The personal computer era has been around for a while, for those that have missed the memo, and during that time the consumers have had very little say in the direction this industry has headed. What I mean by that is that we, as consumers did not get a say as to when advancements were needed or even wanted. We would make our purchase and suddenly 6 months to a year later find out that we “needed” to buy again. The good news for consumers however, is that over the last couple of years that has changed. The technology has been forced to slow down by more clearly defined consumer demands and software jumping off the hardware bandwagon and working with consumers instead of hardware companies to figure out what the next product needs to have.
The good news is many of the tech companies out there have figure out this shift in the way business is done and have begun to adapt. They have changed the business model from telling consumers what they want to instead listing to what consumers want. However a few old die-hards have decided that they know best and we should listen to them, drink what they tell us as it were.
We can see some of this in todays offerings for consumer level computers. We could start with Apple and spend the entire article there, this is basically their business model and always has been. However I think we should instead focus on Microsoft. Windows 8 is an old story so I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about the OS itself. I have covered that pretty well I think and if you missed the three articles I did on it feel free to browse the archives and read them. However I will focus on their efforts to change the way we look at a computer.
Now let me explain this a bit before I make my point. You see Microsoft has always made an effort to help define the image of a what people see as a personal computer. It was after all in their best interest to exercise some level of control in this area. However up until recently that control has been a quiet guiding hand. To use the popular phrase, they led us to water but never forced us to drink. That however has begun to change.
Microsoft has launched a number of sites that are supposed to be designed to help the lay people, such as many of you, make a good choice when it comes to getting a new PC. On the surface this sounds like a great idea, something to help people see the choices they have and help them make solid decisions. We do this all the time on the show and people find it helpful. That would be good it did offer real choices. Every one of these setups I have looked at only offer laptops, tablets or all in one systems. Now this would not be bad except many of these recommendations are being listed as good for gaming. NONE of the recommendations I saw would make a good gaming PC for any but the most casual gamer. Also what about other form factors?
Thing this is just because of the move to Windows 8? You would be wrong, this started before that. Go back and look at the various Windows commercials were Microsoft talks about helping people buy a new PC. Every one of them were laptop and all in one models. You did not even seen an HTPC or tower configuration system in the videos.
One of the things I have always loved about the PC and the PC world is the freedom of choice. You can have a PC that is HUGE or tiny. One that is designed for pure hard core gaming or design for only light web browsing. Companies would offer us a range of choices, often to our dismay because we had so many but still we had choices. Over the years as the focus has shifted from hardware to software we have seen those choices diminish, not in a bad way. We have found that the budget system, at least the cost of it we used to pay, now buys us a more powerful machine. This has caused some overlap in the type of PC we buy but that is a natural progression. A natural change to the way we see PCs might not be something we like but I for one can accept it. However when we see companies that have traditionally let the market direct the path with them offering gentle nudges, switch to heavy handed tactics of forcing a direction, this is a problem to me.
Is our hobby moving to smaller form factors, well of course it is, I mean why do you think our build series is looking at ITX designs? However we can make this move in a way that does not limit our choices. Small Form factor of today is not the same as yesterday. Heck even yesterday was not that bad. Back in 2008 when enthusiasts said you needed a full tower to build a “real” gaming rig, I did a build we called the Itsy Bitsy Might Spider. This was a full powered gaming rig built in a micro ATX case. Now we see the move to even smaller, but the key here is that we can make this move without making a sacrifice. That is not the choice given to us today by some in the industry.
This of course is all my opinion and I would love to hear your opinions on this subject. Email in your comments or post them here under comments for this entry. Any comments of course might be used on the air for further discussion on this topic.
With well over a month plus of full time use in Windows 8 by not just myself but my entire family I felt we would end the year with a look at our impressions. This was not a review sampling like most Windows 8 articles where the reviewer spent time in a controlled use to evaluate. This is letting a geek, a non geek and an 8 year old as well as my two very non-geek 20+ year old kids spend time using their computers with nothing but Windows 8 and talking to them about their experiences. Microsoft is claiming with their statistics and focus groups that people are getting use to it, lets see how that is working in the real world.
