Desktop operating systems like Windows and macOS don’t get all the attention anymore. It’s a mobile world, but we have not fully abandoned the desktop. The real work (and a lot of the play) of computing requires a full personal computer system. To get the most out of that, you need software.
Software can be expensive if you’re not smart about it. Free programs have been a mainstay of the desktop experience for decades, and the offerings only get more powerful and fascinating. As PCs compete with smartphones, it gets even better. Software developers can adopt an ad-based model, donation-ware to keep things afloat, or a shareware/freemium model that charges for extra features.
Something to always watch for: crapware installers. To make ends meet, many creators of otherwise great free software, or the services that offer the programs for download, bundle in things you don’t want. Worse, the installation routine obfuscates the steps, so you provide the unwanted program tacit permission to be installed. For more about how to spot and avoid this problem, see How to Clean Crapware From a New PC, and check out the Uninstaller section of this very free software collection.
One tip that helps prevent the extra crapware onslaught: only download desktop software from the maker of the software directly. It’s not foolproof—after all, developers want to eat, too—but it helps. That’s why one of the criteria for inclusion here is that the program is available directly from its maker.
- The software must typically have a Windows-based download. In some cases, we’ve included web-based versions that are as good, or better, than some downloadable programs.
- If it’s on a tiered sales model, the free version cannot be trial-ware. It has to have at least a free-for-life option.
- The program should have little or no advertising to support it. Some freemium software depends on showing ads to exist, however. We’ll include some if they don’t suck.
- Software for productivity is what this list is about; there’s plenty of other places to find free games.
So take a look at this massive list. Tell us in the comments if we missed your absolute favorite piece of free software.
For more free software, check out The 100 Best iPhone Apps and The 100 Best Android Apps.
Avast Free Antivirus
The free Avast scores very well in testing and it scours more than just your PC. It’ll go out on the network and check your router for security holes. Its built-in phishing protection is better than ever; there’s even a basic password manager.
Read our review of Avast Free Antivirus.
Kaspersky Free has perfect scores from independent antivirus labs and our phishing tests. The only thing it lacks is direct tech support. (And yes, we know there are allegations about ties to the Russian government, but haven’t seen any proof yet.)
Read our review of Kapersky Free.
Want more options? Read The Best Free Antivirus Protection.
Open-source Audacity can record and edit audio files on more tracks than you can imagine. It then outputs exactly what you need, even to MP3 if you use a plug-in. It is perfect for noobs and pros alike, on any desktop OS.
Easier to master than Audacity, because it doesn’t have quite as many extras, ocenaudio still features real-time previews of audio, works across all the desktop OSes, supports plug-ins for new effects, and more.
Back-Up & Synchronization
Simply put files in your Dropbox folder on the desktop, and they are uploaded to the cloud and synchronized with any other PC on the account. Files are also accessible via apps or the web. If you delete a file by accident, you can use the website to get it back. Dropbox offers 2GB of free online storage.
Read our review of Dropbox.
Consider OneDrive the most flexible and all-encompassing sync and back-up tool going. It’s the official cloud storage for users of Microsoft Office and Windows 10 (it’s built right into the OS). OneDrive includes 5GB of free online storage. If you subscribe to Office 365 Home, that storage jumps up to 1TB per user.
Read our review of Microsoft OneDrive.
You get 5GB free from IDrive to back up files from all your devices. If that’s enough, you’ll find this service more than up to your needs. It’ll even back up your photos and videos from Facebook.
Read our review of IDrive.
(Wondering about Google Drive? It’s on the list, but down under Office Suites.)
The venerable browser Firefox remains our Editors’ Choice. That’s because it’s highly customizable, strong on security and privacy and performance, and supports a slew of new standards.
Read our review of Firefox, plus our Top Firefox Tips.
It’s been a leading browser since its debut in 2008, especially when it comes to speed and minimalism. Chrome still ranks high as a browser to keep in your arsenal. Especially if you’re a devotee to Google products—and it’s built right into the ChromeOS on Chromebooks so much that it practically is the OS. However, it’s probably not the browser you want if you’re a privacy advocate.
Read our review of Google Chrome, plus our Top Chrome Tips.
