Blog Archives

Best of the Best: Hive Five Winners, October through December 2009 [Hive Five]

Our Hive Five asks readers to identify five of the best tools for any job, then vote for the absolute best. Here’s a look back at the winners from each week in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Every week we pose a question to you, the computer savvy readers of Lifehacker. Tirelessly we search for the next “Which is best?” question and through the hive mind we distill down your thousands of nominations into a list of the top five candidates. You vote on the best of the best and we return the next week to declare a champion.

The following list showcases the winners in each of the categories we covered in the fourth quarter of 2009. If a particular category catches your eye and you’d like to see the other contenders, click on the name of the category to jump to the original Hive Five post, clicking on the name of the winner will take you directly to the winner’s web site.

Best Twitter Client: TweetDeck


TweetDeck boasts the ability to monitor multiple social-networking services, in this case Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace. You can fight Twitter spam with a built-in spam monitor, follow topics with saved searches, and preview shortened URLs from within TweetDeck. You can use TweetDeck to manage multiple Twitter accounts from one interface and thanks to web-based TweetDeck accounts you can back up and sync your TweetDeck profile across multiple machines.

Best Weight-Management Tool: SparkPeople


SparkPeople is a comprehensive weight-loss web site. A free membership gives you access to a variety of nutritional information and calorie-tracking tools, weight-tracking tools, and the enormous SparkPeople community. Personal pages, like mini-blogs within the SparkPeople site, help you publish your progress and connect with other users who have similar goals. You’ll find no shortage of ways to track and analyze everything from the types of food you eat to the amount of weight you lift-and lose!-in the reports section of the site. SparkPeople is available in a scaled-down mobile version for use on your web-enabled phone or as an iPhone/iPod touch application.

Best Windows Task Manager Alternative: Process Explorer


Process Explorer is the free and portable offering from Microsoft. Process Explorer is like the standard task manager on steroids. You still get a list of processes, you still see charts of your usage, but both give you significantly more information and control over the information. Unlike the default manager, Process Explorer makes it easy to track down which file is being held by which program and get to the bottom of computer mysteries like why a certain DLL or DOC file simply cannot be deleted. It also shows which service is performing which function so you’ll never look at a long and repetitive list of Windows system executables that are indistinguishable from each other-every one will be associated with its function.

Best Software Update Tool: Synaptic/APT


The Advanced Packaging Tool, a.k.a. APT, is a free tool built into most Linux distributions and many variants that handles the installation, removal, and updating of software packages. APT is a tool that went a long way toward making Linux a bit friendlier to the masses who aren't comfortable installing or compiling software packages on Linux, but it runs from the command line, so it's still not all that friendly to folks joining Linux from the Windows or Mac worlds. That's where Synaptic comes in. Synaptic is a graphical front end to APT that makes the tool wildly more user-friendly, and—yes—it handles checking for and updating software with aplomb. (Folks using Ubuntu, <a href="the most popular Linux distribution among Lifehacker readers, take note: Synaptic will be replaced by the Ubuntu Software Center—another APT-powered update tool—in April of 2010.)

Best Portable Apps Suite: PortableApps Suite


PortableApps is the Grand Daddy of portable application sites. Between John Haller—the founder of the site—and the dozens of developers, packagers, translators, and the hundreds of people that participate in the forums, the sheer number of people working to polish the PortableApps suite has resulted in a very comprehensive package. The PortableApps suite includes basics like Firefox for browsing and Pidgin for instant messaging but also includes—in the full package—Open Office. You could download all the individual portable components separately of course, but what really ties everything together is the PortableApps menu system. Seen in the screenshot above, the menu system is clean, includes a backup utility, and makes organizing your portable apps and documents simple.

Best Application Dock: Windows 7 Taskbar


A long time coming, Windows finally enhanced the standard taskbar, creating a swanky dock system to call its own. Windows users trying out Windows 7 for the first time are in for an extra big treat-the change from the old taskbar system to the new dock is huge. You can drag and drop to pin shortcuts to the taskbar, Win+# (where the # is the numerical position of the pinned icon) launches the application, and icons also have jump lists associated with them—quick access to routine features and commands for that particular application. Hovering over the icon of a running application gives you a quick peek and the ability to jump to the application or close it. Microsoft was late to the dock party, but at least when they finally rolled it out, they remembered to decorate with streamers and bring a cake.