We begin with my wife Lisa, a computer user, even a pretty serious computer gamer but not a geek by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I would say with the exception of her gaming she is pretty close to a typical user. She uses the computer to check email, look at news, spends time of Facebook, does her banking and listens to music.
When we talked about her experiences with Windows 8, she told me how at first glance it looked like a better way to use Windows. She likes the fact that the programs she wants to use is easy to find, right in front of here, not a small icon that gets lost in a cluttered desktop or the start menu. She then explained that while it looked easier to her it did not feel that way. You see almost everything she does on her computer makes use of programs that drop her back to the desktop, she told me it feels like the computer has to take an extra step to function. Then of course when she closes the program she has to take the extra step to get the computer back to the Start screen.
Since one of her primary uses is the Internet, I asked why she was not using IE in the new interface. She explained to me that it felt odd, it was harder for her to access her bookmarks or even just make quick choices in internet browsing, she did however like IE10 in it’s desktop version and that is her browser of choice. In fact of the two apps for the new interface that she does use she has issues. The first is the mail app which she has all but abandon. She feels it is just a crappy program that is hard for her to use, she finds just going to the new Outlook.com site is much easier for her. She also makes use of the news app which she likes the idea behind but hates the way it works. She told me it feels to closed since it lacks the ability for you to add your own news sources, limited to just what MS choice for you. She also hated the fact it is hard to share what you find. The app kind of “pens you in to what they want you to see” we her words. She hates that she cannot print an article or easily email it to someone.
We talked a little about SkyDrive and she does like the new system. She loves how easy it is for her to share pictures with family. No more mailing out the same think 10 times or hoping the people you want to see them uses Facebook. She just shares a folder and emails everyone the linking letting them pic what they want to download. Again however she saw no need for the app, saying it seemed easier for her to work with through the browser right at the site.
I then asked if she wanted me to put her back on Windows 7. “No, I am finally getting used to this and can work with it as it is. Overall it does the job and I do like the new look better.”
Next up is my 8 year old Raymond. Raymond does not care about how a computer works or what an OS does, he wants one thing, to play his games. He loves some of the game apps we have found like Jetpack Joyride, ARMED! and Pinball FX2. However, like his mom he does not like the fact that his favorite games such as Minecraft, Pirates 101 and Age of Empires Online require him to figure out how to get back to start when he is done playing. Even after more than a month of use he gets lost sometimes at the desktop.
My two older girls are also making use of Windows 8 when they come over and have mixed feelings. My oldest daughter uses IE in the new interface and likes it but then again she only goes to Facebook and that is it. She also likes the mail and people apps that show her updates without her having to go look for them. Another feature she likes is the profile sharing system used in Windows 8. She can use her computer at home or the system at my house and her basic information, the stuff she really needs follows her.
The younger of the two girls is a photo buff and she is not thrilled with Windows 8. Again as we have heard from others she likes the new look but she hates the default photo viewer. She does like the fact it ties in her various photo storage locations and accounts but for her the default viewer is to limited and just not easy to make use of beyond seeing a picture. She would have preferred they take the work they did with the photo viewer in Live Essentials and used it here instead. As for her web use, like her sister she is content with using the new interface version of IE 10 but again she really goes to Facebook and maybe some YouTube but that is about it.
The screen shown at the start of this entry is my Start Screen. As you can see about half of the icons on the screen link back to programs that go to desktop mode. That half BTW is about 80% of my computer use. I have found I loathe the new interface version of IE, the icon is just there and never gets hit. I hate the new email program but because I have five different addresses I need to stay in constant contact with I use it. It gets the job done but that is the only good thing I can say about it.
Of the new interface apps I do like the news app is near the top of my list. I agree with my wife that I would like to add a few more sources that I have found over the years but overall I get a pretty good source selection from the defaults. It is easy to give me a customized news feed, even if I want something less worldly like the local high school news. I can tell you I use this app every day to look for news stories for the show and just to keep up on what is going on in the world. I wish it would allow me to easily print a story but that is the only shortcoming for my use.
I have found an app that I am putting a lot of use into and that is the My Plate app, which does a solid job of helping me track what I eat so I can eat smarter. While not a default app it is free and shows that there are some good app ideas out there for using this interface. The truth however is that I spend about 90% of my computer use time on the Desktop and as I said over a month ago I hate the kludgy feel of having to take the extra step to get back to the Start Screen.
