Software for Windows: A Dummies Guide to Free, Clean and Useful Software

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Choosing software for Windows can be a pain if you’re new, or fairly new, to Windows. There’s so much to pick from and knowing what is good and what isn’t can be a daunting trial and error task which just might leave you with more “software” installed than you bargained for, despite uninstalling it. Let’s cut the crap and get to what works!

Here are the most common types of software you are likely to run into:

  • Free, Open Source Software: FOSS – this is software which is not only free, but the source code is available as well. It is generally clean and free of malware since the source code is available for anyone to look at and compile.
  • Freeware: Perhaps the most common type, freeware is free to use but more likely to contain malware that may display ads (which i consider malware), or 3rd party components that you may not want installed.
  • Shareware/Commercial/Nagware: You can download it and try it, but you’ll likely have to pay a fee at some point to continue using it. The version you download may be crippled in some way or some functionality may expire after a given time. Quite often this type of software does not uninstall cleanly and leaves registry entries and other files and annoyances scattered about your system. Nagware will usually display some sort of annoying reminder to pay a fee in order to remove the annoyance.
  • Warez: Also known as cracked or hacked software, warez is typically shareware/commercial applications that have been modified to circumvent the licensing process. A word to the wise: stay away from this type of software, including key generators (keygen), cracks, patches, etc.. You will almost certainly become infected with malware (viruses, trojens, etc.) if you install or run such applications and your virus/malware scanner/firewall/etc. will not protect you in all instances as virus scanners can be fooled and firewall’s can be bypassed. Warez is probably one of the most popular methods of distributing trojans, or remote administration tools.

There’s a few good rules of thumb worth keeping in mind when looking for software:

  1. Though not always, open source software, such as that available from Sourceforge, Open Source Initiative, Open Source Windows and many others, are generally smaller, more powerful and adware and malware free when compared to their freeware counterparts and, in some cases, even their commercial counterparts. They usually install cleanly, meaning they don’t dump files all over the place on your system unnecessarily, and uninstall cleanly.
  2. If you can’t find an open source application to fit your needs, try looking on trusted freeware sites like Nonags, Softpedia, AnalogX, NirSoft or elsewhere.
  3. When installing freeware, pay attention to the license agreement and step through the installer carefully. In order to keep a perfectly good application free the developer may package 3rd party components, such as browser toolbars, with the installer so they can earn a few bucks. This is fine, but make sure you can opt out of installing the undesirable components.
  4. Before you download an application you can check if it has been reported as containing malware at several online databases, such as Kephyr, SpywareGuide, eConsultant, etc..
  5. Open source or not, scan everything you download before you install it with at least a good virus scanner but also, preferably, with a good malware scanner as well. One of the dangers is that web sites that offer perfectly good free software may add malware to the application you download.

So let’s take look of what i have found works over the many years i’ve been using Windows. Keep in mind that i use Windows XP and log on as administrator. Your mileage may vary if you use a different Windows version or operate in a different environment. First and foremost should be security; you should have some basic security applications available before you go further.

SECURITY/PRIVACY:

A note on security: Personally i don’t think that crippling an operating system in order to protect it is the way to go. As such i typically do not use applications which automatically scan every file that is downloaded, executed, modified, created or accessed. Do you really need a bloated security suite watching over your shoulder as you work, slowing down your system and eating up resources? With a moderate helping of common sense and careful software choices you’ll find that malware is pretty much a thing of the past. On the other hand, if you’re willing to download and install an application without doing a little reading first, or willing open that hilarious email attachment that your best friend sent you, then my logic will not work for you. The same is true if you use many native Windows applications (Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, etc.) without learning about and configuring their security settings first. In my opinion the best alternative is to never install such applications and replace the missing functionality with more secure and often more functional alternatives.

Lastly, if you think you are well protected from outside threats, having installed the latest and greatest no-leak firewall, system monitor, security suite, port blocker, etc., etc., you aren’t, nor will you ever be. Security is a balancing act where functionality is sacrificed for protection. How much you’re willing to cripple your system in order to protect it is a personal decision, though there are some common standards, if you will, such as having a software firewall, something to detect malware and using your brain.