Best Antivirus Application: AVG


The free offering from AVG is one of the lightest, feature-wise, among the nominations in the anti-virus Hive Five. That said, if you’re looking for a basic antivirus application that will scan your computer, keep an eye out for spyware, and keep you from visiting malware and virus laden websites (via their LinkScanner protection), AVG is a solid free offering.

Best Online Backup Tool: Dropbox


Once you install Dropbox, a folder, appropriately called "My Dropbox", is placed in the Documents area of your computer. Anything you put into this folder will be synced with your Dropbox account. You can sync files, share files by making the folder they are in public, and restore a previous version of your file—Dropbox keeps a change log going back 30 days. All your files are also accessible via the Dropbox web site, which is great for those times you're at a computer where you don't have Dropbox installed, but you still want to access a document. If you want to sync a folder without putting it directly inside the main My Dropbox folder, you can do that with a little elbow grease, too. Dropbox doesn’t have an unlimited option like the rest, but if all you want to back up is your most important documents, it certainly works as off-site backup, and it provides data redundancy on every computer you install it on.

Best Screencasting Tool: CamStudio


CamStudio is a free and open-source offering for the screencasting market. You can record all or part of your screen, customize cursors and text annotations, adjust the quality of the video output, and save screencasts as AVI or SWF files. The interface is easy to understand, and you won’t be overwhelmed with extensive options. In a nutshell, it’s a free and effective tool for creating screencasts without a lot of bulk or expense.

Best Wishlist Tool: Amazon.com Universal Wishlist


Amazon's wishlist system used to only support items that Amazon or affiliates carried—which, while limited, still gave you access to a large stable of items. When they rolled out the Universal Wishlist and its accompanying Wishlist Button, however, you got the ease of use of the Amazon wishlist system plus the ability to add items to your list that Amazon.com doesn’t carry. Anything from any web site can now be added to your Amazon wishlists, both private and public, using the Wishlist Button. Creating and managing your Amazon wishlist is free.

Best Outlining Tool: Microsoft OneNote


OneNote is a note-taking and organization tool that many Lifehacker readers have called Microsoft's best product. It's versatile—it's made appearances here, in the best note-taking tools and journaling Hive Fives—and the outlining functionality is well integrated and easy to use. One of the strong points of outlining in OneNote is the way outlines support the same drag and drop rearranging found throughout OneNote. Almost every single element in a OneNote page can be dragged, dropped, or easily manipulated with a context menu—the screenshot above shows an element in the outline right before being dragged into a new slot. Note: If you’re curious about the GTD context in the screenshot, read our guide to getting things done with Microsoft OneNote.

Best Startup Management Tool: CCleaner


CCleaner isn't strictly a startup management tool. Most people use it to clean out cookies and other undesirable elements and to tidy up the registry. A secondary but helpful tool in CCleaner: it also allows you to delete entries from the startup file—hence its inclusion here. It's a bit of a one trick pony, though; you can't alter, tweak, or insert entries. You can only delete them. Still, it gets the job done if the task you want isn't advanced tweaking, but just to get that annoying program to stop popping up every time you reboot.


The last quarter of 2009 was filled with all sorts of useful tools and software to help you get things done. If reading over the list gave you an idea for the next great Hive Five topic, drop us a line at tips at lifehacker.com. Make sure to include Hive Five Idea in the subject so your idea gets forwarded to gnomes at mission control.






Back Up Any Smartphone’s Contents [Backup]

A lot of contacts, documents, text messages, games, and other data live on your smartphone, but manufacturers and service carriers aren’t going out of their way to make backing up easy. Gizmodo, however, has you covered on nearly any platform.

John Herrman runs down the best, easiest, and cheapest methods for backing up iPhones, Android units, BlackBerries, Windows Mobile, and Palm smartphones. Some involve backing up right to your computer’s hard drive (which you can then back up to an online service or elsewhere), while others drop your data onto SD cards or onto free or cheap web cloud storage space. Not every platform supports every kind of data backup, but most allow you to put enough aside that a lost, stolen, or memory-wiped phone wouldn’t cost you a whole day’s worth of re-configuring.

