Best free software for your computer

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The best free PC software programs aren’t about the cost (or lack thereof), they’re about a fresh opportunity–collections of code that put the dumb hardware in your computer to smart use, tools that can accomplish anything from balancing your household budget to helping cure cancer.

Stocking your computer is a very personal job. Some programs are so useful that we recommend them to everyone. These programs, which include both essential and fun auxiliary applications, are well-worth a spot on any PC. However, there are occasions when a paid option is more practical. We have highlighted the situations where an upgrade to the free option is justified, as well as our recommendation for this category.

If you are choosing these programs to break in a new PC, make sure to read our guide to how do I set up a new computer the right way . Let’s dig in!

A better browser

Microsoft

Before you start tossing around software, be sure to grab your preferred web browser. Using Windows 10’s default Internet Explorer or Edge browser when you’re accustomed to something else feels like wearing somebody else’s shoes. (Blech. )

That said, our money’s actually on Edge, which earned top honors in PCWorld’s extensive best browser showdown, barely nudging out Google’s just-as-superb Chrome browser. They’re all completely free! Try before you “buy.” And if the big names aren’t your thing, there’s a legion of highly specialized alternative browsers begging for your attention.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Maybe. Browsers are generally free and most of them are fantastic. For Windows users there is Ghost Browser, which lets you sandbox separate online identities while viewing them all in a single window. At $120 per year, however, you’ve got to really need what Ghost Browser’s offering.

Ninite

Ninite makes loading up a new computer a breeze. Simply head to the Ninite website, select which free software you’d like to install on your PC–it offers dozens of options, including many of the programs named here–and click Get Installer to receive a single, custom .exe file containing the installers for those programs. Run the executable, and Ninite installs all of them in turn, and it automatically declines the offers for bundled bloatware so many free apps try to sneak in. No muss, no fuss, no hassle.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No.

No. That said, there is a paid complementary utility called Ninite Updater that costs $10 per year that makes it easy to keep all your desktop programs up-to-date.

Unchecky

Unwanted bloatware can be a danger to free software. For everything else, use Unchecky. Unchecky automatically removes all checkboxes from programs you are trying to install. It also warns you about suspicious software trying to steal your computer’s data.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No. Unchecky is again in a league of its own. While you may find similar capabilities in antivirus programs, there’s no reason to search elsewhere.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

The Windows Security software enabled by default in Windows 10 provides solid protection for most users, but no single antivirus utility offers bulletproof protection, especially against the latest and most clever threats. MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free was designed specifically to find and eliminate those cutting-edge “zero-day” vulnerabilities. It can’t be used as a regular antivirus program or scheduled scans, but it is invaluable if you suspect that your primary antivirus program has been compromised.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes.

Yes. Malwarebytes is great at saving infected computers, but Malwarebytes Premium at $40 per year is on guard to stop the malware from getting in its hooks in the first place.

Premium antivirus options provide excellent protection and a wide range of features with minimal impact on your computer’s performance. PCWorld’s guide to the best antivirus for Windows PCs can walk you through your options.

Launchy

On the surface, Launchy is a simple app launcher, and that’s swell all on its own! Launchers allow you to activate software much faster than you can navigate Windows. Even if you search for an application by name using the Windows key, you’ll still be able to use it. But Launchy can do much, much more: Open any file or folder in mere seconds, shut down your PC, or even kill processes and perform math calculations with the right plug-ins. Read Lifehacker’s superb tutorial and forget about your Start menu.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No. Launchy is an additional Windows utility. However, donations are accepted by the developers. We highly recommend giving a few dollars to the developers for this great program.

7-Zip

Windows is capable of creating and extracting ZIP files. However, if you are looking at another compressed file you will need to use a special program. Many of these programs cost money. 7-Zip is open-source and completely free, ready to perform all your archiving needs from Windows’ right-click context menu. To send secure 7-Zip archives, you can even encrypt them with a password.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No.

No. If you spend all day unzipping massive archive files then maybe a faster utility like WinZip is worth it. 7-zip works well for most people.

VLC

Windows 10 has a prickly problem: Unlike Windows 7, it’s incapable of playing DVDs out of the box. Your PC might have a DVD-playing program installed if you bought a boxed system, but if not, the simply wonderful VLC media player can play your flicks (and music, and podcasts, and…) for free. It can even play (some) Blu-ray discs with a little fiddling.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No. VLC is simply amazing, and there won’t be a paid alternative that can match its value. As a token of appreciation for the VideoLAN organization’s hard work, you can send a donation.

