Nine must-have freeware apps rise to the top

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

The “best freeware” lists published by Web sites and magazines frequently trumpet dozens of programs, but the results reflect the subjective opinions of just one or two testers.

To find the best of the best, I compared roundups of “great” freeware conducted recently by four reputable publications to find the programs that were endorsed by at least three of the reviews.

Only a few freebies win multiple accolades

Nearly any free program can impress one or two people, but an application has to be truly worthwhile to pass muster when tested by several different independent organizations.

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To reduce the subjectivity of a single software review, I selected the repeat winners from the most recent (or recently updated) “best freeware” lists posted by these sources:
  • “25 Free Downloads You Need Now” from the May 2008 issue of Computer Shopper.
  • “101 Fantastic Freebies” from the May 2008 issue of PC World.
  • “The Best Free Software” from the March 2008 issue of PC Magazine.
  • “46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities,” and “The Extended List — 71 Additional Best-ever Freebies” updated in April and March, respectively, by Gizmo’s Tech Support Alert site. (Note that the extended list is available only to the service’s paid subscribers.)
Security apps and system tools get multiple nods

Despite the hundreds of products covered by the four lists, the overlap is surprisingly small. Only nine products were endorsed by at least three of the publications. I haven’t tested these programs, but Windows Secrets editors are very familiar with them and can state without equivocation that they do indeed belong on this list.

I limited my selection to downloadable software and excluded the best-reviewed online services, which I’ll cover in a future column.

Here’s the consensus of the freeware reviewers:

Avira AntiVir Personal
You’ll probably never see the freeware version of an antivirus program outrank its commercial counterpart in a software roundup, but Avira’s AntiVir gives other fee-based antivirus apps a run for their money. The program receives high marks for its malware detection rates and its ability to take on rootkit viruses. The main disadvantage cited by reviewers is that the free version of AntiVir doesn’t scan incoming e-mail. However, the program does scan e-mail attachments after you’ve saved them, and it detects malware if you open an infected e-mail.

Comodo Firewall Pro
More thorough than the firewalls built into Windows XP and Vista, Comodo comes with a long whitelist of safe sites, which you can add to as you surf. Reviewers call it “tough” and “robust” in protecting your system, but they add that the product is a little complicated for novices, so do your homework before you tweak Comodo’s settings. (In his Apr. 17 column, Mark Joseph Edwards describes the high marks Comodo received in independent tests of personal firewalls.)

When it comes to protecting your data from prying eyes, TrueCrypt gets the nod from multiple reviewers. This open-source program can create encrypted files that appear as disk drives in Windows Explorer and other file managers. TrueCrypt also lets you encrypt an entire drive (such as a USB flash drive), a drive partition, and — for extra safety — hidden drive volumes.

Figure 1: Keep your files safe by using the free TrueCrypt utility.

Of the hundreds of products on the lists I examined, only Piriform’s CCleaner was recommended by all four of the freeware roundups. CCleaner scrubs your system by removing temp files, cookies, browsing history, recent-document lists, log files in the Recycle Bin, and a lot of other digital detritus. The utility can also be used to uninstall applications and scan for orphaned and unused Registry entries.

Lightning for Thunderbird
The Mozilla Foundation’s free Thunderbird e-mail program is great, but it lacks Microsoft Outlook’s calendar and to-do list. The solution is Lightning, a plug-in from Mozilla that combines the foundation’s Sunbird calendar program with Thunderbird’s e-mail features. (If you don’t use Thunderbird, Sunbird can be downloaded as a free, standalone tool.)

Foxit Reader
If you’re one of the many people who consider the Adobe Reader PDF viewer too slow and bloated, consider Foxit Reader. Reviewers found it to be much faster than Reader, and they note that Foxit provides more options for viewing, printing, and annotating PDFs. You can even use Foxit to fill out PDF forms.

You don’t need to spend your hard-earned money on a commercial audio program to record or edit music or other sounds for use in a presentation or on a Web site. Audacity is an open-source audio editor that supports .mp3, .wav, and other popular audio formats.

Audacity isn’t the only free sound editor that got the nod from multiple reviewers. Wavosaur also made the cut, and the program has at least one advantage over Audacity: it’s a single executable file, which makes the audio utility easy to run from a USB flash drive. Don’t let Wavosaur’s small size fool you, though; the program has an impressive array of audio-editing features. Note that you may need to download the free Lame Encoder .dll file to allow the program to export to the .mp3 format.

Figure 2: The free Wavosaur sound-editing utility lets you convert audio files to and from various formats.

It’s a royal pain to have to open a different chat application every time you want to keep in touch with someone who uses AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, or another messaging network. With Pidgin, you can keep all the other chat apps on the shelf. This open-source IM client (formerly called “Gaim”) lets you communicate with users of all the above and a dozen other chat networks.

The ‘best’ is what’s best for you

You may be dismayed that your favorite free program doesn’t appear on this best-of-the-best list. That doesn’t mean it’s not widely valued — some reviewers may simply have wearied of repeatedly mentioning such old freebie standbys as Mozilla’s Firefox browser, the IrfanView graphics viewer, and the WinAmp music player.

Still, the fact that the nine programs on this list are top-rated by several major publications suggests that one or more of them will be useful to you, too.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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