Hit the link for Gizmodo’s full guide. Got a better solution not mentioned there or around here? Tell us about it in the comments.






You’re Backing Up Your Data the Wrong Way [Backup]

Time and time again, people tell me that they’ve bought an external hard drive to back up their pictures, music, and documents. Great, right? Sadly, that’s not always the case.

There’s one simple rule about backups that everybody needs to fully understand: Your files should exist in at least Two places, or it's no longer a backup—and your data is at risk. Too often people delete the files from their primary PC, assuming they are backed up.

It’s time to educate people on proper backup strategy, so we’ll run through your options and talk about the pros and cons. These days, you’ve got plenty of choices on the Windows side of things, Mac users have Time Machine, and there’s online backup for anybody.

Backing Up to a Local Source

When it comes to local backup applications, it’s really a matter of preference, since most of them do the job adequately without a lot of fuss. The Backup and Restore application built into Windows 7 or Vista is a perfectly acceptable choice, and will handle most backups with ease. My personal choice is a paid version of SyncBack SE, but there’s plenty of other choices for Windows, and all of them do the job.

The most important thing to remember when backing up your data is that you can’t delete it from your main system once it’s been backed up to an external drive. By doing that, you’ve left yourself with only a single copy of your important files, on an external drive that has just as much chance of dying as your internal PC hard drive. Think it can’t happen to you? One of my external drives died last week.

Backing Up to an Online Source

There’s quite a few online backup services to choose from, and while the great thing about online backup is that you don’t have to deal with external drives, you’re leaving your data in somebody else’s hands, and restoring all of your files can take an extremely long time, since you’ll have to download all of the files again. If you don’t have a ton of personal files, online backup is a great choice, if you don’t mind putting your faith in somebody else to keep your data secure.

Backing Up a Total System Image

Without question, the easiest form of backup to restore from is a complete image of your system. We’ve already covered a list of the best free system restore tools, and Gina walked through how to hot image your PC hard drive with DriveImage XML, but if you really want an easy experience you might want to check out one of the paid tools like Acronis True Image.

These tools are the best way to recover from a total system failure, but they usually aren’t quite as easy to restore a single file from, which is a much more likely scenario. There’s been dozens of times that I’ve needed to restore an older version of a document, and was able to easily grab the previous version from Dropbox or my external drive.

What Should You Back Up?

When you’re backing up your files, there’s no reason to make a backup of every single thing on your hard drive-in fact, it would be a huge waste of space to back up your Windows folder if you have to reinstall the whole system in order to restore the backups again. Here’s a couple of pointers to help you choose what you really need to back up, and what you don’t:

  • Your entire Users folder: either at C:UsersUsername for Windows 7 or Vista, or C:Documents and Settings for Windows XP. This folder should contain all of your documents, settings, etc.
  • Your Data Folders: If you’ve created other data on your hard drives, you should include those as well.

What you don’t need to back up?

  • Your Program Files Folder: There’s simply no reason to back up your installed applications when they all have to be re-installed if you had to restore your machine. It’s a waste of space to do so.
  • Your Windows Folder: The only real good reason to back up your Windows folder is just in case you can’t find the same drivers again. On the other hand, there are any number of tools to back up your drivers, and you should do that once in a while instead of backing up the entire Windows folder.

Best Backup Strategy: Combo

Your best bet is to combine a number of different methods into your backup strategy.

  • Create a System Image: Use one of the many system restore tools to create a complete image of your PC, which will protect you in case of a catastrophic system failure. You’ll want to back this up to your external drive.
  • Use a Backup Tool: Just pick one, any one, and start using it. Back up your data to an external drive, another PC, or anywhere else. Just make sure you don’t delete the data from the primary PC.
  • Use an Online Backup for Important Files: Even though you are backing up to an external drive, you might want to start using something like Dropbox or Mozy to back up your most important files.

Just remember, all of your files need to be in at least Two places at once. You don’t want to get Journalspaced.


Do you always keep your data in more than one place? Share your backup strategy in the comments.

The How-To Geek backs up data to his Samba server with rsync’d drives. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.






