (I’ve set its daily scan to run at 4am), and thus far, it seems to be just as effective as McAfee.  Did I mention it’s FREE?  An upgraded version is available, but at this point I’m perfectly happy with the no-dinero version.  Find it here:  AVG Antivirus 2011

4.  Picnik

Virtually all of the images I shoot for Practical Hacks have been edited with the free version of photo-editing software Picnik.  Picnik is dirt simple, and that’s why I use it for cropping and adjusting the images you’ll see on this site.  Upload an image, and you can crop, adjust hue and saturation, adjust contrast, use “artistic” effects, and make simple corrections.  Re-saving the image to your hard drive takes just seconds.

A clarification is in order, however:  Picnik is an online photo editor – there’s nothing to download.  A premium version offers additional tools and capabilities.  See the free version here:  Picnik

5. CCleaner

I mentioned CCleaner in passing a week or two ago.  From its creator:

CCleaner is the number-one tool for cleaning your Windows PC. It protects your privacy online and makes your computer faster and more secure. Easy to use and a small, fast download.

CCleaner enables you to clean up temporary files, cookies, and history with a number of different browsers (IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera), in addition to the list of other capabilities which appears below:

Your computer will likely run faster once you’ve run CCleaner.  You can download your copy of CCleaner here, for free:  CCleaner

6. Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware

Another fantastic piece of software that comes in both premium and free flavors, Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware provides an extra dose of protection against the bad guys.  I wish I could say I found this at a point where I didn’t desperately need it, but in fact I discovered it when my old PC was seriously mucked up by the “Windows Security Suite” Trojan.

The free version lacks the ability to set up automatic scans and automated update checks, but if you can remember to run a scan once a week, you should be good to go.  I make a point of running a full scan each weekend, and it’s not too difficult to remember, as the scars from my earlier experience haven’t fully healed.

Its creators claim that Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware “can detect and remove malware that even the most well known anti-virus and anti-malware applications fail to detect. Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware monitors every process and stops malicious processes before they even start.”

Works for me; get it hereMalwarebytes’ Anti-Malware

7. KeyScrambler

I posted about KeyScrambler a week or so ago, so this will be brief:  KeyScrambler is software that foils anyone who’s trying to capture your keystrokes.

This isn’t a factor with my desktop pc (after all, I live in a place where the rotary telephone was recently introduced), but I worry about this when I travel with our netbook.

You can read my post, “PC security: Foil keyloggers with Key Scrambler” by clicking on the post title, or you can go ahead and download the software by clicking here:  KeyScrambler

8. AutoHotKey

I’ve installed AutoHotKey on my home desktop and on my work laptop, and use it to launch programs and insert certain keystrokes (the ® symbol, for instance – I am a Marketing guy, after all!) into text.

As I’ve set it up, all I have to do to execute one of the AHK scripts is hold down the “Windows” button and hit one other key, and I’m done.  For instance, I’ll press the Windows key and hit “C”, and the Windows calculator launches; Windows + “R”, and the ® symbol is inserted into whatever I’m typing; Windows + “G” and my browser launches, bringing me to my iGoogle homepage.  These scripts are very simple, and once you’ve written one, doing so is easy.

I’ve posted about AutoHotKey in the past, and it requires a longer post to fully explain:  Save time with custom Windows hot keys – AutoHotKey

You can get AHK here:  AutoHotKey download

9. iGoUSB

I have an external hard drive that connects to my destop via USB, and use it to back up everything in My Documents.  The hard drive came with software designed to facilitate the back up process, but I frankly found it unintuitive and confusing.  That’s where iGoUSB comes in.

This program is simple enough for a “Jersey Shore” cast member to operate.  Once installed on a USB drive of any sort or size, it launches when your thumb drive is inserted, or when you flip on your USB backup drive.  Backups are literally as simple as 1-2-3, and restoring files to your desktop or internal drive is equally idiot-proof.

Even the free version is loaded with capabilities.  Check it out here:  iGoUSB

10. Miro

Miro is a beautiful, open source, non-profit HD video player and video podcast player.  This quick (< 2 minutes) video provides an excellent overview.  If you’ve used Hulu, YouTube, and other video sites, you definitely should check out Miro:

You can download Miro here:  Miro 3.5.1

Honorable Mention

If you’ve ever priced a copy of Microsoft Office, you may very well have moved on to another subject after you regained consciousness.  A tremendous alternative, mentioned recently by a couple of Practical Hacks readers, is OpenOffice.  It’s free, it’s powerful, and it’ll handle Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and much more.  See it here:  OpenOffice

If you have any other free software programs you’d like to recommend to others, please do so by commenting!

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7 Comments on 10 pieces of FREE software I use every week (Windows)

  1. Michael W. says:

    I haven’t researched it enough to make a recommendation, but buzz is on LibreOffice instead of Open Office. Some of the development team at Open Office thought Oracle was slowing down the pace of innovation on Open Office (after they bought Sun) and split off to form LibreOffice. Ubuntu will include LibreOffice instead of Open Office in its next release, which speaks highly of it.

    I will look at Miro. I have been using VLC, which a lot of users swear by.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    MW: Thanks. Here’s a link:

    http://www.libreoffice.org/

    [Reply]

  2. Jane Sanders says:

    Kevin, I use the first six that you listed here. I use OpenOffice on my notebook.

    Michael, I also have been using VLC for years. If Miro is better than VLC then I’d be extremely impressed.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I hope you check it out – Miro is very cool.

    [Reply]

  3. Adriano says:

    Will try miro!

    My add:
    – 7-zip – a zipper – unzipper. It handles among others, zip, rar and the more performant 7z!
    – gimp, for photo editing.
    – spywareblaster. Self explanatory!
    – avira antivirus. seems lighter than avg.
    – thunderbird. e-mail client (sseldom used, now all’s webmail)
    – zone alarm firewall.

    And, of course, Openoffice (looking forward to libre office to give a try…)

    [Reply]

  4. Bill says:

    LOL, Google Ads put up an ad for “sniperspy” next to your “anti-keystroke-logging” software link.

    [Reply]

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