Paint.net

Don’t let Paint.net‘s freebie status fool you: This image editor may not have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but it packs everything that most people need (even layer-based editing) and costs hundreds of dollars less. We’ve got Paint.net tips to help you get started with this killer no-cost software.

If you’re a graphics professional, and you can’t afford Photoshop but require more than Paint.net offers, check out GIMP. Although it is a difficult learning curve, its capabilities are quite impressive once you get used to them. These are not the only options. Check out our roundup of the best free Photoshop alternatives for more no-cost programs for everything from quick and dirty tweaks to nitty-gritty image edits.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes. GIMP looks better than ever and free image editors are great. But Adobe’s hobbyist level Photoshop Elements at $100 has advanced features that you won’t find in the free programs.

Audacity

If you need to record or mix audio without spending big bucks on pro software, Audacity is hands-down the best option around. This powerful, open-source audio editor has a wide range of options and features. Snag it, then read PCWorld’s Audacity primer to wrap your head around the basics.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Maybe. For most users Audacity is a powerful tool, but if you’re rising to the level of semi-pro and need a deeper level of audio editing then Adobe’s Audition CC for $21 per month might be worth it. Adobe Audition is not a tool for beginners.

Revo Uninstaller

When you remove software from Windows, there may be remnants left behind in strange places. This can eat up valuable storage space. Revo Uninstaller wipes out everything. It’s great.

(Pro tip: If you encounter a program that says it can’t be deleted because it’s currently in use by your system, IOBit’s free Unlocker can loosen its grasp. )

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes. The basics are covered by Revo Uninstaller. If you need features like getting rid of remnants from previously uninstalled programs or mass uninstalls then spending $20 on Revo Uninstaller Pro or a $20 yearly subscription to Iobit Uninstaller Pro is worth it.

SpaceSniffer

Michael Crider/IDG

Managing your computer’s storage space can be a difficult task. Windows will show you how much storage space you have left, but that’s all. You can then go through a million directories to find out what’s missing and get rid of it when you run low. SpaceSniffer (try not to giggle) from Uderzo Software solves this by scanning an entire drive and presenting your files and folders in a visual grid, which makes it easy to find “lost” programs eating up huge chunks of your hard drive space. It’s one of the five Windows power tools we can’t live without.

WinDirStat is another free program that behaves similarly to SpaceSniffer. One of these programs is a must-have if you want to make your computer more space-efficient for large game installations.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Nope. Enough already.

Recuva

How can you bring a file that has been deleted back into the realm of the living? Recuva is a clean, simple undelete program from Piriform, the makers of CCleaner.

Be warned: Recuva won’t be able to recover all deleted files, and the odds are even lower if you erased a program with a secure delete tool like Eraser (another top-notch free program). Recuva saved me on many occasions.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Maybe. Recuva helps you recover files, but if you want power user features like virtual hard drive support and automatic updates then the $20 for Recuva Pro might be worth it.

Sumatra PDF

Adobe Reader may be the go-to PDF reader for many people, but it’s clunky, constantly updating, and frequently targeted by malware peddlers. If you need only basic functionality, go with Sumatra PDF instead. Sumatra PDF lacks many of the extras that are found in full-featured PDF readers. However, Sumatra PDF is fast and accurate when it comes down to reading Portable Document Format files. Sumatra PDF is less popular than Adobe’s, so hackers are more likely to avoid it.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No. There are paid PDF readers such as Adobe’s Acrobat or Wondershare’s PDFelement. They offer many features, such as the ability edit PDFs, to watermark them and to annotate them.

If you must have these advanced features check out PCWorld’s guide to the best PDF editors.

Spotify or iTunes

Sometimes blasting music is all that’s needed to make slogging through a spreadsheet and a stuffed inbox bearable. Naturally, the music client you need will depend on whether or not you have already purchased a service. For musical neophytes I recommend two programs: iTunes and Spotify.

