One of the major benefits of having an Internet connection is gaining access to a vast repository of files for everyday consumption. Media, computer programs and documents can be readily obtained through different means, such as straightforward downloading, P2P and torrent. However, in recent years, this has also brought up rampant illegal distribution of copyrighted materials. Just typing in the name of the program from your favorite search engine yields websites where you can download commercial software at absolutely no cost, but at the expense of leaving behind “Thank you for visiting our site” souvenirs that can compromise your security, causes instability in your system and fill your system with annoying crap and worthless junk. It is basically a matter of accepting more serious annoyances in exchange for a small piece of convenience.
But why should you engage in this tradeoff if you can use alternatives without the cost, the annoyances and the legal liability? One of the major trends in recent years was the rise of non-profit, open-source projects and freeware programs that anybody can use and/or make changes to the source code. While I personally think that some programs are never irreplaceable (Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Flash comes to mind), for others, there were almost always a free alternative for any software. This includes entire operating systems (Ubuntu Linux), office suites (Open Office), media players, web browsers, file explorers, movie and animation editors, the list goes on and on.
In this regard, I decided to list down my favorite freeware programs. These programs are free with a capital F. That means, you don’t need to scourge the Internet for an alternate version for some fix or enhancement for the program, just download the installer from its home page (you can access the site simply by clicking on the title), install and enjoy it right away. The programs are listed in order of frequency of usage, and I also included other alternative programs apart from the main listing. That’s the thing with alternative computing, try out every alternative software you came across, then use what’s best for you.
These are my favorite Freewares:
- Winamp = I’ve been using Winamp since version 2 to play my music files. It is capable of playing more formats than WMP. It also has support for plugins, visualization and skins, making it heavily customizable. By installing the right plugin, you can rip a CD, burn music, convert media, stream the net and do plenty of other things. I also have iTunes, which IMO is the best program to manage your music library. Of course, it’s the only software you need to manage your iPod or iPhone, there are simply no substitutes. Like web browsers, there was also an overdose of media players out there, including Foobar (which is not particularly user-friendly), VLC (which was better for watching and encoding videos than other media players), Songbird (which uses the same interface as iTunes, and is also developed by Mozilla), Adobe Media Player, dbPowerAmp, RealPlayer, Amarok and MPlayer.
- 7Zip = if you’re a heavy downloader, file compression utility is an absolute necessity. For the uninitiated, file compression is used to combine one or more files into a single file, hence the word compression, making it ideal for sharing. As an added bonus, the total size of the files was also reduced. There was also the option to create multiple files in case that the file size is still massive. Decompression was the reverse, it’s the process of “taking out” the files from the compressed file, which was also called the archive. The purpose of file compression programs was to compress or decompress these files. Winzip and WinRAR are the most popular file compression programs, but the advantage of 7Zip over the two is that it’s a freeware. It doesn’t show a nag screen when opened, it can also open formats recognized by the other two (such as RAR, 7Z, CAB, LZH, etc), it also integrates into Windows’ context menu so that you can work directly from Explorer and it also lets you create self-extracting archives so that you can open the archive on computers without any file compression program.
- Irfanview = Irfanview can open nearly all types of media, including image, sound and video formats, but I generally use it for lightweight image manipulations. I use it to view pictures, convert images from one format to another and do basic tasks such as resizing, cropping, rotating and adjusting the image properties. It also has built-in effects that you can apply to images, but you can also import some Photoshop 8BF filters and download additional plugins. It can also edit animated GIF’s, do batch processing for multiple files and perform screen captures.
- Daemon Tools = in some cases, some programs won’t work if you don’t insert the program CD in your CD-ROM drive. This was usually the case, in particular, with games. Daemon Tools lets you activate virtual CD drives. You can then mount the game’s disc image and play the game without any CD. This is particularly useful in preserving the CD, since constantly accessing the CD from the drive will cause the CD to develop scratches sooner or later. Of course, you can’t fully appreciate Daemon Tools if you don’t have any tools to make CD images. I use the ISO Recorder Powertoy to make CD images. Making ISO’s is also a good way to backup your CD’s, and you can also create a copy of a CD by burning its ISO.
- CDBurnerXP = Nero used to be the premier software for burning. Unfortunately, many versions later, it has become a bloatware. It installs too many unnecessary components and it places too many processes and handles in memory. CDBurnerXP is an excellent and free alternative to Nero. It can make audio and data CD’s, and it can also burn from an image, which are what burning software are meant to be used for, anyway. Another free alternative would be Ashampoo Burning Studio Free.
- Adobe Reader = you will either love this one or hate it, and if it’s the latter, then you might as well install FoxIt Reader instead. As for me, I see no reason to switch programs, Adobe Reader has always been functional, I have yet to find a PDF file that broke, and it still integrates fairly well with web browsers. Also, the latest version loads faster than its predecessors. I also don’t need extra programs to create PDF files, Office 2007 has a free plugin that lets you save documents to PDF. BTW, if you’re annoyed with Adobe Reader’s auto-update feature, you can disable this by going to Edit > Preferences…. Select the General category and uncheck the “Check for Updates” checkbox from Application startup.
