Essential Windows Applications: 2011 EditionWritten by John Thompson on June 9, 2011 · Filed under Software
Are you treating yourself to a new PC this summer and wondering what applications you should install to make the most out of Windows 7? Then you’re in luck, because I’m about to run-down the list of all the applications which I think should be on every Windows computer out there. From web browsers to security programs and multimedia applications, we’ve got it all covered, so are you ready for a rollercoaster ride down software lane? Buckle up, get comfy, and let’s check out the best that the Windows world has to offer!
Over the past few years, when I’m asked a question such as “which browser should I use on Windows?” my immediate response has always been something along the lines of “do yourself a favour and avoid Internet Explorer like the plague”. With the latest releases, however, the old champ is still kicking strong, and not looking too shabby. With complete integration in to Windows 7′s various taskbar features, Internet Explorer 9 may just be worth a quick look. It’s also worth mentioning that when Windows 8 eventually makes it way on to our machines, Internet Explorer 10 will be ready and waiting with a brand new touch interface.
If you can’t bring yourself to use Microsoft’s browser there are a number of alternatives available. The two most popular alternatives on Windows are Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.
Firefox offers a versatile experience which can always be extended through the use of add-ons. Don’t like Flash? Get a Flash blocker add-on! Annoyed by intrusive ads? Get an ad-blocker! Chrome, on the other hand, has always been marketed by Google as a super-fast browser, but it has picked up quite a bit of bloat as it’s zoomed through 11 versions in a short amount of time. I’ve always found Chrome to be a more streamlined experience when compared to Firefox, but you should try each out and see which you prefer, as it’s definitely a case of personal preference.
Windows no longer comes with an e-mail client out of the box, so you’ll have to do a little more hunting around before you get get your fix (although with the App Store in Windows 8, this may be less of a problem). I’ve always relied on the free Mozilla Thunderbird to pick up my mail whatever platform I’m on, as it offers a familiar interface across the board.
If you’re looking for something a little more powerful to handle your daily e-correspondence though, you have a number of options. The most popular option, especially in industry, is Microsoft Outlook. Outlook 2010 is included in Office Home and Business, which has a gut-wrenching recommended retail price of over £200. Unless you’re a demanding e-mail user, Thunderbird should suffice, but Outlook 2010 is always an option worth considering.
Postbox 2 is also available for Windows, offering account groups, conversation summaries and quick reply in a familiar looking window. It’s more powerful than Thunderbird, but doesn’t cost anywhere near as much as Microsoft Outlook.
Every PC needs a decent security program, whether it’s running Windows 95 or Windows 7. We’ve taken a look at our fair share of anti-virus applications for Windows over the past few years, so you’re in safe hands! If you don’t want to pay for your anti-virus program, then you should use Microsoft’s Security Essentials program as a bare minimum. It seems to have gained in popularity since its release, and I’ve used it on a number of computers without issue. It provides you with a basic protection similar to that offered by the likes of AVG, to help keep you protected against the latest viruses and spyware.
If you want to step up the protection level, then you should check out the latest version of Norton 360. Ask me what you should stay away from a few years ago, and I’d recommend Internet Explorer 6 as your browser before recommending Norton as your anti-virus. Still, the security package has come on in recent versions, slimming down on bloat, becoming lighter on system resources and offering good protection against the latest threats.
Another security package we took a look at recently was PC Tools Internet Security 2010, which surprised me with its robust threat detection and thorough scanning. Unfortunately, the custom XP style user interface looks absolutely awful on Windows 7, so hopefully this will be updated soon, but as a security package it’s worth trying.
When it comes to productivity and workflow on a Windows machine, Microsoft Office is king. Organisations use it all over the world, students are tied to it through their schools and universities, and most people don’t know anything else exists that does the same job. Microsoft Office 2010 offers an improved Ribbon interface over Office 2007, and comes with Word, Excel and PowerPoint as standard. Unfortunately, it runs a high price tag. The home version of Office costs £80 for these three core applications. If you want to use Access or Outlook you’ll be paying over double that price tag.
Fortunately, there is a free alternative. Libre Office comes with a word processor, spreadsheet application, database management application and presentation creator too, and costs exactly £0. Not only is it free, but Libre Office uses open standards for documents rather than closed formats such as .docx that are used by Microsoft’s office suite. It’s also available for Windows, Mac and Linux so you can be safe in the knowledge that if you need to use a different platform you’ll have a familiar office suite waiting for you on the other side.
Windows comes with the latest version of Windows Media Player included out of the box, but in all honesty most people will never touch it. Ever. It can play a limited number of file formats without third party help, and by the time you’ve messed around with a ton of codec packs you may as well have installed something more enjoyable.