The iTunes Windows client is notoriously slow, but it does the job. It gives you access to thousands of music downloads, and keeps your iPhone’s music collection synchronized with your computer. Spotify is a streaming service that offers unlimited access to millions of top-quality tunes, with only a few ads.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes. In fact, if my editors let me use “Hell Yes” as an option, I’d say, “Hell Yes!” You don’t need to be an audiophile to recognize the sound difference in the higher-quality versions Spotify and Apple Music premium subscribers get, plus no ads and the freedom to listen to your music anywhere? Sold.

A password manager

The high-profile hack attacks of the past few years have driven home the point: You need strong passwords, and you need a different password for each site you visit. Instead of trying to remember dozens upon digits in your head, use a password manager.

There are several options available, but our favorite is LastPass, a cloud-based password manager that generates strong, random passwords and keeps track of your credentials across all your devices for free. Dashlane is another stellar option, but the free version is limited to a single device. PCWorld’s guide to the best password managers can help walk you through all the available options.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes.

Password managers are essential tools. However, you will need them on all of your devices in order to be effective. This means that you have to pay for the service. LastPass Premium is the cheapest subscription at $24 per year, but there’s also 1Password and Dashlane Premium.

A productivity suite

PCs are great at getting things done, but very few come with a productivity suite. Get rid of that! Even if you don’t intend to use a productivity software suite often, it is smart to have basic editing capabilities on your computer.

Ligations of people swear by Microsoft Office’s legendary Office. I agree. You don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles of Office, but you don’t have to spend a lot on it. Free–and good–alternatives abound, with LibreOffice (pictured) being the flagship free-and-open-source option. The online-only Google Docs also rocks. PCWorld’s guide to the best free Microsoft Office alternatives explains your various options.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Maybe. LibreOffice, Open Office and Google Docs are great options. But there’s a lot to be said for Microsoft’s subscription service, Office 365, with its added 1TB of OneDrive storage and monthly Skype minutes.

AutoHotKey

Macros are great for Excel and Microsoft Word, aren’t? AutoHotKey lets you create customized keyboard shortcuts for any program or action on your PC. It’s not exactly beginner-friendly, as configuring AutoHotKey requires some very basic scripting, which most people will be able to pick up quickly enough. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s a wonderful tool.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

No. You don’t have to pay for the pro version. But if you like keyboard shortcuts, Vimium is another great free option for adding keyboard controls to your browser.

TunnelBear VPN

Browsing websites and sending private data over open Wi-Fi hotspots is just begging for hackers to capture the details. Your connection is protected by virtual private networks. If you need to log in to your work website or email at Starbucks, use TunnelBear to keep your data safe. It is fast and easy to use.

The free version is limited to just 500MB of data per month, though.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes. Another one where “Hell Yes!” is appropriate. TunnelBear is great, and we think it’s a trustworthy product, but the 500MB monthly limit is so tiny. There are many VPNs available. Check out our roundup of the Best VPNs to find the one that suits you. Our current top pick is ExpressVPN.

Free games!

All work and no play makes Homer something something! Valve’s outstanding PC game marketplace, Steam, makes it easy to shrug off the stress of the workday and blow off some … well, you know. There are tons of Steam games that you can get for free, with some games being given away only for a short time. If you want a steady stream of freebies, the rival Epic Games Store gives way a free game or two every single week.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Probably. You can only go so far with free games. Steam, GOG, EA’s Origin, the Epic Games Store, and Blizzard can all satisfy your gaming needs once the free games aren’t enough.

Bonus: Back up your PC!

This isn’t an official recommendation because the best way to back up your PC for free is to use a hodgepodge of native Windows utilities and no-cost third-party solutions. But backing up your data is so vital–especially in this rising age of ransomware–that it needs to be highlighted here.

If the idea of using a mish-mash of tools makes you wince, check out PCWorld’s guide to the best Windows backup software for more options. Portable storage is essential to keep your stuff safe. PCWorld’s best external drives roundup can help there.

Is it worth it to upgrade to a paid version?

Yes. You can backup your computer by more than just putting your files on a USB stick. You also need to have an online backup, and there are many services to choose from such as Backblaze, and Carbonite. Check out our guide to the best online backup services for more details.

Master your Windows 10 PC

Now that you have loaded the best free software on your computer, it is time to get Windows to work. Head on over PCWorld’s best Windows 10 tips, tricks, and tweaks guide to seize even more control over your PC for the low, low price of nothing.

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