If you’re just looking for a list of free software to install on your computer, I’ve created a Springpad notebook full of links to my favorites. If I find anything else to add, I’ll put it there.
I want to start out by saying that I am just a guy. I wasn’t paid to write any of this, I don’t work for any of the companies mentioned, and these are all just my opinions. If any of the mentioned companies wanted to pay me because I wrote all these nice things about them, I’d be willing to talk to them about an arrangement. 😉
Having said that, here are the chronicles of my recent adventure procuring and setting up my new laptop. I’m going to break this down into three separate categories: Hardware, Pre-installed Software you Don’t Need, and Free Software you Might Need. Lucky for you, I’m all about free, open-source and simplicity; so the only part that I spent money on was the hardware.
I’ve designed this as a sort of guide to assist YOU in purchasing and setting up a new computer. People are always looking at my glasses. After they get a good look at my glasses, they say, “Hey, I need a new computer. What kind should I get?” People with new computers are always asking me, “Is it better to just use Internet Explorer, or should I get one of those new browsers?” Also, it has been my own experience that just using all of the default software (that ships with the system) for document editing, virus handling, and many other tasks is a bad idea. So, here are all of my answers and tips in one place. This may not be the definitive guide to getting a new computer, but it is MY definitive guide for those who need it.
So, without further chit-chat, let’s look at your hardware options.
This one’s easier than you might be inclined to believe. Sure there are a lot of choices, but it all comes down to what you want to use the computer for.
The computer I wanted this time around was a laptop I could actually take places. Last time I got a laptop (over five years ago) it weighed ten pounds, it was more of a desktop replacement and cost me over two thousand dollars. Now I’ve got a desktop, and I wanted an inexpensive computer that could go places with me AND do stuff. I’ve got an Asus eee PC (a netbook), but that thing can’t really do stuff. I mean, it can do some stuff (I use it for NaNoWriMo every year), but it’s a little wimpy when it comes to multitasking and other processor/RAM intensive activities.
The Argument for Desktops
First, if you’ve got the space for it and you don’t need to move it, get a desktop. Laptops have really gone down in price lately, but an equivalent (as far as hardware and capabilities) desktop will always cost less than its laptop counterpart (as of this writing).
Desktops have the greatest range in options as well. You can get a cheap-o system that is really only good for running your web browser and a word processor for under a hundred dollars, or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for systems that can perform at speeds rivaling supercomputers. No matter what you’ll be using the desktop for, you can always find a system that perfectly meets your needs without spending more than you have to. Always.
The first step in selecting a desktop is to imagine yourself using that computer for the next two years. What will you use it for? Do you play many games? You might need to spend more for a system that will be compatible with future game releases. Will you be hooking it up to your TV to watch shows and movies? There are a lot of media center pc options. If you’re a Mac person (which, I might be if I had more money), you might want an Apple TV rather than a new computer.
Just decide what you’ll need the computer to be able to do, and consider these simple guidelines (which, unless you’re a “power user,” will more than cover the basics). I don’t need to say it, but if you know enough about computers to know that these guidelines aren’t comprehensive, then these guidelines weren’t written for you.
- RAM – For most users, this is arguably the most important decision. More RAM means faster, smoother, more powerful computing. You want to open and use every program installed on your computer at the same time? You need lots of RAM. Will you only do one thing at a time for the rest of the time you own the computer? You can get by with 2 Gigs or less (depending on that one program you’ll be running!).
- Operating System Bits – Related to RAM, but separate, is the operating system you’ll be using. Right away I have to mention that a 32 bit operating system cannot handle a full 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and certainly not more. If you will want 4 Gigs or more of RAM, you’ll need a 64 bit OS. Otherwise, 32 vs 64 bits will not have much of an impact on you.
- Operating System Flavor – Which OS you choose will depend on many factors, but at the risk of bringing on hoards of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and simplify things this way: If you’re lost when it comes to choosing your operating system, just get Windows 7. Sure, Macs are simple, but getting software for them can be a hassle. Windows may have a poor track-record when it comes to stability and ease of use, but I’m putting a lot of faith in Windows 7, and I think it’s a safe choice for YOU. If you know you want a Mac though, please get it!
- Processor – When it comes to desktops, you’re really only going to concern yourself with how many cores and processors you want. Adding processors and cores means better ability to process multiple instructions at a time (translating to blazing speed and excellent multitasking), while a single core on a single processor will more than meet the needs of most users. Don’t get the fancy processor set-up unless you know you need it. For most modern operating systems and software, though, I recommend at least a single processor with dual cores. More than that and you’d better be doing some serious video editing or 3D graphics (like games).