So what’s out there? Well if you’re looking for simple video playback of your video files regardless of their format then your best bet is going to be VLC Media Player. It’s been around for as long as I can remember, it plays back most files without a hitch and is kind on your system resources as long as you aren’t playing back a monstrous 4K video stream. VLC will also handle most audio formats you care to throw at it at as well, including the popular FLAC format, as well as the standard MP3 format.
On the other end of the scale, if you’re looking for a complete media system which offers a remote friendly interface tailored for the big screen then you should definitely check out Boxee. It’s my go-to application for all things movie and TV related, whether I’m on my laptop or sat in front of my home theatre PC, as it will play back anything that you care to throw at it, much like VLC just with a gorgeous, easy to use, big screen friendly user interface.
Boxee is available for free, and comes with services such as Last.FM and BBC iPlayer as well, making it really easy to listen to your online music collection or watch online TV, especially on the big screen. There are a number of great applications for other content, such as VUDU for online movies as well. Even TED has an app!
There are a number of choices for video playback applications, but what about that massive music collection that you have managed to rack up over the years? The obvious answer is iTunes. Apple controls the online music market, with only Amazon as competition for digital distribution, and if you own an iPod, iPhone or iPad then you’re going to need iTunes for updating purposes anyway. The only problem is that iTunes on Windows sucks. It’s a pretty bad experience, especially compared to the Mac version, so what alternatives are out there for your music collection?
Windows Media Center ships with most versions of Windows 7, and it looks absolutely great. Offering a great big screen interface for all of your tracks, complete with album artwork, snazzy design and lots of controls, it’s big competition for other third party applications out there which are trying to win people over. It can also function as a DVR, something that few other pieces of software on the PC can boast, and provides you with a portal to watch your video files as well. The only downside to Windows Media Center is, like Windows Media Player, it has limited codec support out of the box, so you’ll probably have to use a codec pack if you want to use it for all of your media files.
If you want an application that doesn’t need an entire screen to look good, then you’ll be wanting to check out one of the few viable iTunes alternatives which are available on Windows. Foobar2000 is one such alternative, and although it looks a little baron when compared to some other pieces of software out there, it functions really well without taking up a lot of system resources. The interface may be simple but it’s deceptively powerful, supporting a wide array of audio formats and even packing advanced features such as a file converter and various visualisations.
Another alternative is Winamp. The last time I’d used Winamp before writing this post was when my Compaq Armada E500 laptop was running Windows 98 with a mighty 128MB of RAM (or was it 96? Very possibly…), but the old guy is still going strong, supporting the iPod thanks to some third party support, and offering desktop music sync for Android phones as well. You can download a plethora of skins and plugins thanks to an enthusiastic community of users, and it plays back most file formats you’re likely to have in your library.
When it comes to instant messaging, Windows Live (or ‘MSN’ as it used to be called) is no longer the kind it once was. GTalk has stolen the hearts of many users, and Facebook Chat hasn’t exactly helped matters for Microsoft either. There are still lots of instant messaging applications out there that support a whole host of different protocols, so Windows Live Messenger has been pushed in to the shadows, but which is are the best?
Trillian has long been a fan favourite for Windows users, offering compatibility with every protocol you could possibly imagine up from Windows Live to Facebook. It looks good too, with the new version coming packed with tweaks that make it work great with Windows 7. Unlike Skype, there’s no wasted space here either; a small contacts list gives you just the information that you need to know. Basically, Trillian is what all IM clients should be like…
For those of you wanting to just access Facebook chat through a desktop client, Chit Chat offers another alternative, although I’d personally stick with an application with a larger user base such as Trillian.
I’ve already touched on Skype a little, and if you’re often making VoIP calls to colleagues and friends, then there isn’t really anywhere else you can go except for the established service. Google Voice still isn’t available in the UK, so we’re stuck with what we can get for now. There is one positive though: Skype 5 for Windows feels a lot nicer than it does on the Mac…
If you want to keep all of your games in one place without messing around with licenses for every title that you own, then Steam is definitely your best bet on Windows. The service offers game downloads which are linked to your account, so that you can install them on any of your computers whenever you upgrade (or if you have 4 computers around the house, I won’t judge, honest!) to a new PC.
After using Steam for a few years now, I couldn’t go back to buying boxed games for any platform. It’s just so convenient to download a game and not have to worry about license keys or install limits. Although not strictly an application, Microsoft’s Games for Windows Marketplace is the closest competition Steam has, but I won’t be switching anytime soon.
So there you have it! All of the applications which I consider to be essential on any PC that you own. It’s a long list, so make sure you check out as much as you can for yourself, and be sure to recommend any applications that you think I might have missed in the comments, or by emailing me at email@example.com.