The 10 free programs I can’t live without

I had the delightful task of rebuilding my working life last Monday, as my hard disk decided that would be the perfect time to die. And I realised I hadn’t actually synchronised my online backup system since I last tested a new service. Clever. With time against me – the magazine went to press on Wednesday night – it quickly became clear which programs I desperately needed to install.

The 10 free programs I can't live without

1. Paint.NET

paint.netinaction_thumb.png Windows 7 may now include a version of Paint complete with a fancy Ribbon interface, but it still doesn’t offer the features I need to quickly enhance photos and mould screenshots to my whims. Paint.NET does, and it also supports plug-ins for RAW files (and more), making it my top photo-editing choice.

2. Mozilla Firefox

MozillaFirefox_thumb.png Sorry Internet Explorer 8, but you’re too slow (as Microsoft’s own engineers accidentally admitted by saying they’d focus on performance with Internet Explorer 9). And frankly, I don’t use all those fancy right-click shortcuts that Microsoft has built in. I far prefer the faster Firefox, complete with all the Extensions such as Echofon for Twitter.

3. Windows Live Writer

WindowsLiveWriter_thumb.png I know it’s basic compared to some blogging tools out there, but Windows Live Writer is the perfect partner to our WordPress-powered blog. It’s easy to use while still offering all the power and features I need, such as retaining my favoured settings for photo formatting and links. To download it, type “live essentials” into the Windows 7 or Vista search box.

4. Adobe Reader

AdobeReader_thumb.png I’ve tried to like alternatives to Adobe Reader, such as FoxIt Reader, but against all my best instincts I keep on coming back to the bloated and comparatively slow Adobe offering. And that’s despite the fact I hate the way its install routine tries to sneak in a Yahoo toolbar and those annoying updates. The best thing that can be said about this program is that it works.

5. FileZilla

FileZilla_thumb.png There may well be better FTP utilities than FileZilla, but as far as I’m concerned everyone can halt development right now: FileZilla is free, it works, and the interface – while doing for good looks what Bob Hoskins does for swimsuit modelling – is plain and functional. As far as I’m concerned, this is the poster child for open-source software.

6. VLC media player

VLCmediaplayerscreenshot_thumb.png I haven’t actually needed to use this tiny application since rebuilding my PC, but it won’t be long before a media file comes along in a form that Windows Media Player can’t recognise (one obvious example being FLV files). VLC media player, on the other hand, is fantastic at handling pretty much anything that’s thrown at it.

7. Spotify

spotifyscreenshot_thumb.png While I still can’t bring myself to pay £10 per month for music I can’t keep, Spotify is my first port of call when it comes to distraction in the office. After all, a man needs to listen to something to drown out Stuart Turton’s whines about Liverpool’s latest failure (this weekend excepted), Jon Bray muttering to himself as he tests mobile phones, and Barry Collins ranting about various watchdog authorities.

8. BBC iPlayer

bbciplayerscreenshot_thumb.pngTravelling home by a train, sometimes I can’t quite force myself to do anything useful. Luckily those kind people at the BBC have built the iPlayer. With HD shows available for download as well, I’m in the odd situation where TV is better while travelling than at home. Note: this service is only available in the UK. If it’s any consolation, our weather’s awful.

9. Skype

skypescreenshot_thumb.png I’ve moaned about Skype’s habit of grabbing my credit unless I use its pay-as-you-go service every six months, but this remains an essential tool in my foreign-trip armoury: much as I love my children, I’m not making 30-minute calls home on mobile roaming rates! With Skype, it’s free to call other Skype users and just 1.7 Euro cents to UK numbers.

10. Windows Live Mesh

WindowsLiveMeshscreenshot_thumb.png I approach Live Mesh with a certain amount of trepidation: press Delete at the wrong time and it has the capability to permanently lose files with almost as much as speed as it allows you to share them. But if you, like me, flitter between different machines at a whim, then having one always-accessible copy of vital files can’t be underestimated.

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