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  Hot Downloads

Our PC Starter Kit features a collection of programs we feel should find a home on any system--new or old. They run the gamut from applications that will safeguard you from the Internet's most dangerous pests to those that will help you stay in touch with your friends and family. Since your new PC purchase may have left you temporarily short on dough, you'll be glad to know the lion's share of these programs is totally free, though we have included a few that will require a small financial commitment. Still, even if you download every one of these apps (and we suggest you do), you won't spend more than $150, small change considering how much safer and more capable your machine will be. Whether you're upgrading to your 10th computer or are pulling one out of the box for the very first time, don't go any further without downloading these 20 indispensable programs.

Security

Ad-Aware
What is there to say about Ad-Aware we haven't said before? We've been known to give this venerable antispyware utility a fair amount of print, and the attention is well-justified. Simply put, Ad-Aware is extremely effective at finding and removing the Web's most notorious spyware components, as well as the newest and deadliest threats. Bells and whistles are not this program's thing, but Ad-Aware keeps the focus where it belongs: on rock-solid protection.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition
You may think you'll have to fork over a few twenties to get competent virus protection, but that's not necessarily the case. True to its name, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition keeps your computer safe from the Internet's latest hazards at no cost. Of course, the program lets you manually update its definitions at your leisure, but we recommend enabling the scheduling feature, which will check for updates every day at the time of your choice. Eventually, you might want to pay to upgrade to the Professional version, or you may decide to buy another antivirus suite altogether. Regardless, you should make downloading AVG Free a top priority as soon as your computer is connected to the Internet.

HijackThis
Anyone who's been in the ring with spyware knows some opponents just refuse to go down. If your arsenal of spyware-removal tools has failed to eighty-six a particularly devious intruder, this program could be one of your last hopes before reformatting. But unless you're a serious computer surgeon, you'll probably need to consult a Web-based forum to make sense of the program's scan results. (For more information, read our HijackThis tutorial.) Though you won't use it every day, sooner or later you'll be glad you have HijackThis.

Spybot - Search & Destroy
Like Ad-Aware, Spybot - Search & Destroy has played a prominent role in the history of the Great Spyware War. Also like Ad-Aware, it's completely free. Spybot, however, boasts a number of convenient extras, such as a full-fledged scheduler and a file shredder. It's also no slouch when it comes to sniffing out malicious software. We should note that when it comes to antispyware utilities, you can never have too many, so you may want to load up on a few more freebies, including Microsoft AntiSpyware and Spyware Doctor.

Webroot Spy Sweeper
The bad news is that Spy Sweeper isn't free. The good news is that it's worth every penny of the $30 registration fee. Spy Sweeper's real-time protection shield is one of its major advantages, alerting you when unwelcome guests attempt to clandestinely infiltrate your machine. The program's scanner is fast, and results are nearly flawless, thanks to Webroot's top-notch research-and-development team. Even though we recommend you keep multiple antispyware solutions close at hand, Spy Sweeper is powerful enough to act as a standalone solution.

ZoneAlarm
A firewall should be one of the very first programs you put on your machine. If you don't already know, a firewall is absolutely essential in preventing hackers and other cyberthreats from accessing your PC. Unfortunately, many of them can be tough to configure, baffling even seasoned geeks. Not so for ZoneAlarm, one of the most trusted firewall utilities on the scene. The program walks you through the set-up process, offers several levels of security, and doesn't overload you with a bunch of highly technical jargon. Just set it and forget it, and you'll sleep well at night.
 

Tools

Adobe Acrobat Reader
Though the vast majority of average users will never need the PDF-creation tools of Adobe Acrobat Professional, just about everyone will want to have Acrobat Reader on hand. Without this freebie, your computer will not be able to decipher documents encoded in Adobe's ubiquitous Portable Document Format. Though this stalwart isn't exactly exciting, it should be a required download for every person who owns a computer. It also has the distinction of being one of the few applications we've enshrined in Download.com's Hall of Fame.

