It’s true that amid all our oohing and aahing over cutting-edge hardware and benchmark results, software often gets short shrift. But that’s not to say the ones and zeros don’t excite us. An email program that anticipates our needs, an app that uses the Internet to build a personal VPN, a utility that gives Windows the white-glove treatment—that kind of stuff makes us giddy. That’s what the Softy Awards are all about. Our annual bacchanal gives us a chance to salute the programs and utilities that have truly improved our lives.
Whittling down dozens of hopefuls into a standout handful is no easy task, and this year our task was even more difficult. We expanded our rigorous selection criteria to include applications that extend the power of mobile devices and web browsers. In the end, the software we present here was unanimously chosen by the uber-finicky Maximum PC staff—and all of it is free.
So, without further ado, let’s get on with the ceremony!
You’re probably feeling a little like Harcourt Fenton Mudd, the way we constantly nag you to empty your Recycle Bin, clear out old chkdsk file fragments, and zap old prefetch data. Well, good news: CCleaner, aka Crap Cleaner, does the dirty work for you. With the push of a button it dumps Windows XP’s useless detritus and clears out those log files that, umm, you don’t want anyone to know about. Best of all, this handy app comes at the right price—it’s free. Run it once a month to shut old Stella up.
Skype allows you to make crystal-clear, absolutely free, encrypted calls to anyone who also has a Skype account—no matter where they are—and calling to a land line or cell phone can cost as little as 2.1 cents a minute. Conferences, video calls, file transfers, and instant messaging are just a few of the other features we love that are included in this program. And with the service installed on your smartphone, you can make low-cost or free international calls from anywhere you can get a Wi-Fi connection.
Forget about U3 and Ceedo, we’ve got a better portable application package! PortableApps delivers a free bundle of computing goodies that can be loaded onto any device—thumb drive, hard drive, iPod, whatever! Plug your drive into any computer and you’ll be rocking a fully customized PC experience—from your personal Firefox bookmarks, to your Thunderbird email, to IM contacts, to OpenOffice documents; plus, you get portable antivirus and backup programs. All apps run from within the secure and anonymous confines of your PortableApps environment—unplug the drive and remove any trace of your activities.
How do we love thee, Hamachi? Let us count the ways, even though there’s really just one. But, boy, are we smitten. Hamachi makes it possible to effortlessly (and we mean effortlessly) set up a VPN connection between any computers jacked into the Net.
Once you’ve connected your rigs, you get secure access to any network function imaginable—fire up your iTunes shared music; rock an old-school, network-based game (IPX, anyone?); spin up your favorite remote desktop application; you name it. And did we mention that the process is effortless?
We take the Vegas approach to web surfing: What happens on the web stays on the web. Or so we hope. The Torpark browser, though, helps provide peace of mind. Designed to fit on a USB thumb drive, Torpark keeps the sites you visit from knowing who you are by running page requests through the Tor network, allowing you to enjoy an anonymous web experience. The network can be slow, but you have the option of “flushing” the circuit you are on for a faster connection, and should you decide to come out in the open, you can seamlessly jump off the Tor network for speedier web browsing.
Really get to know your system with this PC audit and inventory software. The self-contained program, which requires no installation or configuration, runs a thorough scan of all the hardware and software on your PC and presents the information in a comprehensive, categorized, browser-friendly format. You’ll see your system in a whole new light: Learn which extensions, instructions, and technologies are enabled in your processor; peruse a log of all your application errors; learn whether any of your hard disks are at risk of failure; and even discover which motherboard is in your Aunt Edna’s PC. It works with all flavors of Windows from 95 through Vista.
Other Internet radio stations have promised to intuitively create a mix of music we’d love, but their limited song libraries and imperfect track selections have failed to impress us. Last.fm, however, has us dancing in our seats. In addition to selecting artists or styles of music, with Last.fm you can tag songs as well as create custom stations based on tags, so it’s easier to refine your listening experience and find the music you want. With its great range of artists, expansive search functions, and spot-on recommendations, Last.fm is where we go to discover new music.
Other Web Apps Worth Checking Out
Writely: Google’s web-based word-processing app offers Word functionality and lets you store and share your documents online.
Backpack: It sounds goofy, but sharing your to-do list and notes online is eminently useful.
Spotback: Get personalized news and customize a front page of all your RSS feeds, complete with updated lists and mouse-over summaries of the latest stories.
While Trillian users enter their third year without a major update, Gaim aficionados (we call them Gaimers) are on the cusp of an instant-messaging revolution. Even in beta form, Gaim 2.0 has brought the open-source instant messenger to the pinnacle of Softyness. By eschewing unnecessary features and focusing on rock-solid core functionality, the crazy kids behind Gaim have stolen our hearts, in 300 characters or less.
Thunderbird 2.0 has finally brought Gmail-style tags to your desktop email client. Instead of sorting your messages caveman-style by placing them in static folders—where they’ll rot for all eternity—Thunderbird lets you apply as many tags as you like to any message. This allows you to build dynamic search folders based on your tags (or subject, sender, or date received, for that matter). Thunderbird kicks ass!
How many maps are in your car? What about on your laptop? Do you own city, region, and state maps, just in case you need to make a quick run for the border? We didn’t think so.
Google Maps Mobile works on most any cell phone and does exactly what its name implies—provides Google Maps on the go. Just think: You never have to be lost again. The app will work on virtually any phone with a data plan that runs Java apps. You can pan, zoom, generate directions, or even look at satellite photos.
Other Mobile Apps Worth Checking Out
Opera Mini: In many ways, this free Java-based browser is better than its $24 brother, Opera Mobile. Think crazy-useful Start screen, for one.
Cell Profile Switcher: Automatically change the profile on your Windows Mobile phone according to the cell tower you’re connected to. Genius!