We’re huge fans of freeware at Maximum PC . Why pay for expensive software when a perfectly reasonable and fully functioning piece of freeware exists as a compelling alternative?
But sometimes this holy grail of applications doesn’t actually exist, or the freeware alternative lacks mission-critical features. That’s exactly what we’re exploring in this roundup. We’ve culled a variety of software and web services, covering all kinds of topics at all sorts of price points; if the task at hand is important to you, we think you’re best served by forking over some hard-earned cash.
It’s important to note that a number of the apps on our list have evaluation versions. There’s no shame in checking them out as part of your decision-making process before swiping your card—that’s why demos exist, after all. Same goes for our list of web services. If they’re a bit too pricey or too overboard for your needs, feel free to consider the more limited free versions instead! We don’t mind. Our sole goal is to turn you on to some worthwhile software and services that just happen to cost some dough.
Tired of watching everyone else’s tutorials, game recordings, and hilarious outtakes on YouTube ? If you want to capture your own PC gaming videos, annoyance-free, Fraps is the way to go. Your small contribution will remove the watermarks present in the app’s free version and, more importantly, allow you to record videos as long—or as large—as you want. Capturing screenshots and recording your frames-per-second across your gaming binges is just as easy.
$37 , www.fraps.com
Camtasia Studio isn’t the best choice if you’re looking to make videos of your gaming adventures, but it makes up for that by offering a compelling recording, editing, and publishing experience for just about everything else. This is the app you’ll want to have if you’re interested in making high-quality movies of your normal Windows experience—for, say, tutorials on how to use a particular app from this roundup!
$300 , www.techsmith.com
OK, let’s just admit it and be done with it: The taskbar found in OSX—you know, the “Dock” that magnifies and contracts whenever you move your mouse over the icons—is pretty neat. It might not be as functionally superior as the Windows Start menu, but since you won’t find that either in Windows 8, slapping a lovely Apple-like Dock at the bottom of your screen can be a pleasing mix of function and form.
$20 , www.stardock.com
Foxit Advanced PDF Editor
In the wide world of PDF manipulation, it’s rare that you’ll find a program for viewing and editing PDFs that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Adobe ’s “industry-standard” app, Acrobat, will set you back a cool $300 for the full version—all that, just for the convenience of being able to edit and manipulate PDF documents you’ve created or downloaded. Our solution? Foxit’s app, which is just as feature-filled for one-third of the price.
$100 , www.foxitsoftware.com
Billed as the only video editing application that’s, “designed by editors, for editors,” the Lightworks program supports a whole host of video and audio formats for your clips, which you can then jam onto a super-advanced, codec-independent timeline that lets you add effects and transitions, or make adjustments to speeds and levels, in real time. Be sure to try out the free version before you plunk down your cash on this app, just in case you’re not actually trying to turn your home movies into IMAX-worthy creations.
$60/year , www.lwks.com
Click the next page to read about Adobe's suite of software.
Adobe After Effects
Oof. Video manipulation ain’t cheap. But Adobe’s After Effects is really the end-all, be-all of consumer visual-effects applications. We almost want to put “consumer” in quotes, because this product definitely sits outside the range of your average video amateurs who want to learn how to add a little pizazz—or lightsabers—to their backyard clips. At least Adobe offers a subscription service for folks who want to dabble with a slew of rendered effects without going bankrupt.
$1000 retail or $20/month for one year subscription , www.adobe.com
Adobe Premiere Pro
It might seem like we’re riding the Adobe train with our video recommendations. It's for a reason. Premiere Pro remains the (Windows-based) industry standard for an app that can handle video importing, editing, and exporting all at once. That’s important to mention, because you can hodgepodge your way through cursory video editing using a variety of freeware tools. Once you’re ready to get serious about edits, transitions, rendering—the whole nine yards—Premiere Pro will give you great stability and speed for your investment.
