The 32 Totally Essential (and Free) Apps for Every New PC

You have to admit, Windows is a pretty barebones operating system, feature-wise. After a fresh install of XP or Vista (perhaps following a Clean Start ), you're faced with a barren Start Menu and an empty desktop that's beaming with limitless potential. The problem is that it's up to you to hunt and download those applications that you really need in your day-to-day computing experience. And chances are, it's often difficult to find good software that's also free. That's where this guide comes in.

We've put together a list of what we think are the most essential PC apps for every Maximum PC reader. These are all free programs (except one) that should be immediately installed after a fresh build or reformat; 32 indispensable programs and utilities that we couldn't imagine computing without. From the best IM client to FTP browser and Notepad replacement, these essentials truly enhance the Windows experience (much more so than Microsoft's own Windows LIVE Essentials). We're not saying you'd use all 32 entries in our list on a daily basis, but if you are at all serious about utilizing your PC, we promise our picks will not go unused.

And at the end of the feature, we'll even show you how to install these apps in one fell swoop with a special configuration file we've created. Because if it were up to us, this is software that should be bundled with every copy of Windows.

WinDirStat

WinDirStat

AnyDVD

For hassle free rips of DVD, Blu-ray, and even HD-DVD content, there's no simpler app to use than AnyDVD . Unlike more traditional DVD ripping tools, AnyDVD decrypts, unlocks the region code, and even removes annoying ads and that pesky FBI warning on the fly. It's not free, but it's well worth the cost for anyone who wants to exercise his fair use rights on Blu-ray or DVD discs. Your money is well spent, typically the brain trust at Slysoft manage to disable new copy protection tricks just a few short days after they go public, which is more than worth a few bucks a year. (standard version is 50EUR for 2 years, HD edition is 79EUR for 2 years)

Foxit PDF Reader

There are few things that can ruin your internet browsing groove like the painfully long wait you have to endure when opening an Adobe PDF file. Acrobat reader, as a program and browser plugin, is notoriously cumbersome and drains not only your time but gobs of memory as well. That's why we use Foxit Reader , a free lightweight application that weights in only at 3MB. The program launches with the speediness of a roadrunner, and gives you access to welcome features like text extraction and comment annotation. Just be careful when you install Foxit to uncheck the Ask.com toolbar and eBay icon options. A professional version of Foxit ($40), gives you advanced editing tools, but we're more than happy with the free offering.

VMWare Server

Virtualization isn't just one of the hot buzzwords in tech, it's a practical way to test software, patches, and operative systems. VMware is our pick for a robust and easy-to-use virtualization option, and VMWare Server is the company's free product. It runs on top of a host Windows or Linux machine to deploy multiple virtual machines by provisioning your hardware resources. The only big limitation of VMWare Server is that it doesn't currently support 3D acceleration, not is it officially compatible with Vista 64-bit. Still, it's relatively the easiest way to create and run virtual machines, even those created by Microsoft Virtual PC.

Steam

Remember when Steam first launched with Half-Life 2, and trolls all over the internet complained about the service's mandatory online connection? What fools, we were. Today, we can't imagine gaming on our PCs without Steam. Valve's app isn't just an ultra-convenient online store, it's our preferred method of staying connected to fellow online gamers. Gabe Newell recently remarked that Steam is more than just about combating illegally downloaded content, the program is Valve's way of catching up to the convenience and instant-access appeal of piracy. We think it's doing a fine job.

Dropbox

Get this: a Windows app that "just works." Yes, we're being serious. Dropbox came out of nowhere last year to stun us with its amazingly intuitive approach to online storage. The program creates a user folder that acts just like a folder on your hard drive. You can drag, drop, copy, and even save up to 2GB worth of files to the cloud ($100/year for 50GB), while the service works its magic and syncs up your documents in the background. The online interface lets you track your file transfer history and download any file remotely, as well as restore any files that may have been accidentally deleted. You can even create shared or public folders to pass files along to your friends and family. And you don't even have ot bear any online ads. Of course we're smitten.

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