Whenever I hear "free software," the skeptic in me looks for the catch and the fine print. And there's often good reason.
A vast majority of the free software offered for PCs comes with adware or spyware that's secretly installed onto your computer, usually with the intention of selling you something or tracking your activities. That's particularly true with free screensavers, weather alerts, stock tickers, betting programs, games and sports alerts.
But some free programs available are even better than software you pay for. Some of the companies want to entice you with their free version, hoping you'll like it so much you'll pay for an expanded version. Others are developing a mass of users to whom they can then offer paid products or services. And some are just doing it for goodwill.
Here are my current recommendations.
My all-time favorite is Picasa 2 (www.picasa.com), a product that organizes digital images on your PC. It automatically finds the images and puts them into albums categorized by date and name. You can then organize the albums by combining or separating them and rearranging their contents to your liking, and improve the individual images.
It has a terrific user interface that makes it intuitive and simple to use. While it's not a full-fledged editing program, it does a great job for most basic needs. It imports your images from your camera into the albums, provides some basic editing functions such as cropping, fixing red-eye and making other adjustments. It also assists in e-mailing and printing. The original version sold for $29 and was a bargain. The new updated version, Picasa 2, has just been released by the company's new owner, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). It's better than ever and, best of all, it's now free.
Improvements include more editing capabilities and an improved one-touch button to improve the image. It's called "I'm feeling lucky," in deference to Google's use of the term in its search engine. While deceptively simple, one click starts a process that analyzes the image for about a dozen parameters including contrast, exposure, color balance, sharpness and more, and then comes up with the final improved print, all in a couple of seconds. It works remarkably well on most pictures.
IrfanView (www.irfanview.com), another photo program, is a small but powerful program written by Irfan Skiljan of Bosnia. It's designed to edit your images using menu-driven selections. It's a good complement to Picasa 2, providing a more comprehensive list of editing options. I've used it for altering a picture's resolution, reducing it to a size small enough to e-mail, as well as adjusting contrast, color, sharpness, cropping, sharpening and applying special effects. It's fast and straightforward, comes in 30 languages, and works with all versions of Windows.
Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy are programs that every PC owner should have, unless they use a comparable commercial product. They track down and eliminate spyware and adware. (They're so popular that there are spoof sights offering you sound-alike programs that substitute the kinds of programs you are trying to eliminate. So only use the links noted below.)
Ad-Aware from www.lavasoftusa.com protects you from advertisers that add data-mining programs and tracking software to your computer. Once you download it, the program scans your computer and eliminates the offending code.
Spybot Search and Destroy (www.safer-networking.org) is a second program that works like Ad-Aware, but often finds different categories of spyware programs. Run both programs weekly. You'll likely be amazed what they find.
A better browser
Firefox (www.getfirefox.com) is a new browser that's setting records for the number of downloads, already more than 20 million in just a few months. It's packed full of great features, but most importantly it provides much better protection against security leaks and spyware than Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Switching to Firefox from IE is easy; it automatically transfers all your bookmarks and has a similar interface. In addition, Firefox features a built-in Google toolbar, popup blocking and tab browsing, which opens additional Web pages in the background while you're reading another page. You can then click on the tabs to read the other pages without waiting. It's available in versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.
Because Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) has failed to improve its Internet Explorer since it crushed Netscape, Firefox leaves IE in the dust. Use this and retire Explorer.
Find it faster
X1 (www.x1.com), the search software that can quickly find almost anything on your PC, was a terrific product at $79. I found it to be one of the most useful of all utilities. It indexes everything on your computer in the background so whenever you search for an item, such as a particular e-mail, file, contact or attachment, it finds it as fast as you can type any word or phrase associated with the item.
Now Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) has entered into an arrangement with X1 to offer it for free. Renamed "Yahoo! Desktop Search," it's available as a beta from desktop.yahoo.com. It's part of Yahoo's initiative to extend search offerings to your desktop in its competition with Google.
So as Google and Yahoo keep trying to outdo each other, we win. Isn't competition great?
Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com.