Export All Your Google Docs to a ZIP File [Backup]

Google Docs has officially thrown open their data doors, allowing users to back up all their documents to whatever formats they choose and compressed into a ZIP file. It’s serious peace of mind for those concerned about the cloud.

The feature seemed to arrive very recently without any official blog post or explanation, but it seems to be working for more than just a select few testers. The only catch to using it is selecting all your files, as the Google Operating System blog explains. I frequently "hide" (or basically archive) documents I'm not using frequently, so I only had to head to the "Hidden" view in the left-hand view selector—those with more complex filing schemes should try the "All Items" view, or a wildcard asterisk search to pin down what they want.

Once you’ve selected or searched for what you want to export, you’ll have to scroll all the way down until all the documents are exposed, then hit the checkmark box to select them all. Finally, right-click somewhere in your selected docs, choose “Export,” and tell Google how to export your word, spreadsheet, and PDF files.

While you’re securing your Docs data somewhere other than on Google’s servers, take a peek at other free tools to back up online accounts—you'll feel a bit less tethered to the whims of various server administrators and account security representatives.

Google Docs Batch Export [Google Operating System via Digital Inspiration]






Make an Installation DVD from Windows 7 Student Upgrade [Backup Utilities]

If you grabbed a Windows 7 upgrade for $30 with a college email address, you might have discovered a file download instead of a DVD. The Download Squad blog details the transformation of that download into a bootable upgrade disc.

Not that your upgrade files wouldn’t work, per se, but making an upgrade based on a batch of files you download doesn’t leave you with much of a safety net if things go wrong. Download Squad’s method involves one command-line trick, one program download, and one file copy. It’s not too hard, especially for the price of having a fallback if you need to wipe your system or otherwise re-install it at some point.






Amahi Turns Old Systems into Full-Featured Media Servers [Downloads]

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could turn an old laptop or desktop into a media center that served and streamed movies, music, and files, and even backed up your other systems? With an Amahi installation, it’s not too hard.

Amahi is really a repository you add into an installation of the Fedora Linux system, but when you do, it gives that system a whole new look and purpose. From a web interface you can access from anywhere on your network, Amahi can organize and offer up access to movies, music (with streaming to iTunes and other players), photos, calendars, Outlook systems, and any old files you’re in need of. Amahi can also set up a VPN for your household network, giving you remote access to your files without too much more geeky configuration than the standard setup.

Amahi can run on pretty much any system that Fedora 10 can install on—that's about a 1.0 GHz processor and 256MB of RAM minimum. The developers are working on versions for Fedora 11 and Ubuntu, but for now, Fedora is just the base of home server that doesn't require an expensive license purchase or mastery of Linux to install. Free to download, works on any x86-based system.





FavBackup Backs Up and Restores Any Browser [Downloads]

Windows only: Portable backup utility FavBackup archives your settings, bookmarks, passwords, and more from any of the major browsers.

Using the utility is simple—just launch the no-install-required executable and go run through the wizard to backup or restore your browser profiles. The software handles backing up Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and even Opera—there are still a few restore glitches with IE and Opera, but it's a useful utility worth a look for anybody looking to transfer settings from one machine to another.

FavBackup is a free download for Windows only. For more, check out the five best Windows backup tools, the five best file syncing tools, or read about our first look at Windows 7′s backup and restore center.





FBackup Makes Backing Up Application Data Simpler [Downloads]

Windows only: Freeware backup software FBackup includes special plugins for most popular applications—so you don't have to worry about which files to backup anymore, it's all handled for you.

FBackup can do all the things standard backup applications can do: automated backups, zip compression, password protection, an easy wizard, and even backing up open files—but the killer feature is support for plugins that tell the backup application exactly which files to backup—an extremely useful feature for easily backing up hard-to-find files like the profile folders for Google Chrome, Pidgin, or even Opera without resorting to manually finding each location from deep within a hidden folder somewhere. Sure, you can always backup the entire contents of your drive to make sure you captured everything, but even with today's hard drive sizes that's still a waste of space.

FBackup is a free download for Windows only. For more, check out your five favorite Windows backup tools, take a look at the five best file syncing tools, or learn how to automatically backup your hard drive.





