Essential Windows Freeware 10 Free Ways to Get More out of Your Computer

The following collection contains a variety of open source and free-to-use software for Windows. You can have a safe and productive computer without spending a lot of money.

Using free and open source alternatives to expensive commercial software can save you hundreds of dollars, which can be especially important when you're already spending a pile of cash on a new system. We can build a custom system and install your choice of freeware and open source alternatives.

Have an old PC gathering dust? Reinstall Windows on it and install some of these applications to make a great system to give to a relative, nursing home, or a favorite charity. It may also make it easier (and legal) to sell the old system to a private party than a system loaded down with commercial software, but no installation media or proof of license to go with it all. We can help with that too.

1. Antivirus Protection

There are a number of free antivirus programs available for Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. If you're running Windows 2000 Professional, you should seriously consider upgrading to at least Windows XP, as security updates for Windows 2000 ended in July 2010.

If you're looking for free Antivirus for Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, or Windows 2000, you can try an old version of Avast Free Antivirus 4.8 which still receives updates last we checked; register for free license on this page. This is an old version but while it lasts, it is your only choice for older versions of Windows.

The following programs are offered for free to home users in a non-commercial environment on a single computer:

The following programs can be used for free by home or business users:

For best protection using "free" software without being too cumbersome or difficult to use, we recommend Microsoft Security Essentials, combined with Windows' built-in firewall (and your existing hardware router), Mozilla Firefox web browser (with AdBlock and NoScript addons), along with either Web of Trust or SiteAdvisor browser plugin. You should also install at least one of the free anti-spyware utilities and run regular scans of your computer.

While it may be tempting to run more than one antivirus program at the same time, it is not recommended, and can actually be less secure than running only one. Uninstall existing antivirus programs and reboot your computer before installing a new one.

2. Firewall

Basic consumer-grade hardware routers provide some protection against unsolicited inbound connections, while software firewalls help keep programs (including viruses and spyware) from connecting to the outside world without your knowledge or permission.

Most free firewall programs for Windows are limited to non-commercial home use and/or are feature-limited versions of commercial software. Comodo's software is all free for home or business use, however.

3. Malware & Spyware Prevention

Spybot Search & Destroy and Windows Defender (bundled with Windows Vista and newer, available separately for Windows XP) are the only free anti-spyware applications that provide some degree of realtime protection. As noted below, all the other scanners and cleaners require you to pay for the program to enable that feature.

  • Malwarebytes Antimalware - Must pay for the program to enable realtime protection. Installable in "safe mode".
  • Super Antispyware - Must pay for the program to enable realtime protection. "Portable" version available.
  • Adaware Free - Must pay for the program to enable realtime protection. A version with integrated antivirus is available for sale.
  • Spyware Blaster - Makes configuration changes to Windows and your browser to help prevent certain types of malware infection.
  • HijackThis - Utility to list startup processes and files to help find and remove malware infections. For advanced users.
  • cCleaner - Utility to clean-up browser history, cache, and other usage "tracks" left by programs and browser plugins (such as Adobe Flash and Sun Java).

4. Safer Browsing

Using an alternative web browser and email client can make you less susceptible to virus and spyware infections. Our first choice is Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.

Besides using a safer, more secure browser, you can also install a free browser plugin to scan search engine results and flag or hide suspect sites. Some antivirus programs include similar functionality:

Other web browsers to choose from (both include browser and email client) include Seamonkey (formerly Mozilla Suite, and Netscape Communicator before that) and Opera, which is lightweight and fast.

Internet Content Filtering and Parental Controls

If you have kids, especially curious teenagers, you might be in the market for some parental controls or content filtering on your internet access. Here's a couple of free ideas to explore:

Windows Live Family Safety - part of Windows Live Essentials, allows you to control your kids' internet access. Use alone or in conjunction with Windows 7's Parental Controls; both are free from Microsoft.

OpenDNS FamilyShield - a third-party DNS service that offers configurable internet content filters on numerous categories. Free and paid service plans.

If you don't know how to set up content filters or parental controls, we can help!

Browser Plugin Updates

Browser plugins, such as Java and Flash, are often targeted by malware and viruses, so it is very important to keep them up-to-date.

Direct downloads of full offline installers for Adobe Flash (Macromedia Flash) and Shockwave players for Windows:

Oracle Java (Sun Java) Runtime is another popular browser plugin:

We recommend that you do not install a browser plugin unless it is needed. For instance, if you don't run Java applets and don't require Java for some other application (such as OpenOffice.org's database component), don't install Java on your computer (and uninstall it if it is present but not needed).

5. Must-have Firefox Addons

Mozilla Firefox is our recommended web browser not only because it is safer to use than Internet Explorer, but also because of the sheer number of high-quality addons available for it, most of which are free-to-use.

