Your new PC needs these 22 free programs

Some programs are so helpful, so handy, so useful across the board that we heartily recommend them to everybody.

PC programs

New hardware needs new software

More than a mere blank slate, a new PC is a fresh opportunity—a collection of components that, with the right software installed, could accomplish anything from balancing your household budget to helping to cure cancer.

Yes, stocking your PC is an intensely personal task. Even still, some programs are so helpful, so handy, so useful across the board that we heartily recommend them to everybody. These are the programs you want to install on a new PC first.

browser

Warm-up: A browser

Before you roll up your sleeves and start slinging software around, make sure to snag your Web browser of choice. Using Windows’ default Internet Explorer when you’re accustomed to something else feels like wearing somebody else’s shoes. (Blech.)

Firefox and IE 11 are both tremendous options in their own right, but our money’s on Chrome, which won PCWorld’s browser showdown late last year. But hey, they’re all free! Try before you “buy.”

Ninite

Ninite

Ninite makes loading up a new computer a breeze. Simply head to the Ninite website, select which programs you’d like to install on your PC—it offers dozens of options, including many of the programs named here—and click Get Installer to receive a single, custom .exe file containing the installers for those programs. Run the executable, and Ninite installs all of them in turn. No muss, no fuss, no hassle. It’s wonderful.

AVG AntiVirus Free

AVG AntiVirus Free

Assuming that you plan to connect your PC to the Net and slap a thumb drive into one of its USB ports, you’ll need to have antimalware software installed. Windows 8 ships with Windows Defender activated by default (if your PC’s manufacturer didn’t preinstall premium antivirus trialware), and that’s a lot better than nothing, but Windows Defender isn’t as effective at fighting off the barbarian hordes as third-party options are.

AVG AntiVirus Free does a great job of blocking and eradicating malware, and it includes extras such as a secure shredder, Do Not Track protection for your browser, and the ability to schedule automated scans.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free

Well, AVG is one of the programs I use to keep my computer safe and secure. No single antivirus utility offers bulletproof protection, especially against the latest and most clever threats. MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free was designed specifically to find and eliminate those cutting-edge “zero day” threats. You can’t schedule scans or even use it as a regular antivirus program, but it’s invaluable when you think that something nasty has slipped by your primary antivirus utility.

PC Decrapifier

PC Decrapifier

Now that you’ve installed security software to protect your PC from invasion, it’s time to clean all the preinstalled junk off your computer. Most boxed PCs come chock-full of bloatware intended to make dough for the PC makers, and you probably don’t need (or want) most of it clogging up your system resources.

That’s where PC Decrapifier comes in. This pint-size wonder program scans your PC, brings up a checklist of the bloatware installed on your machine, and helps you wipe ’em all away in one fell swoop. Yay! A secondary screen lists all of your programs if you want to nuke even more. Ignore it, or just be careful to avoid erasing something important.

Benchmarking and stress-testing software

Benchmarking and stress-testing software

If, on the other hand, you built your own PC bit by bit, you don’t have to worry about bloatware—but you do have to worry about the quality of all those shiny new components. For instance, is your precious new graphics card unstable? The right software can put your PC through the paces and make sure everything is running as it should be.

The programs you’ll need are too varied to list in full here. Check out PCWorld’s guides to stress-testing and benchmarking your computer for tips and software recommendations alike.

Unlocker

Unlocker

But wait! What if Windows refuses to uninstall some software and tosses up the dreaded ‘Program is in use’ message? Fear not: The superb Unlocker can neutralize pesky active processes, leaving programs open to slaughter. Simply right-click the software you want to uninstall, select Unlocker from the context menu, and then unlock or kill ’em all. Just be mindful during the installation process: Unlocker tries to install lots of bloatware on your PC.

Recuva

Recuva

But wait, again! What if you accidentally deleted a program or file that you desperately need to get back? Don’t curl up into a ball and start sobbing uncontrollably. Recuva’s deleted-file recovery skills can usually save your bacon as long as you wiped your data using standard means rather than a “file shredder”-style tool.

Piriform’s Recuva is one of those programs you hope never to use, but you’ll be really, really happy to have it in your back pocket, just in case.

CCleaner

CCleaner

Piriform makes another must-have system tool: the legendary CCleaner. It does all the dirty work required to keep your PC running in tip-top shape, including ditching unwanted cookies, wiping your browser history, deleting unnecessary files, and keeping your Windows Registry sparkling clean.

It’s powerful, but even better, it’s free! (A $25 Professional version with premium support is also available.)

Secunia PSI

Secunia PSI

Programs that aren’t up-to-date are programs with gaping security holes and missing features. Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector hums along silently in the background, automatically keeping your software patched, or—if it’s unable to update an app for some reason—notifying you when updates are available. ’Nuff said. Secunia PSI takes the hassle out of keeping your PC current.

A Start-menu replacement (Windows 8 only)

A Start-menu replacement (Windows 8 only)

Keep right on scrolling if you’ve picked up a new Windows 7 PC, which still sports the Start menu you’ve known and loved for more than a decade. Computers rocking the Start-menu-free Windows 8 are far more common these days, however. Sure, you can tweak the live-tiled OS pretty extensively to get a near-optimal desktop experience, but if you want the classic Windows feel (or just want to skip the modern-style Start screen completely), you’ll need a Start-menu replacement.