Asmw Eraser Pro
By default, Web browsers log information about what sites you've been visiting via cookies and temporary Internet files. Needless to say, such information can be potentially embarrassing if you share your PC with other users. Although you can manually wipe away these tracks by digging into your browser of choice, Asmw Eraser Pro offers a more convenient way to clean the slate. The program removes your fingerprints from a number of popular applications and deletes potentially incriminating files so they can't be recovered. You can even schedule Asmw Eraser Pro to continuously clean up after you in the background.

BCArchive
You may not be an international person of mystery, but chances are you have a few secrets you'd like to keep. That's where encryption utilities come into play. BCArchive provides all the essentials in an easy-to-use package. The program lets you lock down files according to a number of secure algorithms and can create self-decrypting archives so you can share sensitive data with others, even if they don't have BCArchive on their machines.

ChoiceMail Free
Due to antispam legislation, unsolicited e-mail isn't as big of a problem as it was a few years ago. Still, spam is prevalent, and it's just as annoying as ever. If you're using Outlook Express as your primary e-mail client, make sure to get your hands on ChoiceMail Free, which blocks spam with a challenge/response methodology. Under this system, all your contacts will have to verify their identities to correspond with your e-mail address. This may initially seem like a hassle, but it's not really a big deal, and it all but guarantees that unsavory bulk e-mailers won't find their way into your in-box.

Mozilla Firefox
Internet Explorer's decline in popularity can be directly attributed to the rise of spiffy alternative browsers such as Mozilla Firefox. Long known for providing a more secure surfing experience than Microsoft, this top-rated browser has an extremely potent pop-up blocker that's become one of its calling cards. Even though IE eventually ponied up with its own ad-stopping features, it still lacks the convenience of tabbed browsing, a perk Firefox hasn't neglected. If you haven't already hopped on the alternative-browser bandwagon, this is a fine place to start.

NoteTab Light
Windows' built-in text editor could be the poster child for the phrase bare bones. Notepad works fine for the simplest text-editing chores, but most users will appreciate the additional functionality found in NoteTab Light. Tabs let you easily access multiple text documents from one interface, and the program even provides templates and macros for writing basic lines of HTML. NoteTab Light also provides more editing tools than Notepad, and since the program is free and comes in a tiny package, there's no reason not to keep it around.

RoboForm
No one would argue that the Internet has made everyday tasks--such as paying bills, shopping, and banking--unbelievably convenient. The downside is that many users find themselves buried under a mountain of half-remembered logins, passwords, and credit card numbers. If this describes you, you'll certainly appreciate RoboForm, a tool that automatically fills in Web-based forms for you. Since the program encrypts your data, you won't need to fret about security. You can even use RoboForm to generate passwords hackers will never guess. You'll lose some of the application's functionality unless you register after 30 days, but even if you don't buy it RoboForm will generate passwords and store 10 logins, making it worth the download.

TweakNow RegCleaner
Installing and uninstalling loads of software can leave your machine's registry a mess and lead to decreased system performance. To combat this problem, many habitual downloaders turn to TweakNow RegCleaner, a simple app that takes a no-nonsense approach to Registry optimization. The program lets you know which junk and invalid keys are safe to delete, but you should still use the built-in Registry backup tool before wiping away problems. We always make sure to run this speedy little number at least once a week, and we suggest you do the same.

WinZip
Like the aforementioned Adobe Acrobat Reader, WinZip may not be flashy, but it's one of those programs you won't want to go without for very long. Not only does the program prove capable of transforming large batches of files into a much smaller archive, it also boasts extras such as encryption and virus checking. Most notably, WinZip's ease of use can't be beat; even Luddites will quickly get up to speed, thanks to the inclusion of multiple wizards.
 

