Economy got you down? No longer able to make those day-long trips to your local computer store of choice for all the latest and greatest software tools? Tired of paying top-dollar for programs that don't quite have the functionality you want? Well put away that wallet. We spent the past week showing you the best (and cheapest) software we've been able to find across different themes: graphics design, system optimization, games, and office/productivity, and have compiled our picks into this comprehensive list.
Just because it doesn't come in a box doesn't mean that these titles are any less powerful than their retail counterparts. The graphics category exemplifies that fact, offering programs that are every bit as good as their hundred-dollar Adobe counterparts. But just for good measure, we threw in our favorite free Adobe graphics program too.
Gimp is often mentioned as one of the top open-source photo editing applications and it's easy to see why. The program offers Photoshop-like functionality at the low-low price of zero. You can accomplish a number of the graphical tricks you're normally used to, as the program includes support for layers and masking, channel coloration adjustments, and a bevy of preset filters. Gimpshop is a variant of Gimp that ups the ante one step further by blending Photoshop's look and feel directly into the program's. It's the perfect tool if you just can't bear the thought of losing "that same ol' interface" you've grown accustomed to. It's a great program for middle-of-the-road users that just need a graphics editing application with more oomph .
Consummate Vs! For the artist that focuses solely on the basics--the careful transformation of sketched pencil lines into a finished comic product--Pencil is the perfect application. What it lacks in graphical gusto, it makes up for in its ability to integrate Macromedia Flash-like keyframe functionality into the drawing board. Taking an illustration from the sketching, to the inking, to the coloration phase is as simple as adding in additional layers. When designing an animation, you can even select alternate camera frames and integrate sound directly into the mix. Don't let our crude attempts at art fool you: Pencil is the digital equivalent of an animator's storyboard that's as easy to use as, well, a pencil!
Feh to Windows Photo Gallery. We would gladly trade the ability to crop photos and correct red eyeballs for what XnView offers: comprehensive access to your photos' behind-the-scenes data and a wide assortment of tools for managing your growing gallery. Not only can you view your photo folders just like a common Windows Explorer thumbnail interface, but XnView lets you tag, rate, and create slideshows (even Web pages) for the photos you select. We love the ability to get tweak our photos by getting elbow-deep into their EXIF data. And like Photoshop, XnView lets you perform batch editing commands using a number of different filters. You can even zoom right to a photo's embedded GPS location via a direct link to Google Maps--way cool.
Whereas XnView is more for digging deep into folders you specify, Google's Picasa 3 is an all-in-one monitoring service for your photo folders. It offers less overall editing functionality than XnView, but comes packaged in a more elegant interface with additional options for Internet-related tasks. For example, you can add geotags to your photos via Google Earth and then have Picasa 3 automatically upload your shots to a Web album, FTP site, or straight to your Blogger blog. Picasa 3 also interfaces with online shops for easy photo printing, and can turn a batch of your images into collages, movies, and screensavers. Included backup functionality helps keep your precious photographic memories safe from an errant hard drive failure, provided you select an appropriate backup locale. But our favorite feature, by far, is Picasa's ability to search through your photographs by dominant color.
Ok, we couldn't resist Adobe's lure. For the company's Web-based Photoshop (conveniently called Photoshop Express) is a phenomenal tool for touching up your art when you're on the go. Or anywhere, for that matter: the program's comprehensive-yet-simple suite of editing tools offers a wide range of basic functionality. If you want more, you can drill a little bit deeper to unlock tools like color isolation, distortions, and image enhancements. But that's not all. The online application can interface directly with your Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket and Picasa galleries. Make your edits, and Photoshop Express saves your new work directly back to its original location. The time this saves versus downloading the picture, uploading it to Photoshop Express, making the edits, saving it, and re-uploading it to a new content hose is, in a word, epic.
Here are the top freeware system optimization tools we've discovered in our mighty search of the Web. Clean your PC of spyware! Keep it virus-free! Run new, scary program in a virtualized environment! And much more--our full list of awesome, must-install applicaitons awaits. Check 'em out! Your PC isn't complete without them!
