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Truly Free Windows Essentials

This page lists tons of software that I have found to be essential on many, if not all Windows PCs out there. It is not specifically geared towards power users, but contains much that is commonly needed (or at least wished) by novice users.

Do not blindly install everything you see listed here! I have commented all links, please do me a favour and form your own opinion. I have categorized the downloads into several categories to give you a clue how useful it might be. Most anyone will probably want the programs listed under "Bare Basics", for example, while only semi-professionals might find something useful in "Specialized Applications".

Philosophy

You may wonder why I did a commented software collection, since there are already lots of link lists out there. Well, there may be, but I am interested in Free Software. That's Free with a capital F. Not just free as in "don't have to pay money", but Free as in "Won't be bombed with ads, spyed on, asked to buy an upgrade" and "being allowed to fix any problem I find and add any function I miss". That last part is the core of Open Source Software. Only Open Source Software can guarantee that a program will still be free in the future — companies/individuals that distribute freeware or free "light" versions may at any point decide to stop doing so. They may simply vanish from the 'net, go broke, or change their business plans.

Since OSS on Windows is comparatively young, there isn't everything covered. Often, there is no OSS program for Windows for a certain purpose, but there is a freeware program. Or at least a free "light" version of some commercial product. There's nothing bad with them, I just happen to prefer software that is still free tomorrow. I do, however, value some of the other side-effects of Open Source Software, and I won't give in to these.

All software on this list adheres to these constraints (at least last time I checked):

  1. legal availability at no cost: The goal is to build a fully-featured, legal and cost-free desktop system.
  2. no ads, no hidden strings attached: If you are bombed with ads, have flickering annoyances on your screen all of the time, if you have to register with name and email (so they can sell your data), or if you have to agree to any other unusual clauses, it doesn't meet my definition of "no cost".
  3. no hidden activities: No one wants spyware on his PC or other things working behind their back, taking up system resources or creating system crashes.
  4. feature completeness: Programs must be actually useful and not be lacking some function at every corner. It must be able to compete with commercial software, although I disregard features that no home user would ever need (like anything in MS Office after Version 6 or so).
  5. usability: Programs must be usable by their target group. For some things, that means even total newbies must be able to work with them (I said work, not install; if you are a newbie, get an expert now, this page is not for you), although other software is clearly for experts.
  6. low system usage: Flashy, animated programs may be eye-candy, but they can bring any system to a crawl. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. If there's a choice between "fast, few functions but complete" and "slow, but loads of useful features", I list both.
  7. security: If there's a choice, I chose the program that is more secure. That's a difficult and complex choice, and there is no absolute security. This list is not a "secure desktop" collection, but hopefully a "little more secure than before desktop" one.
  8. freedom: I prefer true Open Source Software, but will go with plain Freeware, and if there's no alternative, a free "light" version of some commercial product is also allright. I am willing to sacrifice some minor features for the added freedom and independence from software companies, but any alternative must still comply to all constraints on this list. Some software companies distribute their free/light software in a very fair spirit, and I gladly use these programs.
  9. multilanguage: Being from germany, many people I recommend software to want it to be in german. So if possible, there should be a multi-language version. This is not always the case, but fortunately, most of the time all major languages are supported.
  10. non-intrusiveness: System stability is important. Thus, programs that hook into internal components of windows are something I really dislike. Truly non-intrusive software installs all it's files into one directory, nothing outside, and doesn't touch the registry either.

To sum it up, the software on this list was selected so that you can rest assured no negative consequences can hit you one day.

Of course, there's never a total guarantee. I don't even use some of the programs. Still, what is listed here is what I, a long time Linux/OSS lover, would (or did) install on a windows PC.

DISCLAIMER: At the time of setting a link, the linked page contained the valid and authoritative, and above all, legal home page of the linked software. These days, domain grabbers exploit missed domain renewal periods, DNS poisoning attacks redirect websites, and a lot of other bad things happen in the internet. That means: Take care when visiting these sites! The content may have changed, the page may be a fake, or the program may not do what it did before. I do not take any responsibility of any kind, to the extent allowed by german law, regarding the content of the linked pages.

The Software

Bare Basics

Stuff that almost any user needs some day.

