Updated: October 17, 2009
Welcome back to another must-have article. Today, I'm going to present a long list of superb Windows programs that should be an inseparable part of your arsenal. This article is a must for any Windows user. In this mega compilation, you will find over X applications for Windows, all free, all robust, useful, many cross-platform, many portable, a software heaven for any person running this or that instance of Windows on their machine. This article is a must! Follow me.
This article continues the legacy of its two-year old predecessor, the more recently published A-Z guide, which lists 26 best Windows programs for 2009, one application per letter, and the new Linux cool list, which, although oriented for the Linux operating system, contains a large number of cross-platform solutions also available for Windows.
I sincerely hope you will enjoy this article, as it offers a wealth of useful information of free, robust, stable, productive software that will enhance the quality, efficiency and fun of your work in the Windows environment.
Some small reservations ...
Since these articles overlap rather heavily and yet each presents a different set of unique tools, your best bet is to start poring through slowly and compile what you find best for your needs.
For each listed program, you'll get a screenshot or two, showing you the interface or pointing you to important details you should pay attention to. Still, to keep the clutter down, I will not post screenshots for programs already shown in either the A-Z guide or the Linux cool list. I will add new images for programs yet unlisted in the other reviews.
In a way, I am forcing you to go back to the previous articles for the full bouquet of information, but think of it as yet another book in a saga; you have to read them all.
In return ...
In return, you will get a list of excellent programs that should be the envy of your neighbors and their wives. Every single program listed here is a personal choice of mine, frequently used or at the very least thoroughly tested, with very satisfying results. Furthermore, the programs listed here are all free for personal use, stable, fast, and pure and simple good. Most of them are open-source and cross-platform and many also have a portable version, meaning you will be able to use them on other operating systems or run them from USB drives in a safe, private manner.
Of course, it is entirely possible that you may disagree with my choice or experience, then again, I cannot possibly cater to every single soul. Still, I'm convinced that, should you put your mind to it, you will immensely enjoy most, if not all of the programs listed here.
And as before, we have a Users' recommendations section!
I think you'll love it! Now, let us begin!
Table of Contents
- 3D software
- Backup software
- Checksum utilities
- Customized OS builders
- Diagnostics & S.M.A.R.T.
- File managers
- FTP clients
- HTML editors
- Image manipulation
- Instant Messaging & Video Conferencing
- Mail clients
- Office applications
- Peer-to-Peer (P2P) sharing
- PDF software
- Rescue & Recovery
- Text editors
- What is missing?
- Useful online sources
- Users' recommendations
Blender is a powerful 3D graphics software used for modeling, rendering, texturing, animation, compositing, no-linear editing, and simulation, allowing you virtually limitless possibilities. It is somewhat difficult to learn, as it has a tremendous number of features and options. The program also supports scripting. Blender was used to create the Big Buck Bunny movie and the lovely Yo Frankie! game.
Google SketchUp is my favorite 3D art software. All my 3D models have been designed in Google SketchUp. The program is dead easy to use yet rich in features and powerful.
Revo Uninstaller is a freeware uninstall utility designed to remove software from your Windows installation even if you are unable to do that using the built-in Add/Remove Control Panel utility. To do that, Revo uses advanced algorithms to determine the application installation footprint before removing it. The program bundle also comes with additional utilities that should help you in the administration of your machine, including browser history and cache, junk cleaner, Office cleaner, autostart manager, and others.
7-Zip is an archive manager for 7z, ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2, and TAR (packing and unpacking) and RAR, CAB, ISO, ARJ, LZH, CHM, Z, CPIO, RPM, DEB, and NSIS (unpacking only) file formats. 7-Zip also has a portable version.
This is another powerful archive manager, with a wide support of formats, including 7-ZIP, A, ACE, ARC, ARJ, B64, BH, BIN, BZ2, BZA, C2D, CAB, CDI, CPIO, DEB, ENC, GCA, GZ, GZA, HA, IMG, ISO, JAR, LHA, LIB, LZH, MDF, MBF, MIM, NRG, PAK, PDI, PK3, RAR, RPM, TAR, TAZ, TBZ, TGZ, TZ, UUE, WAR, XXE, YZ1, Z, ZIP, ZOO.
Please note that the latest version of IZArc offers as a part of a bundle a management utility (for Wireless network adapters). It is deselected by default, and I'm not really sure if you need it.
File backup software
Karen's Replicator is an oldie but goodie. It's a simple reliable file backup utility for Windows, which you can and should use for copying your critical data to backup locations as a part of healthy rescue & recovery plan. Karen's Replicator supports all sorts of exclusion filters and works against network storage and removable media. For more details, take a look at this review.
DriveImageXML is a program for backup and imaging of partitions and drives. It is also available as a plugin for the BartPE or Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4WIN) live bootable CDs. DriveImageXML is a little slow, but it is quite reliable.
CloneZilla is a Linux-based live CD imaging software, but it works great with Windows partitions formatted in FAT32 or NTFS. CloneZilla is well suited for desktop use, as well as massive deployment in server environment, should you require it. The program can backup and restore high-quality, high-compression images on a variety of disk, partition and filesystem types, including NTFS.
I'm using CloneZilla often and find it extremely reliable. It's a must in any household, regardless of the operating systems used. I've written a long tutorial on how to use CloneZilla.
