Stay in touch with friends, edit and share photos, and avoid security subscription fees: These applications and utilities are must-downloads for any new (or old) laptop.
Internet Explorer 7 is leaps-and-bounds better than the old version. But Firefox 2.0 still trumps IE7 with its tighter security, a near-bullet proof pop-up blocker, and a huge aftermarket of add-on extensions. Honorable mention: Apple’s release of Safari for Windows (www.apple.com/safari) is likely a ploy to increase widget development for the iPhone, but it’s still nice to have another IE alternative, with slick bookmark management and a useful Private Browsing feature.
AVG Anti-Virus 7.5
There are lots of free antivirus programs on the Web, but AVG is one of the best, with built-in desktop e-mail checking. Unlike the paid versions, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition needs to be updated manually, but the protection is first rate. All versions extract a minimal performance hit from your PC, and the latest paid version (7.5) gives you two years of protection for what some other vendors charge for just one year.
Google’s photo viewer and editor is more powerful than anything this side of Adobe Photoshop Elements, yet Picasa is a free download. It makes quick work of organizing your photos, fixing blemishes, and even ordering prints online. The latest version adds stronger RAW image support, improved Vista compatibility, and integration with Google’s Photo Screensaver.
Talk to anyone in the world for free using Skype 3.2 and an inexpensive headset with a built-in mic. Models start at $20 and go all the way up to cordless handsets that mimic high-end phones. Add SkypeOut minutes and voicemail to turn Skype into a full-blown calling solutions complete with your own phone number. New features include the ability to send money via PayPal, snap your MyPicture in Skype with a webcam, and improve contacts from Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo.
Trillian Basic 3
It seems everyone is on different instant messaging systems these days, so why not talk to everyone from the same application? Trillian Basic has been around a while, but the latest version is fast and remarkably ad-free. It even includes webcam support. Trillian works with AIM, ICQ, IRC, MSN and Yahoo Messenger accounts.
WMP 11 was a nice upgrade from Microsoft, but Apple iTunes is still the best application for turning your laptop into a music and video paradise. Plus, it’s compatible with the iTunes store and the iPod; the three products together combine to form the best and most popular music solution that exists today. The latest version supports DRM-free tunes and YouTube videos, as well as the awesomely elegant Apple TV. Oh yea, it works with the iPhone too.
Mozilla Firefox gets all the attention, but the company’s Thunderbird desktop e-mail client is an underdog alternative to the expensive and bloated Microsoft Outlook application. That latest version of Thunderbird provides customizable folder views, RSS newsgroup folders, advanced tagging, improved search, and top-notch security. Our favorite feature is messaging history navigation, which enables you to click forward and back through e-mail on the same subject.
Lavasoft Ad-Aware 2007 Free
No one likes buying a new computer only to have to spend additional money to protect it. That’s why Ad-Aware is a welcome alternative; the free application is remarkably good at freeing your system from malware and spyware, especially with its recently added incremental definition updates and expanded Firefox and Opera support. Two premium verions – Plus ($26.95) and Pro ($39.95) – offer automatic updates, network drive support, and extra monitoring tools.
ZoneAlarm Free 7.1
The built-in Windows XP firewall is a one-way-street. Although hackers will have a hard time breaking into your laptop, you still run the risk of malware, spyware and viruses that use your machine to send out spam or other horrors. Download ZoneAlarm Free 7.1, which works with 2000, XP, and Vista, and protect your PC in both directions; plus, ZoneAlarm works well in tandem with most antispyware and antivirus apps from other vendors.
Google Desktop 5
Looking longingly at Vista’s sidebar applications but don’t want to upgrade just yet? Google Desktop’s raison d’etre is desktop search. But its flexible Sidebar interface and huge array of available “gadgets” are just as strong attractions. Version 5 includes a beefed-up search-results page with a preview tool. It also features an improved sidebar and Google Gadgets with detailed, Vista-like graphics.