Adobe Reader
The well-known reader for PDF files. PDF files are used throughout the internet for printable documents like letters, manuals, books and leaflets. Moreover, many hardware products ship their manuals as PDF on CD. But consider the next entry instead. Licensed
Foxit Reader
An alternative to the Adobe Reader. As Adobe's Reader has become incredibly bloated, slow and intrusive, I often recommend Foxit instead, even though it does have a little bit of advertising. The speed difference is amazing. Licensed
Sumatra PDF
Yet another alternative PDF reader. This one is as minimalistic as it can get. Shows PDFs, can print them, that's it. Fast. Great for portable use (i.e., on a USB stick). The smallest and fastest program available. Open Source
7-Zip
A program to open and create compressed archives, like the well-known ZIP files, but also RAR and the increasingly popular 7z. Downloaded software or drivers from the internet often comes as a ZIP file. Supports all common archive types. With this installed, you won't need (non-Free) WinZIP, WinRAR etc. Actually, there are many programs out there that do the same. This one has two distinct advantages: it is very well done (user friendly) and it is Open Source, which means if you'd like it to support more formats, any programmer is allowed to add that support. Open Source

Internet Basics

Programs neccessary for anyone with an internet connection.

Mozilla Firefox
Do not use the Internet Explorer. It's a security incident waiting to happen. Mozilla Firefox is an easy-to-use alternative that renders web pages far better than IE and has a much better security history. Open Source
Mozilla Thunderbird
Do not use Outlook or Outlook Express. It's another security incident waiting to happen. Mozilla Thunderbird is an easy-to-use alternative that has a much better security history. Open Source
Flash Player
This is a plugin for Mozilla Firefox to support Flash applets. Many web sites use Flash, so you will definitely lack something without this. Licensed
Java
Sun's Java runtime is used by a number of web pages for interactive web applications, games and educational programs. Licensed

Security

Security is not something to "install and forget". You are the first line of defense. Then you need regular updates of your system software (see next section). Only after you have got these two, it makes sense to add security software. A virus and spyware scanner should always be present, while these days, many people don't need a firewall software anymore.

Avira AntiVir
You should always use a virus scanner when your machine has a connection to the internet. This one is one of the few that's truly free (for personal use only, however) and good: Response times to new virus outbreaks is among the best, and the only drawback is a mere middle-class detection of exotic and/or very old virii. Since those don't pose a risk these days, that's just fine. Don't be fooled: many other virus scanners are only free for a few months, require you to give personal details, or can't be uninstalled if you don't want them anymore. While a virus scanner is definitely worth money since someone is continuously keeping it up-to-date, the commercial ones are not that much better to justify the money. In a commercial environment Avira isn't free, and rightly so, I believe. Licensed
Spybot Search & Destroy
The best spyware/adware scanner you can get. Removes all kinds of unneeded/unwanted programs that silently run on your PC in the background and cause crashes, slowdowns and spy on your activities. Freeware
Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall
Do not use this. Honestly, avoid it if you can. A personal firewall will make your system slow and will need continuous attention from you. If you have a separate router device that connects you to the internet, you are reasonably safe. If you have Windows XP and use the built-in firewall, you are reasonably safe. If something gets through these two (and your regular updates, and your virus scanner, and your anti-spyware program), then you are hosed anyway. That said, if you are directly connected to the internet (for example via dialin) and using older Windows versions, then you need a firewall. Take this one. If you are an IT professional seeking maximum control over what happens on your machine, Kerio is for you, too. Unfortunately, they want your name and email for download, but they don't seem to check thoroughly ;) Licensed

Microsoft Windows Updates

Not strictly standalone software, these are updates for the operating system itself. You should always keep your operating system up-to-date, although you shouldn't blindly install everything from this category. Note that I assume you are using at least Windows 98 SE. I don't list anything for earlier versions of Windows.

Windows Update
This is not something to download, but to do regularly. Regularly update your system with Windows Update. Really, I mean it. It's your first line of defense against virii and crackers. Note: This site needs Internet Explorer. You have permission to use IE just this one time. Licensed
DirectX
DirectX is the technology used in many games and multimedia applications. These days, a lot of application software uses some parts of DirectX, so this is recommended. Licensed
Internet Explorer
While I strongly recommend not to actually use the Internet Explorer, many applications need some components from it. So install the latest version, but use Mozilla Firefox. Licensed
Inofficial Windows 98 SE Service Pack
A great package. Since Microsoft has abandoned Windows 98, this package is a collection of all known security fixes and upgrades for Windows 98 SE. It includes a few minor extras, like performance tweaks and Windows 2000 icons and colours for a more modern appearance. Licensed
Generic USB Mass-Storage driver for Win98 SE
This driver allows you to use almost any USB mass storage device (USB stick, external hard disk, MP3 player, many digital cameras, ...) without a specialized driver. If you dig deeper in that forum topic, you will probably find updates/later versions. Licensed
dotNET Runtime 1.1
The dotNET runtime is used by some programs. Only install it if some program asks for it, otherwise it is unneccessary load. Licensed
dotNET Runtime 1.1 SP1
The dotNET runtime is used by some programs. Only install it if some program asks for it, otherwise it is unneccessary load. Licensed
dotNET Runtime 2.0
The dotNET runtime is used by some programs. Only install it if some program asks for it, otherwise it is unneccessary load. Licensed

Useful Tools

Things that prove to be invaluable — if you need them.