Since I am a geek I also look at more than the interface. Windows 8 is leaning, meaner and faster as an OS than Windows 7 and it shows as you use the computer. Every task I do has more snap to it. I really love the changes to the file Explorer, especially the information you get when doing file moving and the ability to pause a big file move if you need to. The built in security software may not be winning awards or be the most powerful but I have found it solid enough for everyday use. Out of all the families computers there have been zero malware infections in about a month and a half and trust me, not everyone in this family is wise about what they install or the sites they visit.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that Microsoft is saying their information tells them people are getting used to the new Windows, I think they are correct. However unlike them I think this is NOT a good thing. The entire family loves the look and idea behind the new interface, however all of us also hate the fact that using a Desktop app is not seamless and is actually clunky in the way it works. What they are really getting used to is not so much the new interface, that is actually pretty easy, but rather having their OS not work like it should. We are working around a problem, not liking what We have.
None of the kids nor my wife want to give up Windows 8 but not because it is awesome and super, but rather because they do not want the hassle of going back. They like some of Windows 8 and the stuff they do not like they can work around easier than having to redo the system. I know people from MS are probably not reading this but they should, THIS is what people are getting used too.
In the end I guess the question is, would I recommend Windows 8? The answer is not a simple yes or no. If you are a Facebook user, basically you go on Facebook, check emails and maybe listen to some music or watch a show then yes. I think Windows 8 offers for that type of user a very clean and easy to use interface and a great computing experience. If however you use your computer for more and often use programs that will require a drop to desktop then I would say no. The new interface is intriguing but if you are not going to use it then the cost of the upgrade is not justified. Even at the current low price it is now.
Microsoft wanted to do something new, to put some freshness back into Windows and I applaud them for their effort. However at the end of the day while they may have succeeded they did so at the bare minimum and that is just sad. With only a little tweaking Windows 8 could have been a solid if not marginally compelling upgrade, what they delivered fell short of that goal. What makes it even worse is Microsoft seems to know this. Look at the Windows 8 ads, they are all glitz and show but never give you anything that says I need to get Windows 8. Then look at the new Windows Phone ads, these have some substance and show us why Windows Phone is a good choice. It is pretty obvious from this that Microsoft is more comfortable telling us about the Phone than the PC OS.
You will notice I did not spend time talking about touch screens. The reason is simple, most of us do not have them on our PC and I do not think most want them. My conclusions have nothing to do with touch devices because the majority of you do not use a touch PC. You might have a tablet but lets be real that is a different beast.
Microsoft if you want us to move to Windows 8 on our PCs you need to get some perspective and stop listening to your own press and PR hype, look at the reality. I will not tell any PC user to stay away from Windows 8, there is some good stuff here. However I will not suggest to any PC user to move to Windows 8, there is not enough here to make it worth finding a way around the stuff that still needs to be tweaked.
Now the title of this article is a bit misleading, so let me clarify. I have been using Windows 8 on various test rigs since the initial beta release, so I have a lot more than 80 hours into Windows 8. However since my last entry when I “live blogged” as I was setting up Windows 8 on my primary machine I have put in over 80 hours of active use with Windows 8.
In that 80+ hours I have done a ton of everyday work such as email, web browsing, gaming, audio and video editing, software testing writing and more. So I feel confident in saying that I have put the OS through the ringer this week and wanted to follow up last weeks article.
When I first reviewed Windows 8 for the show I discussed that I did not like the cludgy feel of the transition between the Metro interface and the desktop. Last week I talked about ways to help with that and they do but not enough for my tastes. There is still this stark jump between the interfaces when you use either an App or a Program. (Apps are programs designed to run in Metro and Programs in this definition are designed to run from the desktop.)
Basically what is happening is Microsoft tried to segregate the two interfaces while bussing them in at the same time. Sounds like the way schools were running in the South in the 60s, it did not work well then and it does not now.
