7 Free Apps You Need for Windows

I use Windows 8 on all of our home computers — except for the home server, which runs FreeNAS. But, if you are here looking for apps to do things like bring back the Start menu then you are in the wrong place. I do not miss that relic from Windows 95 and have no problem using the new interface.

What I wished to cover here is not just for Windows 8. These apps work across many versions of the operating system and I find them incredibly useful on a regular basis. The only requirement to qualify here is that the app be free, and all of these meet that criteria. Beyond that, I am only looking for software that is truly useful on a daily, or almost daily, basis.

I will spare you the boring things like alternative web browsers to replace Internet Explorer — just use Chrome or Firefox, it’s an easy choice. Not all of these apps are for everyone, as it depends largely on your tastes and needs, but most should satisfy every computer user in some way and many are useful on an almost daily basis.

1. 7-Zip

Countless files that you download these days come packaged as a ZIP folder. While the format saves space and makes for a faster download, the savings is not tremendous and the hassle can frequently not be worth that savings — especially given that these days most of us have high-speed broadband to make quick work of those downloads.

Still, it seems almost to be some sort of internet tradition to continue packaging files in this way and we all have to deal with it. My choice for doing so is 7-Zip. The software is free, fast and can handle many tasks. For instance, beyond ZIP, the the program can also unpack ARJ, CAB, CHM, CPIO, CramFS, DEB, DMG, FAT, HFS, ISO, LZH, LZMA, MBR, MSI, NSIS, NTFS, RAR, RPM, SquashFS, UDF, VHD, WIM, XAR and Z files.

2. ImgBurn

I often have need to burn files to a CD or DVD and frequently those files are in ISO, or disc image, format. Many things come in this format such as the FreeNAS operating system that powers my home server. Most Linux distros come as ISO and so does the new Windows 8 when you purchase the download.

To get these files onto a disc you need software that can handle it and, by far, the best free one that I have found is ImgBurn. More than just an ISO burner, the app can copy files off of a disc and also copy simple files and folder for backup purposes.

3. FreeMake Video Converter

The internet and computers today are a world powered by media. Video is all around us, from downloads to ones we shoot ourselves. In some cases it needs to be converted to another format. For instance, MKV does not play natively in Windows (hint: you can add the free Haali Media Splitter to change that).

FreeMake Video Converter can easily switch the format of most video files. It works with formats like AVI, MP4, WMV, MKV, FLV, 3GP, MPEG, DVD, Blu-ray, MP3, iPod, iPhone, iPad, PSP, Android, Nokia, Samsung and BlackBerry. It can also do various resoltions, including full HD.

4. Stellarium

Stellarium may not be for everyone, but if you love astronomy and want to know what you are looking at in the night sky, then this open source software is for you.

Set the app to your exact location and pan around. Stellarium will show you a view, in real time, of what is currently visible in the sky from your exact spot. It also labels every object and constellation to make things easier for the amateurs in this field of science.

5. Foxit Reader

Let me start this off with a statement — Adobe Reader, at least in my opinion, is junk. It installs itself in your system tray for no reason, uses memory and is a magnet for malware attacks.

Do yourself a favor and choose an alternative. Foxit is my favorite, but there are several other good ones out there on the market and all of them are free.

6. Plex Media Server

Plex is software, but it is controlled by your web browser through a dashboard interface. You can add all of your media — pictures, video, movies, music and TV shows and then share it out to all computers, mobile devices and DLNA devices on your home network.

Plex may be server software, but it is incredibly easy to set up and and any user can handle it. Once the server is set then you just need the app installed on devices where you wish to view the media.

7. Virtual CloneDrive

So. getting back to those ISO files that we discussed earlier in ImgBurn. If you would like to run one of those files without having to burn it to a disc then you can do that by using a virtual disc drive. There are several free ones available online, but Virtual Clone Drive from Slysoft is my favorite. It sits in your system tray using no resources, only just waiting for you to need it.

Conclusion

There are countless other useful apps available and I use many of them, but I wanted to simply look at those that I find to be essential — the ones I install on every new computer or whenever I do a Windows re-install (sadly regular because testing software causes a cumulative slowing down of a PC).

Not everyone of these apps will appeal to every user, but several I think are almost universal in the functionality need they fill for Windows users everywhere.