Firefox is my favorite browser, on all operating systems. It's robust, fast, safe, and most importantly, extensible. With thousands of add-ons available, the basic Firefox functionality can be significantly enhanced. In fact, addons are what makes Firefox unbeatable when it comes to customization, flexibility and security. Some of the addons I would like to recommend are Noscript, Adblock Plus, Scrapbook, Sage, DownloadHelper, FEBE, CLEO, Zotero, and the very unique Ubiquity.
You can also find articles on how to configure Flash in Firefox on Linux platforms, how to install addons, how to backup the profile and extensions, SSL security, as well as some less known stuff like how to open .mht files in Firefox.
This is another open-source Gecko-based browser. It is very light and fast and will probably offer better experience on low-end machines than most other browsers.
Opera is another solid, lightweight browser. It runs well on weaker machines, it's fast and includes built-in mail, RSS reader and a torrent client. Opera also has a portable version available. Note: On safe web habits, please check this long guide.
Finding the right codecs for Windows is not easy. It's a tricky task and you're likely to come across quite a few codec utilities that are bundled with unwanted programs or even malicious in nature. Your best bet for using codecs on Windows is the omnipotent VLC player. But if you must, here's a tiny selection of places that you may want to go.
Note: Please keep in mind that I am NOT responsible for any possible direct or indirect damage that you may experience due to use of codecs, including those few recommended here.
This sites offers a range of useful, clean codecs. For most Windows users, the standard edition of the K-Lite Codec Pack will be more than enough.
Combined Community Codec Pack (CCCP)
As the name implies, the Combined Community Codec Pack is a simple playback pack for Windows with the goal of supporting the majority of video formats in use today.
If you require Xvid codecs, like for instance in order to recompress videos using VirtualDub, then you should visit here.
MD5Summer is an application for Microsoft Windows 9x, NT, ME, 2000, and XP, which generates and verifies md5 checksums. Its output file is compatible with the output of the Linux GNU MD5Sum and it will also read Linux generated files. MD5Summer is highly useful in making sure the downloaded ISO files are in good shape before burning them.
Customized OS builders
nLite is a tool that allows you to fully customize your Windows installations. It works by stripping away components from the standard Windows disc, creating a custom version of your own, with only the parts you want or need. nLite is quite useful for creating slimmed or unattended installations. However, it does take quite a bit of time using, as it's all about trial & error. There's also vLite, which does the same job for Vista. But if you're looking for a streamlined Vista, just wait for Windows 7 or stick with XP.
Diagnostics & S.M.A.R.T.
HDD Health is a program intended to monitor hard drives and predict their failures. It's one of the tools you should use to make sure your computer health is in good shape.
This program will monitor fan speeds, voltages and temperatures of hardware components in computers with monitor chips. It is a tool designed for a power user and should not be used in vain. Just like CT scans are not performed on every patient with headache, you should consider using it if you think there might be a problem with your hardware.
Memtest86 is a memory diagnostics tool. It needs to be run from a floppy disk or a CD before the operating system boots. Memtest86 is available on almost every Linux live CD, Ultimate Boot CD for Windows, as well as the Windows 7 installation disc.
DOSBox is an x86 PC emulator, complete with graphics, sound, mouse, and modem, allowing you to run old DOS-based games that are no longer supported by modern operating systems. It also supports IPX and Serial multiplayer modes. You can read a lot more about DOS games in my old games section.
QEMU is an open-source processor emulator. It requires quite a bit of knowledge to be fully utilized. Nevertheless, it can be useful for creating virtual hard drives or converting virtual hard disk between different formats. QEMU is also used to run Pendrivelinux on Windows.
AxCrypt is a file encryption software, allowing you to protect your files and folders. AxCrypt can also create self-extracting (executable) encrypted archives that can be used on machines without AxCrypt installed. For more on AxCrypt usage, you may want to take a look at my tutorial: Encryption - Part 1.
TrueCrypt is an open-source disk encryption software, which allows you to encrypt entire partitions, hard disks or USB sticks. TrueCrypt also supports Whole Disk Encryption (WDE) and is available in a portable form. I've explained the basic usage models quite extensively in the second part on encryption.
Eraser is a secure deletion tool, allowing you to completely wipe information off your hard drives. This can be quite useful if you need to give away your old hard disks and want to make sure that no data will ever be retrievable.
Window Explorer is a relatively simple file manager and will do well in most cases. However, the lack of tabs of multi-pane views limits its usage with power users. There is a large number of alternatives available, however I must admit my experience with most is rather limited. Your help would be appreciated here.
FreeCommander is an easy-to-use alternative to the standard Windows file manager. FreeCommander can also run from portable devices. It is one of many tools included with Ultimate Boot CD for Windows.
Other file managers (not free, but worth consideration)
Other options include Total Commander and xplorer2 lite.
However, Total Commander is a shareware program that you must register for within a month. Plus it will display a nag screen every time you launch it.
xplorer2 lite is another powerful choice. The free version has fewer features than the professional one, can be used for private and academic purposes only, plus it offers an installation of a toolbar during the setup, which you probably do not need.
If you have other useful file manager suggestions, feel free to email me. Your contributions will go into the
Users' recommendation section. Of course, you can always refer to Ultimate Boot CD for
Windows and grab a few file management utilities listed there.