For my testing I have been spending a lot of time using the Metro interface and actually find a few apps I like such as the News and Weather apps. If I open them in the Metro interface and exit them I am taken back to the Start Screen as I should. However lets say I want to use a program such as playing Borderlands or even using Microsoft Office. When I do that the OS transitions to the Desktop and I use the program, okay that cools. However when I exit the program it drops me to the empty desktop with no preamble. It does not seem to know I am using the Metro interface and thus kind of tosses me out and makes me make the journey back to the interface.
Now what happens if I by pass the Metro interface and use Start8 to give me a nice start menu. The programs work as they should and all seems well with the world, that is until I use an App. You see those Apps can be easily added to the Start menu in Start8 and as I said a few of them to be are very useful. So I kick up the news app and it runs as it normally does and all is well. That is until I exit it and then it dumps be back into the Metro Start screen and leaves me there until I tell the OS to go back to the desktop.
Microsoft has stated from the start that the Desktop version was designed to introduce the Metro style and integrate it with the desktop experience. Yet what they have given us seems to work hard at segregating the two experiences.
Now let me be clear I am not an OS programmer so I will not pretend to understand the underlying code of the OS. However it would seem to me that this experience could have been much better presented. For example, with the default operation of the OS being that of the Metro interface I would expect MS could have designed the desktop to go back to the Metro screen once the program that was run was closed, this should not have been hard to put into place. In fact it SHOULD have been in place from day one.
Microsoft and the rest of the OS world is moving to this new interface style, we all acknowledge that. However they also acknowledge that many programs today do not make use of that style efficiently. Okay that is cool but why can we not run them as they do now and just jump back to the new interface when the program is done?
This cludgy feel is made even worse when you realize Microsoft has a number of very popular programs that should be integrated into this interface smoothly and are not. So it is easy to see that many people feel like this was meant to be a tablet or phone OS and that Microsoft plugged in desktop compatibility as an afterthought, however I am going to disagree.
You see I think those pundits and critics have it backwards. I think Microsoft designed a desktop OS and then made a decision to add the Metro interface to it. The reason for my belief of this is the fact that the core OS underneath is basically Windows 7 with a lot of optimization and clean up. There is a very solid and efficient desktop OS in Windows 8 but it is hidden under the Metro Interface.
So how do we fix this experience? My opinion is Microsoft needs to, as my grandma used to say, “Shit or get off the pot!” The integration should be finished and this is obviously not. The OS should make the transition between the two interfaces with a bit more grace should not work so hard to keep the two sides apart.
Now I am sure there are a hundred different tips and tricks out there to help with this ranging from third party apps to registry hacks, but we should not need them. I am not talking about getting back the Start button, MS made clear they want it gone. They need to make the OS function the way it should based on their own design.
Does this view mean I will stop using Windows 8? No, I am happy with the OS overall. The underlying changes are really nice, the OS feels snappier and as I said I have grown quite fond of a few of the apps. I hate a few others but that another entry for another day.
After 80+ hours of use I can tell you the OS is very stable and I have had zero real usability issues. My games all play as they should, the driver support is outstanding with all my hardware working perfectly.
Should you upgrade to Windows 8? That is a tougher call. For the majority that have Windows 7 I would say no. For most people they want to just use their PC and do not want to learn a new interface, especially one that actually forces you to be the go between for two interfaces. However as I said last week there are some people that would benefit. If you are a web browsing, Facebooking, casual PC user then Windows 8 has a lot to like with the snappier feel and a simpler interface. If you are the hardcore geek that wants to explore a new OS then this is for sure a great way to go. For the rest I would hold off for now.
With our move to the new show and format this week I have been swamped. We have had to rework a lot of show material, go over and rethink how we look at the show and in general rebuild our concepts from the ground up. To say this week has had me on edge is an understatement. This is a big move and I wanted everything to go as smooth as possible. However it occurred to me this morning that in the efforts to make this move to the new format smooth I had neglected to think about the blog and making sure we had an article for today.
As I type this blog entry I have been playing with my Windows 8 setup, in fact this is be typed from that computer. I am really torn about if I like or loathe Windows 8 and I am sure you have heard me speak of it enough on the show. You can me my start screen as I have it currently. I removed a lot of the app shortcuts and have tried to organize my buttons in a manner that makes sense to me. This feature I do like as it allows me to have quick and easy access to the apps I want to use from the desktop with out the cluttered look or feel that I had in previous windows desktops.
