17 October 2010

Martin's list of free stuff (read: software)

I frequently get asked what program/application or service I use for [insert pretty much anything here] and so I figured why not make a list. Besides, this is what computers are really for, eh? They are supposed to make your life more fun and make you more efficient.

Here is all the FREE (as in 'free beer') stuff that I use or have used at one time or another and like. Yes, there are TONS of good things on the Internet but there is lots of crap. For this reason I am only listing my top pick in each category with the occasional honorable mention. I have compiled this list to let you benefit from my experience so hopefully you won't have to waste as much time as I have finding the good programs that actually work, are not bundled with loads of spy and adware, cause conflicts with other programs, cause conflicts with Windows, make you swear like a sailor with Turrets, make you stay up all night reinstalling your OS and apps from scratch, etc.


If you don't already have anti-virus software then you need it. Pronto.

If you suspect your computer has been compromised, regardless of whether or not you already have anti-virus software installed, perform a free online scan at one of these web sites here.


If your computer is currently clean and you want to install some anti-virus software as a preventive measure, use this.

  • Microsoft Security Essentials – The latest free offering from Microsoft that integrates anti-virus/malware/everything into one application. Very unobtrusive, performs daily automatic updates and consumes very few system resources.
  • avast One of the most thorough products and it even includes a boot scanner so that the AV application will load prior to Windows. The only drawback is that by default it likes to communicate to you very frequently with sounds and pop-up balloon messages. Luckily you can turn all that off.

An unprotected computer is listening and welcoming traffic on all kinds of ports. Hackers will exploit this and send malicious commands to your machine allowing them to take it over. A firewall inspects this network traffic and selectively blocks whatever you tell it to. These days, you really should have a hardware (router, etc.) and a software firewall.

  • As of Windows XP with Service Pack 3 Windows comes with a pretty good firewall.
  • ZoneAlarm A really good and correspondingly more difficult to configure firewall. ZoneAlarm filters incoming AND outgoing traffic so you will know when programs on your machine are trying to access the internet. If you do somehow get compromised, this will usually let you know. The Windows firewall does not do this; it only filters incoming traffic.

Malware and Spyware means lots of different things to different people but most IT folks are defining it as any software that is installed without the users informed consent. In its mildest form it will just be a program that you don't want and can easily remove but the worst case is something that can extract personal information like credit card numbers, passwords and render your machine practically useless. You almost can't have too much protection against this stuff and if you're going to surf aggressively (or carelessly), you really do need more than one of these programs. Just be sure to update any program you install frequently as most free applications don't do this on their own.

  • Windows_Defender_logo This works great and it finds stuff that both Spybot and Ad-Aware are missing. And it provides good explanations about what it finds. And - almost most importantly - it updates itself automatically. Lastly, it provides real-time protection just like good AV software meaning it's not just for after-the-fact cleanup but blocks the compromise in the first place.

Browser Security

  • avg-linkscanner_2011 "It gives you the power to inspect any web page before you visit for exploits, phishing and fraud scams, hacked web sites and malicious lure sites. Additionally, LinkScanner will automatically inspect search results on major search engines and provide real-time advice to prevent you from accidentally visiting a dangerous site." It works in both Internet Explorer and Firefox and it allows you to scan any URL.

Compression Utility
A compression utility lets you compress and uncompress files to save space so you can send smaller attachments or easily group several files together. Windows XP could extract files natively and Windows Vista and later versions can compress them but you need a third party tool to deal with all the popular file formats.

  • 7ziplogo A great compression utility that handles: 7z, ZIP, CAB, RAR, ARJ, GZIP, BZIP2, TAR, CPIO, RPM and DEB formats. It also seems to deal with files that have been tarred and zipped on a UNIX system slightly better than other utilities. It also includes the right click contextual menu you might be used to.


  • get_adobe_reader Allows you to view Acrobat (.PDF) files. A must have.
  • pdfforge_flamme PDFCreator allows you to create a PDF from any Windows application. Note that if you have Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010 you can also Save As and create a PDF from any Office application.