FileZilla is a fast, popular, cross-platform FTP client. There's also a server module available. The program supports FTP, SFTP and FTPS.
KompoZer (formerly Nvu)
KompoZer is a simple, lightweight WYSIWYG HTML editor, a continuation of the Nvu project. KompoZer solves a number of bugs that existed in the previous incarnation and introduces new features. It is very easy to use, even by people who have little knowledge of web languages.
This programs allows you to quickly manipulate batches of images, by converting their format or color map, resizing them, or rotating them. It is very handy for people who frequently have to manipulate lots of pictures. I've written a short review/tutorial, if you're interested.
GIMP is a powerful, comprehensive image manipulation program. It offers an extremely wide range of tools for graphic editing of images, although it does require extensive knowledge to be fully utilized.
ScreenshotCaptor is a very handy program for taking screenshots. Unlike the standard commands, Alt + PrintScrn or PrintScrn, it allows you to take screenshots in different file formats, automatically save them to a folder rather than clipboard, schedule operations, and more. It is also capable of taking screenshots of regions or full content of partially hidden windows.
IrfanView is a very light, very fast and extremely powerful viewer. It includes a media player and also has some very neat editing features. A range of plugins is available. You can read more about IrfanView in this tutorial.
XnView is a powerful, cross-platform image viewer, capable of viewing, editing, converting, and organizing image and video files in a large number of formats. XnView is also highly customizable and available in many languages. Note 1: I've discovered XnView as a recommendation from my readers for the A-Z guide. Note 2: I've also heard good reviews of Paint.NET and Snagit (a free version), but I have little experience with these. If you have something to share on these, feel free to do so.
Instant Messaging & Video Conferencing
Pidgin (formerly GAIM)
Pidgin is a multi-protocol client and will allow you to connect to several networks, without using several (often) bloated and unneeded IM programs. GAIM supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, Silc, GroupWise, SameTime, and Zephyr networks.
Skype is a VoIP, video conferencing and instant messaging software that uses a proprietary format for communication. In return, it offers encryption and good quality of service. Note: users of multiple IM networks may also want to consider the online meebo service, as explained in this article.
Thunderbird is a cross-platform mail and news client developed by the Mozilla Foundation. Thunderbird can manage multiple accounts, including email, newsgroups and RSS feeds, and supports encryption. Like Firefox, its basic looks, functionality and security can be extended through the use of add-ons. For email security, please check this long guide.
System maintenance is a tricky business, as every wrong choice can have implications on system health and performance. The best example of how fragile and delicate the balance between system optimization and system damage is, in my original Windows collection, I recommended CCleaner as a tool for keeping the system in trim shape, only to have it backfire on me by corrupting the network stack somehow.
The question is recommending these program is a tricky one, then.
For the sake of completeness, I've decided to list a number of these, but please note that they may not work as expected or even cripple your machine. You've been warned!
Do not ever use these tools without a solid, proven backup procedure in place, including data backup to external media and a full system image!
If you ask me, system maintenance is more about the right choice of programs than anything else. If you install the right kind of programs, e.g. with full uninstall that leaves no registry leftovers, or better yet, applications that do not even write into registry, make sure you do not install junk or trialware that sometimes come bundled with other programs, your system should be in a fairly good shape.
Example: my very own Windows XP SP3, installed as SP2 in 2005, only once, with no special tweaking or anything. Still runs as fast as the day it was placed on the machine. What kind of maintenance do I run on it? Well, some basic cleaning with ATF-Cleaner, plus monthly disk defrags. Everything else is perks.
If you must, you may also want to defrag your pagefile. But please be careful when using registry cleaning tools. There's no consensus whether they do more harm than good, any harm, any good, or anything at all. It's all about personal experience.
To sum it up, plan ahead, use decent programs, clean the temporary files once in a while, defrag the disk once in a while, and you'll be fine. The emphasis is on making the right choice of programs. That's why you're reading this article :)
Now, read about system maintenance tools.
ATF-Cleaner is a simple utility to clean temporary files, junk and leftovers from your machines, freeing up valuable disk space.
CCleaner (short for Crap Cleaner) is a system optimization and privacy tool. It allows you to clean browser caches, delete cookies, remove corrupted or unused files and erase tracks of your online activities. It also has the ability to clean leftover registry keys and values - use at your own discretion.
Important note 1: Due to a problem with CCleaner version 1.34.407 that causes loss of network functionality after performing a routine cleaning, I have excluded CCleaner from the original list and kept it that way for two years. Meanwhile, I've continued testing the program on numerous machines and have not had the problem since. Therefore, I've decided to re-include the program in the list. But remember my lesson!
Important note 2: CCleaner has several versions available. The default one comes bundled with a toolbar. The portable and the slim builds do not have the toolbar included.
JkDefrag is a free, open-source defragmentation utility for Windows. It is now offered as MyDefrag and includes a GUI that shows the progress of the defragmentation process. JkDefrag works with all major versions of Windows and can also be used in Safe Mode. What makes JkDefrag a useful alternative to the built-in Windows utility is the way JkDefrag works. It will try to place the most often used files at the out sectors of the disk, to improve performance, and will leave extra space around the files to allow for growth and reduce future defragmentation. The utility is also quite fast.
