The Freeware Files: 2009's Best Free Apps and Utilities

TheMurph

Happy New Year! Well, almost. Before I can raise my glass and tip my columnist's hat to the one-year birthday of the Freeware Files (and Murphy's Law), it's time we get down to the time-honored tech tradition at this time of year: the awards list.

Unlike my brethren at Maximum PC, who have put together a fine list of general freeware applications that you should check out regardless of the time, I've sat down and gone through the hundreds of apps and utilities that I've covered throughout this year. Some, you might know. Some, you might have forgotten about. And some apps and utilities that I've used, but not covered, still deserve special mention in this general roundup of the year's best freeware.

So put on your party hat and get your downloading finger ready. For each winner, I'll give a little mention of why said app is worth its salt, why it differs from what you'll natively find in Windows, and whether it's a must-download or a maybe-consider. After all, it would be crazy to download 20 apps in any given setting, no? You just want the best. This list, friends, represents the best... and in some places, the unknown!

Let's begin.

Best Text Tool: Texter

Texter saves so much time for die-hard, hand-coding Web geeks, it's not even funny. And, to be honest, it's amazing just how simple this Lifehacker-borne utility is. Here's how it works. Fire up Texter and you can create a string of text to serve as a replacement for whenever you type a specific element on your machine. For example, you could use Texter to replace every time you type <img> with the full <img src ="..."> reference, and start your cursor right where you should be typing the link to said picture. The possibilities are endless and the carpal tunnel bills are reduced. For that, Texter wins a Freeware Files Award.

Does Windows have a built-in alternative for this tool? No. Next program!

Download it here !

Best Disc Mounter: Virtual CloneDrive

Daemon Tools usually takes the cake for the best disc image mounting application. However, successive iterations of the application have made it damned near impossible to avoid installing some kind of adware or toolbar alongside the application. As that has the potential to greatly hack off a number of Maximum PC readers, out goes Daemon and in its place comes a worthy competitor, Virtual CloneDrive

What's a disc image? What's mounting? In short, there are plenty of programs out there that rip the contents of an optical disc (the legal contents, I hope) to a giant archive, otherwise known as an .ISO file. Mounting programs like the easy-to-use Virtual CloneDrive allow you to fool your computer into thinking that said archive is actually a living, breathing, spinning CD in your optical drive. Never scratch your discs again, ensure faster copies from your "disc" to your hard drive, and give yourself a handy backup for your critical data... then mount it with Virtual CloneDrive!

Does Windows have a built-in alternative? Not for ISO files it doesn't!

Download it here !

Best Distraction Eliminator: Temptation Blocker

Temptation Blocker is downright cruel. But sometimes, love just has to be tough. When you launch this utility, you're presented with a list of programs. Select a program that distracts you from staying on-task with your work, set a time, then hit the "Get Work Done!" button. If you try to access the application before the time expires, you'll be presented with an annoying, 32-digit code to type in before said program unlocks. In theory-- in theory --the annoyance of typing such a string will keep you from accessing your Firefox browser, which will keep you from typing in "cuteoverload.com" and hitting enter, which will keep you from losing your job... et cetera.

If Windows had a built-in alternative, you wouldn't be looking at cute animal pictures right now!

Download it here !

Best RSS Aggregator: FeedDemon


For all its features, FeedDemon's greatest attribute is that it takes the acts of subscribing to and reading a number of different syndicated feeds and makes it as plainly presented and as easy as can be. Those are a lot of words to swallow but, really, they speak to the core of the FeedDemon's simple experience. That doesn't mean that this program isn't packed full of other useful features, however. Built-in synchronization allows you to keep the contents of your FeedDemon applications across multiple workspaces in check via Google Reader. A wealth of options for organizing, tagging, and marking your feeds helps you keep your growing syndication list as organized as possible. In short, FeedDemon simply rocks--shoot, it even supports tabbed browsing!

I suppose Windows has the built-in RSS display via the Windows Sidebar, but come on.

Download it here !

Best Offline Twitter App: TweetDeck

This one's tough. TweetDeck shares a number of features with competing programs and, to be honest, has one of the least eye-catching interfaces of any of them--but there's ugly, and there's functional. The app's huge, columnar interface does much to enhance the process of organize Twitter streams by raw feed, friend groupings, searches, lists... the list, as it were, goes on. Better still, the synchronization functionality built into TweetDeck allows you to share your settings across multiple versions of the application on your many PCs and mobile devices. It might not be pretty, but TweetDeck works--and works well. Now if only there was a way to save a history of previously downloaded tweets. That 200-tweet limit per column just doesn't do it for a power user!

Windows? Twitter? Haha.

Download it here !