I have found found that the current apps available for Windows 8 just do not do a lot for me. Many of them are essentially tools that I have found other ways to use over the years but they do the job in this big, all encompassing window mode. They in essence work like apps do on a smart phone, taking total control of the screen.
It is possible with many of the apps to create a split screen as I have done here. Told you this was real time thoughts, I am literally doing this all as I type. Introducing LIVE BLOGGING!!! However this does not really give the quick windows access feel we have grown accustom too with swapping apps.
I wanted so much to like the music apps, especially when I saw the smart DJ, that was until it asked me to put in an artist. I started with Nickleback and it said it could not do that. Then I tried Weird Al and again it said it could not do that. Finally after about 5 minutes I was able to get Van Halen. This is a neat idea, essentially a mini Pandora and it could be really cool if they get a larger artist list. A lot of people have said that Windows 8 seems build for the teens and twenties crowd, I can tell you the music app seems pointed in that direction.
One of the complaints I had with Windows 8 early was the transition from the Start screen to the desktop seemed so harsh. I found a great tip online for resolving this. What I did was go to the Star screen and shrink down the icons. I then hit print screen and edited the image in paint, taking out the buttons. I left the name and photo at the top right and then set the task bar to auto hide. The transition is still there but no were near as harsh as it is when the desktop has a different, often photo, wallpaper. Microsoft really should have made the two wallpapers default to the same thing to minimize the kludgey feel of the transition.
That transition is a big deal because we are doing it often in Windows 8. Steam, any game I want to play that was not bought at the app store, various programs I use, even Office 2013 result in a drop to the desktop for the program to run. This is something Microsoft should have worked on in this release and for sure should have right in Windows 9. There should be no transition, the programs should run just like apps. This even extends to exiting a program, if I close Live Writer I will not find myself back at the Start screen but rather at an empty desktop. This will create nothing but confusion to the tech novice.
If the Start screen is not for you , there is a way around it, Start8. Start8 is a start button replacement program brought to us by the folks at Stardock. Stardock has for a long time been a company that tweaked the Windows interface to add functionality and even new style to it so they know what they are doing when it comes to tweaking Windows.
The program offers a couple of settings that lets you put the traditional Start menu button back on the taskbar and allows you to bypass the Start screen and new UI from Microsoft. You can use a more traditional look that is very similar to Windows 7 and should be easy for anyone to jump right into. As you can see the Start screen can be easily accessed at any time if you desire to go there. Of course if you want a hybrid look that puts you on the desktop but makes the Start menu like more like the new UI that option is there as well. The size of the menu can be adjusted as well so you can make it a start menu or even a pseudo Start screen or just really large menu.
I know there are a number of free ways to add the Start menu back to your system but for $5 I think Start8 with it’s customization options is the way to go. This means we have some good options to make Windows 8 really fit the way we use our computer, which was at the end of the day one of the goals Microsoft stated was being shot for with Windows 8. They hit the mark but the sad part was the way the mark truly seems to get hit are with methods and options that Microsoft should have made standard.
what I find very odd is the response form the enthusiast community to Windows 8. It has been a LONG time since we have had so many chances to tweak the OS and make it personalized in a meaningful way. To even explore an OS and find truly new things is something we have not seen for some time, you would think the geeks out there would rejoice. Yet all I hear is people complaining about the new interface and they will not switch? Does this mean that the Geeks of today lack the adventurous nature of the Geeks of old, or are they not truly the Geeks they claim they are, simply posers?
Either way I have to say that Microsoft has given me back some of the wonder that I had back in the earlier days of Windows. I feel like I have to discover how to make things work and that is a feeling that I have not had in a long time and I find that I have missed it. Now I do not want to let that sense of discovery I have found scare off the novice user. For most people they will find the OS is actually pretty easy to make use of and for a lot of people the new UI will be the only place they see while using Windows.