PageDefrag is a utility developed by WinInternals, formerly SysInternals, used to defrag the pagefile. If you're using a dynamically expanding pagefile and often exceed the RAM limitation in daily use, you probably have a badly defragment pagefile, which slows down the performance when used. PageDefrag will try to unite all the bits into a single continuous unit, in order to improve performance. Just like disk defragmentation, only against the pagefile.
RegSeeker is a powerful registry cleaning and system optimization tool. You can use to tweak the look and feel of the system, manage services and installed applications, disable startup programs, search through registry, as well clean the registry, which is the major aspect of this utility.
Ashampoo Burning Studio 6 (free)
This is an older version of their most current, payware product line, but still a great utility with all the features you need. Ashampoo Studio also supports copying of CD/DVDs.
ImgBurn is a highly versatile CD/DVD burning program. It can read and write image files, detect inserted media on the fly, works with a wide range of format, including BIN, CUE, DI, DVD, GI, IMG, ISO, MDS, NRG, and PDI, can burn Audio CD from any file type supported via DirectShow/ACM, including AAC, APE, FLAC, MP3, MP4, MPC, OGG, and others, and can be used to build DVD, HD and Blue-Ray discs.
InfraRecorder is a friendly, easy-to-use CD/DVD burning utility with many useful features, including the ability to blank rewritable discs, record disc images (ISO, BIN, CUE), import data from multi-session discs and add new sessions, record dual-layer DVDs, and save audio and data tracks to files.
Conversion tools are utilities for converting files from one format to another. However, this simple, generic process can take many forms, including all sorts of exciting games, like converting files to Flash and embedding them into web pages, converting documents to PDF format, creating screensavers from still images, working against online services like Youtube, and so forth. In this section, we will focus on multimedia only. Meanwhile, you may want to read my three Multimedia editing tutorials to get a better idea of what the tools listed below actually do.
The first part deals with Flash, everything from downloading files from Youtube and stripping music from Flash videos to converting Flash to standard video and back, and more. The video tutorial teaches how to work with video files: splitting and joining them, changing encoding and compression, fixing bitrate discrepancies in audio and video, and other tasks. The third tutorial teaches us how to manipulate audio files: convert between different music formats, like .mp3, .ogg, .wav, and others, mix sounds, compose custom pieces by splicing segments from different tracks, and more.
What more, my Multimedia section has many other useful tutorials, including how to record your desktop and creating Flash animations, how to embed or edit subtitles in movies, how to rip DVDs or create movies in DVD formats, how to obtain the right codecs, reviews of popular applications, and more.
Conversion tools - Audio
Audacity is a powerful cross-platform sound editor, allowing you to edit and record audio files. It also has a number of plugins available, including LAME mp3 encoder.
Conversion tools - DVD & Video
DeVeDe is a program that can create video DVDs and CDs (VCD, sVCD or CVD), suitable for home players, from any number of video files, in any of the formats supported by MPlayer. You can read more about DeVeDe in yonder tutorial.
Handbrake is an open-source, cross-platform DVD to MPEG-4 converter. Again, you may want to take a look at my tutorial explaining basic Handbrake usage.
According to the description on the official website, VirtualDub is a video capture/processing utility for 32-bit and 64-bit Windows platforms. It lacks the editing power of a general-purpose editor such as Adobe Premiere, but is streamlined for fast linear operations over video. It has batch-processing capabilities for processing large numbers of files and can be extended with third-party video filters. VirtualDub is mainly geared toward processing AVI files, although it can read (not write) MPEG-1 and also handle sets of BMP images. Personally, this is my favorite video processing tool for Windows.
Conversion tools - All categories
ffmpeg is a Jack o' All Trades program that can record, convert and stream digital audio and video in numerous formats. It can practically do anything and everything with media files. The only caveat is that it is a command-line utility, but it's tremendously powerful and worth every keystroke.
Desktop recording software
Wink is a tutorial and presentation creation software. It allows you to capture screenshots of the actions you take on the desktop, wrap them into an animation and export them as beautiful, classy Flash, PDF or even executable packages. Again, take a look at the detailed tutorial, which also contains a Flash animation demo.
Players - Flash
FLV Player is a simple Flash player program for Windows that can run Flash files from your desktop.
Players - All categories
Formerly known as Democracy Player (which featured in the last collection), Miro is a good-looking Internet TV platform; the player incorporates video RSS feeds, automatic downloads of videos, BitTorrent, and other exciting features. I've recently tested Miro and found it to be a very useful application.
VLC is an amazing open-source, cross-platform player, supporting a staggering collection of supported media formats, including Audio, Video and Flash. If it's media, VLC will play it. This program should be one of your top choices, if not the top choice, whenever it comes to playing any sort of media. It is also a region-free DVD player. I've dedicated a review to this superb program, covering many useful features, including desktop recording, DirectX wallpaper, subtitles, and much more.
Stickies is a simple, no-nonsense sticky notes program that you can use to pin notes onto your desktop and remind yourself of the critical tasks you need to do. You can use different colors, fonts, buttons, styles, and sizes. Stickies can be pinned to specific documents, you can transfer them between computers, have an alarm alert you to important milestones, and more.