- Hard Drive – If you’re doing video editing or if you’re archiving your DVD collection on the hard drive, get something huge. If you’re just surfing the Internet and writing papers in Word, you don’t need much hard drive space. Even the smallest hard drives shipping these days are more than ample for the average user. Note that media center systems should have more hard drive space to store videos or recorded television.
Sure, there are more factors than just these to consider, but if you’re not a power user who already knows about the other factors, then you don’t need to worry about them. What you don’t know can’t hurt you here.
The only other thing I would caution is to avoid brands you’re not familiar with and be wary of prices that are significantly lower than competing systems with similar capabilities. Your desktop shouldn’t be too expensive, but don’t be a cheapskate once you know what you want. Just pay what the trusted manufacturers are charging.
I currently use a first generation HP TouchSmart for my desktop, and it’s held up very well in the two years we’ve owned it. Both of my laptops are Toshibas, and we love them. Namebrand systems are always a good bet.
Where Desktops Fail
The only problem with a desktop is that it is not very portable. Sure, some of the newer CPU box form-factors (especially in the case of media center computers) are very small and lightweight. However, the screen and input devices are not built in, thus to use the system it must be hooked up to these things, and to move it you have to unplug everything. Convenient? No.
So what if you really need something you can take to class with you? You need either a laptop or a netbook. Can’t decide which one? Consider this:
I thought I could get a netbook and do the same things with it as I do with my laptop. I was wrong. Even with a full size keyboard attached and an external mouse, the netbook screens are too small to be practical in a number of applications. For a true, natural computing experience, you’ll still want a larger system. They make laptops that are much closer in size (and price) to netbooks, but they are much more convenient. If you’re not sure about getting a netbook, don’t. Just go for a smaller laptop. I promise you’ll be happy with it.
If you know you want a netbook, get it. If you’re not sure, don’t. You’ve got to be committed to liking your netbook, or you’re going to hate it.
Other than the netbook vs laptop decision, there isn’t a whole lot more to think about. How portable do you want it? There are a range of sizes from 13 inches to over 18 inches for screens. Some are less than an inch thin, and others have huge 12 cell batteries that lift them about three inches off your table top. Some run hot from having their hardware crammed in to a small space, while others have minimal hardware configurations and are quiet and cool. Again, the considerations for desktops will all hold true for laptops, but you might want to consider the following IN ADDITION to the desktop suggestions:
- Overall Size – You’re getting a laptop because a desktop isn’t portable enough for you, but how portable do you need your laptop to be? If you are still just going to leave it set up in one place for long periods of time, you might consider a larger desktop replacement laptop. These systems offer the same performance as a desktop, at often competitive prices, but at the end of the day the screen folds up and you can pack it away in a bag. Expect these to weigh close to ten pounds though! Then there are the ultra portables that weigh in at under five pounds (mine weighs like three pounds!). Keep in mind that a netbook can weigh close to one pound, but you’ve already decided you want a laptop, right?
- Battery Size/Usage – Some laptops these days are being designed as marathon machines. They can squeeze almost a full day of usage out of a single charge, but that efficiency comes at a price (both in dollars and performance). Most laptops are designed to fully contain a six cell battery, but by doubling the number of cells to twelve (and subsequently, increasing the size of the battery pack itself, causing it to protrude out the back or bottom of the computer), you can double the life of the battery. Also, Intel and AMD make processors specifically designed to use less power. They usually run at far less than 2 Gigahertz, and they cannot handle too many big tasks like gaming and video editing as well. You could try, but if that’s what you need the system for (primarily) you’ll just have to charge the system more often.
- USB Ports – If you use a lot of devices at once, you’ll need at least three USB ports. I always recommend using an external keyboard and mouse with a laptop whenever possible simply because they can be replaced much easier than the built-in devices. The less you use them, the less likely they are to break. So, with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, you will want to have at least one more USB port for external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras or whatever else tickles your fancy. A few laptops only have two ports (one on each side), most have three, and a few have up to five USB ports. Get as many as you can without spending too much just for that feature. Also keep in mind that some USB devices have a special “Y” shaped cable that plugs into two USB ports. If you might need one of these devices, you’ll want a laptop with two USB ports that are close together, not one on each side.
In my most recent purchase, I wanted something far more portable than my old laptop but more capable than a netbook. I went with a Toshiba Satellite, ultra thin system. This particular system (like most ultra thin, lightweight systems) does not have an optical drive (no DVD or CD drive). That wasn’t an issue for me because I knew that all of the software I could ever need I was going to download for free once I got it connected to the Internet. If you install a lot of software from disks but still want a system like mine, there are some great external drives that will meet your needs. I may end up getting one too so I can watch movies on my laptop, but for now I’m fine without an optical drive.