Clean-Up / Maintenance Utilities
The first C is for Crap! CCleaner is practically essential for keeping a system going, especially Windows. What CCleaner does is simple: it cleans up extraneous files that gunk up the OS and browsers. Get it and run it, regularly. It’ll even delete some apps you didn’t think you could get rid of—like those provided in Windows 10, whether you wanted them or not.
Read our preview of CCleaner Professional Plus.
Defragmenting a hard disk has become a little passé in the age of terabyte drives, but it’s still a smart thing to do to eke out a little more data-access speed. Defraggler’s interface makes it brain-dead simple to do. It even works with solid-state drives (SSDs).
Tuning up a PC is a lonely process. SlimCleaner introduces community-based problem solving to the mix; it makes improvements based on data collected from all users. Previous versions have earned our Editors’ Choice award for free tune-up utilities.
Skype is synonymous with video conferencing. There’s a reason our Editors’ Choice review says Skype, now run by Microsoft, is “a highly polished, hugely functional service that runs on every platform you can think of (including the browser) and offers more communication options than any of its competitors.” For free, you can make unlimited video calls between Skype users, even with groups of users. Plus, its real-time translation ability is straight out of science fiction.
Read our review of Skype for Windows.
Up to three people on PCs can use this service to video chat and even share screens, all without fees or any setup other than sharing a URL or organizer code. Sign up for an account or sign in with your Google or Facebook accounts, and claim a regular-to-use meeting “room” online. Because it’s web-based, it works for Linux, Mac, or Windows, even on a Chromebook.
Read our review of the full GoToMeeting.
Want to host an online conference for you and 100 of your closest friends? Zoom can let them all view what you’re showing for up to 40 minutes from any device, even a smartphone. It will also allow direct one-on-one HD video meetings. Plus you can chat all you want.
Ebooks and Digital Comics
Amazon-owned Comixology is well known as the store for purchasing digital comics from just about all the major funny-book publishers; its free apps are how you read them. The app is a wonder, making page-by-page or panel-by-panel reading a delight, especially on a comic-book-page-sized tablet. The synced view means you stop on one device and pick up at the next one in the same spot. Pair it with Comixology’s unlimited reading subscription option or buy new comics the same day they appear in stores. For comic book nerds, it’s a must. (Windows users will have to stick with the Web interface.)
Read our review of Comixology, plus Everything You Need to Know about Digital Comics.
Practically the de facto reader for ebooks these days, the Kindle brand is more than just hardware—it extends to these apps and programs for reading ebooks (which you have to buy from Amazon, of course). Start the book on any device, continue it elsewhere—the Kindle WhisperSync feature knows where you stopped reading. X-Ray gives you insight into the book; GoodReads integration gives you a social aspect. PageFlip lets you keep your page while scouring the rest of the book.
Rakuten OverDrive is a service to make it easier to get library books on your devices for reading, while still following library rules. Libby is the app built for that feature, and it works with ebooks, graphic novels, audiobooks (which you can stream to save space), and even magazines. You need a library card and the rest is easy. It’ll even send books to your Kindle if you prefer to read there.
If you’ve got a lot of ebook files, Calibre is the open-source tool you need to organize them. It converts files into different formats, so you can use ebooks on many different devices, with which it will also sync. It’s constantly updated with new features and support for non-Amazon ebook reader hardware, like the devices from Kobo.
If you’ve got a Microsoft account, you have access to Outlook.com, the successor to Hotmail and Live mail and our Editors’ Choice for web-based email. There’s still the Outlook program itself for Windows and Mac—it comes with Microsoft Office—but this free option is a perfect, minimalist, consumer-based webmail, complete with OneDrive integration. Interesting features include Sweeps, so you can, for example, delete all messages from one sender at once, and built-in chat—including Skype video chat. The version for iOS is particularly great.
Read our review of Outlook.com and Outlook for iPhone.
The ultra-popular option for individuals and businesses alike, Gmail sports a clean interface and works with a lot, if not all, third-party email apps you can imagine. Plus, it probably has the best spam filter you’ll ever use. Last year, it got an overhaul with several new features, just ahead of its 15th birthday.
Read our Top Tips for Gmail.
Mozilla’s email client extraordinaire still has all the features that made it great even years ago: account setup wizards, multiple languages, hundreds of add-ons, a tabbed interface, great search, junk mail and phishing tools, and the option for a personalized email address with your own choice of a domain name. Migration from previous versions is a breeze and worth it if you’re on the desktop.
