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Monday, June 22, 2009

Free Software Suggestions Part 1

In my post on saving money, I mention that I will put together a separate post to describe the software I use on my computer

In my post on saving money, I mention that I will put together a separate post to describe the software I use on my computer. In this post, I provide links to some of the software I use along with some notes on each product, what it can be used for, and so on. I use a Microsoft Windows XP PC (several of them, actually) and all the software I mention in this post is for that platform. Some of the software mentioned is produced for other platforms also, and going to the website of the software manufacturer will allow you to choose the platform you need software for, but several of these products are available only for Windows platforms.

To reiterate, unless you have very specialized needs, there is almost no need to buy software. Most of what you need to do on a computer can be accomplished with free software that is as good as, or in many cases better than, software that you need to purchase. I use a variety of software on my computer to do everything from reading and writing documents, to creating DVD’s, editing audio and video, and playing games. In addition no PC should be run without security software that includes anti-virus, a proper firewall, etc. I have found free software for all these purposes that is in no way inferior to the products that you can purchase for several hundred dollars for the same purpose.

I have broken the list below into categories to keep it manageable. Within each category, there may be several choices of software. Sometimes, there are several programs that let you do the same thing, and they are all listed just to give you a choice of which one to use. In most other cases, though, the different programs listed have different functions, and sometimes two or three different programs can work together to do something that no single program can do.

  • Internet Browsing
    • Mozilla Firefox: This is my first choice for browsing the web. It is a full-featured browser that is also very secure. In fact, most people in the know recommend using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer because of the security advantages provided by Firefox. Unfortunately, some websites use special Microsoft-only features like ActiveX (which is what makes Internet Explorer less secure than Firefox in the first place) that require you to use Internet Explorer to use such websites fully. My suggestion would be to use Firefox for practically all surfing and switching to Internet Explorer to visit sites that specifically need features like ActiveX. The Mozilla website also has thousands of add-ons that you can download and use with Firefox to make it more useful and versatile.
    • XB Browser: This is the browser of choice when you want to surf anonymously and leave no trace of your surfing (cookies, browsing history, etc.) on the PC you used for surfing. This browser uses a series of proxy servers to hide your true IP address so that you can surf the web without any monitoring software being able to tell or block where you are visiting. This is extremely useful for people under repressive regimes that censor the internet extensively. But some of my friends use it on a regular basis just because they take their privacy more seriously than others do. Note that surfing through these anonymous proxies will slow you’re your surfing to some extent. Xerobank Their free service is good enough for most purposes. encourages you to sign up for a paid service that is supposed to increase your surfing speed, but you don’t have to.

  • Security
    • Zone Alarm: Zone Alarm is a firewall that protects your computer from nasties on the internet. This article on HowStuffWorks describes what a firewall does and why you need one. Zone Labs sells several paid suites of products in addition to the free firewall they provide, and their website hides the free product so that it is not very easy to find. But the link I have provided should get you the free product without any problems.
    • Avast Antivirus: A good up-to-date antivirus is essential for protecting your computer from malicious programs like viruses. Avast is a high-quality anti-virus solution. Using the free product requires registration at the site. You are emailed a registration code that you can use to activate the free product for a year. Each year, you have to re-register the product to continue using it. Don’t worry, they don’t send out spam or any other type of email unless you want them to.
    • Ad Aware: Ad Aware is one of the oldest and best-known names in protecting your computer from Adware that includes tracking cookies, programs that spawn popup ads from your browser, etc. It is not as good anymore as it once was and the program itself has become bloated and slow. The free version also has several features disabled to encourage you to buy the paid version. But, the program is still useful to have in your arsenal.
    • I don’t use any anti-spyware on my computer at this point. With the combination of a good firewall and a good antivirus, there is little need for anti-spyware on a computer. I have not been attacked by spyware so far in spite of not having anti-spyware on my computer. The biggest reason I don’t use anti-spyware is that most products in this category are still quite immature. They generate numerous false positives that are more likely to alarm people than reassure them. Even worse, some of the false alarms can cause vital system files to be quarantined or deleted, resulting in your computer becoming unbootable. I would wait until the products mature more before starting to use one on my computer.
    • WinPatrol: WinPatrol is a security monitor that alerts you to hijackings, malware attacks and other critical changes made to your computer and its settings without your permission. In addition, it has many useful functional tabs including an extremely useful function that allows you to delay the startup of certain programs at boot-time so that your computer boots up faster. Again, the free version is more than sufficient for most people, so there is no need to pay for the paid version.
    • DropMyRights: Running your internet browser and other internet-facing applications under limited rights is a security measure that is recommended for everyone. This prevents your browser, for instance, from being able to save anything in critical system folders or make changes to system settings, thus protecting your computer from most malware. The simplest way to do this is by using the simple program called DropMyRights, and creating some special shortcuts to start these internet-facing applications with limited rights. This link contains the information needed to set up DropMyRights and to use it correctly.