The final hardware consideration is, what else do you need? Some people need lots of storage but end up choosing a laptop with a smaller hard drive. In that case, just get an external hard drive. Do you transfer a lot of files between systems? Get a thumb drive. Actually, I recommend that people get thumb drives even if they don’t need them for transferring files. They make a great place to keep backups of your most important files.
The only thing I know you’ll need if you got a laptop is a mouse and keyboard. There’s no getting around it – using the laptop keyboard puts wear on it that could eventually require maintenance. If you use an external keyboard, and it breaks, you can just unplug it and get another one. My favorite typing keyboard ever (that I’ve used anyhow) is the Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It currently sells for $13.99 on Amazon.com, it is comfortable, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I love it.
I do recommend spending a little more for your external mouse though. Touch pads are great for basic navigation and occasional clicking, but nothing beats a scroll wheel on the Internet, and when doing graphics work or gaming you just can’t live without a mouse. My current favorite is the Microsoft Explorer series. Specifically, my wife and I love our Explorer Mini mice. Amazon.com sells them for about $40, they retail for about $60, and there is currently a vendor on Amazon that is selling them for under $20 (with $4 shipping). The great thing about the Explorer mice is that they will track on literally anything but glass and mirrors (although in some tests these mice have actually tracked on glass and mirrors!). We can use them on shag carpet, glossy surfaces, pitted surfaces, hair, clothing, anything at all, and more. If you want a great mouse, Microsoft actually has a great product.
PRE-INSTALLED SOFTWARE YOU DON’T NEED
All computers come with what is lovingly called “bloat-ware.” This is software that people pay the manufacturer to include pre-installed from the factory. In some ways I guess it’s good because I’d like to think that the money they earn from that endeavor goes toward keeping costs lower for me, but I rather doubt it.
Anyhow, the first program I highly suggest you uninstall (if it’s installed) is Norton Anti-Virus. Many computers come with it pre-installed along with an offer for a whole year or month or day of free updates. It’s not worth it. Microsoft has a free program you can download right away that does the same thing (well, roughly the same thing).
To get rid of Norton (or any program, for that matter), just go to the control panel and look for “Add/Remove Programs” or something like that. Find the offender, click “uninstall,” and follow the directions. Most virus protection software will require that you restart after removing it. That’s OK.
Now, I don’t recommend you leave your computer virus-protection-free for long. It is a dangerous thing. So once you’ve finished uninstalling the crud you don’t need, make sure you immediately download the “essential” software I have listed below, in the order I’ve listed them.
First though, look for any programs that say “offer” or “setup” next to them and get rid of them (still in the Add/Remove Software tool). Also, some systems (most Toshibas and HPs) come with some kind of game portal that you should get rid of.
Many people will tell you to get rid of a lot more than this, but it’s not always necessary. After you’ve been using the computer for a month or so, go back to the Add/Remove Software tool and look over the list. If you recognize the program and you know you use it a lot, don’t get rid of it. If you recognize it and you know you don’t use it a lot, get rid of it (just make sure you know what it does first!). Everything else is probably OK to leave installed.
FREE SOFTWARE YOU MIGHT NEED
Some of these are more essential than others. I’ll categorize them to simplify this. In some cases it won’t matter what program you get as long as you get something that does the job. So, if you’re ready to get started, open Internet Explorer (unless your system came with another browser pre-installed, in which case you should DEFINITELY use the other one!).
Note: This list is designed for Windows users ONLY. Many of these programs are cross platform, but I’m not going to say which ones because I’m not making this list for Mac users. Sorry guys. Maybe another time.
These are programs that you will need to get – almost everyone needs these programs. Right away, before downloading anything, you need virus protection!
- Virus Protection – Search for “Microsoft Security Essentials,” or go to http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/. Click on the big “Download Now” button, save the executable and run it. Make sure you have already removed any virus protection that shipped with your computer, then close your web browser while the program installs. Once it installs make sure it runs OK, then let it scan your system. Depending on the size of your hard drive, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Since this is the first thing you’re doing on your new system, everything should be clean. After it scans your system, you may proceed with this list.
- New Browser – DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Sure, there are a lot of sites that require it, but I can show you how to get around that later. For now, just download one or both of the following browsers and try them out. You won’t miss Internet Explorer after a few days. I promise. My favorite is Google Chrome, but I was once a die-hard Firefox fan (I even have an embroidered FireFox shirt). They are both worlds better than IE, more secure, faster, and prettier. While I might catch some heat for this, I am going to recommend that you just get Google Chrome. It’s better. Once you’ve downloaded and selected a new browser, close Internet Explorer and never open it again (unless you really have to).