The free home version of this client software works with only two email accounts and lacks VIP support; otherwise, it’s feature-laden software that works with any kind of email, including services like Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud, Exchange, and Outlook.com, complete with contact imports, calendar, task lists, and chat.
If you use a desktop email client like Outlook, Thunderbird, or even Windows Mail, you’re probably not getting as much spam-fighting power—especially with POP3 email accounts. Stick SPAMfigher on the system—it works directly with Microsoft to make it as tough against spam as possible. The Windows version is totally free for home use.
File Recovery and Deletion
Recuva (say it out loud) is a must on the tool belt of any techie, as it’ll be key to helping some wayward soul get back a lost file. It’s easy to understand, though should really be installed before you lose a file for utmost effectiveness. It’s portable, so you have the option to run it from a USB thumb drive (thus not overwriting that lost file on your drive by installing Recuva at the last minute.)
Read our review of Recuva.
TestDisk does a lot more than just find some lost files. It can recover an entire lost hard drive partition, and makes what was once a non-bootable disk drive bootable again. It’s open source so it might not have as fancy a user interface as you’re used to—but it’s powerful. Companion tool PhotoRec specializes in recovering lost images. For more, read How to Recover Deleted Files.
The opposite of file recovery is utter destruction—the kind of thing you do to keep a file out of someone else’s hands. Eraser does just that, writing over the spot on your drive where the file(s) lived until it’s scrubbed clean, with no chance of it coming back to haunt you. Use it to schedule a wipe of the free space on the disk, or just to purge your recycle bin. During setup you get the option to install an extension for Windows Explorer so you can wipe files or free space instantly.
The former computer-science project is now one of the best standalone file transfer protocol (FTP) clients around. It’s a must-have for website owner who transfer a lot of files to a server, fast. It comes in a client and Windows-only server option.
Windows copies files between folders and drives just fine. TeraCopy takes over that job and makes it sing—it’s faster, better looking, provides more information/feedback, and can recover from transfer errors.
Still one of the biggest clients for downloading and uploading torrent files, you can use it on its own or pair it with web or mobile accounts to start downloads remotely. It’s ad-supported, but you can kill the commercials for $5/year. It’s also had some security problems in the past, so caveat emptor.
Volunteers use their free time to perfect this open-source torrent product that has all the features you need and probably want (sans unnecessary extras), including a media player and ability to search for new torrents across sites. Available in 70 languages, it’s got a very µTorrent-esque interface.
There are many, many attempts out there to replace Windows Explorer (a file manager marinating in weak sauce). Multi Commander stands out, providing multiple tabs, a file viewer, and dual panels to efficiently show you everything. Maybe too much! It’s got more features than can be covered here.
Another file manager with the rank of Commander, this time with “free” right in the name: FreeCommander (which is actually donation-ware) also throws up dual panels and tabs with an optional tree view to get the most out of viewing files within Windows.
Eventually in this life, you’re going to run into an archive file—a single file with multiple files stored (and compressed) inside it. They have different extensions, from RAR to ZIP to 7z and many more, and sometimes the program to open them costs you. Not 7-Zip. It opens all of those and more, and allows creation of new archives. It’ll even encrypt the contents for safety. It’s entirely open source.
Burning a few (or a lot of) CDs or DVDs from image files? Grab the free ImgBurn tool. It makes it a breeze to not only read an image file but also create an image or write the image to a disc or drive.
Don’t let the XP in the name fool you, this is a frequently updated tool for burning ISO images and much more to CDs and DVDs. It comes in multiple languages and lists all the drives with which it’s compatible. It works on all versions of Windows.
File Viewers and Converters
IrfanView (pronounced ear-fan-view) has been the leader in file viewing for over two decades. Not only does it view multiple file types, it can convert them, batch process changes, even play media. Plug-ins and add-ons give it even more power.
With an enhanced version that works across platforms, XnView MP actually has multiple uses, like batch file conversion and support for 500 image formats (it can export 70 of them). It’s only free for private or educational use.
FastStone Image Viewer
View, manage, and compare your images with this fast and intuitive freebie. It supports a slew of image formats, plus a ton of RAW image formats from specific digital camera manufacturers. It has companion apps for screenshots and photo resizing.