If you aren't running an antivirus application on your computer, shame on you. There's no reason you should open up your technological insides to invasion. Clamwin is a fully functional antivirus application that's as free as it is updated. While the program doesn't feature real-time scanning, it's still updated with all the latest virus definitions. Establishing a schedule for a scan is as easy as clicking the mouse a few times and typing in a number. The application doesn't abuse a ton of system resources, which in itself is a boon. Nor have we detected the egregious number of false positives that a free scanner like A-Squared spits out. Clamwin keeps you safe sans hassle--the epitome of a free virus-scanning application.
PC running slow? Seeing a ton of strange pop-ups and application launches that shouldn't be happening. CCleaner -- short for "Crap Cleaner" -- is your ticket to a healthy PC. The program runs through a bevy of files on your machine and deletes those which are no longer necessary. It's not a spyware-fighting application. You'll want to look to Spybot for that. However, we typically run CCleaner once a week on our machines just to keep them (and their storage capabilities) in tip-top shape. The application nukes the temporary files of your operating system and Internet browsers, then sifts through your registry for improper shortcuts and unused entries. Freeing up storage is always fun, and CCleaner doesn't disappoint in that regard!
Feel like testing out an application, but don't want to leave its footprint on your primary operating system? Want to cover your tracks for all the less-than-reputable Web browsing you're undertaking? Feel like screwing around with Linux, but don't want to set up a new partition to do so? Accomplish these tasks, and more, by creating a virtualized operating system environment inside of VirtualBox. You can run operating systems of all kinds inside this application, including the very latest Linux and Windows installations. The program lets you share files between your "fake" OS and your real OS, and you can even interact with your virtual operating system using standard USB devices. Hardcore users take note: you can also access your virtual environment remotely. VirtualBox is a tinkerer's dream.
Don't let expensive commercial software steal all the fun of backing up files! DriveImage XML is the free, one-stop shop for making backup images of your disk partitions. Once complete, you can then go back and browse or restore the contents of these images as much as you'd like. You can also set up a direct clone of you drive and use Windows' built-in Task Scheduler to run this, and DriveImage XML's other operations, any time you want. DriveImage XML comes with no nag screens or registration prompts. It's simple, easy-to-use backup that you can even slap onto a preinstalled Windows envrionment like a BartPE disk.
Whether you're an application fanacit or just have a cursory few programs installed on your desktop, one of the biggest frustrations of being a PC users is keeping your programs up-to-date. This used to involve checking vendor websites and file depositories on a regular basis to see when new versions pop up. But those days are no longer, thanks to Sumo. This lightweight application generates a list of all the installed applications on your PC. It then hops onto the Internet and scans for the latest version of the programs. If you could use an upgrade, the program tells you which application is lagging behind the technology curve and gives you the opportunity to update to the latest version at the click of a mouse. Use Windows Update for your system; use Sumo for your applications!
The difficulty in this list stems from the fact that there are a ton of excellent games in the independent scene right now. We frequently profile these as much as possible on the Maximum PC monthly CD, but even then, it's tough to pick five examples of top-quality games--we could fill an article with five hundred. Your favorite open-source game might not have made our list this time around, but feel free to leave comments about other awesome alternatives you've sampled!
Now that the disclaimer's out of the way, cancel your appointments and throw up your away message. It's time to game, and it's time to game for free!
We're starting off with a puzzle game. But before you conjure images of another Tetris or Bejeweled clone, know that "a game about bouncing" is a fun romp through an iTunes visualizer. At least, that's what the simple beauty of the game's vibrant backdrops brings to mind. The game's premise is simple: grab onto shapes to collect them while avoiding "tails" that follow you around. Only, the shapes you're grabbing also serve as pinball-style bumpers, sending you careening around an endless map every time you snag a new shape. Replace the bumpers with buildings and you'll have a minimalistic Spider Man on your hands. Our only reservation? The game doesn't come with a built-in screensaver mode. How cool would that look?