Lifehacker Pack 2009: Our List of Essential Free Mac Downloads [Downloads]

We’ve featured countless apps or all sorts over the years, but if you just want a quick look at the best free downloads for your Mac, this post’s for you. This is the 2009 Lifehacker Pack for Mac OS X.

Like our 2009 Lifehacker Pack for Windows (and its predecessor), the Mac version has the same goal in mind: to provide Mac lovers with a single, handy list of the best free applications that you’re likely to use on a regular basis.

Note: You can head directly to each application’s download page from the [Download] links and see what we originally wrote about them at the [LH Post] link.

Productivity

Internet/Communication

  • Firefox: All debates about security, memory use, or compatibility amongst the web browsers aside, Firefox can adapt to nearly anyone’s browsing habits through a range of adaptations. Whether that’s an extension/add-on (and here are our top 10 picks), a Greasemonkey script (again, our 10), or some deep-down about:config tweaks, Firefox can probably be what you want it to be. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Adium: Pronounced like “stadium”, Adium is a free, powerful multi-protocol instant messaging client that connects to everything from AIM and Google Talk to Facebook Chat, MySpace Chat, and everything in between. Adium is extremely customizable, works like a charm, and brings way more options to your chats than the OS X standard, iChat.
  • Postbox: If you’re not using your email’s web interface, use this. It’s basically Thunderbird, the open-source email client we’d previously included in our Lifehacker pack, but remixed with stronger, almost Gmail-like powers. It finds and indexes all the attachments in your email account, groups together conversations with similar subject chains with the “Gather” command (like Gmail’s conversations), offers tabbed inbox and message views, and lets you organize emails under your own chosen “Topics.” It’s also got built-in easy setup steps for Gmail and other webmail systems-in other words, everything we’re waiting to see Thunderbird implement. [Download] [LH Post]

Utilities

  • Unarchiver: OS X’s default Archive Utility handles a lot, but the first time you come across slightly more unusual (but still very common) archive types like RAR, you’ll notice it stumble. The Unarchiver handles ZIP, TAR, RAR, 7Z, StuffIt, and several more obscure archive types without flinching. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Transmission: The most popular BitTorrent client for OS X, Transmission rolls virtually every feature you’d want out of a good BitTorrent application into one clean, easy-to-use package. You can even remote control your BitTorrent downloads with Transmission, or get clever and start new BitTorrent downloads at home from any computer with Dropbox (mentioned below). [Download] [LH Post]
  • AppTrap: One of the best parts of OS X is that uninstalling an application is as simple as deleting it, right? Yes, but not exactly; often simply deleting the file leaves your computer with old junk files sitting around that used to belong to the application you just deleted. AppTrap automatically detects when you’re deleting an application, looks for associated files, and automatically deletes them for you along with the app in question. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Burn: OS X comes with Disk Utility—a very nice burning application plus some—out of the box, but it's often used only for more advanced ISO burning, disk formatting, and other heavy-lifting type activities. Burn, on the other hand, is a simple, user-friendly CD and DVD burning application that does data, audio, video, and disc copying with aplomb. [Download] [LH Post]

Multimedia

  • VLC – Got a video or audio file to play? VLC probably plays it. Don’t like how heavy Quicktime is? VLC is lighter. Want it free, working on any system, and have it show album art from your tracks? Done and done. [Download] [LH Post]
  • iTunes: We’ve seen stronger competition for your music management in OS X this year than ever, particularly with the recent release of Songbird, but right now you’re still better off sticking with iTunes on your Mac. Not only does it integrate seamlessly with your various iPods, but it also integrates with most of your Mac’s iLife applications and other Mac apps. So while you’d better watch out for the competition, iTunes, you’re still the favorite for music. [Download] [LH Post]

