The 32 Totally Essential (and Free) Apps for Every New PC

Alex Castle

You have to admit, Windows is a pretty barebones operating system, feature-wise. After a fresh install of XP or Vista (perhaps following a Clean Start ), you're faced with a barren Start Menu and an empty desktop that's beaming with limitless potential. The problem is that it's up to you to hunt and download those applications that you really need in your day-to-day computing experience. And chances are, it's often difficult to find good software that's also free. That's where this guide comes in.

We've put together a list of what we think are the most essential PC apps for every Maximum PC reader. These are all free programs (except one) that should be immediately installed after a fresh build or reformat; 32 indispensable programs and utilities that we couldn't imagine computing without. From the best IM client to FTP browser and Notepad replacement, these essentials truly enhance the Windows experience (much more so than Microsoft's own Windows LIVE Essentials). We're not saying you'd use all 32 entries in our list on a daily basis, but if you are at all serious about utilizing your PC, we promise our picks will not go unused.

And at the end of the feature, we'll even show you how to install these apps in one fell swoop with a special configuration file we've created. Because if it were up to us, this is software that should be bundled with every copy of Windows.


Have you ever sorted a folder by file size, hoping to track down a hard disk hog, only to be frustrated by the fact that Windows doesn’t let you see the size of nested folders’ contents? So have we, and that’s why we make sure that we’ve always got WinDirStat close at hand.

WinDirStat , short for Windows Directory Statistics, is an application which analyzes the composition of your hard drive, allowing you to identify which files are eating up your disk space. It presents this information in a size-ordered directory view, or as a colorful treemap, making it a snap to see exactly what is using up your hard drive space. Once you’ve figured out which files are taking up more than their fair share of your drive, you can get rid of them with WinDirStat’s built-in cleanup operations.


For hassle free rips of DVD, Blu-ray, and even HD-DVD content, there's no simpler app to use than AnyDVD . Unlike more traditional DVD ripping tools, AnyDVD decrypts, unlocks the region code, and even removes annoying ads and that pesky FBI warning on the fly. It's not free, but it's well worth the cost for anyone who wants to exercise his fair use rights on Blu-ray or DVD discs. Your money is well spent, typically the brain trust at Slysoft manage to disable new copy protection tricks just a few short days after they go public, which is more than worth a few bucks a year. (standard version is 50EUR for 2 years, HD edition is 79EUR for 2 years)

Foxit PDF Reader

There are few things that can ruin your internet browsing groove like the painfully long wait you have to endure when opening an Adobe PDF file. Acrobat reader, as a program and browser plugin, is notoriously cumbersome and drains not only your time but gobs of memory as well. That's why we use Foxit Reader , a free lightweight application that weights in only at 3MB. The program launches with the speediness of a roadrunner, and gives you access to welcome features like text extraction and comment annotation. Just be careful when you install Foxit to uncheck the toolbar and eBay icon options. A professional version of Foxit ($40), gives you advanced editing tools, but we're more than happy with the free offering.

VMWare Server

Virtualization isn't just one of the hot buzzwords in tech, it's a practical way to test software, patches, and operative systems. VMware is our pick for a robust and easy-to-use virtualization option, and VMWare Server is the company's free product. It runs on top of a host Windows or Linux machine to deploy multiple virtual machines by provisioning your hardware resources. The only big limitation of VMWare Server is that it doesn't currently support 3D acceleration, not is it officially compatible with Vista 64-bit. Still, it's relatively the easiest way to create and run virtual machines, even those created by Microsoft Virtual PC.


Remember when Steam first launched with Half-Life 2, and trolls all over the internet complained about the service's mandatory online connection? What fools, we were. Today, we can't imagine gaming on our PCs without Steam. Valve's app isn't just an ultra-convenient online store, it's our preferred method of staying connected to fellow online gamers. Gabe Newell recently remarked that Steam is more than just about combating illegally downloaded content, the program is Valve's way of catching up to the convenience and instant-access appeal of piracy. We think it's doing a fine job.