LaTeX-based text processors
Alongside Kile, LyX is another tremendous powerful LaTeX GUI. It allows you to create impressive documents in HTML, PS or PDF format rendered with unbeatably beautiful Computer Modern fonts. LyX is also available for Windows and is a little less difficult to use, in my opinion. I have reviewed LyX not that long ago.
Office programs & suites
This little word processor is much more powerful than it seems. It is lightweight, fast and has lots of rich features. AbiWord supports numerous file formats, including DOC, DOCX, ODT, and RTF. It is also extensible with plugins. Best of all, AbiWord comes with the ultra-sexy Computer Modern fonts included by default! You may be interested in my rather positive review: AbiWord - the underestimated word processor.
OpenOffice is a powerful office suite, with word, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database, and other applications. Like Firefox, OpenOffice has extensions, which further enhance its capabilities. I have recently reviewed the latest OpenOffice 3. It's a good replacement for Microsoft Office.
Note 1: OpenOffice has a built-in Office-to-PDF conversion utility, so you may also want to consider it when converting Office documents to PDF; relevant for PDF creators & printers further below. Note 2: Likewise, you may want to take a look at Go-oo, a cross-platform collection of patches for the OpenOffice suite that offers better import/export filter for a variety of file formats, additional languages, SVG graphics, VBA support, and more.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) sharing
Vuze is the successor to Azureus (a candidate in our last list). It's a BitTorrent client, which allows users to access shared content using a pleasant, interactive interface. In a way, it's similar to Miro. If you're interested, you may want to read this article. Note: I'm aware that there is a whole load of good BitTorrent clients, but I have relatively little experience with them. I'd appreciate your suggestions!
PDF creators & printers
This aptly named program will installs itself as a printer, allowing you to convert just about any file to PDF documents. The utility itself works well and has a number of useful features, including changing the default document properties and stamp, encrypt and digitally sign your files, merge multiple documents, and more.
Please note that PDFCreator offers to install the PDFForge toolbar (preselected) and it can also install its own add-ons into Internet Explorer and Firefox. If you do not want these components installed, make sure you deselect them.
PrimoPDF is a PDF converter that will create PDF documents from any printable file.
The latest Foxit versions (3.x) includes an optional AskMe toolbar and AskMe.com homepage change, so be careful when you click Next, Next, Next. Foxit Reader also has a portable version.
Sumatra is a slim, lightweight PDF viewer for Windows. It can't get any simpler than that. It has no fancy functions; it merely shows you the document you want to see. It's superb for handling unknown documents or for carrying around on a USB stick. Sumatra PDF also has a portable edition.
Note: I'm well aware of several more good candidates for this categories. They will be presented in a separate document, as a sequel to the first part on PDF software, plus we will have an article on PDF security. While you eagerly wait for these articles to be published on Dedoimedo, you may want to spare a moment or two and read the first part; this should give you a good idea of what to expect from the sequels:
Free PDF software that will make your life easier
Rescue & RecoveryUBCD4WIN
Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (UBCD4WIN) is a world unto itself. Nevertheless, it is a namesake application that allows you to create bootable live Windows CDs, complete with tons of superb applications, many of which we have covered here.
UBCD4WIN is first and foremost a disaster recovery, rescue, backup, repair, forensics, benchmarking, and diagnostics set of tools, running on top of a bootable Windows XP kernel.
Among the many offered tools are 7-Zip, a43, Ad-Aware SE, Agent Ransack, AVPersonal, BGInfo, CPU Bench, CWShredder, DeepBurner, Dirms, Disk Copy, Disk Image, Disk Wipe, Eraser, ERUNT, Explore2fs, ExplorerXP, File Recovery, FileZilla, Firefox, Floppy Repair, Foxit Reader, freeCommander, Free Undelete, HD Cleaner, HDTune, HijackThis, IPScan, IZArc, MaxBlast, MemTest, MbrFix, MBRWiz, Notepad++, Opera, P95, PasswordPro, PDF Reader, Popcorn, PPPOEXP, Putty, R-Linux, RecoveryManager, RegCleaner, Scribe, SmallCD, Stinger, SuperAntiSpyware, Sysclean, UltraVNC, xplorer2, WinDLG, and many more.
Likewise, for a pair of thorough tutorials, which also explain how to use the BartPE and UBCD4WIN PE builders, please check both the older and the newer article.
Windows security is a tricky topic.
The big problems with Windows security are two things:
1) Windows ships configured to run with full administrator privileges. This is slowly changing with Windows 7, but there's no denying that most people work this way, most applications are written to work this way 2) most Windows users confuse security programs for actual security.
Windows security has nothing to do with this or that program. The security can be enforced through the use of specific programs, but security programs per se mean nothing. Security is about being secure - having the certainty to know what will happen - or won't - if you do this or that thing. Some of the vectors of security include the assessment of risk factors, the mitigation of damage, a proven and reliable backup & restore strategy. Programs are only a means to an end.
In this section, I could easily list tens of applications in each sub-category, but I'm not going to do that. I will list only a handful of programs, a sort of a starting point if you will, while emphasizing the fact that security is a mindset more than any toolbox of programs.
You can use the programs listed below; in fact, if you decide to use Windows security programs, then the list below is a great resource. But the programs cannot and will not guarantee your security or the integrity of your data.
If you have a sound security strategy that works irrespective of which program formula you use, then you have a good practice in place. But if you must have X or Y or Z to stay secure, you're doing the wrong way.