File Backups/Syncing

  • Dropbox: Put simply, Dropbox makes synchronizing your files across Windows, Mac, or Linux systems a very simple, almost magical process. Put a copy of what you're working on or want saved in your Dropbox folder, and it's synchronized to your account, which has 2GB to start with, and gets bigger if you recommend friends. When you're at another one of your own computers, your Dropbox updates and grabs those files. If you're at someone else's system or on a smartphone, head to Dropbox's mobile-friendly site and grab what you need. It's not quite a backup tool, but it is one of those utilities that makes a lot of old habits—thumb drive copying, CD burning, emailing attachments to yourself—seem unnecessary. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Mozy: If Dropbox is where you stash the stuff you're working on or enjoying at the moment, Mozy is the backup service that saves everything for when your system goes black on bootup. The free accounts for Macs (and PCs) offer 2GB of free online space, and with the really smart filtering tools, you can have Mozy crawl your whole system and back up financial documents, Excel sheets, and any file with "Steve" in it. If you spring for a monthly unlimited plan, Mozy is a smart whole-system saver—one that doesn't eat bandwidth when you're using it, and works when you're not working. [Download] [LH Post]

If you were to compare this pack of software with our Lifehacker Pack for Windows, you’ll notice a fair amount of overlap. That’s because, luckily for all of us, in many cases free, cross-platform software is thriving. In other instances, we didn’t include a Mac version because the system default is already a very solid choice. (For example, where we recommended Foxit Reader on Windows for lightweight PDF duties, we’d just suggest the built-in Preview in OS X). Other utilities, like Texter, don’t have a completely free Mac alternative (though we do very much like TextExpander, which has a free trial beyond which it turns nagware).

Things change daily in the world of free software, and we by no means believe that this list is absolutely definitive, so if you've got your own I-can't-believe-they-didn't-include-X must-haves, tell us all about them—and share any other thoughts on our list—in the comments. Happy downloading!





Lifehacker Pack 2009: Our List of Essential Free Windows Downloads [Downloads]

We feature downloads of all kinds every day at Lifehacker. Today, however, we’re bundling all the best free downloads for new computer owners, re-installers, would-be geeks, or anyone who wants to save time installing the best stuff out there. This is our 2009 Lifehacker Pack for Windows computers.

The idea is the same as when we first introduced the Lifehacker Pack more than three years ago—a single, handy list that we think improves the computer lives of Windows users. We're also providing a utility to download some or all of these applications at once—more on that after the list.

You can head directly to each application’s download page from the [Download] links following their write-ups, and see what Lifehacker originally wrote about them at the [LH Post] link. If there’s a portable version of an application that you can run off a thumb drive and/or test out without installing, we’ve linked to that at [Portable], or added a “+Portable” to the main download link.

Onto the list!


Productivity

  • Foxit Reader – Opens, save, and prints PDFs much faster and lighter than Adobe’s official reader, whether on your desktop or through your browser, and it won’t nag you every two hours to update it or its “components.” There are some down-sides, like how it asks to install a browser toolbar during installation, and some reported difficulties with multiple monitors. But if a document absolutely won’t work with anything but Adobe-sanctioned Reader, try Adobe Reader Lite, which cuts out all the “Maybe You’ll Also Like” add-ons and extras out of Adobe’s product and leaves just its basic rendering intact. [Download] [LH post]
  • Notepad++ – If you just want to write, save, and edit text, it’s hard to go wrong with Notepad++. This freebie offers tabbed file views, syntax coloring for those working in HTML or other code, and, as the name implies, does a whole lot of what most people wish Notepad did. If you want a free office suite that offers most of what Microsoft’s Office suite does, try OpenOffice.org. If you love working in the constantly-backed-up cloud, try the Zoho or Google Docs suites. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]
  • Texter – Whether you write code, write out the same address repeatedly, or constantly misspell a certain word, Lifehacker’s own text replacement app wakes up whenever you type certain phrases and then springs into action, saving you serious time and helping you avoid burdensome busy work. [Download (+Portable)]