Get this: a Windows app that "just works." Yes, we're being serious. Dropbox came out of nowhere last year to stun us with its amazingly intuitive approach to online storage. The program creates a user folder that acts just like a folder on your hard drive. You can drag, drop, copy, and even save up to 2GB worth of files to the cloud ($100/year for 50GB), while the service works its magic and syncs up your documents in the background. The online interface lets you track your file transfer history and download any file remotely, as well as restore any files that may have been accidentally deleted. You can even create shared or public folders to pass files along to your friends and family. And you don't even have ot bear any online ads. Of course we're smitten.

Copernic Desktop Search

While we'll concede that both Google Desktop Search and the Windows Search 4.0 are both vast improvements over the default Windows XP search function (death to that useless dog!),  we have to side with Copernic when we want a powerful desktop search client. Copernic is not only comprehensive in its indexing  -- it quickly searches emails, office documents, and web pages -- it also is light on system resources and processor utilization. We like its ability to sort, group, and refine searches, which is particularly useful for navigating through densely packed network drives. Our only gripe? The newest version of Copernic Free removes realtime results as you type -- a feature reserved for the $50 professional edition.


TrueCrypt is an open source app which lets you create and mount an encrypted virtual drive. You can store whatever you want in this drive, and it will be completely inaccessible and invisible to anyone who doesn’t have the passphrase.

And even if you’re not an international man of mystery, you never know when you might want to encrypt something, like sensitive financial data, or a list of passwords. Since TrueCrypt is a tiny file (about 3 MB) that can be setup to run without installing anything, we feel very comfortable giving it a “download it, keep it on your disk, you never know when you might need it” recommendation.


Skype , like many of the apps on this list, is not here because it did something new, but because it did something better than anyone had done it before. Offering high quality, peer-to-peer VOIP with a convenient client and a bevy of features, Skype easily earns our recommendation for all your internet telephony needs. Skype also has video conferencing functionality, and allows for conference calls, a feature which we put to good use making our very own Maximum PC podcast .


Like to play games on your PC? So do we. That's why one app we absolutely cannot live without is Fraps , a lightweight app that lets you benchmark your games to monitor graphical performance. When running, Fraps hides in your system tray, but runs a tiny numerical overlay on top of any DirectX and OpenGL game to show you your current framerate. You can also capture high quality screenshots and AVI videos (with sound) for Youtube posting. The free version has a limit on how long you can capture video, as well as watermarks your footage.


There's not much we haven't said about Firefox , our current favorite internet browser. The sheer amount of useful plug-ins available make it a no-brainer for anyone who spends most of their day on the web. Firefox 3 amazed us with its smart search bar and it still remains the most secure browser we've ever tested. It might not be as fast as Google Chrome in rendering pages, but we'll take functionality and unobtrusive features (ahem Internet Explorer 8) over a minor speed difference any day.


If you haven’t used CPU-Z , you’re not an enthusiast. This tiny CPU interrogator has become the standard tool of anyone who thinks they’re a PC expert and wants to, say, query your cousin’s PC to find out what the hell is actually installed in the machine. CPU Z will tell you the model, code name, process, core voltage, stepping and revision number as well as the core speed, FSB and multiplier the PC is running. You can also find out what speed your DRAM is running at and check the SPDs on some machines too.


Sure, you know you have a GeForce 295 card, but what do you know about it? If you want something that’ll brace the card for all of its specs, GPU-Z (no relation to CPU-Z) will do the dirty work for you. Offered for free by, this handy utility will tell you the clocks, the card revision, the number of transistors on the card as well as the process technology used to build the card.

Media Player Classic + ffdshow-tryouts

There are lots of different ways to play videos on your PC, but the best performing, most compatible one-two punch we've tested is ffdshow-tryouts and Media Player Classic . There are literally hundreds of different codecs and container formats that the video you want to watch can be trapped inside, and while you could install a codec pack to get support for them, ffdshow-tryouts just looks better, performs better, and causes fewer problems than traditional codec packs. And, while ffdshow-tryouts enables video playback in a wide variety of apps, our favorite is Media Player Classic. This clone of Windows Media Player 6 features support for soft subtitles, alternate audio tracks, and other power user features. The fact that it's extremely lightweight just reinforces our admiration for the app.