Graphics and Imaging
Is Paint.net a perfect replacement for Photoshop? Nothing is as powerful, but at this price—utterly free—it is pretty close. For any minor (and some major) picture manipulation, it’s fast, comprehensive, and easy to use.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) remains our Editors’ Choice for free image editing for good reason. It has all the high-end tools you could want for playing with graphics and, naturally, costs a lot less than Photoshop; 100 percent less, in fact.
Vector graphics illustration tools typically cost a lot but not Inkscape. You’ll be designing, drawing, and shaping gorgeous SVG formatted files in no time with this tool. Check the online gallery for excellent examples of its capabilities.
Icecream Image Resizer
Icecream Apps has a lot of nice programs, but the most useful for designers with a batch of graphics that need a quick resize is the aptly named Image Resizer. Drag images to it, pick a size and a destination folder, and they’ll be converted in an eye-blink.
Snapped up by the owners of the 123rf stock photo agency, Pixlr’s gone through a change. The Pixlr Editor is still available to give you Photoshop-like tools in the web browser—but it requires Adobe Flash, and no one wants to turn that back on. Instead, the new Pixlr X is here, a “next generation” online photo editor for making quick adjustments and retouches to a photo when more advanced tools aren’t available. Every change is automatically saved and it also works directly with Dropbox.
Adobe Photoshop Express
When you don’t need the full strength of Photoshop, but still want Adobe in your arsenal, the low-end, consumer-oriented Express is there to help you with basics of image editing. It’ll auto-fix a lot in your images, plus has photo filters and, of course, in-app purchases to extend functions. For Windows, you’ll find it in the Microsoft Store.
Read our review of Photoshop Express for Windows and iPhone.
Google Earth Pro
As if high-end software that lets you fly across the globe isn’t cool enough (especially with all the same online features of its sibling, Google Maps), Google Earth Pro—with its advanced features, like high-res printing, distance measuring, and global guided tours—is totally free. It also comes in a web-only version now.
Bing Maps/Windows Maps
Microsoft provides the only real desktop competition for Google. On the web, it comes complete with search, integrated ratings from Yelp and TripAdvisor, and more. Windows Maps in the Microsoft Store is the desktop program equivalent; if you have Windows 10, it’s probably already installed.
Xbox, PlayStation, Smart TV, Smart Speaker
If all you need in life is a constant shuffle play of your music (with the occasional advertisement), then Spotify is for you. It offers 50+ million song possibilities no matter where you are, on every possible device you can think of. The free version is ad-supported, which is why Spotify wants you to subscribe for $10 per month; but if you can get over those confines, you’re no worse off than when listening to FM radio, and arguably far ahead.
Read our review of Spotify and Top Spotify Tips.
Sick of iTunes? We all are (even Apple). MediaMonkey provides almost all the same media management, playlists, and tagging capabilities as Apple’s bloatware—and even syncs media with your iOS-based devices. The Android app version means other phones are also covered. It’ll even sync over Wi-Fi (Android only).
Remember WinAmp? Foobar2000 remains the modern equivalent, a desktop audio player with a concentration on quality. It’s unique in a world of online-radio services in that way. It’s also worth it if you’re an audiophile with big sound files (or just use CDs).
VLC media player
After a big cross-platform upgrade, the much-loved VLC got even more awesome. Already a premier way to watch just about any video, ever, no matter what the weird codec, the latest has features like auto-rotating smartphone videos taken at the wrong orientation, and resuming playback from where you stopped. It even supports HDR10 and Google Chromecast streaming. Seriously, VLC plays back anything and guarantees it comes with no ads, tracking, or spyware.
For more, read How to Play DVDs in Windows 10.
Kodi has become the open-source serious media center. Run the software in one place and stream all your media (you bring the content) to other devices. It’s all about content, so it’s the best option in many ways for a home media center.
For more, read How to Install, Update, and Use Kodi.
PlayStation, Xbox, Nvidia Shield, Chromecast, TiVo, Apple TV, Sonos, Roku, Smart TVs, NAS Devices, Smart speakers
If you don’t know or care what a media server is—you just want to stream your videos and music collection around the house—Plex is probably for you. Install it on all your devices, point it at some media, and those audio and video files become available on everything. Even remotely over the internet.
Read our review of Plex.