Best Windows Diagnostic / Disaster Avoidance Tool: Ultimate Boot CD

If you have a copy of Windows XP sitting around to create said Ultimate Boot CD, then you're in for a treasure-trove of helpful utilities and diagnostics tools designed to save the day when your system starts going haywire. In fact, a number of the apps and utilities built into this live disc--including MemTest86+, Darik's Boot and Nuke, HDClone, and CPU Burn-In--are programs that I would recommend anyway. The fact that these, and a whole lot more , are included on a single bootable package really speaks to the smorgasbord of protection and configuration options that Ultimate Boot CD can deliver for your system. If you don't have a copy of this sitting around for troublesome times, you only have yourself to blame!

Simply put, this CD beats the pants off of Windows' built-in Recover Console.

Download it here !

Best BitTorrent Client: uTorrent

Why is uTorrent one of the top-used applications by BitTorrent downloaders? Two reasons: functionality and foresight. On its face, uTorrent delivers a simple interface coupled with a number of helpful functions for the novice user. You can download BitTorrents with but a few clicks of a mouse, handpick the files you want to grab out of said BitTorrents, and shut down the program when the download is done. More advanced users can make use of the program's extensive configuration options, including the ability to customize download speeds by time and access the program's interface through an easy-to-operate Web UI.

Although they currently exist in a release candidate version of the app, uTorrent's impressive future features include live streaming for video BitTorrents and a brand-new "access anywhere" Web UI, as well as support for BitTorrent's free DNA content delivery service. And before you ask, no, Windows can't download Torrent files by its lonesome.

Download it here !

Best CD/DVD/HD Burner: ImgBurn

For a no-nonsense image burning experience, whether you're making a simple DVD or a ton of Blu-Ray discs in succession, look no further than ImgBurn. This application supports every Windows OS under the sun for both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems. Better, it requires no updates for working with a laundry list of common optical drive models. Not only can you burn a huge range of image files and audio formats, but you can also build video discs for all three major formats based on their respective folder types: DVD (VIDEO_TS), HD-DVD (HVDVD_TS), and Blu-ray (BDAV / BDMV). New support for folder structure modifications joins a preexisting (and handy) shutdown mechanism for flipping off your system when a burn is complete. ImgBurn has truly etched its way into our hearts with a laser of love.

Windows might have its own CD burning functionality built into the operating system, but it's nowhere near as comprehensive as ImgBurn!

Download it here !

Best Multi-System Takeover Utility: Input Director

Here's the setup: You have more than one PC at your desk. Whether you're rocking two laptops, a laptop and a desktop, or two beastly desktop machines, it can be a real pain to switch between the two. Prior to the birth of Input Director, you'd either need to have a separate mouse and keyboard for each machine (ew) or use a program like Synergy to control both using a the single input devices of a host machine. But all has not been perfect in Synergy land. The once-useful application has long since gotten fussy and a new king has taken its place on the throne of desktop control. Input Director offers a ton of additional configuration options for using one mouse and keyboard to control a whole arsenal of systems. It's jam-packed with setup and encryption options, and its actual process of connecting multiple PCs together runs more smoothly than any similar application I've tested. And Input Director even supports shared clipboards flawlessly--a tricky task that will allow you to use the contents of any system's clipboard on any other machine.

Remote desktop be damned, Windows: Input Director is the new hotness for multi-system control.

Download it here !

Best Desktop Organizer: Fences

Nothing is more painful than a messy desktop. And Windows sure doesn't do much to sweep up your clutter. Aside from a Desktop Cleanup wizard and a few auto-arranging tools, you really don't have much of an ability to organize or, dare I say it, group your icons under a collective theme. The most you can do is drag correlated icons to different parts of your screen and hope that your monitor is large enough to handle your sprawling shortcuts.

You could also try installing Fences. In fact, I strongly suggest you do so. This super-organizer allows you to lock off parts of your desktop--or, at least, create virtual walls for your desktop icons--which you can then use to pen similar icons into larger zones. Go ahead and make these pens, or fences, as large or as small as you want. If you have too many icons to fill the space, a handy little scroll bar allows you to run through more of your shortcuts without affecting the rest of your desktop's aesthetics. And even if you're fence-crazy, getting to the bottom of a clean desktop is but a few mouse clicks away. Integrated transparency and color customization options ensure that your desktop will still look as pretty as can be regardless of how you've organized your icon farm.

Download it here !

