Ok, if this sounds like a commercial for one of those TV products that does 17 things at once—like shape hamburger patties and sharpen scissors at the same time—then I apologize. The list below is for real, though.
The explanation? Every industry has its own unique business model and the current model for the computer industry is so nuts it would have trouble passing an inkblot test.
Essentially, competition is so crazy and so fierce that hundreds of companies will give you valuable, free software—software that can dramatically improve your computing experience, protect you, and make you more efficient—on the mere chance or possibility that you may actually buy something from them further down the road.
Computers are a hobby of mine—I have 19 machines I have networked together at home and they actually talk to each other when I am not around—so I am going to share with you the best “free” software that I have found.
Oops—A Word of Caution
First, a word of caution. As I said, the software industry is a lot like America’s “Wild West.” There are very few rules. Even some of the best software from the best firms, listed below, will try to “trick” you during the installation process into installing so-called “demo” versions of its for-fee (not free!) software, or even demo versions of another company’s software.
Plus, there is no industry standardization for the installer scripts. That is why every single piece of software you install requires very strict attention to the “dialog boxes” that appear just before the software is installed. The trick is to agree to the install of the 100% free software you actually WANT, but to decline or “opt out” of the demo versions of anything else that is offered, no matter how appealing or innocent it seems. Often, the opt-out button is in tiny print to discourage you from finding it or is listed as a “custom install option.” Never install free software with the one-click express installer. Read each dialog box carefully. This is the price you must pay for accessing this free software—diligence and alertness.
(The software listed below was tested by the writer at the time this essay was prepared, worked correctly, and was installed safely. However, companies are always updating and changing things, so you need to exercise the standard cautions whenever working with a new program [see also next head]. All testing was done on a “Windows”-based machine. If you use another operating system [OS], check first to make sure the software you want to try is compatible.)
First Things First
To be extra cautious, it is useful, when installing anything on your computer, to have a previously installed piece of software available to “track” the new install so if things go horribly wrong, you can remove the new install and go back to ground zero. The reason for this—while strange, but true—is that the standard “uninstall” program built into Windows usually only removes about 70% of what was actually installed on your computer. If you have never noticed this, do not be surprised; most users don’t. The biggest mess is often in the registry, which is used more or less as a garbage dump by most installers.
(The problem is that too much garbage in the registry slows down the machine over time and causes other problems. I often wonder how many users buy a brand-new machine because their old one has mysteriously slowed down?)
“Zsoft Uninstaller” (Zsoft.dk) is a free program that tracks the install of a new piece of software and can remove it later. It works. You can get the same functionality from “Revo Uninstaller Pro,” which has a cleaner interface but is a for-fee install (Revouninstaller.com).
Another way of achieving the same effect is to pre-load the free program “Timefreeze” on your machine (Toolwiz.com). The program will “snapshot” your system before you run the installer for the software you want to try. If there is any problem, the program will reboot your machine to the pre-install state.
If you are absolutely in love with “iExplorer,” I regret to tell you that I have no recommendations for you today. Add-ons for that program are problematic. Sorry to have wasted your time.
There are, however, literally hundreds of free add-ons to enhance your browser experience for both “Firefox” and “Chrome,” and, to a lesser extent, “Opera.” (All of the software listed below was tested for Firefox specifically.)
I acknowledge comparison/review projects that suggest that, of the two free browsers, Chrome is the better performer. However, I am also aware that Chrome is the browser from the No. 1 company in the world intent on creating “individual customer profiles” for everyone on the planet—what some writers refer to as “consumer harvesting”—and that gives me pause. As far as I am aware, Firefox has no interest in spying on your browsing to discover what kind of toothpaste you use, so I lean toward Firefox.
To access these add-ons, use the “add-on” menu in the main menu bar, find the add-on you want, and then push the “install” button:
– Adblock Plus and Adblock Plus Pop-up Add-on, an Element Hiding Helper for Adblock Plus
These are the three infamous add-ons that almost single-handedly destroyed the prevalent Internet advertising “model” and showed tens of millions of users worldwide that they did not HAVE to endure ads while browsing.
– Better Show Passwords
Remember how the screen disguises your text whenever you enter a password? Great when you are in a hostile environment with prying eyes, but useless when it’s just you and the cat trying to log on to the local pizza parlor. This permits you to see what you are typing.
Everyone has heard of cookies but few have heard of “super-cookies,” which are much more dangerous. This add-on clears the super-cookies when you close the browser.
– Bitdefender QuickScan
This is a free, brand-name, custom, on-demand virus checker.
– Copy Pure Text
If you “copy” from a web site, you also get the code and formatting, which you do not really want. This add-on solves that problem by copying the raw text to your clipboard.
– Date Picker/Calendar
This add-on adds a tiny yearly calendar to your browser.
– Disconnect, Ghostery, and Privacy Badger
Three distinct and entirely separate add-ons, these all do variations of the same task: protect your privacy and simultaneously remove clutter from the web pages you visit.
– History Submenus
This add-on changes the format of your drop-down history menu, so it is easier to use.
Part of a well-funded independent net security project, this add-on ensures that all your connections are “forced” to encrypt.
– Lazarus: Form Recovery
Ever enter a bunch of text into a form or box and then lose it accidentally? This add-on solves that problem. You can retrieve entered text after a crash.