Over 250 million users and counting are using Discord for text and voice and video chatting—mainly while kicking each other’s asses in online games. It’s such a big deal with gamers, Discord even launched a game store to compete with Steam. (Maybe because Steam also has a chat option.)
One of the new class of messaging services with an ecosystems of apps, Telegram delivers not only easy communications, but also encryption security end-to-end. It’s a standout on iPhone, and has native apps on just about every platform available. Send messages, files, photos, animated GIFs (the search is built in), and create channels of up to 5,000 people to broadcast to.
Read our review ofTelegram Messenger (for iPhone).
Our favorite messaging service takes security seriously—it’s Snowden-approved!—using its own open-source protocol to do end-to-end encryption, even on voice calls. It’s not as much fun as some of the others, but supports sending photos and video, plus group messaging. On Android, Signal can completely replace the SMS texting app; on iPhone you need to get other users to download Signal or you can’t talk to them.
Read our review of Signal (for iPhone) and Top Signal Tips.
It’s not super popular in the US and not even our favorite messaging app, but you can’t ignore the 800-pound messaging gorilla that is WhatsApp. It has over 1.5 billion users worldwide. It offers end-to-end encryption, has animated GIF support, group chat for up to 256 people, document sharing, voice and video calls, one-tap voice messages, and a web-based interface you access by scanning a QR code with the app on your mobile device.
Read our review of WhatApp Messenger (for iPhone) and Top WhatsApp Tips.
Described as a “messaging app / former Emperor of Austria,” you can tell from the web page that Franz is gonna be fun—and useful. The sheer number of services it supports is huge: Slack, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Gmail, Outlook.com, and HipChat to start. You can add a service multiple times if you have multiple accounts.
This set of 10 Windows tools will keep an eye on the network. It includes network/port scanner, traceroute, bandwidth test, and a lot more.
Network pros who need a protocol analyzer and packet sniffer should add Wireshark to their tool box. It captures data that can tell you plenty about your network.
Evernote has one use: be your online repository for everything. Scan it, shoot it, type it, whatever, just put it in Evernote to find later. Most text, even in pictures, is OCRed (optical character recognition) so it’s searchable later. Organize the notes into Notebooks, then access it anywhere. Despite some severe ups and downs in its business model, it remains our Editors’ Choice for note-taking apps on multiple platforms—even if you can only use two devices (plus the Web interface) for free.
Once just a part of Microsoft Office, the sublime OneNote has become a free, standalone powerhouse download for note-taking across all the major OSes. Of course, it still works with Office, syncs data across all platforms, and has full online access via Office.com with storage via OneDrive.
Read our review of OneNote for Mac and Web.
The most basic of online note-taking tools, Google’s attempt is like advanced, customizable, high-end sticky notes you keep online. Here are a few reasons you might want to check it out.
Read our review of Google Keep.
This is the now-classic ultimate replacement for the anemic Notepad included in all versions of Windows. Its multiple tabs, color-coded nest text, macro support, and WYSIWYG printing make it a must for anyone who hand-codes text for programming, or just wants to write with a minimalist interface.
Notes created in this simple but powerful app are automatically stored online (you need a Simplenote account to use it). Multiple versions of notes are saved when changes are made, in case you need an old copy. It supports markdown for formatting text a little better, but best of all works with a lot of top-flight downloadable desktop note-taking tools like ResophNotes for Windows and Notational Velocity for the Mac.
Office Suites and Presentations
Google Drive has morphed over the years to become the official place where you store your cloud files for use with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides (Drive’s online and mobile equivalents to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint). If you utilize the Back Up & Sync utility, it also doubles as a sync service on the desktop, a la Dropbox or OneDrive, storing any kind of file, with apps for access to those same files on mobile devices. Throw in the office suite aspects and the 15GB of free space online (shared with other Google services), and you’ve got a real winner. For Android users, we give it a full 5-stars.
Read our review of Google Drive (Web), plus Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
The obvious choice of Office tools if you are a firm believer in open source, LibreOffice was a fork from the original OpenOffice years ago (itself an offshoot of StarOffice). Inside are word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations programs, a vector graphics editor, a math formula editor, and a database. It’s a little more awkward to use than the desktop version of Microsoft Office, but you can’t beat the price. Grab the LibreOffice Viewer app for Android to look at files.
