The best Windows freeware list, May 2006

I don’t like paying for things, and I don’t like stealing them if I can avoid it. So, when I need something done, I look for freeware first. Over the years I’ve run across some of the best software on the planet, and it’s all free, in some sense. Because people often infect their machine with some sort of malevolence when all they wanted was some nice, free software for burning CDs, I decided to make a list for those of you who have better things to do with your life.

Of course, some free softwares are freer than others; some software is free as in speech, meaning it’s free for anybody to use and distribute. Other software is only free as in beer, meaning that it doesn’t cost you money, but you’re not allowed to redistribute it to others, and it may only be free for personal use, rather than as part of a business.

My standards for this list are that it must be at least free as in beer, and it must not contain spyware, adware, or any start-up message boxes that nag you to buy the full version. Software can be on this list even if it’s free only for personal use, so think twice about using any personal-use-only software on systems at your place of work or home office.

I’m thinking maybe I’ll update this list every six months or so. Or, maybe this is all you get.

The List

  • Best Free Web Browser: Firefox – Firefox isn’t just the best free web browser out there, it’s the best web browser, period. It does have it’s shortcomings: it’s at least as big a memory hog as Internet Explorer, and sometimes it decides to eat all your CPU until you kill it. However, it does have a lot of things going for it: tabbed browsing, infinitely adjustable text size (for us blind folks), RSS feed integration (to help you keep up with all those blogs and podcasts), and, most importantly, an extension mechanism that allows anybody anywhere to develop the craziest, most useful plugins you never thought of, like the one that puts the weather in the browser status bar, the one that allows you to view image links in a floating window, extensions for blog and photo site integration, and too many more to list.

    Most importantly, however, Firefox has way fewer security holes than Microsoft explorer, fixes for security problems come out much more quickly, and these fixes are installed on your system automatically, unless you make an effort to keep them from doing so. (Free for any use, source code available, for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X)

  • Best Free Email Client: Thunderbird – Thunderbird comes from the same people (The Mozilla Foundation) that produce Firefox. It’s an email client much like Outlook, or Outlook express, except that your computer doesn’t explode, killing innocent bystanders, whenever Thunderbird is launched. I personally use webmail most of the time, but this is a fine, fine mail client. (Free for any use, source code available, for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X)
  • Best Photo Management software: Picasa 2 Picasa isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it’s the best stuff out there for free right now. You can use it to organize, touch up, and edit your photos, as well as back them up to tape for DVD and make web galleries (I use it for all my photo galleries). It’s a little limited in what it can do, but it’s incredibly easy to use. If you want Photoshop, you know where to find it.
  • Best BitTorrent client: uTorrent – uTorrent is small, simple to use, and fast. Install it, then go download some non-infringing completely legal torrents from your favorite torrent site. Do not under any circumstances go to Pirate Bay. You may need to set up “port forwarding” on your router to make it work fast. If so, and you can’t figure it out, send me the model number of your router and what OS you’re running and I’ll help you figure it out. (Free for personal use, Windows)
  • Best P2P client: Shareaza – Shareaza is a P2P client that connects to 4 different P2P networks to find and download things quicker. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a great user interface and NO SPYWARE OR ADWARE. Just remember that just because Shareaza won’t destroy your box, that doesn’t mean whatever you download using it won’t. It’s also a BitTorrent client, but I think uTorrent is better. Shareaza, like uTorrent, will likely require you to set up port forwarding on your router for best performance. (Free for personal use, Windows)
  • Best FTP client: SmartFTP – SmartFTP is a great FTP client. Drag, drop, multiple local and remote explorers…It Just Works™. (Free for personal use, Windows)
  • Best CD-Burning Freeware: BeepBurner Free – There isn’t a lot of Windows freeware out there for burning CDs and DVDs, so I wasn’t expecting much when I tried this out, but I was pleasantly surprised. Although the free version won’t do direct CD-to-CD copying, and kind of sucks for burning copies of audio CDs, it’s otherwise an excellent little package for burning Audio CDs from MP3s, burning data DVDS and burning ISOs to disk. The paid version adds most of the features missing from the free version, and is pretty cheap.
  • Best Image Viewer: FastStone MaxView – My idea of image viewer happiness is the following: When I click on a photo, it should open up full screen, and be shrunk or expanded to fit. I should be able to use the mouse wheel to flip through the other images in the same directory, and use keys or the mouse to zoom in and out. I should be able to rotate the images with a key. If I press escape, everthing should go away. That’s what MaxView provides, in a very small package. It’s gr-eat! (Free for personal use, Windows)
  • Best Media Player: WinAmp – Winamp has recovered from a crappy 3.0 release to come back with WinAmp 5, which is smooth as buttah. It’s got a pleasant interface, a great media library, excellent playlist editor, and mega-fine ripping and burning tools. In order to burn at full speed or rip to MP3, you’ll need the Pro version; however, any (legal) MP3 encoder costs money, because it’s patented, and you can perfectly well use another burning program instead. The user interface is simple and, while not necessarily the most intuitive ever, it is quick and efficient once you get used to it, and it’s got the best compact mode (a mode that’s thin enough to sit in the titlebar area at the top of your screen) of any player I’m aware of. It’s got great visualizations available for it, and is very extensible in general. (Free for personal use, Windows)
  • Best DVD copying combo: DVD43 + DVDShrink – Install first DVD43 (the only sign that it’s installed is a happy face in your system tray when there is an encrypted DVD in your DVD-ROM drive) and then DVDShrink. With both of them installed you can easily create an ISO of almost any DVD shrunk down to fit on a standard 4.7GB DVD-R. Of course, with the new dual-layer burners, we may not need DVDShrink for much longer. Both programs are easy to use (DVD43 doesn’t really have or need much of a user interface) and relatively well documented. Disclaimer: I’ve used earlier versions of both of this software, but haven’t actually tried the latest version of DVD43 linked here. It should be fine. Probably. (Free for any use, Windows)
  • Best 3D Modelling application: Blender – Blender was originally the in-house modeling software for a European animation studio. It’s a real professional-quality jobber that will get you pretty close to the capabilities of Maya or 3D Studio at a much lower cost (free). It’s definitely got more functionality than you’ll ever need. (Free for any use, Windows, Linux)
  • Best Image Manipulation Program: The GIMP – If you don’t have Photoshop, then all you need is the GIMP. A little clunky to get into, but it’s got enough bells and whistles for almost anything you might need to do, except maybe prepress work. (Free for Any Use, Windows, Linux, Mac OS X)
  • Best Itty Bitty Calculator: Power Calc – This calculator (link to actual installer package here) is one of the many free little programs that Microsoft gives away for XP. Power Calc is better than the silly little calc that comes with XP because it allows you to graph functions and store variables, and knows how to do conversions as well. It’s pretty nifty, considering it comes from Macro$haft. (Free for any use, Windows)
  • Best Free Software Development Environment: Microsoft Visual Studio Express – You gotta hand it to Microsoft. They always make sure people develop for their OS by making it easy and cheap to do so. If you want to learn C++, C# (my personal favorite) or Visual Basic .NET (yuck), then you can download a free version of Visual Studio from this page. As much as it pains me to admit it, VS is the most intuitive and powerful development environment out there, and Microsoft did a mighty fine job with C# and .NET, as well. It’s a good way to learn to program, on the off chance that you actually want to learn to program.

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