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.”
Sorry that this blog is late but over the last week I have been fighting a nasty cold. Stuck in bed, miserable, not able to do what I wanted to do. So it got me thinking this morning about the same thing with our computers. I mean you catch a piece of malware on your system and your computer becomes bogged down, causes weird errors and keeps you from enjoying your computing experience.
Over the years I have been a huge advocate of using the free AV solutions in homes. Tied together with common sense approaches these can go a long way to protecting your PC. However last year saw a huge rise in extortion ware attacks and the use of commercial ads on legitimate websites to get them into your PC. These bypass a lot of the common sense approaches and play off the fear of the computer novice to allow help the virus attack work.
Over the last few months I have fought a lot of these attacks and talked about them in this blog quite a bit. We have discussed how to use the free AV software and counter the attacks but for some people that is just to much work, they want to just use their PC, having to learn tricks to defeat an attack on their computer is more than they want to deal with. So I set out and did some testing.
First I had to find sites that I KNEW was running ads with an extortion ware attack and I was able to reasonably recreate as needed. Next I loaded up some of the more popular free AV offerings as well as a few commercial to see which offered the best protection. Through my research I was able to find 10 sites I could accurately get a malware hit from.
First on the block is my current free AV recommendation, Microsoft Security Essentials. Having recently gone through an update of the base software this product has become even more effective than it was before. Sadly against this new threat it is not as effective as we would like. Of 10 sites MSE was only able to stop 2 of the attacks outright. What about Avast, a very popular free AV program it has an aggressive scan system. the failure rate was 100%, all the attacks took place as normal. Finally for the free we turn to AVG, the creator of the free AV craze and like Avast it fell quickly allowing all 10 attacks to take place.
What this is showing me is that while Free AV software can protect your PC pretty well the current lines of attack have found a way to bypass them at the moment. Will these programs find a way to be more effective in the future? I am sure they will but for now know that against extortion ware the free solutions are struggling with the delivery system.
Well if free is not working what about commercial software?
We begin with the biggest out their Norton. The Norton name is held in high regard throughout the computer consumer world, which is sad since it is held in low regard by most in the know. Norton did not fail to deliver on my low expectations allowing all 10 attacks to get into the system without a whimper. Next I fired up McAfee, another industry giant and again the mighty fell hard with 100% of the attacks coming through. I turned to Kaspersky one of the big commercial names with the “in” tech crowd to see how it would fair and it did better hitting 3 of the 10 attacks in the nose before they could try and trick their way in. However a 70% success rate for the malware is not what I call effective protection.
I was at a lose, I mean does this mean we have to wait for all the AV programs to catch up? Well in working to clean various systems I noticed that one AV package was almost always recommended. Now in fairness I had assumed this was from paid commercials on search sites so has dismissed it. However one day I was working to try and clean a clients system and was running out of options short of just wiping it and starting over. The problem we the client did not have the recover software and had a TON of data that would need to be retrieved. There was going to be a lot of cost associated with nuking the system so I figured what the heck and downloaded the software.
PC Tools has a pretty solid reputation but over the years it has been something of a minor player compared to the bigger names. In the above system we loaded the software, at first it did not seem to work so we made arrangements to get the system in a few days and nuke it. However during it’s overnight scans it found and cleared the PC.
So when the big three failed I figured it was worth giving this program a shot at our tests. I fired up the first website once the software was installed and updated, a little popup hit my lower left corner and it informed me that a website that was known to have issues was trying to be opened would I like it blocked. HHHMMM, okay since I was not access the site it listed I figured this was a good idea. Turns out the site it was blocking was the site the ad was coming from which was the way the malware attack was taking place. First test down and successful. Over the next 9 sites I saw this little popup a LOT. Spyware Doctor was grabbing the material before it could enter my system. Of the 10 sites, none of them where able to infect my PC, 100% success.
Now this is not to say this program will stop everything ever to come out but my test revealed it was a solid effort. The way it does this is by allowing your PC to send in data as it collects it. If a suspicious activity takes place on your PC the data is sent to PC Tools to confirm and if it is malware the site or program is blocked in the next update.
Over the last few days I have changed my computing habits with PC Tools installed and started using Facebook, the infestation incubator itself more. The result was at first a lot of warnings but no infections, since those first few days the warnings are down to once every few days on Facebook.
Now I am not turning from my old position. I still believe that for a lot of people a free AV solution with some common sense is enough protection. but lets face it common sense is NOT common and people want to go to sites others are going to, which means you will sooner or later visit sites that could be issues. If that is the case, or you have a Facebook junkie in your home then I would suggest taking at look at PC tools.
Do not get caught up in the fancier packages this is the one you want to look at. I also suggest if you are going to looks at this just buy it. The $40 cost covers 3 PCs for one year and with so many homes now having multiple PCs there is a good chance you can protect the whole family.
We all wish we could get through the winter without colds and flu and sometimes we get lucky and do. However we all know that no matter how much prevention we take there is always the chance of it slipping in. The same is true with your PC. No level of protection can for sure stop an infection but taking some precautions to ensure your not infect is just wise. PC Tools has made a great product that gives a little peace of mind, it may not stop all of it but you know it is trying hard.