Cloud storage may be the next hot thing, but we still like using FTP to back up files to our own home servers. And we've found no better way to utilize FTP than with Filezilla , an open source FTP client. Filezilla's site manager lets us bookmark and maintain connections to multiple servers, drag and drop our files from the desktop, and deftly handles large files and large numbers of files. Both client and server versions are offered free, distributed under GNU General Public License.

SyncBack Free

Though it may be hard to believe, a surprising majority of PC users still back up their files to CD and DVD media. As experienced users, we're a little smarter than that, so we recommend using SyncBack Freeware to back up important documents to more reliable storage mediums like hard disks and network servers. The free version of SyncBack lets you automatically archive copies of your files to any destination (though it won't perform incremental backups), and then restore those files after any unforeseen disaster. A more functional SE version ($30 or 30-day trial) offers faster backup and versioning features, though the free counterpart should be more than enough for most users. And yes, it does back up to optical media as well.


Burning ISO files is a native feature in the upcoming Windows 7, but XP and Vista users are forced to use third party apps if they want to mount a disc image on a CD or DVD. For this simple yet essential task, we prefer IsoBurn , a 50k (talk about lightweight) standalone executable that provides a no-nonsense interface to burning discs. You just pick the ISO file location, destination drive, and whether you want to burn as a CD or DVD. We still don't know why this feature isn't bundled in Windows.


KeePass is a password safe—a program that maintains a list of your passwords, strongly encrypted, with a single master passphrase/keyfile. The benefit to using a password safe is that you can use a different, secure password on every site you log in to, without having to write them all down or remember them all. This helps to protect you by making it so that if one of your passwords is compromised, (through a data breach at a website you have an account with, for instance) you don’t have to worry about that same password working on other sites you log into.

We’ve long recommended OpenOffice's suite of programs as one of the must-have open-source applications on your PC. Simply put, it’s as close to Microsoft’s Office suite as you’re going to get without plunking down a small fortune. It doesn’t contain any unpleasantries in design and functionality that the idea of a “free office suite” might conjure up. And its newest 3.0 incarnation—all of .6 somethings greater than the last full OpenOffice release—adds even more versatility to the suite.

Speedfa n

Most of your PC components include hardware monitoring chips that track the varying voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures inside your rig. Speedfan gives you access to all of that information by tapping into the numerous digital temperature sensors of important parts like your CPU and GPU. This free app can also access SMART technology in hard drives to diagnose potential disk failures. And as the name implies, you can also adjust fan speeds for extra performance or reduced noise.


Handbrake makes ripping DVDs a lead-pipe cinch, especially when paired with AnyDVD (or DVD43, a free, less awesome program that works similarly to AnyDVD , ). Whether you're ripping for archival storage and streaming to your living room, or simply want to watch Enchanted on your pink iPod Nano, Handbrake's excellent preset system makes ripping easy enough that anyone can do it. Just point Handbrake to your DVD drive and it scans the disc and automatically selects the settings necessary to ensure you get the best possible playback on the device you chose. Heck, it will even help you avoid potential pitfalls, like proper subtitle rendering. The next version will even include preliminary support for Blu-ray rips, so what's not to like!


Windows Notepad is competent as the most basic text editor, but if you're a programmer or even casual website designer, you'll be able to appreciate the vigorous language support of Notepad ++ .  From HTML to Java and over 40 other languages, Notepad++ makes parsing code easy with clear syntax highlighting and auto-completion intelligence. The program is compact, but has no-brainer features like tabbed documents and plug-in support. Think of it as the Firefox of text editors.