- Process Explorer = some malwares can get nasty by disabling Windows’ Task Manager. This way, even if antivirus software detects and removes malicious files, the virus remains active because it stays in memory, and it usually causes the CPU usage to max to 100% (which accounts for the PC slowdown on infected systems). Of course, this program isn’t just useful for manually disinfecting systems, you can also use it for ordinary usage to remove unnecessary processes and handles, or to kill apps that crash. The processes are shown in detailed and graphical description, and you can also locate components that consumes the most resources. BTW, if you don’t mind installing a few more programs, you might as well download the entire Sysinternals Suite, which contains, in addition to this program, AutoRuns, which is a good replacement for msconfig (or when it’s also disabled) and used to enable/disable/remove programs that Windows loads on startup, and RootKit Revealer, which hunts down advanced malwares known as rootkits.
- Stickies = this program takes its inspiration from, can you guess? 3M Post-Its. If you love to jot down notes or get a little forgetful of things, this program can be very handy. The stickies, as individual pieces are called, can be customized to your liking. A version is also available for PocketPC and Palm handsets, and you can sync them to the desktop.
- Digsby = if you still have separate clients for Yahoo, MSN, Google Talk and other messengers, you might want to try this one, because it can handle all of them. That’s right, now you don’t need to worry if your contacts uses different messengers. Hey, why not recommend this software to them also. Trillian is another multiprotocol messenger you can use.
- Notepad++ = at first, I never understood the purpose of Notepad. It lets you create simple text documents, but you cannot add formatting. That was then. A few years later, it has become one of the programs that I use very often. I use it to make source codes when programming, edit many types of files such as config, INI, playlists, registry entries, etc. and perform many other miscellaneous tasks. Notepad++ extends the capabilities of Notepad by including many functionalities not found in Notepad.
- TweakUI = if editing the registry or configuring Control Panel is not your thing, this program can help you activate or deactivate certain functionalities in Windows. For instance, you can use a custom picture for the “My Computer” and “Internet Explorer” toolbars, remove or change the arrow icon in shortcuts, show or hide icons you normally couldn’t (such as IE, My Computer, or My Documents), disable AutoRun for CD’s and removable disks (this one is very useful because most malwares propagate themselves by AutoRunning infected disks), activate ClearType, remove the “Shortcut to…” text when creating shortcuts and plenty of others.
- SandBoxie = the idea behind this program is simple: run your programs in a virtual area called a “sandbox.” It’s a very simple idea, and yet the program was very lightweight (it consumes less than 1MB of hard disk space, and its memory usage is almost negligible). Sandboxing a program ensures you that some programs won’t make changes to the computer’s system files. This one is particularly useful for web browsers, since some malwares propagate just by opening a certain websites, particularly p#rn and w@r3z sites. Once you’re done with your work, you can clear the contents of the sandbox to remove possible questionable files, but you can also recover certain files “out of” the sandbox should you want to. Sandbox also installs a button on the context menu to let you run any program in a sandbox. Programs, drives and folders can also be forced to run sandboxed.
- Clamwin = antivirus programs were such a bitch to pirate because pirated versions were almost always get caught, and the promised license duration was never reached. That’s why Clamwin was a godsend. It’s open-source, and you can update it forever. There’s no resident shield, however, but what the hell, that’s why I have Sandboxie. But at least, it has a high detection rate when scanning files.
- Paint.NET = this program was originally intended to replace PaintBrush, but it never happened. The interface of the program was similar to Photoshop, and, oh yeah, it really is a free alternative to PhotoShop. It also supports layers, and most of the functions here works the same as their PhotoShop counterparts. Paint.NET also supports plugins. Oddly though, the design of the program were actually more similar to Windows programs like Office and Paint rather than PhotoShop itself. In order to run Paint.NET, you also need to install .NET Framework. Another excellent alternative to PhotoShop is GIMP, and it was shaping up nicely as a serious competitor to PhotoShop. It was so popular, in fact, that the term gimp has effectively superseded the word photoshop as the de facto word for retouching images.
There are some other freeware programs that deserve to be mentioned here, including Webshots (it’s another photo management program, but its distinctive feature was to periodically change the wallpaper based on your collection according to the user-defined time interval), FreeRAM XP Pro (monitors the memory usage and frees memory if it goes down to a preset amount of memory, or according to a time interval), Orbit Downloader (it is both a download manager and a media grabber), ActiveSync or Phone Data Manager (synchronizes mobile phones to the desktop), [xplorer2 Lite] (file explorer), Defraggler (program for defragmenting disks with an option to select the program rather than defragmenting the entire disk), PowerCalc (scientific calculator), hijackThis and CCleaner (removes temporary files).