I get lots of questions from friends and family about PCs, software and technology in general. Lately I’ve been recommending software and have promised many people that I’d send them an email with links to download the goods. Well, instead of sending out emails every time someone asks, I’ll direct them to this post. So here goes. I am becoming a big fan of open source software. Open source software is typically free to use and is usually built by a community of developers (although many for-profit companies are getting on the bandwagon). I’ve been a Microsoft user for many years and some of these suggestions are Microsoft products. But many of their products are expensive. Plus they are bloated and have features that only experts use.
I use and recommend Mozilla’s Firefox browser. For many reasons that I won’t go into here, Firefox is a safer browser than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Plus is has cool features like tabs and popup blocker built-in. And for power users, Firefox has Extensions which can seriously enhance how you use a browser.
I use Microsoft Outlook and various webmail clients for work. Webmail is certainly cool, and the various versions are getting much more functional, but most people want a desktop client. I use and recommend Mozilla’s Thunderbird mail client. It works well, especially if you have multiple mail accounts that you want to access from a single client.
Many PCs come preinstalled with a virus scanner. Most of these provide virus database updates for free for a few months, but then require that you buy their software and/or pay a subscription fee to keep updated. Bullocks. There are perfectly free and effective virus software packages available. I use and recommend AVG Anti-Virus Free. Make sure to uninstall any existing virus and security software installed before installing Avast or any other virus software.
Virus software is not enough to protect your computer. Spyware is nasty and can serious degrade the performance of your PC. I use and recommend Microsoft’s Antispy software. It works great and runs in the background without using up to many resources.
I highly recommend that you keep your Windows installation up to date with the latest patches. This is easy to do. Start Internet Explorer, click Tools on the menu bar and select Windows Update. This will scan your computer and recommend updates. Install all recommended updates. Keep doing this until no more updates are identified. Then make sure Automatic Updates are enabled.
I highly recommend running Windows XP Service Pack 2, which includes a firewall. To enable it, go to Start, Control Panel, Windows Firewall. I also think a hardware-based router that acts as a firewall is a good additional step to protect your PC from the Internet. The Linksys products are great and they can give you Wireless capabilities as well.
One of my favorite tools of late is Microsoft’s MSN Desktop Search. This free download installs a toolbar that indexes all your files and gives you a quick and exhaustive search capability for all your files. Very useful. And as a bonus, it gives you tabs in Internet Explorer 6.
One of the most promising open source projects is the OpenOffice.org software package that is aiming to compete directly with Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is a free suite of office applications including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator, drawing program and database. I’ve installed it and poke around, but haven’t used it in any real way. It can open and save in Microsoft compatible formats with little problems. But the biggest advantage is cost. Microsoft’s Office 2003 Professional is $500 compared to FREE for OpenOffice.
Another application that has received great reviews, but I haven’t tried, is Paint.net, a photo editing package.
You can find an extensive list of open source software listed by category here.