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The First 10 Free Apps to Install on a New Windows PC

The First 10 Free Apps to Install on a New Windows PC

 

The First 10 Free Apps to Install on a New WIndows PC

    It’s about that time for me again: my desktop is a couple years part its prime and my laptop just died (no display, no hard drive activity, no wifi, and a recent history of turning off suddenly for no good reason – those are all bad signs, right?), which means the near future holds a new PC for me. Which means a blank slate on which to impose my computer-using will.

    Setting up a new computer goes through five stages:

    • Denial: I’ve got a new computer. Nothing can go wrong now!
    • Anger: No, I don’t want to subscribe to AOL. No, I don’t want Norton updates. No, I don’t want a 60-day trial of Office 2007. There are HOW MANY security updates?!
    • Bargaining: I’d do anything to be able to use this thing!
    • Depression: I’ve been uninstalling Norton components for 17 hours now. If I have to restart the PC one more time, I swear I’ll kill myself… All I want to do is update Twitter!
    • Acceptance: OK, let’s install some good stuff now!

    Once you’ve installed all the updates, uninstalled all the crapware, entered your wifi password, and set your screensaver, it’s time to make that shiny new PC do stuff, and for me the doing starts with installing a pretty fixed list of free applications.

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    1. Panda Cloud Antivirus

    If you did the right thing and uninstalled Norton or McAfee (the two antivirus programs PC manufacturers get paid big bucks to include on their machines), the Windows Security Center will be bugging you about your system being unprotected. So, first order of business is to install a new antivirus. I used to use the free AVG Antivirus, but I’ve found that at some point – in every version of AVG I’ve used – it stops updating automatically. So a few months ago I decided to try Panda’s free Cloud Antivirus, and I’ve been very happy: updates happen in the background, files and problems are quietly taken care of, and it only ever bugs me if it needs my attention to decide what to do about a detected virus. This is the antivirus I’ve installed on all my family’s PCs, too, since it runs virtually undetected.

    2. Firefox

    IE8 is a big improvement over previous incarnations of Internet Explorer, but so is a husband who only beats you once a week instead of everyday. Frankly, I’ve had enough of IE. It’s still packed with the same annoyances as always, and its neat new features are so dense and obscure I don’t think anyone will make much use of them any time soon.

    Firefox, on the other hand, is by now like a comfortable pair of shoes – it works well, it makes sense, and it’s getting better and better. Sure, it takes up about a Godzilla-byte of memory, but other than that, it’s Good Software. And of course, it’s vastly extensible, making it not just a browser for me but a research tool (with the addition of plugins for Evernote and Zotero) and webmastering tool (with Scribefire and FireFTP plugins). The only real downside is that every update seems to break every extension – but at least it has extensions!

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    3. OpenOffice.org

    I own a copy of Office 2007 Pro (I got it free at an industry event) but I still install OpenOffice.org. (The dot-org is part of the software’s name, for reasons known only to the demons who inhabit the 6th level of software marketing Hell.) The free productivity suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator, database, and graphics editor – everything just about anyone needs to get work done. Some things it does better than MS Office, like handling bibliographic citations. Most things it does just as well. And it’s some $400 less than the comparable version of MS Office.

    4. Thunderbird

    Although Microsoft’s Outlook Express got a new name and a facelift in Vista, it remains the same piece of cr-… er, software it’s always been, with all its limitations. Outlook is great for businesses, but it’s overkill for most people – and can bog down even powerful systems. Mozilla’s Thunderbird occupies the “just right” chair, offering an interface similar to the Outlook/Outlook Express interface and plenty of power. Plus, like Firefox, you can customize its functionality with a wide range of plugins.

    5. Picasa

    You might have thought I’d have said “The GIMP” for a free graphics editor, but most people don’t need that kind of power. For organizing snapshots and applying the occasional red-eye reduction, color or contrast adjustment, and novelty effect, I like Picasa. The interface is easy to use, it integrates easily with Google’s web-based Picasa Web Albums service, allowing me to easily share photos or groups of photos, and it does basic photo editing tasks well.

    6. Skype

    In class yesterday I mentioned Skype and a student asked “What’s Skype"?” Only 2 of 10 students had heard of it! Oh, man – get Skype!!! Skype is a voice-over-Internet system that works, and works well. Voice or video calls to other Skype users are free, no matter where they are and where you are. The optional SkypeIn and SkypeOut services let you accept calls from and make calls to regular phones (landlines or mobile) for very reasonable rates – I think I pay about $60 a year for the complete package, which gives me unlimited calls anywhere in the US and Canada, unlimited incoming calls at my own phone number in my area code, and of course voice mail. I use it all the time, too, to interview sources for articles – and back when I was doing Lifehack Live, I used it occasionally to record my podcasts (using the CallGraph plugin, a free Skype call recorder).

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    7. VLC Media Player

    While it lacks the style and pizzazz of iTunes or Windows Media Player, VLC has those other media players beat hands-down for one good reason: it plays everything. Oddball video formats, open source audio codecs, Flash videos – whatever you have, chances are, VLC plays it. It has other features, too, but I never use them. For me, VLC is simply the must-have video player. There’s a portable version that can be run off a flash drive, too, which is handy for me since I often want to show videos in class and I’m not sure the machine provided will have the right codecs.

    8. Handbrake

    You want to put videos on your portable media player, you get Handbrake. It’s that simple. Handbrake is easy to use (a lot of video transcoding software forces you to deal with all sorts of questions about muxing, bitrates, and so on; handbrake has a bunch of presets, although more advanced control is there if you need it). Handbrake works with DVDs or video on your hard drive, so whatever the source, you can likely get it onto your Zune (or even iPod if you’re one of the few that owns one).

    (OK, give a guy a break – it’s funny!)

    9. Digsby or Pidgin

    What instant messaging network is everyone you would ever want to chat with on? Wait, you mean, they’re not all on the same network? Where do you live, reality?!

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    If you do live in reality and your friends, family, and other contacts are scattered across several different IM networks, you’ll want to install either Digsby or Pidgin, both of which are fine IM clients that hook up to most of the available IM networks. I use Digsby, because I like the way I can theme the interface (with big, chunky text for my old eyes!), and because it includes Facebook support, which Pidgin doesn’t (but Pidgin works with a lot of networks Digsby doesn’t support – it’s a question of which ones you want or need to use). In both, you can log into all your IM networks at the same time, and see all your contacts regardless of which network they’re on.

    10. CDBurnerXP

    CDBurnerXP is neither limited to burning CDs not limited to systems running Windows XP. Go figure. Anyway, it burns CDs and DVDs, including Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs, ISOs and other disc images – heck, it even supports LightScribe! A great substitute for expensive (and notoriously bug-prone) Nero and Roxio suites if neither came with your computer.

    Once I’ve installed those 10 apps, I’ve got a pretty good system set up, and I’m ready to get to work. What about you? What free software is at the top of your list when you’re setting up a new system? Let us know in the comments.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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