Software Updater
Many applications now include an automatic updater so you can pretty much install it and forget it. But not all. And some don't check often enough. So how do you know if all your software is up to date? Use this.

  • Secunia_logo This service lets you scan your computer and see if ANY of your software needs updating. That's fantastic because even though you might have Windows Update turned on, how often do you actually check to see if your favorite media player or Flash player or Java runtime environment is current? You can do an online software inspection (OSI) or install the personal software inspector (PSI) have it running all the time.



  • filezilla copy An excellent, fast open source FTP, SFTP and FTPS client (and there is a server too if you want). Very configurable with lots of options and it check for a newer version each time you run it.


  • Putty - A free Telnet/SSH client for Windows. Small, lightweight, what else do you need for terminal access?

Text / HTML Editors

  • Notepad++ - A super text editor; it's a small, fast and free with syntax highlighting for HTML and other common languages and much more.
  • htmlkit The best free HTML editor I have ever seen. There are loads of plug-ins available; Tidy, link checkers, search for text strings in directories, preview code in any browser you have installed, etc., etc.. It's what I use.

URL Shortener

  • bit_ly Ever copied a hefty URL into an email and had it wrap and your friend writes back complaining how the link didn't work? Well here is the answer. Plus you can track your links and even give them custom names. Kinda like TinyURL only better.

Web Site / Blog Hosting

  • GoogleSites Need a web site? Want it hosted for free? The Google service includes templates and you can customize each one, control access and you can point your own domain to your site. If you already use some Google eservices this is a good choice.
  • blogger A blogging platform that incorporates many Google technologies and features if you and your friends already have Google accounts. It's what I use.
  • WordPress Officially a blogging platform but can easily be used to host a web site since it's a fantastic CMS. This is what Microsoft chose to replace Windows Live Spaces. Extremely customizable.

DNS / Domains

  • zoneedit_logo DNS is the linchpin of the Internet; the cornerstone if you will. ZoneEdit will host DNS for your domain (up to five domains actually) for free and allows you to edit anything you want from A/MX/CNAME/SPF records to web redirects to email forwards and backup email. It's what I use.
  • GoogleApps Let Google host your domain-based email, calendar, docs, Intranet and the Standard edition is free. I use this as a backup email service for my domain.

Sync Files

  • Windows Live Mesh – I have tried Dropbox and similar technologies and if you want to sync files between computers and to the web and with friends this is the best. You get the most space for free, it's wicked fast and it's dead easy to use. You will need a Windows Live ID as will anyone you wan to share files with.

Rip / Copy / Burn

  • ImageBurn Lightweight CD/DVD.HD DVD/Blu-ray burning application. Burn to disk, burn from ISO, burn to ISO, etc.
  • cdbxp48 Rip, create, burn, even copy audio and data disks with one click. If you don't have Nero or Roxio this is the best free substitute I have found.

Audio / Video File Converter

  • SUPER - This converts more file types to other file types than any program I have found.

Graphic Converter

  • kater_li_obenGot a bunch of TIFF files and need to convert them to a lower resolution JPG? IrfanView will let you convert them all at once. You can also view, rotate, cut, crop, edit most any graphic file.

Instant Messaging

  • Astra Combine all your IM/Facebook/Twitter accounts in one client, use it on your computer, on your phone, you name it.


  • cc_64 Protects your privacy by erasing all browser history and cleans temp/unnecessary Windows files and is a registry cleaner too. As with any cleaner, make sure you have a backup of your data and that you create a System Restore point before you use this. And proceed with caution.

File Comparison

  • ExamDiff – The easiest file comparison tool I have ever used. One click re-compare, drag and drop support, automatically detects file changes, etc.

Data Recovery

  • minitool This utility will let you recover data even after the drive has been formatted and the GUI is one of the most intuitive I have seen.

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