This add-on lets you create and call up, on demand, dozens of pre-formatted, custom text insertions. It’s great for sign-ons, credit cards, account details, and the like.
– Password Exporter
This name is misleading. It will not merely export all the passwords you have allowed your browser to “save,” but it also lets you see them in a central file, which is great when you forget a password!
Another misleading name, this amazing add-on gives you control of many major elements on tricky sites.
A wonderful screen-grabber, this add-on can grab, or capture, all or part of a page.
– SmartVideo for YouTube
Of the many dozens of YouTube add-ons, this one is very powerful and very useful. Read the directions. It is not intended for downloading, but is a must for slower machines.
– User Agent Switcher
For users who are getting error messages that they are using the “wrong browser” or their browser is too old, this add-on “tricks” the site into thinking you have the correct browser.
For several years, Oracle Software was experimenting with a 100% free package that attempted to emulate all the features of “Microsoft Office.” It worked fairly well—and the price was right! More than 125 million users have downloaded the suite so far. Recently, the project was taken over by Apache Software. You can get the “OpenOffice Suite” from Openoffice.org.
For manipulating images of any kind, one of the best deals in town is the “Irfanview Suite” (strange name, great software) from Irfanview.com. With the full install package, all free, the suite is actually more powerful than many paid packages I have seen.
From a company called Rarefind.com comes one of the smartest pieces of software I have ever seen. It is called “Paperless Printer” and in my view, it fills a gap in the Windows OS by offering multiple ways to print any document or page to the image format of your choice. If you register as a single-use non-commercial “home user,” the package is free.
The original “Dropbox” software dazzled users with its ability to not only offer seamless cloud storage but also to sync files from that storage to multiple devices. However, over the years, the company has become progressively less friendly to both its free and paid users. Its hidden, forced upgrades are especially annoying because differently named executables are always used, making it impossible to pre-set your firewall software (if you use a firewall) to permit the activity. I now recommend “Sync” instead (not to be confused with “Bittorrent Sync”) as an alternative from a Canadian firm called Sync.com. In its free package, Sync gives you five gigabytes of storage, manual upgrades instead of forced ones, solid encryption, and personal, fast e-mail support—even for the free users. It also offers a cool “instant cloud vault” feature.
(If you have Dropbox and are sticking with it, you should know that the security is not 100%. Several years ago, I found that a credit card of mine was being used for fraudulent charges. The problem was that it was a card I ordered for foreign travel only and had never actually used. It was kept in a suitcase in a closet. I could not quite figure out how the crooks had found it until I remembered I had placed all my credit card data in a master text file stored in…Dropbox. For a more detailed critique of Dropbox security measures—or possibly the lack thereof—see the Sticky Password post, “Is Dropbox Really Safe?”)
“Keyscrambler” was written by a bona fide Internet whiz kid who was concerned that a major virus could hide behind the OS and capture your keystrokes, then send them to a bad man. This allows you to work normally but any “captured” keys will be scrambled and the bad men will not see them. The single at-home version is free (QFXSoftware.com).
“Screenhunter Free” (Wisdom-Soft.com) offers a powerful screen capture utility.
“Auslogics Disk Defrag” (Auslogics.com) offers a fast and well-designed defragger for free.
“Winamp” (Winamp.com) has been around for a while, and still has one of the slickest free MP3 players. Built in “Equalizer” and “Pre-Amp,” the newer versions have a lot of bloat, so you might consider going to a site like Oldapps.com to find an older version of this free software.
Because of the “Wild West” nature of the Net (explained above), much of the secret to happy computing is simply being careful. A full review of the many “protection” packages available (most of which are free for the base version) is beyond the scope of this article. Plus, all of them—even the free ones—are massively intrusive and will often do things you don’t want.
One solution is to simply download the free versions of these two ultra-light programs from Malwarebytes.com:
“Malwarebytes Anti-Malware”: An on-demand malware scan, this company scrupulously avoids the term “virus,” but many users consider this both a virus and malware scan. (The on-demand version is free, but the company charges for real-time protection.)
“Malwarebytes Anti-Exploit”: Inspired by a developer’s project from Microsoft, the company is to be commended for creating software, which simply watches for hacks or exploits and locks them out in real time. This is a must-have if you are still using Windows “XP.” The free version protects only your browser and is not, for example, for PDFs and WMVs, which is where many hacks also hide. The premium version does that, though.
Suggestion: Turn Off Updaters
Another tip: unless you are using a piece of software in which you have 100% trust (essentially a contradiction in terms), turn off its auto-update and when you feel the need, you can attempt to update manually. Microsoft has of late become the “poster child” for turning the auto-update feature into a weapon with which to beat obtuse users into submission. I am referring not to their operating systems (a topic for another day), but rather to the once-beloved program “Skype,” the first mass-market VOIP app that Microsoft purchased and now controls. The auto-update process for Skype users is so brutal that some sites have actually compared it to malware. Typical of Microsoft, attempting to turn updates off via the normal interface turns out to be a “suggestion only” and the software will still download updates and nag you via popups. (Source: “Skype Updater Compared to Malware,” UpdateFreeze, last accessed July 25, 2016.)
Just a Taste…
The giveaways mentioned above are just a taste of what is out there. If properly used, they are not only useful but they can also improve your efficiency and save you time. If you like what you find, experiment on your own—using, of course, the preventative uninstallers mentioned above!