It happens to just about everyone. Whether you’ve just bought a new machine, or you’ve just done a reformat/reinstall, you’re probably looking to get a few of the essentials installed. I’m going to assume you’ve already found/grabbed/installed the latest drivers for your motherboard & video card, and go right to some programs you just might want. Don’t worry, they’re all free.
avast! (old link: www.avast.com/eng/avast_4_home.html) has quickly become one of the more popular virus scanners. It’s updated often, isn’t terribly hard on your system resources, and best of all, is free for personal use. The only downside is that you have to register on their website to get a registration key. You do have to get a new registration key from them every year, but again, it’s free. To grab it, simply visit this link. There’s a download link and a registration link along the left column.
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Everything from e-books to the instruction manual stored on many game cd’s usually come in .pdf format. Mac users are fortunate enough to have a pdf reader included with the OS. Windows users are not, so you’ll probably want this. It’s available here. If you don’t want the free Google toolbar (I personally hate toolbars), unselect the checkbox before clicking download.
Microsoft Office continues to be the most popular suite. Sadly, it’s not free. If you’re looking for a free alternative, OpenOffice has been around for years, is well developed, allows you to open and save to Microsoft Office formats, and best of all, is free. Grab it here.
If you’re using Vista, you’ve already got Internet Explorer 7, which is a fairly decent browser. If you’re using XP (or Server 2003), you can upgrade to IE7 here. Personally, I prefer the Firefox browser which you can get here.
Peer-to-peer file sharing programs
If you’re into file sharing, you’ll probably want at least one. If not, skip this part. Frostwire is a nice open-source alternative to Limewire. Azureus is a great open-source torrent downloader (although be aware that Azureus Vuze is a bit bloated).
Video in particular is often encoded in a wide variety of formats, which Windows Media Player usually can’t decode by default. You can either download individual codecs/players, or go for what’s known as a “codec pack”, which includes decoders for a wide variety of video types. Personally, I use the K-Lite Codec pack which is available here. It will install decoders that will allow you to play all the popular types (DivX, Xvid, Quicktime), as well as a few others. During the install, it will also give you the option of installing it’s own Media Player, which you can use if you’re not crazy about Windows Media Player (or if you’d like to use both). If you’d rather not install a bunch of codecs for some reason, another option is to download the VLC media player which has built-in support for most media formats, available here.
EDIT Sept 8 2009:
Adding a couple programs here…
Paint.net has become an increasingly popular free image editing program. It’s no PhotoShop, but it’s free, pretty powerful for most basic needs, and highly recommended. Download it here.
CD/DVD Burning Program
A great free program I recently came across is CDBurnerXP. Yes, despite the name it works great in not only Windows XP, but in both Vista and Windows 7 as well. You can find it here.
Aside from your favorite instant messaging program, you should have most of the software that a typical household will use. I would have liked to include a decent graphics/image editor, and a good cd/dvd burning program, but I’m unaware of any free alternatives out there that are competitive with the popular retail stuff. If you know of any, or have a few “must-haves” of your own, please feel free to post a comment below.