Best Desktop Makeover: Rainmeter

if you want to totally revamp the look of your desktop without sacrificing a huge amount of system resources to do so, then Rainmeter is your ticket to a fresh new user interface. Not only can you build awesome backgrounds and elegant, transparent menus and sidebars into your desktop, but you can easily modify the look and feel of any theme you want without resorting to massive amounts of text editing or complicated configuration scripts. A new RainBrowser tool gives you an easy means for previewing new themes you've downloaded in a manner that's quite similar to Firefox's theme browser. Use Rainmeter to get easy and elegant access to your email, RSS feeds, the weather, iTunes feeds, wireless statuses... truly, anything you want. As the developers themselves say, "Every inch of a skin is completely customizable." And you can always download even more third-party themes and tools for making your desktop even that much cooler (and useful!)

Download it here !

Best Application Pack: Ninite

The half-Web-app, half-installer-package Ninite has almost singlehandedly ruined the very awards roundup you're reading. Why's that? Because it's the perfect way to download and install a mass of amazing freeware and open-source applications and utilities in one, automated shot. Words almost fail me in regards to how much time Ninite has saved me during a typical Windows wipe and re-installation. Here's why: When you hit up the Ninite Web site, you're presented with a huge list of excellent, free programs to check off. You're creating a customized installer package that, once you're done, saves to your system in the form of a single executable. Run that, and the Ninite-created installation package will install every program you selected onto your machine using said program's default settings. What used to take hours of finding, downloading, and installing now takes the better part of minutes.

If Windows had a built-in package manager, that would be pretty great, wouldn't it?

Download it here !

Best Security Tool (Overall): Sandboxie

The name of the security game is virtualization. After all, the best way to keep your computer safe from harm is to isolate the elements that could perform unwanted activities or open the door to external threats. Sandboxie is an excellent application that allows you to extend the power of virtualization to any program on your PC. It's a must-have for applications that you're a little unsure about--just launch said questionable program into its own virtualized environment, and no havoc it could possibly create will ever affect the underlying contents of your normal operating system. Like a little cloud in the sky, the application is forever removed from the rest of your system.

Sandboxie is extremely easy to operate. Loading new applications into separate virtual environments doesn't require you to spend hours of poring over support forums, as the application itself is fairly straightforward to use. And that's just the combination you want to see in an award-winning freeware application: simple use, superb functionality. Sandboxie is the ultimate protection tool for your PC.

Download it here !

Best Security Tool (Antivirus): Microsoft Security Essentials

Step one: It's free. Step two: It's one of the highest-rated free antivirus and anti-malware apps out there. Step three: It's unobtrusive and easy-to-use. Bonus step: Microsoft makes it, and they've managed to make a product that's durable, comprehensive, and simple.

It's funny how there was all this apprehension and skepticism about a Microsoft-based security program before its grand Security Essentials tool was released. And yet, here we are months after the fact, and MSE has catapulted itself to the top of the freeware list for its stellar virus and malware detection abilities. Who would have thought? Crazier still, AV-Comparatives.org just recently named MSE as its best-performing, freeware, anti-malware application of the whole bunch.

It's almost too much to type, but there you have it. Microsoft Security Essentials is the freeware program to pick up if you're at-all concerned about the general security and welfare of your system. MSE features real-time protection elements, daily updates for virus and spyware definitions, and easy scheduling for fuller scans... and that's about it. The program isn't laden with a ton of options but, in this case, maybe that's a good thing considering just how well it performs with what little it needs you to input.

Download it here !

Best Web Browser: Google Chrome

You made it this far, so I'll unleash the biggie: Chrome has done a great job of picking up the pace with its development this year. The browser is fast-- faster than Firefox when rendering multiple tabs and dealing with JavaScript apps. Chrome is also a more secure platform than Firefox, thanks to the browser's built-in virtualization that splits each tab into an environment that's kept isolated from the contents of your system as a whole. If a piece of malware or Web exploit affects Chrome, it's not going to get past this iron wall to disturb your PC without some major help from a tangential attack.

The long-awaited launch of Chrome Extensions now puts Chrome on equal footing feature-wise with Mozilla Firefox. Although the browser still has some catching up to do to reach Firefox's huge swath of available add-ons, it's only a matter of time before cross-platform plugins become a matter of course for developers. And given that Google Chrome has in some way inspired the launch of Google's mighty Chrome OS project--and will serve as Chrome OS's flagship application--it's hard to deny this browser an award for its bootstrapping, if nothing else.

Download it here !

There are a lot of freeware apps I left off this list. There are a lot of freeware apps that I haven't even begun to explore. And, for that matter, there are a lot of freeware apps that are simply lame. Keep tuning in to the Freeware Files as we head throughout 2010, and I'll do my best to keep getting you all the interesting new apps and utilities that will turn your normal desktop into a tricked-out super-rig. For great justice, of course. Thanks for reading in 2009!

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!

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