Important things to pay attention to
Before we list the actual programs, here's a number of things you should pay attention to:
Some software programs come bundled with nagware
To finance the cost of offering free software, some security programs come bundled with toolbars, which are unneeded. Ironically, non-bundled versions of these same toolbars are often detected by the very programs that bundle them as adware or even spyware, while their bundled versions are left untouched and undetected.
Most of the security products offer the third-party add-ons preselected during the installation process. If you pay attention, you'll be able to remove them without any problems and never have them installed.
A few article on this subject:
Softpedia delisted Comodo - Yea or Nay?
Computer security and ethics do not mix well together
Some software programs deliberately lack specific signatures
Some software vendors bow to pressure and lawsuit threats from companies that feel their products have been misclassified as malware, removing the signatures for these products from their database. This means that you may end up running a security program that will not detect certain traces of code, even if they are present on your system.
As you can see, this present quite a moral problem, because recommending products is much more than their software quality.
In the list below, I will list several products that fall into both these categories. You may wonder why I would do so. The answer is, I think the potential benefit for people who opt to use these products is greater than the above two issues. Nagware can be disabled during the installation, which is something you should pay attention to. Missing signatures are a problem, but using several signature-based products will cover the gaps and provide a wider coverage, despite quite some overlap.
Personally, I do not think you need most of the products listed below to remain safe! But, if you do decide to use signature-based products, you should use several, regardless of the efficiency of the task at hand. What more, I am definitely not going to re-educate the entire Windows world in one fell swoop, so I might as well offer some help and guidance on the subject, even if the pinpoint security tactics, like signature-based scanning and real-time monitoring, are not as efficient as having an agnostic, general-purpose security strategy.
For each listed program, I will mention the possible ethical issues, including the third-party components, if they exist. I may miss some, so if you have additional information, feel free to email me.
I will add a recommendation tag for specific products that I do think you should be using. These products will necessarily be clean of third-party surprises. What more, they will toll few system resources and will provide you with a generic protection that does not rely on signatures, avoiding the blind, futile race of who gets there first, the malware writers or the security vendors. These products will also help you understand your system better.
DropMyRights (no link available)
This little utility allows you to run programs with limited privileges while logged in as the Administrator. It can be useful for neutering the potential hazard of online activities by reducing the rights of Internet-dependent programs like browsers, mail client, P2P software etc.
Note: The old link to Microsoft MSDN is no longer available. If you are familiar with an alternative hosting/download location, please let me know. Meanwhile, take a look at the Run Safer component in Online Armor (see below).
Note: This is a recommended product.
SuRun is the latest incarnation of programs that mimic the default UNIX system configuration: the user account is regular and limited; system access requires temporary elevation of privileges to the administrator (root) account, by the means of password authentication. This principle is known as SUDO - Super User Do. The user sudoes access to the system and relinquishes it when done. On UNIX/Linux, this has always worked perfectly. But on Windows, it has not. SuRun changes this. It is the first application that truly encompasses the principle of sudo on Windows.
SuRun works perfectly. While the default Windows Limited User Account (LUA) is quite problematic to manage, plus many programs fail to run well under LUA, SuRun solves all these obstacles with perfect compatibility.
SuRun is the opposite of DropMyRights, which lowers the privileges of programs in the admin account, whereas SuRun elevates privileges in the limited account.
You probably want to read my long tutorial on SuRun.
Note: This product is a personal recommendation of Dedoimedo. It's probably the most important piece of security for XP users.
Anti-malware software is not necessary to enjoy a healthy Windows computing. However, if you do run into trouble somehow, you may want to use a few scanner utilities with good detection and removal capabilities.
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (MBAM)
Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware (MBAM) is a powerful, fast, thorough malware cleaner for Windows systems, capable of removing even the most stubborn infections. The freeware version features only the on-demand scanner, which is nevertheless sufficient for getting rid of infections, should they occur. The payware version also has a real-time monitor.
SuperAntiSpyware (SAS) is another powerful, malware detection and cleaning utility. It can be used in conjunction with MBAM. Indeed, like MBAM, the free version offers on-demand scanning and cleaning, while the payware edition can be used in real time. SAS is very effective against rootkits.
Similarly, I think that anti-virus software is not really necessary. But most Windows users run one or more out of sheer habit, without really bothering to check whether the software is up to date, configured properly or doing its job, yet most almost panic if it were to be uninstalled from their systems.
Antivir is a free, real-time anti-virus, which includes scheduling and automatic updates. The free version does not have a mail scanner. Furthermore, the free version displays large splash ads every time it updates.
Some of the funnier ads I've seen lately:
AVG offers a free, real-time anti-virus, which includes scheduling, automatic update and email scanning. Please note that AVG also comes with LinkScanner, a real-time web scanning utility, which checks each web page you're trying to visit in your browsers for exploits and malicious code, plus it checks the page "greenness" status against the server database.
Personally, I recommend you disable web scanning and deselect LinkScanner during the installation as it will slow down your browsing experience. You can use the online version if you need it.
Furthermore, if you're using Firefox, it has the built-in functionality to block reported web forgeries and known attack sites. Additionally, you can use the Perspectives extension to check the validity of secure (HTTPS) sites.