When you get past the interface and into the guts of the OS there is a lot to like here. The OS comes with a usable security suite built in. I would not say it is the best protection you can have but it means that the millions of people that ignore the advice of getting a good AV program are still protected. My own testing of the built in protection put it on par with Security Essentials in protection and this is not something to sneeze at. The core of the OS is leaner and meaner which means base OS functions seem to run quicker, making the system as a whole feel snappier. This does not show up well in benchmarks but in day to day use the feeling is there none the less. File management has undergone a revamp as well with the ability to watch the transfer rates as they rise and fall as well as pause transfers and even unzips in progress if you were to have need to. In general once you get past the kludgy drops between desktop and Start screen the OS has a lot of polish, it is a shame that polish is tarnished by the UI kludge.
In the end Windows 8 and I have a love/hate relationship. As I venture deeper and discover little tidbits my sense of exploration returns to the personal computer but at the same time I will find some strange UI twist that this new system brings and spit out a string of words recalled from my days in the Navy. The real question that most of you have however is will I keep using Windows 8, the answer is yes. With just a $5 from Stardock to get Start8 and a MINOR update cost for the new OS I can get a nice upgrade from Windows 7 with better security, a quicker and less resource intense core and the option to make use of the new UI and the Microsoft App Store if I choose.
Will I make use of the new UI, that is a mixed bag. I have installed Windows 8 on my child’s PC and he will be fully in the Metro UI. He only has three or four programs he really uses and the app games fit his play style. I have moved my test machines to have both Windows 7 and Windows 8 but will gradually put all future testing to Windows 8 so we can stay with the curve. My wife has still not decided on the move. I think her usage style would benefit but she is happy right now so why mess with a good thing. I am personally making the move to Windows 8 whole hog. Everything I run has had zero issues on the system when tested and I actually find I like the things Windows 8 brings to the table?
Should the rest of you move? That is up to you, for most people they are happy with what they have right now and there is nothing compelling to make them move. Remember what I preach, the best computer is the one that does what you want to do, if yours is doing what you need it to do then there is no reason to move. If you want to explore a new OS then Windows 8 is a great way to do it, the system is stable enough for your everyday use and you will have to learn many things again, something some of us do not mind. If you are a minimal user, you surf the net, check email, play on Facebook and twitter and that is it then Windows 8 might actually be a worthy upgrade. The new interface actually fits that style of user well.
In the end I think Microsoft actually has a solid product on their hands and might prove the majority of the pundits wrong. Windows had grown stale with nothing truly new for some time, this is a breath of fresh air. As I sit here playing this the system, tweaking in my main system in fact, I find I actually am enjoying this OS quite a bit. Okay enough writing, time to get back to playing with Windows 8. Now what corner was that for the settings???? LOL.
When an office or family buys a PC they get it back, set it up and then marvel at all the things they can do. Of course shortly after that moment the truth sets in when they realize those neat programs that came with their PC are trials versions that expire shortly after we figure out how to use them. You see unlike our car or TV, when you buy a computer it does not come with everything we need except power, we need programs to make it do what we want it to do.
However do not despair because over the years more and more free software has appeared. Now free used to mean limited trial or just plain crappy, with a few exceptions. Today however there is a lot of high quality free software that can easily fill your family or small business needs. If I where to make a list of the various programs that are offered you would be here reading all day. Instead below you will find a list and a link to the various programs I consider the best in each category.
Computer Protection: When you get that new PC one of the first things you should do is make sure it has protection on it from the malware that seems to be all over the internet. Most new PCs come with some form of protection pre-installed, this si fine but it is a trail and gives the user a false sense of security, one of the first things you should do is remove it and get full protection on your PC. The good news is that there are some great free solutions for doing this, my persona favorite is Microsoft Security Essentials. Not only is it free, it is also simple to use and does a great job of staying out of the way when using your computer. I have used this program on my home PCs and helped a lot of people set it up, and no one has been disappointed.
Productivity: Did you know that Microsoft Office is one of the most pirated programs in the world? The reason is simple, everyone uses it at the office and at school. The problem is the cost, well at least that is the argument given. I have over the years shown people alternatives that are free, most prominently Open Office, however I hear the same argument all the time that they do not want to mess with the compatibility. Well Microsoft has decided that more people need access to Office and introduced Office WebApps. You need to create a Live account and the program works in conjunction with Live Mail and Skydrive.