There are more open-source and freeware first-person shooters in existence than strippers in Duke Nukem 3D. But rather than sift through 30 different games to find one that barely squeaks by the others, we've decided to place a genre mainstay into our top 5 list. Tremulous is frequently cited as one of the first-person shooters to play and it's easy to see why. The game's graphics are vaguely reminiscent of the Quake shooters of old. Only this time around, you can play as the good guys or the evil aliens, with each race operating under a unique leveling style. Regardless, you're rewarded for killing the enemy with new weapons and upgrades--making this first-person shooter a fun hybrid of mini-RPG and shoot'em-up gameplay.
We enjoy the fantasy setting of the real-time strategy title Glest as much as we enjoy the game's polish. In fact, we dare say it looks better than some of the earlier RTS offerings of now-established companies (here's looking at you, Warcraft). Pick one of the game's two factions--Tech or Magic--and slug it out on the battlefield using all sorts of arcane powers and plain ol' ass-kickery. You can even fire up Glest over local multiplayer if you want to pour a bucket of open-source ownage all over your unsuspecting friends. If you're of the programming mindset, you can also grab a number of tools for modifying the game straight off of Glest's official site.
We'll be the first to admit that, by itself, Vega Strike is not the prettiest of games. But we're including this on our list for the limitless enhancements stacked onto this title by the open-source community. Although the game itself already looks like a crappier Wing Commander: Privateer, we're more than happy that the community has taken it upon itself to actually recreate this, one of the space genre's better titles, as a direct spin-off of Vega Strike. There's also a Star Trek space-flight mod and a turn-based modification called Armada. No matter which variant you pick, Vega Strike's the framework that starts your journey. And for that, this little space shooter earns a tiny medal on its coat.
Back when games were run from command lines, the software juggernaut Broderbund made a driving game called Stunts. As the name implies, you didn't just race around a track and call it a day. You could race around (and even create your own) series of crazy obstacle courses, featuring full loops, corkscrews, and a variety of other technical challenges. Screw up, and you'd blow up--it was that simple. This once-hilarious title has been rescued from abandonware and been recreated as a souped-up open-source game. You can still design your own killer tracks, only it looks a lot better now than when you used to rock this game on a 486 machine. Oh, how far technology has come!
Now we're going to take a look at some of the top open-source and freeware office applications. We're not just talking about suites, though. Like our previous three features, we're going to run through programs that cover a wide range of activities you might encounter during a typical, nine-to-five day. Hey, maybe you'll even be able to convince your friendly IT person of choice to install these finds across a batch of computers! You'll be a hero! You'll save your company millions in licensing fees! Promotions will be thrown at your cubicle like butter on bread!Open-source and freeware applications are just that exciting. But don't take our word for it. Check out the full list of applications below!
Yes, we know. Everybody's heard of Open Office by now. But did you know that there's a new version of this wonderful, open-source office suite on the horizon? We've linked you to Release Candidate 3 of the application. Install it at your own risk, of course. But when you do decide to pull to the trigger on Open Office, get ready for a batch of upgrades and additional features that make this batch of apps just one step closer to their Microsoft Office counterparts. Create documents, spreadsheets, presentations--Open Office is the batch of applications you'll want to have if you want to get any serious work done on your PC.
No, this isn't just some new annoying Web 2.0 application. If anything, Toggl is designed to keep you from wasting time at work. The service works like this: sign up for a free account and you can download a little widget that runs in your taskbar. You use this widget to interact with Toggle by adding projects, descriptions of what you're working on, and turning a little timer on and off. The timer keeps track of just how long you're spending on what you're doing, and even deletes time you spend away from your computer off your total "billable" hours.
So why do we like this app? Well, you can track and see if you're running ahead of (or behind) schedule on any number of projects you want. Or, for that matter, you can use the app's reporting functionality to show your boss just how hard a worker you are, 70+ hour weeks and all.
Scheduling projects is a drag. It's not always a task that can be done by adding appointments to your calendar tool of choice. Deadlines, back-and-forth, and all sorts of miscellaneous factors can play a big part of the schedule you're keeping. And that's why we're including GanttProject into the mix. It's an open-source variant of the popular Microsoft Project, but it's completely compatible with this retail application. You can import and export your projects to formats that are compatible with Microsoft Project, although we recommend a more drastic approach. Use this, and only this, for all your scheduling needs. Your office life just got a lot more organized.