My favorites are Classic Shell (free) and Stardock’s Start8 ($5), but every Start-menu replacement offers different capabilities. Our roundup of the best Start-menu replacements takes a deeper look at the premier options.

ModernMix

ModernMix

Many of Windows 8’s native programs—from Mail to Music to Internet Explorer—are modern-style apps, which practically forces you to take a jaunt into the Start screen from time to time. That is, unless you have Stardock’s stellar ModernMix, a $5 utility that opens modern apps in desktop windows. You’ll want to pick it up immediately if the mere sight of the modern Start screen sends you into an apoplectic rage.

VLC Media Player

VLC Media Player

Windows 8 has one other prickly problem: Unlike Windows 7, it’s incapable of playing DVDs out of the box. Your PC might have a DVD-playing program installed if you bought a boxed system, but if not, the simply wonderful VLC media player can play your flicks (and music, and podcats, and…) for free. It can even play (some) Blu-ray discs with a little fiddling.

Paint.net

Paint.net

Now that the workhorses are out of the way, it’s time to dig into handy-dandy extras, starting with Paint.net. Don’t let Paint.net’s freebie status fool you: This image editor may not have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but it packs everything that most people need (even layer-based editing) and costs hundreds of dollars less.

If you’re a graphics professional, and you can’t afford Photoshop but require more than Paint.net offers, check out GIMP. It has a challenging learning curve, but its capabilities are impressive.

Sumatra PDF

Sumatra PDF

Adobe Reader is the go-to PDF reader, but it’s clunky, constantly updating, and frequently targeted by malware peddlers. If you need only basic functionality, go with Sumatra PDF instead. Sumatra lacks the fancy extras found in many full-featured PDF readers, but when it comes to straight-up reading Portable Document Format files, Sumatra PDF is blazing-fast and completely accurate. Oh, and since it’s less ubiquitous than Adobe’s offering, hackers tend to stay away from Sumatra PDF.

CutePDF

CutePDF

Want to transform a doc or website or image or just about anything else into a PDF? Turn to CutePDF, a freebie that installs as a printer driver and lets you transform things into PDFs via the standard File > Print interface. It’s an incredibly convenient feature to have available.

Trillian

Trillian

Skype might be baked into Windows 8.1, but let’s be honest: Instant messaging is a fragmented mess. Some of your pals may use Skype, but vast hordes rely on Facebook Messenger; still others may use ICQ; and tons of folks still use AIM, Yahoo Messenger, or other alternatives. What’s a well-connected PC geek to do?

Simple: Install Trillian, a chat client that supports all those services and more. You’ll never miss a conversation again, no matter which IM clients your buddies prefer. (Bonus: Trillian offers iOS and Android apps, too.)

iTunes or Spotify

iTunes or Spotify

Sometimes, blasting tunes is the only thing that makes slogging through a spreadsheet or a stuffed inbox even remotely tolerable. The exact music client you’ll want will depend on whether you’ve already bought into a service, naturally. For musical neophytes I recommend two programs: iTunes and Spotify.

The iTunes Windows client notoriously sucks, but it gets the job done—and that job includes giving you access to a vast universe of premium music downloads and keeping your iPhone’s music library synced with your PC. Spotify, meanwhile, is an all-you-can-eat streaming service with millions of top-tier tunes available, all for free if you don’t mind listening to a few ads.

A password manager

A password manager

The high-profile hack attacks of the past few years have driven the point home: You need strong passwords, and you need a different password for each site you visit. Rather than juggling dozens of alphanumeric codes in your noggin, download a password manager. We recommend Dashlane, LastPass, or KeePass. Let them do the grunt work for you.

Cloud storage

Cloud storage

In today’s multidevice world, cloud syncing and storage services are practically a must-have, as they allow you to pick up where you left off no matter which PC, phone, or tablet you’re working on. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is thoroughly intertwined with Windows 8.1, but if you’re using Windows 8, 7, Vista, or XP, be sure to grab the desktop app for your cloud service of choice to ensure that your files travel with you.

If you’re feeling really ambitious (and you don’t mind juggling your files across several services), you could supersize your free cloud storage to 100GB or more. That’s pretty much a hard drive in the sky.

A productivity suite

A productivity suite

PCs excel at helping you Get Things Done—but few of them ship with a productivity suite installed. Fix that, stat!

Legions of people swear by Microsoft’s legendary Office; I do, too. But you don’t have to drop big dollars on Office if you don’t need its myriad bells and whistles. Free—and good—alternatives abound, with OpenOffice (pictured) and LibreOffice being the flagship free-and-open-source options. Even if you don’t plan to use a productivity suite regularly, it’s smart to have basic editing capabilities available on your computer.

Steam

Steam

All work and no play makes Homer something something! Valve’s outstanding PC game marketplace, Steam, makes it easy to shrug off the stress of the workday and blow off some ... well, you know.