Read our review of LibreOffice.
With names like Writer, Spreadsheets, and Presentations, you might decide that Kingsoft’s WPS Office has a lot of imagination. Who cares? They work great and are all part of one program, not three separate pieces of software. The free version seems to do it all, mimicking the look of Microsoft products, even with a ribbon interface. It also comes with 1GB of cloud storage and has mobile versions for phone- or tablet-based edits. You’ll have to view some ads to use it for free.
Scribus is the open-source equivalent of Adobe InDesign for desktop publishing, or as close as you can get. It even has built-in color separation and management and a lot more.
Ubuntu (pronounced “oo-boon-too”) updates every six months; each iteration brings new tools and developments. It’s a free, customizable, and highly usable alternative to both macOS and Windows, and the Linux of choice because is easy to master by just about any smart user. Read our review of Ubuntu Linux 18 Bionic Beaver which also covers all the ins-and-outs of exactly a Linux distro is vs. Unix and other OSes.
Imagine not having the hassle of Windows, but still being able to run (most) Windows programs. That’s the goal with ReactOS, which builds on the old Windows NT architecture as an open source operating system—it isn’t Linux. It only takes 500MB to install it, so it’s small. Grab the full installer, or make a LiveCD version that boots off a disc to give it a try. Just know, it’s still in alpha-testing and isn’t for newbies.
The fastest way to create a PDF file is to make it in something you’re comfortable with, be it a word processor or otherwise, then print the file out as a PDF. PDFCreator sets itself up as a printer on your system, so when you go to make a “print,” you select it and out shoots a PDF to your PC. PDFs with this free tool can be secured, signed, and are automatically saved. The creators at PDFForge promise it will be free forever.
Foxit Reader is free for not just reading, but also creating PDFs and collaboration on the files (at least you can with the Windows version; Mac and Linux are more limited). Foxit’s MobilePDF apps are on iOS and Android. What’s more, they support a tech called ConnectedPDF so you can send PDF files and even update them after you send them (thanks be to the cloud).
For more, read How to Convert PDFs to Word Documents and Image Files.
Adobe Acrobat Reader DC
Adobe created the PDF format, so it stands to reason it would still offer a pretty kick-ass free PDF reader, albeit one that’s not as full-featured as some others, since it has other tools it wants to sell you. (The DC stands for Document Cloud, Adobe’s attempt to get you to store everything online via Adobe.) Using it, you can easily annotate or sign PDFs, fill out forms, or even save a PDF to Word or TXT format.
Remote Access and Screen Sharing
PCMag’s top pick for software to take control of other computers is TeamViewer. Almost everything you need is free for personal use: desktop sharing, file transfers, even chat with remote users. The setup couldn’t be easier. Take control of a remote PC over a web connection with the app, or using a Chrome browser (even in ChromeOS) with the TeamViewer extension.
Read our review of TeamViewer.
Chrome Remote Desktop
With mobile apps and a Google Chrome browser extension—and that’s it—Chrome Remote Desktop more than rivals others for providing remote access between PCs (you can’t use it to control a smartphone or tablet, but you can control a PC from the apps on a smartphone or tablet). You can connect to all your computers and devices that are on the same Google account, or get a code from others for a true remote session. You don’t even have to have the browser running to get access to the PC. What’s lacking is file transfer between systems, but you can get around that using Google Drive.
A web-based, screen-share system (though the shared screen requires an installed utility), ScreenLeap’s interface is ultra-simple and offers the ability to swap presenters as needed. The free version is limited to 40 minutes of use per day with no more than eight viewers, with no conferencing option.
LastPass is a true classic—it’s always been one of PCMag’s favorite password managers. It works on every major OS, browser, and mobile device, so you only need one master password to stay totally secure on every website and service you visit, no matter how you get there.
Read our review of LastPass.
LogMeOnce Password Management Suite Premium
Don’t let that word “premium” fool you, this software for logging in is free, albeit with some paid upgrades available. LogMeOnce’s claim to fame is to be utterly “passwordless.” While you can go with a master password, the selling point is to use your smartphone (or tablet, whatever you always have with you) as an authenticator—primarily by using the fingerprint reader or facial recognition built into most modern smartphones. It’s browser-based so it works the same on all desktop systems, but syncs across desktops and mobile devices. It has so much free stuff, you may get confused.