You have available a toned down version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that is 100% free and can be used anywhere you can get internet access. The programs store your documents using the SkyDrive system making them available wherever you are and with no need to worry about your system crashing causing you to lose files. It is completely compatible with the full version of Office so compatibility issues do not crop up. While not as powerful as the full version of Office it is a great alternative to piracy and fills the needs of families with ease. It can even handle light business work as well from my experience.
Photo Editing: This is an area that keeps growing in use when it comes to family PCs but also for business. A lot of companies use photos to record various aspects of their companies and sometimes need to edit them down for size to use on social networking sites or for reports. While basic functionality can be reached using Live Photo Gallery, some people want more than to crop and remove red eye or give basic touchups. For a more full featured package I suggest Paint.Net. There are other great programs out there but most of them come loaded with various trail software and load slowly, Paint.Net is clean and fast yet with enough power to handle pretty much any photo editing need.
Movie Making: Another area that is growing in the realm of the home and small business user is making of home of movies or presentations. Being able to take pictures, short videos and music or even a narrative and put them all together is something a lot of people are doing these days. It can be a compilation of home movies, an anniversary presentation, wedding memories, the family vacation or even an office project. For this there is nothing I found for free that beats Live Movie Maker, a part of the Live Essentials Package. This powerful little program makes it easy to create simple films, complete with transitions, special effects and sound and then put them on a DVD to give out. The really nice part is that when you get the Live Essentials package you also get instant messaging, basic photo management, a blog writer (like the one I am using), a good email client and more. So while the Movie Maker might be what we are after we get a more full featured packaged.
Entertainment: Now you might not expect this to be a category but I feel there is a need here. A lot of families use their PC for someone to enjoy music or even watch TV on. Again this is an area that is rife with piracy, most especially in music. However if you are using your PC to play music there are great free and legal alternatives. Right now I am torn between two different systems, Pandora and Grooveshark. Bother offer the ability to play the music you want to hear without being forced to pay money for every song you play. For video we are currently blessed with a wealth of options as many networks have started airing full episodes of their prime series. However the most comprehensive list can be found at Hulu. While each of these offer pay features I have found their free features can easily meet most peoples needs.
Gaming: Surely you did not think I work through this list and leave out computer gaming? The number of GOOD free games has grown a lot over the last year. One game I have seen played in a lot of home and a few offices is various forms of golf. Lets face it sometimes weather or life just gets in the way of enjoying some time on the greens and while playing on the computer might not be the same, it sure beats working. EA Sports decided to experiment and they have given us the excellent Tiger Woods Golf franchise for free with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. Played fully online there is little in the way of installed software and this also means you can play your round at the office during slow times and finish at home later in the evening. Of course you can also gather your buddies together and all do a round of golf together, not bad for a free game.
Perhaps you are a more “traditional” gamer, the MMO world continues to expand, provide better games and many of them are free. If you want to grab a sword or fire off a spell then Lord of the Rings Online is my preferred choice. Set in the rich world of Tolkien the game lets you see the famous landmarks you only got to read about in your youth. Maybe you want a simpler game that can engage the kids, then look no further than Wizard 101. A simple game system with amazing efforts to protect kids in the game system has made this an award winning MMO that continues to rank higher on the charts every year.
My personal choice for free gaming right now has been influenced by the movie industry and this summer of super heroes, Champions Online. I go back with Champions a LONG time, first starting to play the pen and paper version in late 1981. During the following years I played it off and on a lot and have some great memories including weekly gaming sessions with my friends and the founding of the super team, The Round Table. My character back then was called Blue Knight (think Iron Man with Stark not being a playboy). This all came back like it was yesterday as I played Champions Online and today I now defend Millennium City as the Blue Knight once again. A solid game system, good graphics that remind you of the old comics and just the plain fun of being a super hero makes this an awesome free choice.
I could keep listing programs all day long but I think you begin to get the idea, there is a lot of great free software out there. This is a small list and does not come close to covering all the options and choices but these are the programs I have found that use and enjoy the most. If you have a great free program you fee deserves notice be sure to add it as a comment to this post. In the mean time enjoy the truth of an old saying that I will paraphrase, “Many great things in life are free.”