Internet/Communication

  • Firefox – All debates about security, memory use, or compatibility amongst the web browsers aside, Firefox can adapt to nearly anyone’s browsing habits through a range of adaptations. Whether that’s an extension/add-on (and here are our top 10 picks), a Greasemonkey script (again, our 10), or some deep-down about:config tweaks, Firefox can probably be what you want it to be. Put down the Internet Explorer and slowly back away into a better web life. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]
  • Pidgin – Do you ever use AOL/AIM, Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Jabber, or even old-school IRC to chat online? Pidgin has you covered, and it’s got plenty of recommendable plug-ins. It can tab your chats in a single window, update you on new emails, and work inside most any smiley system out there (which has, oddly enough, become a notable issue). And while the up-and-coming IM app and-then-some Digsby has garnered a lot of users, its large footprint and questionable installation choices (it’s got a really unfriendly installer that tries installing a lot of adware) keep us firmly in the Pidgin camp for now. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]
  • Postbox – If you’re not using your email’s web interface, use this. It’s basically Thunderbird, the open-source email client we'd previously included in our Lifehacker pack, but remixed with stronger, almost Gmail-like powers. It finds and indexes all the attachments in your email account, groups together conversations with similar subject chains with the "Gather" command (like Gmail's conversations), offers tabbed inbox and message views, and lets you organize emails under your own chosen "Topics." It's also got built-in easy setup steps for Gmail and other webmail systems—in other words, everything we're waiting to see Thunderbird implement. [Download] [LH Post]

Utilities

  • 7-Zip – The fix-all archiving/un-zipping program. It basically fills in all the gaps in your system’s compression abilities. Multi-file RAR packages, Mac-formatted archives, and even ISO images can all be opened, and the right-click integration makes it all too easy to do so. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]
  • Everything – Does what you really want when you hit “Search” in Windows. It’s really tiny, doesn’t need to be installed if you don’t want, and searches for files across your system with the speed of a jackrabbit gone rogue on old-school cold medicine. Faster than that, really, and it makes finding and deleting file types, digging through your browser cache, and any other file search task far faster. We used to recommend Google Desktop for a system-wide search tool, and it certainly has its merits—including some neat gadgets for Gmail and Google Calendar—but, in most cases, you're not going to need to find a single word out of every single document on your system. You just want that apples.doc thing, wherever it is, and Everything finds it as fast as you can type it. [Download (+Portable)] [LH Post]
  • µTorrent – Also known as uTorrent. If you're a complete newcomer to BitTorrent, uTorrent makes it easy. Install it, and any torrent file you click on is automatically handled and grabbed by uTorrent, and saved in your Downloads folder, making a seemingly nerd-core activity as easy as opening an MP3.If you're a BitTorrent pro, you should know that uTorrent's features—remote control and download starting from the web, a phone, or using DropBox—truly set it apart. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Revo Uninstaller – Windows doesn't always remove everything that a program leaves behind—file folders, Start menu items, menu entries, you name it. Revo Uninstaller does. It runs a standard uninstaller, then it searches your system for everything the program changed or touched while it was installing. If you don't know the name of a program you want to kill off, or don't see it offered when Revo starts up, choose "Hunter Mode" and click on a window or message from that program. Got annoying programs that start up with your computer without permission? Yeah, Revo handles them too. It's like the software equivalent of bleach. [Download (+Portable)] [LH Post]
  • TeraCopy – Windows is slow, and occasionally fails, at copying large files, or just big batches of them. TeraCopy copies things between destinations faster, with more options on what to replace or skip based on file dates, and can actually be (gasp!) paused if you need to do something else while The Complete Works of Woody Allen are being transferred. [Download (+Portable)] [LH Post]
  • ImgBurn – It does just about everything you can possibly do with a CD, DVD, Blu-Ray or HD-DVD disc, and the image files that make them. Use this instead of the software that came with your system or add-on disc drive, because it can make music discs, data backups, video DVDs, and other projects with grace and speed, and all for free. [Download] [LH Post]


Photos & Video

  • Picasa – One of the few software recommendations that this editor’s wife, parents, and other relatives actually stick with after installation. Google’s free software indexes your computer’s pictures and makes them a snap to flick through, lightly edit without a Photoshop degree, and share through email or uploading to Picasa Web Albums (or an add-on button). Most important of all, it makes importing pictures from any digital camera a lot more intuitive than Windows’ own process. [Download] [LH Post]
  • VLC – Got a video or audio file to play? VLC probably plays it. Don’t like how naggy and heavy-running Windows Media Player is? VLC is lighter. Want it free, working on any system, and have it show album art from your tracks? Done and done. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]