- Free Office Software – While there are a few options for this, my favorite (and arguably the most user friendly and robust) is OpenOffice.org. Just go to their website in your new, shiny browser, and download. It’s that easy. The installation is easy and the program operates a lot like Microsoft Office. There are some differences, but OpenOffice.org can do just about anything Microsoft Office can do, and in some cases it does it better. If you ever find that OpenOffice.org just isn’t meeting your needs, feel free to go back to the Microsoft version, but I don’t think most people will ever need to.
- Media Player – Windows Media Player is pretty good, but there are a lot of things it can’t handle. For everything else, there’s VLC. VLC can’t do everything, but I’ve never found a video it couldn’t play.
- Photo Organizer – Since most people maintain some kind of image collection (from digital cameras, web graphics, etc.), you’ll probably want a good program to organize and lightly edit those photos. Google Picasa is a great product that is completely free and I recommend it to everyone.
Those, to me, represent the bare-bones necessities for a new computer. If you get nothing else, make sure you get those things. The remainder of my list is specific to my needs and wants, based on what I want to use the computer for. If you know of other great free programs that aren’t listed here, please add them in the comments.
- Dropbox – This is a really cool file program. It creates a special folder that automatically backs itself up online any time you add or change files in the folder. If you install Dropbox on other computers and link them with your account, Dropbox will synchronize all of the folders across all of the computers and devices you have Dropbox installed on. I love it.
- Notepad ++ – If you do any web development or coding the old fashioned way (in notepad) you might want to try Notepad ++. I found this little gem several years ago and have installed it on all of my computers ever since.
- Skype – For video calls and VoIP, my favorite is still Skype. We’ve been using it for quite a while now and we love it.
- Google Talk – Actually, I didn’t download the Talk program, I installed the Video and Voice plug-in. While most of our video chats are handled over Skype, we have more friends with Google accounts than Skype accounts. With this plug-in, I can have a video call with any Google Talk contact who is also using the plug-in or the desktop client. I’ve only done it once, and it was a long time ago, but this is a valuable thing to have on standby.
- Google Earth – There’s nothing cooler than exploring your planet in 3D with a nearly infinitely scalable, detailed and textured model with Google Maps plastered all over it. This is as fun as it is useful.
- Google SketchUp – I am a bit of a 3D hobbyist, and SketchUp is a great way to rapidly visualize a model. It’s a wildly different experience from most of the 3D software I’ve used, but once I got the hang of it I realize it was easier and more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever tried. Plus, it’s free!
- Blender – On the subject of 3D, how does a free 3D program with advanced features sound? SketchUp may be easy and fast, but it’s not anywhere near Blender’s level. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Blender is extremely un-intuitive to learn. However, I’ve seen what it can do, and I’m impressed enough to trudge over the learning curve and figure it out.
- Paint.NET – If I’m going to make awesome 3D images in Blender, I’ll need software like Photoshop to make textures, composites, do touch-ups, and more. Windows Paint won’t do any of that. In fact, Paint is nearly useless. Luckily, there’s a better Paint. This program can do layers, adjustments, transparency and even some cool effects. Sure, there’s a lot that it can’t do, but it’s free. If it does what you need it to then you’ve lost nothing, right? I even made the cover for my new book entirely in Paint.NET.
- Inkscape – Paint.NET can handle most of my 2D needs, but it is primarily for raster images (bitmaps). For vector images, I love Inkscape. It’s relatively easy to learn, and it can handle almost anything you can dream up.
- GIMP – Many people believe GIMP capable of anything Photoshop can do. I don’t agree, but I do think GIMP is better than Paint.NET for more advanced jobs. A lot like Blender, I find GIMP hard to learn, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I want to learn it so I can see how long I can live without Photoshop. Someday I’ll be rich and it won’t matter. Until then, I’ll be struggling with GIMP.
- WavePad – I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a free audio editing tool that I hope will allow me to make simple audio tracks for animations or an audio book. We shall see. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll write a review (and link to it from here).
- VideoPad – Like WavePad, I downloaded this to see if it would be suitable for creating simple promotional or family videos. I just want to be able to cut scenes together, edit things out and add simple effects. If this program is a winner, I’ll write a review.
I hope this helped. As I use my system and learn more about what programs are meeting my needs and which ones I don’t have that could help, I may modify this list.
I’m 100% sure of all of the hardware tips though, as well as the “essential software” bit. The important thing to remember is that there are hundreds of thousands of free programs out there that you can find that will do the same things that more expensive software can do. Look to the free stuff first, and if it doesn’t work out, pay for what you need.
Good luck and happy computing!