ClamWin portable is a portable anti-virus utility, which can be particularly useful for scanning files in Internet cafes, on the go, away from your main machine.
If you do not want to run an anti-virus on your machine, there's a number of online services that you can use to scan suspected files.
Jotti's malware scan (some 15 anti-virus scanners)
VirusTotal - Free Online Virus and Malware Scan (some 25 anti-malware scanners)
If you want to know whether the site you're visit is reputable, especially if you're going to exchange potentially sensitive information, like credit card payments, there's no need to run real-time scanners that will hog your system and slow down the browsing experiences.
You can manually run checks for the "suspicious" sites using WOT:
Furthermore, almost every virus vendor has an online scan service. Others also offer live CD virus scanning and cleaning utilities based on BartPE or Linux, which the user can download and burn to disc, then use these utilities to perform while booted in the live session.
I really, really think this is a bad idea, but if you really, really must:
Dr. Web anti-virus link-checker Firefox extension; this utility will scan down any page you're about to visit and any downloaded file on your machine using the Dr. Web online services. It will slow down your browsing experience.
Kaspersky Free Virus Scan plugin for Internet Explorer and Firefox; this utility offers only on-demand scanning of the filesystem without the ability to disinfect if threats are found.Note 1: avast! is another candidate, but I have little experience with it lately. If you can recommend it, I will add it to the Users' recommendation section.
Note 2: If you have a compiled list of online anti-virus scanning services, I'd appreciate if you could send me a link.
Note 3: Several vendors also offer free anti-virus utilities for U3 devices. Although I think PortableApps are much better than U3, I will still oblige my readers. If you're familiar with these programs, feel free to email me.
Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI)
The Secunia Online Software Inspector is a fast way to scan your Windows installation for the most common programs and vulnerabilities, thus checking if your system has a minimum security baseline against known patched vulnerabilities.
You can also use the online version of the Inspector called Online Software Inspector (OSI). The tool requires that you have Sun Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed on your machine.
Most Windows users feel a need to run a firewall with outbound control, because they do not trust their programs or they fear they might get infected and the malicious program may try to phone home. The best way to avoid any outbound-connection issues is to use programs you trust and avoid infections in the first place, thus elegantly preventing any scenario where unsolicited outbound connections are established from your computer to remote servers, without your knowledge or permission. Still, if you must, here are a few candidates:
The free version of this program offers a very thorough security solution for the Windows users. It is very easy to configure and use. In addition to the basic firewall functions, the programs also has some HIPS ability. The limited-privilege utility called Run Safer is available in the payware edition.
ZoneAlarm is one of the more popular Windows firewalls, because it has a very simple interface and is easy to learn and use. It is recommended for beginner users. The firewall has inbound-outbound filtering and application control. Please note that the software comes bundled with Ask toolbar that is checked by default during the installation. You should uncheck the selection if you do not wish to install the toolbar - you probably don't.
Alas, they are also the best! Light and fast, robust, with minimal system resource usage and excellent network handling capabilities, even under tremendous load. For Windows XP users, in addition to the built-in firewall, these two are the best choices. Note: Personally, I recommend either Kerio or Sygate as your personal firewall on Windows XP.
We listed codecs separately, but there are additional plugins to pay attention to. In general, browser plugins should only be ever downloaded from official vendors' sites. Please see below the download locations for the Adobe Flash and Sun Java Runtime Environment (JRE). You may also be interested in my article on Flash privacy and security.
PeerGuardian is an IP blocker and will work well in conjunction with firewalls and P2P software. It allows you to block whole ranges of IPs, including known advertisement, education, government, P2P, or spyware addresses. Note: this application is useful if you run P2P software.
Proximitron is a very powerful web filtering proxy. Properly configured, it can be used to clean the web pages of advertisements, exploits, nags, or just about anything. It has the similar impact to a number of Firefox extensions combined, except that it will function for all browsers rather than just Firefox. A tutorial coming soon, I promise.
Other security recommendations
There is a number of other tools you may want to consider, but they are somewhat more geeky and require quite a bit of understanding to utilize fully and correctly.
Most of these tools are by WinInternals, formerly SysInternals, lightweight, powerful programs that do one or two things at most, but do it very well. Among the most notable ones are the autoruns and ProcessExplorer, but in general, all programs released by SysInternals are top-notch quality.
I've also heard good feedback about Sandboxie, another privilege-control software. If you have a few good words about Sandboxie, do share them. Likewise, if you have other suggestions, I'd appreciate them.
More reading on security
Here's a number of articles that you should read. They will give you a good indication of what security is all about and how rather simple it is to get it right.
Safe Web practices - How to remain safe on the Internet
Mail security - Keep your inbox safe
Security your PC and Data - an excellent read over at Wilders Security.
Windows 7 security - Everything you to know
Notepad++ is a versatile text and source code editor, with lots of features including tabs, drag 'n' drop, bookmarks, regular expressions, spell-checker, code tidy, zooming, split screen, built-in FTP, macros, word completion, function completing, support and syntax highlighting for dozens of markup, programming and scripting languages, and much more. Notepad++ also has a portable version.