Read our review of LogMeOnce Password Management Suite Premium.
Throw this app on your system and create a folder where everything inside gets AES-256 and RSA encrypted. You can use one cloud service and two devices with the free version and share access to encrypted files with others. BoxCryptor itself has zero access to your data or account info, so don’t lose your password.
For more, read How to Encrypted a Document Stored on Google Drive.
If you’re really worried about being seen while surfing, a VPN isn’t enough. The Tor Browser uses the Tor network to bounce your requests and responses all over the world. No one knows what sites you visit or where you really are.
Read our review of Tor Browser and How to Stay Anonymous Online.
For free, Prey will help you keep tabs on up three of your devices (and many more if you pay). Think of it as a backup for Find My iPhone, but on multiple, easily stolen products running operating systems other than just iOS.
Don’t want to pay for a VPN? You probably should, but you can go a long way without laying out the cash, especially with a tool like ProtonVPN. It’s one of the few VPNs that offers a truly free tier of service, albeit with typical restrictions. ProtonVPN happens to have the fewest restrictions of the lot. The restrictions include only getting three VPN server location options, and only one connection at a time across all your devices, and a speed rated as “medium.” But your bandwidth is NOT limited and the focus is mainly on keeping you secure.
Read our review of ProtonVPN.
Put that useless PrtScn (Print Screen) button on the keyboard to actual use. LightShot is a tiny utility that takes over that key. Push it and you can pick what part of the screen to turn into a screenshot, plus annotate with tools like text and arrows. Once captured, you get choices to save to a file, the clipboard, the cloud, social networks, or to just search for similar shots in Google.
Read How to take a Screenshot on Any Device.
ShareX might have too many options but if you love choice—both in how to take a shot (like a scrolling capture or OCRing text) and what to do with it after (it supports 80 different destinations and plenty of annotation options)—this is the capture utility you need for your Windows PC.
Icecream Screen Recorder
Another of the Icecream apps that rock, Screen Recorder freely handles capturing everything on screen (even a still image)—but it will also capture one small section moving on your screen, like a playing video or game. The drawing panel lets you add annotation text or arrows to the screenshot or video.
This app launches right in the browser for Windows or Mac or Chromebook users to get started making screen-vids that up to 15 minutes long. You save it as a local video file then use it wherever you want. The $18/year pro version gives you sound, longer vids, kills the watermark, some editing tools, drawing annotations while recording, and more.
Patch My PC
It lacks the “sexy” interface of some of the others, but Patch My PC does what it says on the label: it scans your installed programs, shows you what needs updates based on what programs it supports, and if you give it the go-ahead, batch patches the whole bunch of them.
Short for Software Update Monitor, this tool looks at your installed software and tells you what needs patches or updates, even offers up beta versions. Tell it to ignore certain programs as desired. It promises that it “tells you if updates are available before you need to use your software.”
IObit Driver Booster
Sometimes the only software you want to make sure is updated are the drivers that drive your hardware components. Driver Booster checks all of them to see if the hardware manufacturers have anything new that will make your system purr like a kitten. It creates a restore point before installing drivers for you, just in case something goes awry. IObit also has a free Windows Software Updater, as well, to run once the drivers are updated.
Uninstallers and Installers
The PC Decrapifier
PCs come with a lot of bloated crap on them, software-wise. PC Decrapifier helps you scrub all that crap off the drive. Download this donation-ware and run it the minute you get a new Windows PC.
Read How to Clean Crapware from a New PC.
This is the tool you need to get rid of stubborn programs, plug-ins, and toolbars on a Windows PC. It outpaces the competition by including a community-based suggestion feature, so the rest of the internet is helping you delete extraneous crud from the PC, too.
Read our review of IObit Uninstaller Free.
This doesn’t uninstall as much as it prevents installs. Throughout this story we’ve mentioned how you might be accidentally getting software you don’t want when you install something you do. Unchecky makes sure all the checkboxes in the installer programs are unchecked, and warns you if you may be getting a potentially unwanted program (PUP) or offer.
Ready to install a whole metric butt-load (that’s a thing) of programs for Windows all at once, like after you purchase a new PC? Don’t grab them all individually—visit Ninite first and check off all the programs you want. You can then download a custom installer that will place all the programs on the PC in one massive installation session. A huge number of the products on this Free Software list are available right there.