Synergy
A tool to control all machines in a room via one keyboard and mouse using a local network. Works across several different operating systems. Open Source
TightVNC
VNC is a utility to remote-control a computer over the network, and even the internet. It works across many operating systems and devices. TightVNC is especially optimized for network performance. Open Source
TweakUI for XP
TweakUI allows you to change many advanced settings of Windows XP. The Win98 version is included in the unofficial service pack for Win98. Licensed
XP Antispy
XP Antispy is a utility to disable all "phone-home" type settings in Windows XP, Internet Explorer and Media Player. While all these settings are regularly reachable, this tool does the job way faster. Freeware
OpenGL Extensions Viewer
A tool to display details about your current OpenGL driver. Mainly useful to debug OpenGL problems. Freeware
Hz-Tool
A tool to change display refresh rates/unusual resolutions of your graphics card. Useful when your driver doesn't allow you to set them. Freeware

Applications

Application software for your daily work. Anything between communications, office, multimedia, science and programming. A grab bag that should fulfill all your needs.

Communications and Networking

File transfer: LeechFTP
An old but small, full-featured and fast program for FTP transfers. Freeware
File transfer: WinSCP
Transfer files via SFTP or SCP. Open Source
Instant Messaging: Miranda IM
Allows you to talk to friends using the ICQ, AIM, Yahoo, MSN or Jabber networks, all in one small and fast program. Open Source
Instant Messaging: PSI
Fully featured client for the Jabber instant messaging network. Available for several operating systems. Open Source
Chat: KVIrc
Fully featured client for the IRC chat network. Available for several operating systems. Open Source
Remote access: Putty
The prime SSH client for Windows, small and easy to use. Open Source
Web pages: Nvu
A great WYSIWYG web page creator. Anyone should be able to create web pages with this tool. Open Source
Web pages: SelfHTML
A great HTML tutorial for those that want to create web pages the "hard" way. Open Source

Science

Math: PowerCalc
A more powerful calculator with graphing and function evaluation. Licensed

Multimedia

Image viewer: ImageMagick
An image viewer and converter with support for an amazing amount of exotic image formats. Contains quite some editing facilities. Not nearly as user friendly as IrfanView. Open Source
Image viewer: IrfanView
The most popular free image viewer and converter. Contains some basic editing facilities. Freeware
Audio player: Zinf
An older but still complete and small audio player, suitable for older systems. Open Source
Audio player: DeliPlayer
Audio player with everything an audio player should have. Freeware
Video player: VLC
A media player than can handle almost any media file (and Video CD) you may stumble upon. Much faster than Windows Media Player, and without spying on you. Open Source
Image editor: Gimp
Gimp is a powerful image editor rivalling Adobe Photoshop. Open Source
CD ripping / Audio encoding: Exact Audio Copy
Saves tracks of your CDs on hard disk. If you have LAME or OggEnc installed, it can automatically make MP3 or OGG files from them. This is an excellent program that tries very hard to get correct results even from scratched CDs. If you already have some WAV files, this program is able to encode them as well. Freeware
MP3 encoder: LAME
This is one of the best MP3 encoders. Usually, you would use this as a plugin for another program like EAC above. Open Source
OGG encoder: OggEnc
OGG Vorbis is a free audio format with better quality and smaller size than MP3. It doesn't contain DRM mechanisms like WMA that limit the ability to burn or listen your music. It is even free of patent claims, making it free in commercial projects. Some hardware players support it, so it is an allround win. This specific version is useful as a plugin for EAC above. Open Source
DVD ripping: no link
I'd love to present a program to copy, rip and Shrink DVDs, but german copyright law, like the US law, has become quite treacherous. So I rather don't, since I have no clear idea where the legality border is. Search somewhere else. Freeware
Audio editor: Audacity
A professional multi-track audio editor for all your editing needs. Open Source
CD/DVD burning: CDBurnerXP
Full-featured CD/DVD/BluRay writing tool. Handles about anything related to writing itself, but relies on external software for authoring (see next entry). Freeware
DVD Video authoring: DVD Flick
An application that lets you create DVD Video content from almost any movie file. The resulting data can then be written to disc with CDBurnerXP. Open Source
Video editor: VirtualDub
A simple video editor and powerful video encoding tool. Open Source