$800 or $20/month for one year subscription , www.adobe.com
Dragon Naturally Speaking 12
You can talk to your smartphone and, with luck, it can transcribe what you’re yelling at it in the car. Unfortunately, speech recognition on your desktop or laptop computer is a bit lacking. While the feature does come bundled within Windows 7 and Windows 8, Microsoft’s implementation of voice analysis—specifically, its speed and accuracy—leaves much to be desired versus the capabilities of third-party apps like Dragon Naturally Speaking 12. With a bit of voice training, you’ll be dictating to your desktop in no time.
$100 , www.nuance.com
Easy. Simple. Infrequently wrong—at least, not as wrong as you’d probably be if you attempted to do your taxes the (more painful) long way. The simplicity of TurboTax, even when faced with crazy deductions and other assorted pains of owning a small business (or working as a freelancer), means you’ll likely be able to wrap up your yearly taxes after only a single night’s work. Enjoy your free Federal filing!
Deluxe (Federal and State taxes): $50 online,$70 CD/download, www.turbotax.intuit.com
Click the next page to check out Wi-Fi hotspot software and more.
Here’s the problem: You’re in a hotel with easy access to Ethernet-based Internet. You also want to get on the web using your tablet, smartphone, or another laptop, but the hotel’s wireless Internet is horrible.
Solution? Connectify. This awesome pro-gram transforms your laptop or Wi-Fi-equipped desktop into an access point. Assuming that your networking bits and pieces all play nicely—it’s worth checking out Connectify’s trial version just to make sure—you’ll be able to unleash your own password-protected Wi-Fi hotspot for anyone to use. The app even lets you share the connection from 3G and 4G LTE USB dongles!
$45 (lifetime license), www.connectify.me
ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre 5
Because it costs so darn much for Microsoft to license the right codecs, there’s absolutely no way that the ability to play Blu-ray discs is ever going to find a home in Windows Media Player on a standard version of the Windows operating system. While you can play unprotected Blu-rays with the freeware app VLC , you still have to cough up cash for an awesome third-party app like ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre 5 if you want to (legally) watch The Avengers on your system.
If you’re one of those stalwarts who plans to wait out Windows 8, then you’re going to want—nay, need—an app that offers better support for multi-monitor setups than the pitiful options found in Windows 7 or Windows Vista.
DisplayFusion gives you increased control over your multi-monitor setup, including the ability to set up taskbars that span your screens as well as separate wallpapers and screensavers for each monitor. We love it so much that we believe this app should come packaged with every new monitor purchase.
And here you thought macros for Microsoft Excel were cool. ReMouse allows you to make a recording of your mouse and keystrokes over a given time period. You can then save that recording to a file, load it up at a later date, and play back your actions once, loop them a set number of times, or loop them forevermore.
Purchasing the app’s standard edition unlocks Smart Recording, which will ensure that your recorded movements always match loaded apps based on the relative position of the Window when it appears.
Click the next page for desktop organization programs, spreadsheet apps, and more.
It has to be said: The organizational elements of
’s Metro UI stink. Especially compared to what you can do with this awesome third-party app for both the “normal” desktop of “old Windows” and Windows 8’s desktop mode. Fences drops scrollable, highlighted areas onto your desktop where you can dump shortcuts and files for better personal organization—and it can even automatically assign new icons to Fences you’ve already created.
Resizing windows can be a pain—not the act of doing it, mind you, but the continual repetition that comes from having to tell Windows to resize and move the window of your favorite app to the exact place you like having it on your desktop.
Divvy automates the entire process by giving you a grid to quickly resize your windows on, in addition to a bunch of hotkey shortcuts that can automatically slap your window to your desired location.
AnyDVD AnyDVD HD
We’ve extolled the wonders of AnyDVD for some time now. But in case you’ve been living under a rock, or have never heard about this delicious means for removing the region codes (and other annoyances) on DVDs, HD-DVDs, and Blu-rays, here goes: AnyDVD does all that and more, including a one-button ripping function that can package an optical disc into a physical file on your drive (ISO) or dump it out to its raw file structure.
