Wednesday, December 19, 2007

10 essential bits of software

My new laptop arrived the other day and the first thing I did was to wipe the drive and reinstall Windows, partially to ensure there was no bloatware hanging around the system (although Dell are actually very good about this, there was very little pre-installed rubbish) and partially because I wanted an English language copy of Windows, and the installation of a language pack to the pre-installed Spanish version was proving to be a more-hassle-than-it's-worth jobbie.

After reinstalling I went through the usual rigmarole of downloading and installing all the "bits of software I can't live without" (or, at least, "can't use a copy of Windows without"), and I thought I might aswell write a short list of these, simply because I found many of these excellent programs through recommendations published on blogs, just like this one.

The most important criteria for any of these programs is that they have to be as small and as fast as possible - by that I mean they should use as little system resources as possible, and not worm themselves into every single corner of your Windows installation. I don't like waiting 10 minutes for my PC to start up, and the more things that are hidden away in the registry, the slower everything runs. They should also be pretty easy to install/remove and, of course, they should be free! So here's my top 10, pretty much in the order that I would download them:

1) Firefox - Bit of a no-brainer this one. If you're not using it, you're missing out on the wonderful world of Extensions. The fact that Firefox is open source means that anybody in the world can develop a plugin that 'extends' the functionality of the browser, in a way that neither Internet Explorer or Safari can manage to the same level. My must-have extensions are Adblock (with Filterset.G), the Google Notebook extension (more on this later) and the search tools for English-Spanish and vice versa.

2) Grisoft AVG Free - Forget paying for McAfee, Norton, Symantec or F-Secure. For some time Grisoft have offered their free, cut-down version of their anti-virus software, and it's great. You don't get all the bells and whistles, but you do get a virus checker that provides live scanning of every file that passes through your system, and lets you schedule exactly when you want it to update itself. Unless you are given a free copy of another product, there's no reason to use anything else.

3) SpyBot Search and Destroy - One of the original spyware killers which, through creaking a little on Vista, still does a good job. Download and run once in a while, just for piece of mind. It's a shame the other 'must-have' spyware killer, Adaware, has shot itself in the foot with its 2007 release as it has an 'updater' that permanently runs in the background, which is rather ironic when you think about it.

4) 7-zip - Windows does an okay job of integrating zip-file functionality, but doesn't deal with other compressed formats, notably *.rar. 7zip is to my mind the king of compression software. Small, discreet, well-written, and very very powerful.

5) Google Talk - Instant messaging, file transfer, VoIP telephone calls, and email notification. Essential for those with a gmail account, useless otherwise. You do use gmail though, right?

6) uTorrent - Contrary to popular belief, there are legal uses to file-sharing software. Just the other day I downloaded the freeware version of Rebirth RB338, which is only available as a torrent. Of course, the less-than-legal use of such technology (which of course I whole-heartedly condemn) is why there are hundreds of bit-torrent clients, of which uTorrent consistently gets the best reviews.

7) Picasa - While I'm a little bit alarmed by Google's increasing world dominance, there no denying that if you like fast, useful software, much of their stuff is up there with the best. Picasa is a pretty good photo management software, and has a fair stab at being photo editor, but its strongest feature is a seamless link to an excellent web album. If you already have a google account, it's the easiest way of publishing photos on the web.

8) Paint.NET - Windows' old Paint program is a throwback to the days of Windows 3.1 and I was astounded to see it still bundled with Vista. Yet on many occasions you don't want to open up Photoshop or the GIMP just to save a screen grab, or to do some simple image editing. Enter stage left Paint.NET, the MS-approved-unofficial-replacement to Paint. It is simple, quick, yet vastly more powerful that its predecessor.

9) Real Alternative - RealPlayer is a horrible bit of software. The default install spreads itself everywhere, tried to hijack your system so that it is the default player for everything, throwing popups every now and again, nagging you to update it every 5 minutes, and generally being a pain in the arse. Unfortunately, if you are outside the UK, to listen to BBC Radio online you have to use it - or so I thought! Fortunately there is an alternative - the Real Alternative only installs the codec (the file required to decode audio data encoded in a certain format) that RealPlayer uses, thus letting you listen to the BBC free and without hassle.

10) Foxit Reader - For similar reasons to number (9) above, I don't like Acrobat Reader. The latest version is ridiculously slow, is bundled with all sorts of useless nonsense, and has an annoying 'update' program which lurks around in the background. There are variety of alternative pdf readers, but this one was the first I found, and I can see absolutely no reason to change, as it is small, unobtrusive, and over twice as fast as Adobe Reader. And while we're talking about pdfs, don't forget there are some nifty tools that such as PDF995 and Bullzip that let you 'print' a pdf.

Lastly, honourable mention should go to something which is less software and more of a service. Google Notebook is essentially a mobile, searchable, bookmarks folder, which lets you save interesting pages or useful bits of text, and access them via the web from anywhere in the world. When combined with the relevant Firefox extension, I think it is the single most useful thing that has come out of internet development for several years. Of course, all this means that I am now sharing my emails, photos and personal favourites which one of the largest companies on earth...let's just hope they stick to their "Don't be evil" motto!


Rich said...

excellent choices, a few of my own favourites are:

RocketDock (

Nice icon dock for launching applications.

Launchy (

Quick way of launching programs on your computer using the keyboard.

Foobar2000 (

The 'firefox' of media players. Very simple (and fast) but extremely extensible.

Virtual PC 2007 (

A bit geeky I know - but you can run multiple operating systems under Windows.

MojoPac (

Install this on your removable drive, and it behaves like a portable version of Windows. This means you can install additional software entirely on your removable drive.

Mei said...

Greasemonkey for Firefox is loads of fun, you get Gmail Super Clean, and I think the Google Autopager script might be the best thing in the world...

Raoul said...

hehe, i recently bought my macbook pro, which i upgraded from my powerbook before. And i basically was looking forward to this. Almost like a ritual. You have a new machine and set it up with the apps you love and configure it to be "your" machine. But when you switch on your new mac the first time you have the option to copy the set-up/data/apps/... whatever from a previous machine (now, i'd never do that with my dell, iieuw). But most of the apps i had configured already and that copied flawlessly to the new machine: firefox + all of the plugins, chat clients + everything configure, music libraries, photo libraries and all of settings, everything. so no afternoon spending tweaking my new baby. progress...