Pro-level video editing, with quality up to 4K? You can get it, if you download Lightworks. The free version limits output to 720p videos on Vimeo or YouTube, but with most of the same tools that exist in the $25/month Pro version.
No one would call HandBrake simple, but for power and comprehensiveness, it’s hard for any other video transcoder to compete. Transcode, in this case, means to convert, so it’ll turn almost any video format into another video format. It’s free, open source, and has years of practice. It includes many pre-sets for different types of devices, like iPhones, iPads, and Android tablets.
Read our review of HandBrake for Mac.
Budding CGI animators of the world have free access to Blender, a magnificent open source tool to do full 3D modeling of characters and worlds. It even features an integrated game engine. Don’t believe it could be that great? The film above was made entirely in Blender.
Want to do a different kind of animation? Like that old kind of flat drawing stuff? You betcha! The software used by the legendary Studio Ghibli in Japan has been released as an open source tool to get any animator started. There are even plug-in tools to provide extra effects.
This open-source video editor is all about simple cuts with some visual-effect filters. Those with scripting skills can automate some tasks. It can convert video from DVDs to digital, and it even writes to DVDs with an add-on.
It doesn’t have all the features and polish of the paid services, but Oracle’s VirtualBox is free, and it does the job of getting you set up with a virtual operating system that would run on an Intel chip, inside another OS such as Windows, macOS, Linux, even Solaris. You can drag and drop files between the host and the virtual OS.
Read our review of VirtualBox (for Mac), then read The Best Virtualization Software.
This freebie lets you run simple Windows apps on macOS. It’s probably not going to handle the complexity of Photoshop, but smaller, easier-to-contain programs work fine—you can even make them into packages to share with other Mac users.
Read our review of Urge Software Wineskin Winery (for Mac).
A simple way to sandbox your existing applications that may be under threat (like a browser). Launch Shade, copy the shortcut for the software you want to protect to it, then launch it—the running program is sandboxed safely from the rest of Windows.
This system-information utility does the most thorough audit of your computer and peripherals you’ll ever see. Pick the version you need for either 32-bit or 64-bit Windows, whichever you have installed.
Read our review of Realix HWInfo64.
Windows search is rarely up to snuff. This utility offers up ultra-fast search, checking inside folders and files, looking for patterns and even using Regular Expressions for advanced searches. It doesn’t even have to index files in the background to work. Save your searches for use again later.
Piriform’s Speccy shows all the information it can gather about your Windows PC, from the full OS info to amount of RAM and drive space and a lot more.
Read our review of Speccy.
Ready to give Windows a serious facelift? Rainmeter’s customizable skins for the desktop do a lot more than just make Windows a bit prettier. They also make the desktop very, very functional and useful for more than just clicking icons.
Love your macros in Microsoft Word? Now imagine you can have those same keystrokes perform similar actions in every single program in Windows. That’s what AutoHotkey brings to the table—a full scripting language for Windows.
Ultimate Windows Tweaker
Ultimate Windows Tweaker 4.5 is the latest update for Windows 10 (you can still get it for Windows 8/8.1 and for 7/Vista). It provides an interface for tweaking just about every possible setting in Windows, including plenty you’d never, ever know about, over 200 in all. That includes many privacy tweaks.
Fancy yourself a budding screenwriter, but lack the funds to buy high-end tools like Final Draft? Trelby is does a damn fine job of helping you keep the formatting correct, remembering character names, and even importing and exporting to formats used in Hollywood (like Final Draft and Fountain).
This “zenware” is for distraction-free writing. Go full screen or blot out the other apps; even the interface is hyper-minimal. If this doesn’t help you get writing done, nothing will.
You may have heard of Scrivner, but Bibisco gives the novel-centric software writing tool a run for its money, for no money at all. Open-source Bibisco organizes chapters and scenes and characters and ideas, provides help with structure, and is an all-around help for writers trying to make a book work.
It’s about focus, but also a touch of beauty, if you go with FocusWriter. It has some lovely backgrounds, but also some little interesting touches like typewriter sound effects for your clicks. Most important: a web-app like autosave so you never need panic about hitting Ctrl-S again.
For more, read Tools to Help you Write a Novel in 30 Days.