Fun


FastStone Image Viewer
Programs such as Photoshop offer a full-fledged workshop for editing and creating images, but they're too powerful, complicated, and expensive for casual photographers. True to its name, this intuitive program does indeed let you view your pics, but it also does much more. For starters, it can convert and rename images in batches--a handy, timesaving feature. It also provides a decent set of basic editing tools, including those for cropping, rotating, removing red-eye, and adjusting brightness, color, and contrast. FastStone Image Viewer can even display your photos as a slide show, complete with your favorite songs. There's a lot to like here, and nothing to pay.

iTunes
Just because Windows Media Player came installed on your PC doesn't mean you should skip Apple's much-loved jukebox. This looker lives up to all the hype, with an exquisite design and a laundry list of features, including multiple EQ presets, visualizations, and CD ripping. iTunes also is a necessity if you plan to patronize Apple's megapopular online music store. If you've never used the program, you might want to take a look at Download.com's iTunes Advanced feature, which provides basic tips along with advice for more seasoned folks.

Nero 7 Ultra Edition
Nero is one of the best-known names in disc-burning software, and once you take a look at this comprehensive suite of tools, you'll know why. Nero 6 Ultra Edition goes far beyond the standard CD- and-DVD-burning formula, packing in features such as the ability to watch and record TV, a cover-creation utility, audio-mixing and audio-editing tools, and a file converter. At $80, Nero Ultra is the most expensive of our 20 essential programs, but we think you'll agree it's a fine investment.

Skype
E-mail and instant messages are certainly efficient communication tools, but some complain they lack the personal touch of traditional mediums such as the telephone. Skype combines the best of both worlds, allowing you to place free PC-to-PC voice calls around the world via VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. Of course, to use the service you'll have to plunk down a few bucks for a microphone, and any call recipients will need to install Skype, too. Also, you'll need to sign up for a paid service if you intend to call a landline or cellular phones. VoIP may not have reached critical mass yet, but this is one technology that's on the way up.

Trillian
Anyone who's into instant messaging--and that would cover a large portion of the industrialized world--knows that having a bunch of chat clients running simultaneously can take a toll on system performance. The beauty of Trillian is it lets you talk to your Yahoo, AIM, MSN, and ICQ buddies in one interface. If you already have a username and a buddy list on one of those services, the program can quickly import that data. If you've never had an IM account, Trillian can help you set one up with very little hassle. Stop fooling with multiple windows, usernames, and passwords; Trillian embodies the spirit of one-stop shopping.

Most Popular in 2005

Ad-Aware SE Personal Edition
Scan your system for ad-supported software components and remove them.

Spyware Doctor
Remove Spyware, Adware, Trojan horses & Keyloggers with this popular and fast utility.

ICQ 5.04
Communicate instantly using the latest version of this popular chat client.

LimeWire
Search for and download files on the Gnutella network with this adware- and spyware-free P2P program.

iMesh
Find, download, and share MP3, video, and image files.

Morpheus
Search multiple P2P networks including BitTorrent to download MP3s, videos, games, and more.

Spybot - Search & Destroy
Search your hard disk and Registry for threats to your security and privacy.

WinZip
Handle ZIP files with ease with this popular utility.

All-in-One Secretmaker
Avoid spyware, intruders, spam, banner ads, and pop-ups while protecting your privacy.

Registry Mechanic
Scan and clean up your registry to improve your system's performance.

BitComet
Share and download files from BitTorrent and chat with your friends.

WinRAR
Manage RAR and ZIP archives.

DivX Play Bundle with DivX Player
Create and watch videos in the DivX video format.

RealPlayer
Get the latest free version of this media player and jukebox from RealNetworks.

Alcohol 120%
Create virtual CD/DVD-ROMs and burn backup copies of your favorite discs.

IrfanView
Try a fast and flexible image viewer and editor.

Webshots Desktop
Put a new photo on your desktop every day of the year with this customizable screensaver and wallpaper tool.

Download Accelerator Plus
Improve download speeds, resume broken downloads, and find mirror sites.

Trillian
Chat with all your friends on mIRC, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo Messenger.

Adobe Acrobat Reader
Read Adobe PDF files on your desktop or on the Web.

 

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