  • Office Software
    • OpenOffice: This must be the best-kept secret in the history of free software. OpenOffice is a full-featured suite of office products that has a word-processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation tool and a database in addition to other functionality. It is completely compatible with the better-known (and very expensive) Microsoft Office and can read and write files created by either office suite without any problems.
    • Foxit PDF Reader: Adobe Acrobat Reader is free, and requires no free alternatives. But I like FoxitFoxit will save you some hard drive space as well as memory, and be quicker in opening and displaying documents than the Adobe Reader. As always, don’t bother with the Pro version, the free version is more than sufficient for practically everybody. PDF Reader much better because it is a much cleaner product with a lot less of what you don’t need than Adobe. Adobe’s reader is bloated and loaded down with extraneous features and frills that nobody needs or uses.
    • PDFTools: PDFTools is a small utility that allows you to do a lot more with PDF files than just read them. You can split PDF files into pages, join multiple PDF files into one, rearrange pages in a large PDF file, add watermarks to a PDF document, create PDF files from XML files and so on. It is a handy tool to have if you deal with PDF files on a regular basis.
    • PrimoPDF: This is not strictly an office software, but a useful utility to have on your PC. This software adds a virtual printer to your PC. Whatever you print to this printer gets created as a PDF document on your PC. So, this serves as an easy way to convert pretty much anything that is printable into a PDF document.

  • Backup Software
    • GFI Backup: Maybe you have heard it, maybe you haven’t, but I will repeat it again anyways: if it is not backed up, then you don’t care about the data. In this day and age of cheap hard drives (you can get a 1TB hard drive for less than $150), it is beyond my comprehension why anyone would choose not to keep a backup of the stuff on their computers. There are only two types of hard drives on computers: ones that have failed and ones that will. When your hard drive does fail, are you going to be able to fall back and recover gracefully, are you going to sacrifice your data, or are you going to spend a few thousand dollars at a data recovery firm to get your data back. A stitch in time saves nine…
    • DriveImageXML: Backup works for data, but not usually for programs, especially not the operating system. If you want a solution which will help you get back up and running as fast as possible, you need to create a backup image of your hard drive. This free software helps you do that. If you have to replace the hard drive in your computer, you just have to reinstall this image on the new hard drive and your computer should be good to go: now new operating system installation, no new software installation, etc. Note that you can not use this method to clone your operating system onto a new computer because different hardware requires different drivers, so even though the system image can be restored onto a different computer, it will probably not work correctly or even boot up.
    • SyncToy: This is a small free application available on the Microsoft Website that allows you to keep multiple copies of your data on different media in sync with each other. The software has good help features that help you understand the 3 modes in which the software can be run. If you have flash drives that you use to carry files between multiple computers (home and work, for instance), you will find this little tool very handy.
    • DriverMax: This is software that allows you to back up and restore your drivers so that if and when you need to reinstall the operating system on your computer for any reason (some people do it on a regular basis to clean out all the junk that tends to accumulate over time and slow down the computer), you can reinstall the drivers with minimal fuss, and get your computer in working state again quickly. The tool also allows you to download the latest drivers for your hardware though this second use is somewhat dubious. I have never updated my drivers on any of the computers I have owned and nothing has ever gone wrong with them because of driver problems. But the driver backup and restore functionality is priceless.

  • Data Security
    • TrueCrypt: I have raved about TrueCrypt earlier in my post on encryption. Simply put, there is no better software out there to protect the data on your computer from prying eyes. Make sure, though, to read the manual and understand the software and how it works before you start messing around with it and losing access to your valuable data.
    • AxCrypt: I have mentioned AxCrypt also in my post on encryption. If you just need to put a password on certain files to keep their contents from snooping eyes, this is the best tool to use. And if you want to take the temptation away from those snooping eyes by renaming the file to something innocuous, this tool can do that too. It is easier to use than TrueCrypt, but the encryption is just as powerful, so if you forget your password, you can kiss your file(s) goodbye.
    • PasswordSafe: I could write an entire post on passwords – how to select them, how to keep them safe, etc. Suffice to say, you need a tool like passwordsafe to keep them safe if you have more than a few secure passwords. If you use the same password everywhere you are required to have one, you don’t need a tool like this, but it is really insecure and you might want to rethink your password policy. One slip-up is all that is required for someone to be able to hack into every one of your online accounts if all of them use the same password. Passwordsafe enables you to have strong, secure passwords and to use different (even randomly generated) passwords for all your different accounts.
    • Eraser: When you delete a file from your hard drive, it is not really deleted. The computer marks the file as deleted so that the space used by the file can be used to write something else. But until something is actually written over the space used by this deleted file, the deleted file is easily recoverable (in fact, there exist countless tools out there to do precisely that, and I will talk about them in a later post). So, if you really want to get rid of all traces of a file from your computer, you need a tool like Eraser. Eraser can overwrite a single file with random data when you delete it or you can set up Eraser to overwrite all the unused space on the hard drive with random data so that no deleted file (even from the past) is recoverable. Eraser also has the ability to create a boot CD which can be used to erase the hard disk on your completely (including the operating system, all your programs etc.). This can be very useful when you are going to dispose of the computer (you don’t want to run the risk of someone getting hold of the disk and being able to read your sensitive and/or private data off it).

This post has gotten pretty long and I still have a lot of software to go through in other categories. And it is getting pretty late. So, I am going to have to put the rest of my suggestions into another post.

By the way, I watched the movie Beer For My Horses yesterday. Not a bad movie. The general consensus on IMDB is not too good and the movie, I feel, got a much lower rating than it deserves. It was funny and did not aspire to be something it wasn't. It was a genuine comedy with some plausible action thrown in.

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