  • AdBlock Plus - Block unwanted ads and other elements in web pages. After installation, subscribe to either the EasyList + EasyPrivacy filters or the Fanboy main list + Tracking filters.
  • AdBlock Plus Element Hiding Helper - Extra functionality for AdBlock to hide page content not otherwise blockable using just AdBlock.
  • Cookie Culler - Advanced cookie management.
  • DownThemAll - Integrated download manager for Firefox. Supports multiple downloads (fetching links or images from a web page), resuming and multiple connections per download.
  • Image Zoom - Adds zoom and rotate functions for images on web pages.
  • OptimizeGoogle - Customize Google settings, optionally filter results and block ads.
  • PlainOldFavorites - Adds Internet Explorer's Favorites menu to Firefox; use Favorites in both browsers without needing to sync them.
  • Read It Later - Award-winning addon saves web pages to read later. Has an offline mode and supports syncing your reading list with multiple computers or devices.
  • Screengrab - Take snapshots of web pages and save them as image files.

The following addons have a slightly steeper learning curve or are intended for more advanced users:

  • NoScript - Award-winning addons that allows you to control which sites and domains are allowed to run Javascript; can also block objects such as Flash and Java applets. Can significantly improve your browser's overall security when used correctly.
  • Stylish - Allows you to customize the look and feel of web sites by inserting your own CSS into the pages when you view them. Many pre-made user styles available at userstyles.org.
  • GreaseMonkey - Customize how a web page looks or functions by adding bits of user-defined Javascript to them. Ready-to-install scripts available at userscripts.org.

Browse and search for other Firefox addons at the Firefox addons repository.

6. Free Image Editing, Viewing and Resizing

A lot of people forget that images from digital cameras can be huge! Resize pictures to use on web pages, or to send through email easily, with one of these handy utilities:

  • Irfanview - a very useful image viewing utility. Resize, crop, color correction and other handy features. Can also make stand-alone slideshow application out of your images and create thumbnail contact sheets. Windows freeware, be sure to deselect the installation of whatever toolbar or bundleware it comes with.
  • Image Resizer - a clone of the popular Image Resizer powertoy for Windows XP. Works with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. This makes it super-easy to resize those big pictures from your digital camera before emailing them — remember, not everyone has fast internet access, especially around here. Free, open source software. Two versions available: older 2.1 version doesn't require .NET Framework 4 but newer version has a few added features.

Windows Live Photo Gallery, which is part of the Live Essentials collection, is an easy-to-use image management and viewing program with basic editing features. This standalone version updates the version bundled with Windows Vista, and adds the Photo Gallery functionality to Windows XP and Windows 7.

Paint.net is a free Windows image editing application to modify, resize and convert images. While not nearly as feature-rich as the (very expensive) Adobe Photoshop, it does the job for most casual users.

GIMP is perhaps the most popular free and open source image application program in use today. It is very popular on Linux platforms, but also has Windows version available. GIMP is a feature-rich application, but does have a somewhat higher than average learning curve.

7. Freeware Backup and File Archiving Utilities

Comodo offers a freeware backup utility for Windows. Cobain Backup is another popular free (open source, too) backup program for Windows (all versions, Win95 through Vista). These programs allow you to backup to a variety of sources, including networks and remote FTP sites.

Windows Vista Business and Ultimate, as well as Windows 7 Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate, provide a feature in the Windows Backup and Restore control panel to create backup images of your entire system, including Windows. These backup images make it very easy to restore your entire computer to the state it was in when the backup was made. Very handy to have if your hard drive ever crashes.

Windows includes basic support for ZIP archives, but IZArc (freeware) and 7-Zip (free, open source) provide more features and support for many additional archive formats.

8. Freeware Office Applications

Choose between Abiword for just a word processor or OpenOffice for a full suite of office applications that is mostly compatible with Microsoft Office's proprietary file formats.

If you don't have Microsoft Office, or compatible software, you can still view and print Microsoft Office documents using Microsoft's free document viewers for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

9. Freeware PDF Creator

The PDF format has become the de facto standard for exchanging documents with others. For example, everybody can obtain a freeware or open source PDF viewer, but not everybody has, or can afford, Microsoft Word or Office.

If you post documents on your web site or email them to others, use PDF files, not a proprietary format that requires a specific program to open. PDF files are also a great way to "print" order confirmations and invoices for online purchases without wasting paper.

PrimoPDF and CutePDF are free-to-use PDF file creators. They install a "virtual printer" that you can use to easily create PDF files simply by telling your application to "print" to it.

For viewing PDF files, Adobe Reader may be the best bet for full compatibility. Other options for viewing PDF files include:

  • Foxit Reader - a basic freeware version is available.
  • Sumatra PDF - a lightweight, free and open source viewer.
  • Nuance PDF Viewer - a freeware viewer from the makers of PaperPort and OmniPage document imaging software.

10. Useful FREE Web Sites

  • PortableApps - Offers "portable" versions of many popular free programs, including Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.
  • Clusty - A "family friendly" and unique alternative to Google, organizing results into "clusters" that you can explore further.
  • National Weather Service - Provides weather data and forecasts for all of the United States, without the annoying ads found on virtually every other weather-related web site.
  • Network Tools - Web-based tools to look up domain data, perform pings and traceroutes to any IP address. It also shows you what your own IP is.
  • Wikipedia - The user-edited encyclopedia has millions of articles about just about everything.
  • You Send It - Allows you to "send" large files to someone else. More efficient than email, and gets around file size limits many mail providers have. Free service with extra features if you subscribe.