MojoPac is a very handsome and useful solution for Windows XP users. It allows you to run a virtualized version of your own installation, with full 3D support, making it ideal for games and programs that require the use of the graphic card and yet you cannot install where you might need them (workplace, Internet cafe). MojoPac is limited in being a self-virtualization, but it's extremely simple to use. You do not need to worry about the network stack or drivers configurations.
You may want to read my review. Additionally, please note that MojoPac allows you to run VirtualBox inside the virtualized environment, offering yet another layer of encapsulation.
VirtualBox is a versatile, cross-platform virtualization software that allows you to run multiple guest operating systems on top of your existing desktop. VirtualBox is a must for software enthusiasts, testers and researchers, or people who want to try new operating systems without altering their existing setups.
Since version 3.0 release, VirtualBox supports 3D acceleration, including DirectX on Windows and OpenGL on Linux guests! VirtualBox also has a Seamless mode, which allows the integration of applications running inside virtual machines onto your running desktop. VirtualBox can also run from USB drives, in portable mode and can even be installed in MojoPac.
VMware Player is a simple, adequate virtualization solution for desktop use. It is less powerful than either VirtualBox or VMware Server (see below), but it allows home users to test new operating systems or new software for their existing platforms in guest machines, without altering their base setup. It also comes included in numerous repositories, so it is quite easy to install and maintain. You can check a review here.
VMware Server is another powerful desktop virtualization software. Alongside VirtualBox, it makes a great combo for exploring and testing new stuff. VMware Server has many useful features, including the ability to connect to remote machines, a mighty network stack, and offers 3D support for DirectX on Windows guests.
VMware Server also contains the VMware Player, so you are better off trying the Server in the first place. The Server can also create new virtual machines and supports VMware Tools, which enhance the guest performance significantly. Note: I've also heard positive feedback about Returnil, a lightweight para-virtualization program. Feel free to suggest this software.
What is missing?
I have deliberately omitted some stuff, as we will discuss it separately. Here's a list of utilities that you won't find too much information about in this mega collection, but they will feature in separate reviews/tutorials.
I have very little experience with parental control programs and spam filtering. Your help would be appreciated here. I did mention the usage of PGP tools in the first part on encryption, but other than that, I did not elaborate much.
Likewise, I did not go much into mail privacy. For example, there are online disposable mail services, which allow users to create temporary accounts, so they can be used just for the duration of a necessary registration. We will talk about these in a separate tutorial, but your feedback would be appreciated.
Portable applications belong in a section of their own. For now, I have a number of articles that should point you in the right direction: PortableApps and Portable VirtualBox.
Conversion tools (more)
We did talk about these somewhat ... but not enough. There's still a lot of stuff left to do. For instance, tools for converting documents (like Microsoft documents, PDF files, etc), tools for uploading/downloading videos and music to popular sharing sites, and even more tools for converting video and music file formats, including online services. We will talk about these in separate reviews/tutorials, so stay tuned for updates.
There's also a whole load of other, less popular program categories that I have chosen not to include in the collection, in order to keep it lean and lean. Too many programs would have negated the effect of the "must-have" label.
Below, you will find a list of software categories that I intend to review in the future. If you have ideas or other suggestions, they are most welcome, as I have somewhat limited experience with some of the categories.
I know I have neglected this section. Last time, I listed Eclipse, but not much more than that. If you have a few useful suggestions, feel free to shoot.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software
Very little experience with these, I'm afraid. Your suggestions would be appreciated!
I did not list any - but the best choice for any operating system is GParted.
Scientific & computation software
Not a must for many Windows users, but a useful bunch nonetheless. If you're interested, take a look at my older review, which documents three popular scientific programs.
Other other stuff
Some other stuff that comes to mind: RSS software (FeedReader, Google Reader), web camera utilities, printer utilities, and so forth. Your help would be appreciated.
Useful online sources
Here's a collection of other online sources where you should find a wealth of useful information, including links to popular software, reviews, top lists, and more.
Gizmo's Freeware Reviews (also featured in my Greatest sites).
Top 300 freeware (in my cool sites list, also check Lupo PenSuite and AlternativeTo).
This is where you step in! All software listed here has been recommended by fellow forum members, friends and readers via email. While I sincerely believe that these programs are benign and easy to use, I cannot fully guarantee your satisfaction. Nor can I be held reliable for these third-party suggestions, although, I repeat once again, I think they are perfectly safe and quite useful.
Before you send me any suggestions, I must emphasize several things: all emails must be in plain text, no attachments whatsoever, with text links to author's or vendor's website. The suggested software must be free for personal use, production quality, easy to install and use. Furthermore, you need to tell me why you think the specific product deserves special attention. That's it. Fire away.
Names of users who contributed to this list, they deserve a big thanks:
Here's the list of user recommended software:
That's it, another mega collection, 90+ applications, lots of screenshots, tons of links to dedicated tutorials, most of them on Dedoimedo, plus some links to select, high-quality external sources with wealths of their own. I think you'll be pleased. This list should make every Windows user happy, from the newbie to expert. Some things are missing, but you can help there.
As you may have noticed, I've trimmed down the security section a bit, plus moved the less important, less popular, less often used, and more geeky programs into generic sub-sections. Most of the categories have now only a few leading candidates, but there are more sections than before, the repertoire is richer, and there's an ever better overall balance.
This compilation took me about a week to perfect, so feel free to spread the word as far as you can. See you around. Stay tuned for many more updates!