$89 for lifetime AnyDVD license; $154 for lifetime AnyDVD HD license, www.slysoft.com
Windows 8 does much to improve on the raw file-copying/moving capabilities of previous versions of Windows, but the enhancements found in TeraCopy still deliver a speedier overall transfer in addition to a few extra features. Like, for example, the ability to re-attempt transfers that fail due to any particular error and, if necessary, skip the files without cancelling the entire move or copy operation. If you’re rocking Windows 7 (or earlier), this app is a definite must-have.
Yes, plenty of free options exist that offer alternatives to Microsoft’s official spreadsheet application. However, they’re simply incomplete compared to what Excel delivers (especially if you’re looking to incorporate any VBA macros into your digital tool kit), and can present a bit of a problem if you’re trying to jump back and forth between, say, OpenOffice’s Calc and Microsoft Excel in a work environment. Additionally, if you have any interest in integrating your spreadsheet lifestyle with the cloud, Excel’s your ticket—OpenOffice remains a desktop-centric app.
$150 for full Office Home and Student suite, office.microsoft.com
We’ve shown you how to better organize your desktop and even give it a Mac-like taskbar, if you’re so inclined. If you’re not, the inexpensive app Bins allows you take the standard buttons found on your Windows 7 taskbar and transform them into groups, analogous to what you might find on your smartphone’s “desktop.” These individual icons—now a collection of shortcuts—can be ideal for compacting all your web browsers into a single, expandable link, for example.
Click the next page for song-fixing programs, spyware eradification apps, and more.
Little is more annoying than having a collection of music that’s completely mislabeled, somewhat mislabeled, or mislabeled just enough to cause havoc within the library of your song application of choice (ideally, iTunes or Windows Media Player). TuneUp, a plugin for either aforementioned app, helps you de-dupe, standardize, and fill in the missing details of your mighty musical archive. And once you’ve done all of that, the plugin will even give you song lyrics and upcoming concert dates.
$50 for one-time purchase; $40 for an annual subscription, www.tuneupmedia.com
You Need a Budget
The name is almost self-explanatory. Nevertheless, this software—primarily a Windows app with both iOS and Android tie-ins—is a finance application that helps you keep track of your spending decisions, monthly allowances, and all other things money management–related. While the app doesn’t tie directly into your bank account like, say, Mint, it does allow you to import your raw financials if you so desire. A ton of built-in reporting gives you plenty of options to see how well (or poorly) you’re keeping your finances in check.
You can install the free version of Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware and reap nearly all of the benefits of the paid-for app, save one. And it’s a biggie: Real-time protection for your system. For what good is a malware search-and-destroy kind of an app if you never remember to run it? Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware is a frequently updated bazooka of protection compared to the lesser (but free) Windows Defender, though it never hurts to have both in your back pocket when spyware strikes!
WinPatrol is one of those kitchen sink–like applications that’s designed to throw a grab-bag of options your way for making sure that the more intricate bits of Windows aren’t messed up by other apps (or worse, malware). For example, WinPatrol will alert you when another app is trying to modify the list of apps that start when Windows loads, or if an app is actively trying to uninstall another program on your system. Yikes!
Laptop thieves suck. Plain and simple. While those Apple enthusiasts have their fancy little iCloud and Find my Mac and all that, Windows users are pretty much left out in the cold when it comes to recovering their purloined PCs. Unless, of course, you install a tracking app like Prey, that is, which will take pictures of your thief using your laptop’s built-in webcam and attempt to notify you of your laptop’s location (among other nifty features). Too bad it doesn’t come with a self-destruct mode….