  • Firewall: The Windows firewall offers limited functionality and i have yet to find a firewall for Windows that i trust and isn’t bloated with system crippling annoyances like Comodo, Syamantec/Norton and other “security suites” in general. There are no open source firewall’s for Windows that i am aware of that are worth mentioning at this time. Currently i’m using an old version (1.0.1817) of Agnitum Outpost Firewall. You can get it at Major Geeks without giving up your email address. Another worthy mention is the last free version of Kerio Personal Firewall v2.1.5, which is a newer version of the older Tiny Personal Firewall. Of course you can always use the immensely popular Comodo Firewall but, personally, i find it to be a bloated, annoying, buggy, un-intuitive, counter-productive resource hog with a cartoonish interface.
  • Anti Virus:ClamWin, without hesitation. Unlike most other virus scanners, ClamWin does not do background scanning (scan files as you download and execute them), therefore you need to manually scan all downloads and email attachments. ClamWin makes this easy by integrating itself into the Windows Explorer context menu: right click a file/folder > Scan with ClamWin. ClamWin is small, free and open source.
  • Malware Scanner: I haven’t been using it very long, but i find a-squared (a2) to be a good malware scanner. I use the command line version since i’m a bit of a minimalist and i don’t need the graphic a-squared Free version with the GUI.
  • Plugging Security Holes:xpy is a tiny open source application that can change some important system settings and plug a few security holes. If you’re running XP Professional you’ll want to learn about the Group Policy Editor. I assume such options are available for other NT operating systems as well, but i’m not familiar with any of them.
  • Password Management: KeyPass Password Safe is a gem of a utility that is fantastic for storing passwords and other personal data securely. It is free, open source, extendable, stable, configurable and simple to use.
  • System Monitoring: StartupMonitor is a small, unobtrusive application that runs in the background (no tray icon, no window) and checks for applications that set themselves to run when windows starts and allows you to accept or deny the behavior. If you’re really concerned with security this is not the tool you want, but if you just want a simply little application to warn you when some application decides it should start with Windows, this gets the job done.
  • File Utilities: HashTab is a cool little extension for Windows Explorer that adds a new “File Hashes” tab when you right click a file and choose “Properties”, making it easy to compare file hashes. Hashes are signatures that can be used verify the integrity of the file, such as by comparing the hash of the file you downloaded to the one the author has posted on their web site. FileAlyzer is another handy Explorer extension that can be used to view all kinds of detailed information about a file, including HEX view, PE headers, text preview, resource information, icons, etc..
  • Encryption:AxCrypt and TrueCrypt are both very good and open source.

INTERNET:

  • Web Browser: I’ll make pretend Internet Explorer doesn’t exist, as it’s the worst choice as far as security, functionality and following web standards. That leaves a respectable number of very attractive alternatives though, of which i’ll name 2: If your not looking to fool around with add-ons and tweaks and you just want a simple, secure, fast and functional browser out of the box, Opera is probably the way to go and it can be extended and customized if you wish. However if you want pretty much total control over your browser and wish to extend it’s capability to suit your every whim and you want the ultimate in hackability, then Mozilla Firefox might be a better idea.
  • Email: I only have any real experience with 2 email clients: Outlook Express, which is not installed on my system (removed with nLite), and Mozilla Thunderbird. The former, like IE, i’ll make pretend doesn’t exist and if you’re concerned with security you might want to do the same. T-Bird is a pretty good client and, like Firefox, is open source and extendable with plugins. I think anyone who’s familiar with Outlook Express will find the migration to Thunderbird fairly intuitive. The truth is though, i don’t often run my email client anymore. That’s because i use a really cool email checking utility that can automatically check, preview, delete and reply to emails. It is Pop Peeper and i highly recommend it! The only other application i’ve found that has all the features i want is PopTray. I like the interface of the former, but the latter has some spam filtering capability, something the developer of Pop Peeper has been threatening to incorporate… for years 🙂
  • Communication: Miranda gets my vote for an instant messenger (IM). It’s free, highly customizable, extendable, fast and small. It can be less than stable with the wrong combination of plugins, but overall it can’t be beat… unless you want voice capability, which it does not have.
  • FTP: FileZilla – free, open source, powerful, reliable, stable, simple.
  • P2P: I’m actually in the midst of trying to find something i like, having become dissatisfied with the applications i had been using, including uTorrent for a which is closed source and was taken over by BitTorrent, who’s ethics are questionable. Halite, an open source BitTorrent client, is looking pretty good but it’s still in the early stages of development.