Office

Mozilla Sunbird
A calendaring application. Lets you manage appointments with all the usual features you'd expect. Is also available as a plug-in for Mozilla Thunderbird, should you prefer that. Open Source
LyX
Write letters, reports, books and other documents the way it was meant to be. Why bother about typographical details when your computer can care about that by itself? Get professional looking documents out of your PC with almost no way you can screw them. LyX is a user-friendly WYSIWYM frontend to the famous LaTeX typesetting system. It needs quite a bit of other software from this list on your system: MSYS, Python, MiKTeX, Ghostscript (part of PDFCreator), ImageMagick Open Source
MiKTeX
MiKTeX is a distribution of the TeX typesetting system needed by LyX. Open Source
OpenOffice.org
A world-class replacement for Microsoft Office, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. Equivalent feature set, almost the same user interface, can read and write MS Office files. Open Source
PDFCreator
Creates PDF documents from any application. Open Source

Programming

ActiveState Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, Tcl
Company supporting various scripting language. For example, ActiveState Perl is the definitive Perl distribution on Windows. Open Source
Python
The Python programming language. Has an official Windows version. Open Source
Cream for Vim
A great Windows GUI adaption for the Vim editor. Basically, it gives you the features of Vim with a intuitive UI. Open Source
MinGW and MSYS
Windows version of the great GNU compiler collection (gcc). Includes support for C, C++, Objective C, ADA, Fortran and Java. MSYS is a minimal Unix-like command-line environment (including Tcl/Tk). Open Source
Dev-C++
A graphical development environment for C and C++ (or other languages, using MinGW). For cross-platform libraries, try Qt Version 4 (great for desktop apps), SDL (great for games) or WxWindows (less featureful than Qt, but free commercial usage). Open Source

Emulators

Not for windows per se: Run other operating systems on your PC while Windows is still runnning.

VirtualBox
A PC virtualization package similar to VMWare and Virtual PC, but completely free. Full-featured and user-friendly. Open Source/Licensed
DOSBox
Emulates an old DOS PC, including the DOS operating system itself. Even runs Windows 3.1. Great for legacy applications. Open Source
QEmu
An emulator for a variety of hardware (not just PCs). Not nearly as userfriendly as VirtualBox, but powerful in the hands of an expert. Open Source

Operating System

Not for windows per se: Boot CDs with various purposes. Only Knoppix is suitable for non-professionals. Most can also boot from an USB stick.

Knoppix
A fully operational Linux desktop system directly from CD — insert and boot, no installation neccessary. The father of all Linux live CDs. Probably not the first one, but the first one that was so complete and well-working that it led to lots of spinoffs. Very useful to get work done while your hard disk is trashed, to find out what Linux is like, and a nice recovery tool for the IT professional. Open Source
Ultimate Boot CD
A boot CD filled with an insane amount of DOS based diagnostic utilities. Many programs written by various hardware manufacturers (hard disk, mainboard, addon-card, ...) plus many vendor-independent utilities to identify, check, thouroughly test and repair a PC. Also contains full DOS and Linux boot environments for more complex recovery tasks. Open Source/Freeware
SystemRescueCd
A Linux-based boot CD aimed at system recue only. Includes lots of tools to destroy and recover hard disks of any operating system, including a NT/2000/XP password changer. Needs some Linux command line experience. Open Source

Appendix

Send suggestions for new entries, corrections and other remarks to software@syntax-k.de. Paid support is also available for most programs.

License

Note: Remember that the prime requirement for programs in this collection is "at no cost", so all licenses allow unlimited and free usage of the program for yourself.

Open Source
Covered by one of the OSI-approved Open Source licenses. This basically means that you can get the source code for the program, that you are allowed to (find someone who can) modify the program to fix bugs or add features, and that you are allowed to share such a modified version with others.
Freeware
Covered by some "Freeware" license. There is no official definition of "Freeware", but it usually means you are allowed to share the program with others, although you are not allowed to modify it. Note that modifying a program for your own use only is always allowed in some countries.
Licensed
Covered by more complex licensing terms. Read them yourself if these details matter. Usually that means you may not modify the program (see above), and sometimes you are not even allowed to copy the program for others. Moreover, it is possible that commercial usage is not free. If that is the case, it is noted in the description.