Music

  • If you own an iPod or iPhone—iTunes – For seamless syncing between your iPhone or iPod devices and your music collection, it's hard to beat iTunes—which is, of course, Apple's intended outcome. There are other iPod-to-computer solutions, but none are really worry-free and seamlessly integrated with everything an iPod can do, including updates, album art transfers, and, in the case of iPhones and iPod touch models, backups. It’s not that bad a music manager, either, especially if you’ve got a huge collection or compatible Apple devices, like AirTunes-capable speakers. If you need it to do more, check out our picks for the 23 best iTunes add-ons. [Download] [LH Post]
  • No iPhone or iPod—Songbird – Like iTunes, except open-source, open to killer add-ons, and much more web-savvy—point it at a web page full of music, and it plays it like it's just really fancy playlist. It can, in fact, play Apple-formatted tracks with a (default) add-on, including any older, copy-protected songs you bought from iTunes, and manages non-iPhone/touch iPods fairly well, but you'll still need iTunes for restoring, upgrading, and backing up your device. For music in general, though, Songbird is a nice midway point between iTunes' big, big tent and a tight little open-source player. [Download] [LH Post]

File backups/syncing

  • DropBox – Put simply, DropBox makes synchronizing your files across Windows, Mac, or Linux systems a very simple, almost magical process. Put a copy of what you're working on or want saved in your DropBox folder, and it's synchronized to your account, which has 2GB to start with, and gets bigger if you recommend friends. When you're at another one of your own computers, your DropBox updates and grabs those files. If you're at someone else's system or on a smartphone, head to DropBox's mobile-friendly site and grab what you need. It's not quite a backup tool, but it is one of those utilities that makes a lot of old habits—thumb drive copying, CD burning, multi-email self-mailing—seem unnecessary. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Mozy – If DropBox is where you stash the stuff you’re working on or enjoying at the moment, Mozy is the backup service that saves everything for when your system goes black on bootup. The free accounts for PCs (and Macs) offer 2GB of free online space, and with the really smart filtering tools, you can have Mozy crawl your whole system and back up financial documents, Excel sheets, and any file with “Rick” in it. If you spring for a monthly unlimited plan, Mozy is a smart whole-system saver, one that doesn’t eat bandwidth when you’re using it, and works when you’re not working. [Download] [LH Post]

Security

  • KeePass – It’s where you keep your passwords, and create one password to track them all. It has lots of great plug-ins for your browser, other programs, and cool functionality. And it’s available for every platform, so you never have to fear losing all the secrecy you pour into its secure little well. [Download] [LH Post] [Portable]
  • AVG Free – We actually prefer versions of this free anti-virus app earlier than 8.0 for their, shall we say, more quiet and subtle operation. But it still does a good job of keeping up to date on the latest virus threats and protecting against them, when needed. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Spybot Search & Destroy – Just read through the list of what Spybot protects against—trackerware, info-tracking cookies, homepage hijackers, trojans, pop-up producers, keyloggers, advertising controllers—and you'll want to stop thinking about what a trip around the net leaves inside your system. Spybot is a tested and true veteran of the net annoyance wars, and has a support network of enthusiastic updaters. [Download] [LH Post]
  • Ad-Aware – It somewhat crosses over with Spybot’s protection, but if you (or a friend/relative) have a system that’s regularly filled with mysterious, malicious stuff, it’s never a bad idea to let Ad-Aware comb through and safely clean the cruft out. [Download] [LH Post]



Want to grab some or all of these applications at once to save a little time? We’ve created a Lifehacker Pack bundle that combines Phil Crosby‘s excellent InstallPad app and our own Lifehacker Pack as its default installation list.

To use it, download the Lifehacker Pack bundle, extract the two files from it into a folder or onto your desktop, and then run the InstallPad app; you’ll see our must-have list ready to download and install in a snap. You can un-check the apps you already have or don’t want, install apps individually, or mass install everything you’ve got checked with one click. We included everything in the InstallPad list except iTunes, Songbird, and the Mozy backup software; the former two because they’re somewhat of an either/or choice (at least in our list), and the latter because it requires a sign-up and registration to really install and use properly.

If you’re intrigued by InstallPad or want to customize your own pack, check out Gina’s feature on automatic InstallPad installation lists.

We’re certainly open to suggestions on what makes for the ultimate list of Windows freeware for anyone looking to get ahead on their computer. Give us your verdict on our list, and your own suggestions for a must-install list, in the comments. Happy downloading!





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