Brainstorming is fun, but we'd much prefer to add a little digital oomph to our lengthy mind-spewing sessions. FreeMind is the perfect program to keep track of how thoughts and ideas all interconnect around a centralized topic. This program gives you the ability to graphically represent what would otherwise be a drab outline in a Word (or OpenOffice) document. It's a supreme organizational application for your thoughts, projects, or research, especially because of how easy it is to delve into a complex hierarchy of ideas and add, replace, or connect new thoughts. In hindsight, we should have used FreeMind before writing this crazy paragraph of a description, but that just goes to show you how impressed we are with this app!
We're not going to conjecture about the kinds of files you'll need to securely overwrite with Eraser. We're just going to assume that your important business documents will need this digital file shredder at some point. And why is that? Because you're crazy if you think that dragging "important files.rar" to your recycle bin is enough to remove it from your machine. Eraser overwrites the bits and bytes of by your deleted files multiple times to ensure that there's no way your files will ever be recoverable--save for a remote backup by your IT department that you didn't know about. Whoops.
The last batch of awesome open-source (or freeware) applications centers on a single word: wow. No, they don't help you level up in that MMO. We're going to show you a batch of free programs whose features are cool enough to make your jaw hit the floor, a small puddle of drool to escape from your lips and into your keyboard, and your twitter to light up with all messages you'll be sending your friends about these must-have applications. We're serious. Prepare to be amazed.
If you've been reading Maximum PC, you know exactly what Synergy does and why we must have this on our list of "wow!" applications. But we'll break it down for those new to the scene. Synergy links two computers together--two computers to a single mouse and keyboard, that is. Your mouse travels across the screens of the two PCs (or notebooks) as if you were using the displays in a dual-monitor configuration. Synergy also unifies the clipboard between the two devices and, geekier still, synchronizes the screensavers. This application is the program you need to have running if you use two computers in close proximity to each other, period.
Revo Uninstaller is better than most of the uninstallation utilities that come with your favorite programs. Not only does it perform the same basic functions as these, but it goes one important step further. The application scans your drive for any leftover files that typical uninstallation programs overlook (or ignore). It gives you the option to nuke these out of existence (we often spring for this), cementing Revo Uninstallers place as one of our favorite drive clean-up applications. But that's not all. Revo Uninstaller also packs a junk-file scanner and startup manager into its treasure trove of file management, as well as a file shredder-like feature which overwrites your deleted files past the point of recovery. It's a one-stop shop for eliminating clutter, and we'll turn to it every time we need to say a fateful farewell to an application or game.
Size isn't everything, and Launchy is the perfect example of a program that's miniscule in format, but essential in its functionality. With the simple tap of an alt+enter combination on your keyboard, the application pops up. The only thing you have to do is type in what you want to do next. Want to load Photoshop? Start typing. Want to fire up Firefox? Write it out. Feel like heading over to Youtube? Type that into the input box. It's that easy. Launchy excels at what it does: launching stuff. We'd rather type in four letters than have to navigate through the start bar each time we want to run an applicaiton. This, and the program's seemingly limitless customization options, put Launchy high on our list of must-haves for any PC environment. ...even if this idea was seemingly "borrowed" from an Apple OS. Wink.
(click the picture to hit up Xbmc's official Flickr site! )
Xbmc, formerly known as Xbox Media Center, is a powerful application for streaming video content from one PC (or Mac, or Linux box) to another connected device. Its interface is absolutely gorgeous, but even if you don't agree with us, you can always skin it to whatever you want. The application supports a ton of video formats, which is nice. We like the application's comprehensive plug-ins even more--just describing all the tricks that external developers have coded into Xbmc would be an article in itself. If you've been a fan of Tversity and MythTV, you owe it to yourself to check out Xbmc. And if you have no idea what those two programs even do, don't fret. Grab this application and prepare thyself for a whole new world of media interactivity.
Got any favorite apps that we didn't mention? Post them in the comments section below!