GAMES:

  • First Person Shooter: Although not the most attractive in terms of graphics, what Sauerbraten (AKA Cube 2) lacks in that department it more than makes up for in raw fun! It is a fast, fun, free, open source, multi-platform first person shooter (FPS) that is easily playable with high pings, even over dial-up, and it runs well on old hardware. If Sauerbraten doesn’t float your boat, try Urban Terror which is richer in the graphics department but requires a more powerful system as well.

SYSTEM UTILITIES:

  • System Information: The free version of SIW – System Information for Windows – is pretty good. It also has a bunch of other fun do-dads like the ability to patch the TCP/IP stack, a MAC address changer and more. Another incredibly useful utility i found is System Explorer. For even more powerful system utilities, see the Sysinternals web site.
  • Software Uninstaller:Revo Uninstaller gets a high mark in my book! It is an easy and fairly safe to use replacement for the Windows Add or Remove Programs utility. Revo does a much better job by hunting down junk that applications typically leave behind. There is a tradeoff though: Revo is easy to use because you don’t need to take a snapshot of your system before you install an application — you just is instead of the Windows add/remove control panel utility. This means that Revo cannot possibly find or remove everything that some applications may leave behind. If you want such functionality i would recommend ZSoft Uninstaller instead.
  • System Cleaner: There are 2 i use all the time: CCleaner and the free version of Wise Registry Cleaner. If you’re new to Windows, be very careful with any system cleaning utility. Any of them can really mess up your system if you’re not careful.
  • Hard Drive Maintenance: You absolutely need to defragment your hard drive(s) in order to prevent problems and there’s plenty of applications to do so, several of which i’ve played with. Ultimately, i went back to using the built-in Windows defragmenter. It’s not powerful, but it works and i notice no difference in system speed no matter what application i use. You might want to execute it earlier in the boot process by running it from the “RunOnce” registry key: Run “regedit” and navigate to “HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\RunOnce”. Edit the “default” string value and enter the following, making sure you edit the path as necessary: c:\windows\system32\defrag.exe c: /F
    If you really want an alternative to the native Windows defrag utility there are many from which to choose, but check out Quicksys DiskDefrag which looks kind of interesting. For a graphical representation of the space that is used by files and folders on your drive(s), check out OverDisk. To defragment the registry and paging files, check out PageDefrag.
  • Forensics: You deleted a file, perhaps by holding down the “Shift” key (therefore bypassing the recycle bin) and now you need it back. Recuva is an easy to use recovery utility.

MEDIA:

  • Audio Player: foobar2000 is a popular, free, powerful, small, highly configurable audio player that handles most file types. It also supports plugins.
  • MP3/Audio Utilities: MP3Gain is really a great little open source utility to normalize the volume of your MP3’s. Mp3tag is one of the very best utilities i’ve found for tagging your music.
  • DVD Authoring: DVD Flick is dirt simple to use and can convert many different video formats to a DVD format. It is open source, actively developed and supports menus. For backing up DVD’s, see DVDShrink. It’s been around a long time, is really simple to use and works well.
  • Image Editing/Viewing: The hard core may like GIMP and, if you look around, you’ll find several modified builds of GIMP that have different features. An up and coming player which is open source and has a nice user interface is Paint.NET, but it relies on the .NET Framework. There are few others that have any real power that i’ve found. For viewing graphics XnView is good and so is IrfanView, both of which have some basic editing functionality.
  • Video Player: Both VLC and Media Player Classic Home Cinema are great choices and are open source. I prefer the latter as it has more of a native Windows look and feel. To play RealMedia and Apple QuickTime formats, i suggest not installing their players and, instead, using Real Alternative and QuickTime Alternative. This is somewhat new ground for me as i’m trying to break away from the huge “codec packs” i had been using, namely the K-Lite Codec Pack or the Satsuki Decoder Pack. So far MPC with the Real and QT alternatives has played anything i’ve thrown at it.
  • CD/DVD Burning: ImgBurn is a tiny, free, powerful, highly configurable CD/DVD writing application. InfraRecorder is another nice piece with an explorer-like interface and it’s open source.
  • Media Cataloging: I can only recommend one piece of software for movie cataloging since that’s all i have used, and Personal Video Database is that software. It has a nice, clean interface and is very easy to use. Cataloging a typical movie takes a few mouse clicks and as many seconds importing data from whatever source you choose, such as Amazon, IMDB, etc..

EDITORS/CODE:

  • Text/Code Editor: There are 3 that i’ve found over the years that are powerful and work fairly well: PSPad, Notepad++ and RJ TextEd. PSPad is good, but the edit control it uses does not support true column editing mode nor does it do code folding at this time — both show stoppers for many. Notepad++ is pretty nice, has been around a long time and is worth checking out. RJ TextEd i’ve never heard of until recently. It may be the newest kid on the block but it is showing allot of promise. The interface is pretty slick and the developer is friendly and quick to fix problems. I’d have to say that RJ TextEd is the little diamond in the rough at this point and i’m surprised not many are using it. Except for the lack of code folding and column edit mode in PSPad, all 3 have pretty much all the toys most would want, including project management, FTP capability, syntax highlighting, powerful find and replace capability, add-on capability and plenty more. All suffer from serious bugs, but all are under constant development. Notepad++ seems to do best with encoding detection and has some really nice options in this regard while PSPad is the worst and RJ TextEd is in the middle.
  • Web Site Authoring: I use a commercial application but have used NVU and the NVU bug fix version, KompoZer in the past. It appears development has stopped in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Another decent looking application that is actively developed is Amaya which is maintained by the W3C. All are free, open source and multi-platform. Also check out Color Cop, a slick little utility to grab and convert screen colors.
  • Office: OpenOffice.org is a free, open source and powerful alternative to Microsoft Office. You do not have to install Java if you don’t require some of its functionality.
  • PDF: OpenOffice.org can export PDF files, but to view them you’ll need something else. Recently i’ve come to prefer the free version of PDF-XChange Viewer. It is a nagware application in that it displays a small, unobtrusive button that links to the pro version, but it works well, is reasonably fast to load and has less bloat than Adobe’s reader. You also have some control over what plugins you want to install with it and they offer a portable version.
  • Programming: For those wanting to write their own applications, check out AutoIt. Used by newbies and pros alike, AutoIt is a fun application to use and can build stand alone executables. It’s really quite powerful if you take the time to learn its basic-like scripting language and capabilities. Also check out Koda FormDesigner for AutoIt. With AutoIt, the Scite editor and the Koda form designer, you have a complete package to design forms (GUI’s), build and compile your own applications. I would submit that AutoIt is the easiest way for newcomers to learn programming.

MISC. UTILITIES:

  • Archive Handling: Universal Extractor is an AutoIt application that wraps around a bunch of free archive handling utilities. It is small and works well and can handle almost anything you throw at it, including many installers (MSI, Inno, etc.). If you need to be able build archives, check out IZArc.
  • Explorer Extensions: Open++ is a slick little add-on for Explorer that allows you to create your own context menu.
  • Unit Conversion:Das Unit Converter can convert pretty much anything you’d want to convert. Converber is another.

article by atomMan

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