If you’re big on Gmail—and hate Outlook—then you might want to check out the application Postbox, which delivers a compelling Gmail experience to your desktop (sans web browser). You’ve got labels, priority messaging, Google Calendar integration, and even the ability to run your favorite Gmail keyboard shortcuts within the desktop app itself. Fun features like the automatic creation of shareable links to files in your Dropbox go above and beyond anything you’d find in other offline email apps.
Click the next page to check out the web services worth paying for.
Desktop apps? Pshaw. The future's in the cloud, man
When you-know-what hits the fan on your PC, you’re going to kick yourself if the last time you backed up your hard drive to an external device was two years ago. Solution: Stash it on the cloud (no storage limits!)
$50/year (unlimited storage); $25/year (10GB), www.crashplan.com
A convenient storage site for your original, high-definition pictures (and videos!) that even allows you to transform your library of shots into a digital storefront—and tiered payment options? Sorry, Flickr: You might be a little cheaper in some instances, but you’re not as scalable.
Plenty of fairly inexpensive cloud storage that’s accessible via an easy-to-use web interface or an automatically synchronized folder on your PC? Sounds good to us!
$40/year Basic plan; $150/year Portfolio plan (among others), www.smugmug.com
There are a million cloud storage options out there. We like Box because of its competitive pricing: $15/user/month for a terabyte of storage, which blows Dropbox’s $50/month, 500GB plan out of the water. Shoot, you even get more storage on Box’s free plan!
$15/user/month Business plan (1,000GB storage; 2GB limit per file), www.box.com
Old and busted: going through your MP3 collection, making play-lists, and waiting for them to transfer to your portable device. New hotness: streaming any song you want from the ample library of Spotify songs—the ultimate road trip solution.
$10/month Premium (mobile streaming), www.spotify.com
Spoiler: You can also sign up for a service like Rdio, which offers similar capabilities for similar pricing—check which service contains more of your favorite bands!
What’s this? A paid-for version of Twitter that’s far more open to third-party developer access than the current king of the 140-character-update hill? Perhaps paying for a microblogging service (that supports 256 characters per message and comes with no advertising) will cut down on spam accounts and other digital losers.
$36/year or $5/month, www.app.net
Be brave. Ditch your home landline phone. Switch on over to Skype and pay just 2.3 cents per minute to call landline or mobile numbers from 30 countries around the world—even cheaper if you decide to spring for a Skype subscription!
1:1 dollars-to-Skype Credit ratio; subscription services start at $3/month, www.skype.com
Free two-day shipping for a vast number of products sold on Amazon? If you’re an online shopping junkie, that’s pretty good. Amazon’s free library of streaming TV shows and movies for Prime members, and its Kindle lending library, seal the deal.
Sorry, Hulu Plus—your insistence on keeping commercials in your paid-for streaming service gives Netflix the upper hand on this one. Pony up the cost of one Happy Meal per month to get unlimited TV and movie streaming across all of your Netflix-friendly devices—not bad!
Travel planning was never easier—or more automated. Sign up for Tripit Pro to receive all sorts of notifications about last-minute changes to your (automatically imported) travel itinerary, in addition to assistance when you’re trying to find alternate flights and a centralized location for tracking your flyer miles/points/rewards across all your favorite carriers.
If you’re huge on video, but need an online method for archiving and presenting your work, look no further than Vimeo Plus. You’ll get 5GB of uploads per week, unlimited HD uploads and embeds, and the ability to customize the very player you’ll use to showcase your flicks around the web.
If you’re looking for an easy way to remotely connect to a computer (or network-based storage device) from afar, you’ll want to use No-IP’s Dynamic DNS features. All you’ll have to do is remember a single, unchanging web address to call home versus a constantly changing IP address.
The LastPass app is compelling enough if you’re looking for a web service that’ll safely synchronize your passwords across all of your devices and browsers. The premium version lets you add additional USB-based security for accessing your account à la Blizzard’s authenticator, in addition to unlocking individual smartphone LastPass apps.
Note: This article appeared in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.