First, there was instant messaging, and that was pretty cool. But before long before we started asking questions like “Why can we only talk with people using the same client?” and the first multi-platform clients (like Trillian) were born.  And those were cool. But it wasn’t too long after that, we started to ask “Why can’t we use our IM client to check our email? And our Facebook account? And how come, if I log in on another computer, all my preferences don’t carry over?”

And then there was Digsby . And it is very cool.

( However! Digsby loses big points for trying to sneak a bunch of crappy search bars onto your computer when it installs. If you make sure to hit “Decline” you can get away clean, but if you want to avoid the hassle, try Pidgin instead.)

Avira AntiVir

At first glance, you might be inclined to dismiss Avira’s AntiVir as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill virus scanner with a feature set that’s as meager as its price. The sparse interface certainly won’t wow any power users, but it would be a mistake to cast AntiVir aside based solely on appearance. A tiny checkbox in the upper-left corner of the configuration screen unlocks the program’s Expert mode, and with it a heap of options previously unavailable. You’re given enough control not to feel cheated, even for software you didn’t have to pay for. AntiVir’s biggest strength lies in its detection rate. It’s the only scanner in our AntiVirus roundup to triumph with a near clean sweep during Virus Bulletin’s latest testing, and it did so without reporting any false positives. That’s impressive.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware

For even the savviest of PC users, it’s a real challenge to go very long without picking up some sort of malware. A good antivirus program and firewall are important for keeping the baddies at bay, but for when you do happen to get an infection, it’s important to have a strong anti-malware program at hand. It’s a broad field, and (as we discuss in this article) a thorough sweep needs more than a single program, but for most simple cleaning tasks Malwarebytes Anti-malware should be all you need.


Bittorrent may be the software pirate's preferred method of conducting illegal downloads, but the protocol also been adopted for legitimate software distribution, such as game patches and large open-source programs. When we need to tap into legal peer-to-peer downloads, we use uTorrent , a 250K application that lets you oversee bandwidth allocation, file selection, and peer/seeder connections with ease. You don't even need to install the program -- uTorrent runs right fine from its executable.


The days of Winamp are long past. For audiophiles with massive music libraries, foobar2000 is our chosen alternative to the memory-intensive iTunes organizer. Created by a former Winamp developer, foobar2000 has won the hearts and minds of savvy album collectors with its highly customizable interface, comprehensive audio format support (including OGG, Flac, and AAC), and gapless playback. There's even a rich SDK for third party coders to tinker with to add more functionality. Sure beats sorting through all your music in long playlist.


With disk storage space so cheap, no wonder it's so easy to amass gigabytes upon gigabytes of photos snapped from our camera phone and DSLR. But if you're like us, you don't want to sort through photos with Windows Explorer. Google's Picasa 3 is an all-in-one monitoring service for your photo folders.  It offers less overall editing functionality than alternatives like 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.

Secunia PSI

Every geek knows to make sure that the OS and browser is updated but what about the version of Flash, Java or QuickTime that you’re running? Not to mention the dozens of other applications that you have installed. Have no fear,’s Personal Software Inspector tracks a massive amount of security exploits in applications and will monitor your PC for known exploits. If one is found, it will point you to any known patch. Even among our paranoid members we have yet to find a machine that PSI didn’t find something with an exploit. And like the other apps on this list, this app is free.


Planning on recording your own podcast (and who isn't, these days?) or creating a customized ringtone from your favorite dance song? You'll need Audacity , the best free audio editor on the internet (we use it to edit the No BS Podcast). Audacity lets you drop in audio files of any format (or record from any hardware source) to cut, copy, and add to an unlimited number of tracks to mix. Built-in effects and pitch adjustment let you manipulate your samples, and  you can output your compositions at up to 96kHz. Sounds good to us.


Just about any operating system nowadays comes with built-in support for the ZIP archive format, which has been around since the 80s and generally does a good enough job of making things smaller and tidier. So, do we really need an archiver program on this list?

