[I repost something like this, it seems, about every time Black Friday rolls around… hopefully it will answer some questions if this is new territory for you… -ed]
If you’re asking what software to add to a newly-acquired computer, the first advice I would give you is not to add anything at all… until you need it. Most users clutter up their computers with a lot of software that they never end up using; and the end result is a tangled, poorly-performing machine. The best-practice rule is to only add those things that you need… when you need them. That said, the following list shows software that I personally recommend for most users — and why I chose them for myself:
Google Chrome – http://google.com/chrome
Because the web browser that comes with Microsoft Windows is a favorite target of hackers, information thieves, and virus authors, I recommend choosing (and setting as your default) an alternate web browser. Google’s Chrome is among the top 5 and is available for multiple platforms (Windows, MacOS, Linux). Additionally, choosing Chrome makes several other software options (listed below) work easier…
Apple iTunes – http://www.apple.com/itunes
While there are several very well-designed tools for managing media files (music, movies, etc.), iTunes is the current favorite for both MacOS and Windows users — and not just for users of Apple’s iOS devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad). Just know that using iTunes doesn’t mean that you can only purchase music and movies through Apple iTunes Store — you can simply use it as a (free!) place to organize your files, no matter where they come from. And, if you also happen to have an iOS device, it’s nearly a requirement for keeping your PC and portable device in sync…
AVG Antivirus Free – http://free.avg.com
New PCs usually come with some brand of antivirus tool preinstalled — and with a 12-month subscription that is no longer free when that first year is over. While there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of those first 12 months of free protection, if you don’t want to hand over your credit card when it expires, I have had good success with AVG Antivirus Free. Just be sure to remove the older antivirus program you are replacing — having two different programs attempting to do the same job can drastically slow down your computer.
VLC Media Player – http://www.videolan.org/
Your PC may already have a tool provided for playing movie files in several formats — but eventually, someone is going to give you a file that is in an odd format you can’t open. The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of video players is VLC — it plays almost every format in existence.
Audacity – http://audacity.sourceforge.net/
What VLC does for video, Audacity does for audio files — and you may not have a need for something that opens dozens of different audio formats; but it also allows you to edit (crop, alter, concatenate) sounds to better fit your purposes. I use it to create short ringtones from longer sounds I find on the internet, or in my iTunes.
Paint.NET – http://www.getpaint.net
Windows comes with a simple image editor that might be enough for many users — and professional use Adobe Photoshop, which is a very complex (and very expensive) image editor with hundreds of features. Somewhere in the middle is Paint.NET, which is free, but includes the features most users need for resizing, correcting, cropping, and changing the file format of pictures. For those who have grander aspirations, there is another free application (closing to Photoshop on the learning curve) called GIMP at http://www.gimp.org/ .
Google Docs – http://drive.google.com
Docs is not an application that you install — it is an online application you can access from any internet-connected computer (Windows, MacOS, Linux). Included is a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, and simple drawing program — all of which can save out to common file formats (like DOC, XLS, PPT, PDF, etc.). Documents you create in Google Docs are stored in your online account (requires a free Google account, which also comes with a free personal email address on GMail.com) — again, making your creations available to you from whatever computer you log in from. NOTE that Google Docs is not as full-featured as a commercially-available office suite (like Microsoft Office); but since most users never use more than 25% of the tools available in MS Office, Google Docs likely provides all the functionality most users depend on.
DropBox – http://dropbox.com
There are many vendors out there who provide a way for you to store documents up on some internet server (that’s what the phrase ‘in the cloud’ means); but DropBox is a favorite of mine because it doesn’t require any extra effort to use — AND it makes sharing large files with other people easier (no more sending them through email). With DropBox installed, there is a folder on your PC that will sync (automatically keep copies in both places) between your computer and your online account, so that if anything ever happens to your PC (breakage, theft, accidental file deletion), you still have the online version to fall back on. Also, you can reach these files through any web browser on any other computer — so it’s ideal for checking on a document from work that you created on your home computer. Free accounts at DropBox.com start at 2Gb of storage space. [See also Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive…]
Calibre – http://calibre-ebook.com/download
Many eBook readers are limited to just a handful of file formats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-book_formats); Calibre is able to read almost all of them, and is a great place to keep all the ebooks you collect from various sources in one place.
InkScape – http://inkscape.org/
Vector artwork is imagery that can be stretched in size without losing quality… the industry standard for this in the commercial art world is Adobe Illustrator. While Inkscape is not feature-for-feature as powerful as Illustrator, it also doesn’t cost several hundred dollars (Illustrator does). For this reason, many high schools and universities that have art and design classes are favoring Inkscape — and it has quite a following all around the world.
Notepad++ – notepad-plus-plus.org
Every Windows computer comes with a simple text editor called NOTEPAD.EXE, which is really handy for looking at text without formatting — or for deliberately stripping formatting that you don’t want out of a document. But it is very limited; the search-and-replace isn’t very capable, and some larger files won’t open in it. For user who need more control over their plain text files, I recommend Notepad++, which I use to edit web pages, instructional documents, and for projects that require a more powerful search-and-replace than is provided in even strong applications like Microsoft Word.
Browser plugins – http://java.com (Java Runtime), http://adobe.com (Flash & Adobe Reader), http://www.microsoft.com/silverlight/ (Silverlight), http://www.downloadhelper.net (DownloadHelper)
There are literally hundreds of plugins, toolbars, extensions and enhancements that can be added to your web browser to add to it’s functionality, but those linked here are the ones that I put on every computer I configure — some of them are required by most web sites and one (DownloadHelper) allows me to grab an offline copy of YouTube video for watching later when I am perhaps away from a good internet connection.
Skype – http://skype.com
Of the many tools available for having voice and video communication over the internet, the most popular among consumers is Skype; and it’s well-favored among business users as well. The free version lets you have one-to-one video chat as well as larger audio-only conversations. As an added bonus, you can define your own screen as a ‘camera’ in a video chat — so that you can show the person you are talking to what you are doing in an application (such as PowerPoint or Google Docs). There is a paid version that adds the ability to connect from Skype to a regular phone number, should you need the ability to make lots of outbound calls with a USB headset (I use this instead of my cell phone when I plan to spend the whole day talking on the phone from home).
Scribus – http://www.scribus.net
The industry standard for most professional page-layout artists is Adobe’s InDesign — and in the low-end (non-professional) world is Microsoft’s Publisher. Somewhere between those two stands Scribus, available on multiple platforms (Windows, MacOS, Linux, etc.) and used by many university, not-for-profit and small-office environments around the world. If you want to crank out a book, a newspaper, a magazine, or a print advertisement — this may be a tool you’ll benefit from.