Of course we do. We’re PC users, gosh darnit, and that means that “good enough” is never good enough. We don’t just want ZIPs, we want RARs, CABs, JARs, DEBs and whatever else we can think up, and we want it all open source (as long as it’s not too inconvenient). And for all that, there’s 7-Zip : an elegant, open source file archiver that can handle just about any compressed file you throw at it.


When it comes to image manipulation, there’s really only two options right now: Photoshop and GIMP . GIMP doesn’t quite capture the usability and polish of Adobe’s offering, but where it does beat Photoshop is in price—totally free and open source is a whole lot easier on the pocketbook than the $700 or so that a legal copy of Photoshop will run you. And even if it’s not totally perfect, GIMP is full-featured enough for almost any photo manipulation needs you might have.

Best of the Rest

Not satisfied with 32 apps? Here are 10 more programs that didn't make our "essentials" list, but are well worth your attention.


A KVM switch (short for Keyboard, Video, Mouse) is a device that lets you control multiple computer with a single set of peripherals. And really, for the nerd elite, there’s no better way to show off than to use not just two monitors, but two whole computers at once. But KVM switches are sort of clunky, because not only do they add more clutter and cables to your setup, they require hitting some sort of switch to move between computers.

That’s where Synergy comes in. It’s a software KVM switch, allowing you to connect two or more computers over a network, and control them with a single keyboard and mouse, even if they’re running different operating systems . If you’ve got two computers running side by side (a big “if” that kept Synergy off our Essentials list), this app is an absolute must-have.


Ripping Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs used to be a perplexing affair, requiring multiple applications and hours upon hours of ripping, demuxing, transcoding, and remuxing before finally, often as not, you ended up with a file that was broken somehow. RipBot264 has made the high-def ripping game much, much easier. Install the application, as well as the three helper apps it requires, and you'll be up and ripping your Blu-ray collection in no time flat. While it's not as easy to use as Handbrake, we've found you typically get better results because the app uses a more recent version of the X264 codec than Handbrake does. While it's definitely not perfect (RipBot264 lacks an easy way to convert on-disc subtitles to a format that works with ripped video), but it's the easiest Blu-ray ripping app we've tested.

Google Earth

It kills us to have to put Google Earth on the “best of the rest” list, really it does. Sure, it’s not really essential—you can get all your mapping needs met at its web-based cousin, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of our very favorite apps. Does Google maps let you explore New York in glorious 3D ? Does it let you check out what it’s like at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Does it have maps of Mars ?

We didn’t think so.


What is PuTTY ? Like so much in life, if you have to ask, you probably don’t need it. Still, we’ll fill you in: Putty is a multi-protocol client application which is our longtime favorite choice for all our SSH needs. To many PC power-users an SSH client is absolutely vital to their everyday operations, and PuTTY’s the most popular windows client for a reason.

Still, these days most people’s “SSH needs” are pretty nonexistent, so we’ve got to let PuTTY wallow here with the best of the rest.

VLC Player

Playing media files on your computer can be tricky business. There’s a huge number of codecs and containers, which can have any number of weird interactions, making a mess of the business of playing your HD media files. Fortunately, there’s VLC , an application which will play basically any file, and doesn’t rely on any external codecs. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air in a morass of formats and players.

So why isn’t it on the list? Even though it can be a little tough, once you do manage to get your codecs set up, we think that Media Player Classic provides a better experience and better reliability than VLC.


We absolutely abhor the sluggishness of Microsoft Outlook. That's why we prefer web-based email clients, like Gmail. But when we want to manage multiple email accounts, including POP and Exchange, we turn to Thunderbird . Mozilla's mail program gives us all the basic functions we want out of email, like fast searching and phishing protection. Like Firefox, Thunderbird can also be enhanced with an array of plug-ins, all including Mozilla's Lightning, which adds calendar and appointment management to the client.


Here's one application, that just one week ago, would've made our Essentials list. Boxee (still in Alpha, with Windows version coming soon) is a slick internet video streaming frontend that taps into network feeds like CBS, ABC, and Comedy Central. It's great for watching video podcasts and youtube clips without bringing up a browser window, and features nifty social networking features so you can see what friends have been watching. Unfortunately, Boxee has just discontinued support for Hulu, their largest and most popular content provider. Until Hulu support comes back, we can't deem Boxee a must-have.


Need to capture or process raw video from your digital camcorder? Virtualdub is the go-to application for converting AVI files into a large number of encoded formats and container packages. You won't be able to mix or significantly edit video files like you can with Adobe Premiere or even  Windows Movie Maker, but for quick capture and encoding of your family vacation, look no further than Virtualdub .


Firefox already offers built-in spellcheck for text windows and forms, but what about every other Windows app? TinySpell is a free spell checker that monitors your text input in any program (including any words copied to the clipboard), and gives you replacement suggestions from its database of 110,000 words. The free version, unfortunately, doesn't give you a visual indicator of your typos (like a red underline). Instead, your mistakes are pointed out with an audio cue, which we eventually found to be a bit too annoying to keep on all the time. Maybe it's training us to be better spellers.


Sometimes you just need someone to tell you everything will be okay, and that's what Recuva attempts to do. From start to finish, Recuva holds your hand through the process of getting your data back with a user-friendly Wizard. The first prompt asks what type of files you're looking for (pictures, music, documents, video, or all files), followed by where you want Recuva to look. If you don't know, select 'I'm not sure' and Recuva will rummage through your entire computer. Alternately, you can limit searches to the Recycle Bin, My Documents, a media card, or any other specific location you specify. Considering Piriform packs a powerful scanner wrapped up in a user friendly interface with a few useful advanced features sprinkled in, we have no trouble recommending Recuva as our favorite free file recovery app.

Now that we’ve finished our list, we’ve got one more cool app to show you. It’s called InstallPad , and it does something that’s very simple and very useful: It install applications for you. You just feed it a list of setup files available online, and it takes care of the rest. There are other programs that do essentially the same thing, such as AppSnap , but we’re sticking with InstallPad because it makes it the easiest to create custom software lists.

We covered a whole lot of apps in our Essentials list, and now we’re going to use InstallPad to make it easy for you to install them all (or just whichever ones you want) at once. Read on to download our InstallPad essential applications list, and learn how to use it.

Step 1: Get InstallPad

Even installers need to be installed, so we’ll take care of that first. The app can be found in the download section of the InstallPad website . It requires the Microsoft .NET framework 2, which you can get here if it’s not already on your system. InstallPad was written for XP, and isn’t guaranteed to work with Vista, though we were able to run it on a Vista box with no major problems.

There’s no installation necessary beyond unzipping the InstallPad .zip file somewhere on your drive. Make sure to remember the location, because we’re going to put another file there later on.

Step 2: Get the Maximum PC Essential InstallPad Application List

InstallPad comes with a default list of software, but it’s not nearly as complete as ours and is badly outdated, besides. We’ll replace it with a custom list, created from the apps on our Essential 33 list.

Unfortunately, because some companies make their setup files inaccessible to direct links, not every app on the list works with InstallPad. Still, almost all of the apps do work, and you can download the list right here . That archive contains two list files. The file called MaxPCAppList.XML is set to try and install the files in silent mode, meaning you won’t see the installer, and default setting will be used. This makes for a much faster install of multiple programs, but at the cost of some control. If you’d rather run the installers normally,use the other file, called MaxPCAppList-nosilent.XML

Extract whichever list file you choose to the directory containing the InstallPad executable.

Step 3: Run InstallPad

Now that you’ve got all the files you need, it’s time to start InstallPad. Run the executable, and a Window will pop up showing the default software list. We don’t want any of that business, so click the “Open an application list” text in the bottom left corner. In the browser that pops up, select the application list file that you downloaded (either MaxPCAppList.xml or MaxPCAppList-nosilent.xml).

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Now InstallPad should show a list of applications from our Essential 33 list. You can check whichever ones you want, and then press the “Install Checked” button in the bottom right to automatically download and install them all.

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