Editor's Note: Mac users don't fret. We covered the same kind of resources for you in the last column.
Looking for some inexpensive updates for your computer at home or at school? It's amazing what you can find for free if you have the time to look. But because no one seems to have any time anymore, we've put together this list of downloadable software for Windows-based systems that we think you'll find valuable. The titles included are free and effective. While the programs may not offer all that their more famous and more costly counterparts include, you should find some gems on this list for home and for school.
All of these applications and more can be found at sites like versiontracker and http://www.download.com. Many of these applications are also available as a single archive from Softwarefor.org. (Softwarefor.org is an organization dedicated to providing free, high quality software to students.) Some of these applications may work for you and your computer system, and some may not, but if you find them useful, please consider donating to or supporting the developers.
NOTE: Before downloading any of the programs, check to see that what you are downloading is appropriate for your computer system. Many of these programs are for both PC and Mac, but require different downloads.
Anyone using the Internet will quickly encounter archives. An archive is a file or a collection of files that have been compressed for faster downloading. They typically have extensions like zip, rar or tar. 7-Zip is an excellent utility that allows users to easily create an archive for themselves or expand one.
AVG Anti-Virus (Anti-Virus)
Viruses are a fact of life on the Internet and Windows users must take steps to protect their systems. AVG Anti-Virus is very efficient and unlikely to slow down your computer like other anti-virus products. AVG Anti-Virus's efficiency is useful for users with older PCs or computers with slower CPUs and limited RAM.
Celestia (Space Simulation)
Celestia lets you explore the universe from your desktop. This expandable, interactive astronomy program allows users to view high-resolution images. There are also numerous Add-ons available from http://www.celestiamotherlode.net to enrich the experience.
Deepburner Free (Disc Burner)
Deepburner Free is an application that can burn all types of CDs and DVDs. It is compatible with most CD and DVD burners. Make sure to look for the free version on the download page. It is also referred to as the household version.
Firefox is an excellent alternative to Internet Explorer. In addition to offering significant security improvements over Internet Explorer, Firefox offers many features to improve the browsing experience like a pop-up blocker, tab browsing, spell checking, search suggestions and many more. Firefox is also expandable through the addition of numerous Add-ons. There are thousands of Add-ons that address almost anything the user would want to do with a browser.
Gaim (Chat, IM)
Gaim a very full featured chat program that can simultaneously connect to multiple account on multiple networks. It supports AIM and ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, SILC, Novell GroupWise Messenger, Lotus Sametime, and Zephyr networks. Gaim supports most of the features available on these networks and even adds some unique new ones. Power chatters should try this program.
Gimpshop (Photo Editing)
Need Adobe's Photoshop, but can't justify or afford the price? Gimpshop is a free photoshop alternative that offers many of the same features and has an almost identical interface. Of course, it's not PhotoShop, but it should help you with your photo editing.
Google Earth (Satellite Images)
Put the planet on your desktop. Google Earth allows you to find satellite images of almost any address on the planet. The software should be part of every social studies and geography class because it can quickly give students and teachers aerial views of whatever is being studied-all over the world. This is truly "Wow" software.
OpenOffice (Office Suite)
OpenOffice offers an alternative to purchasing Microsoft Office. The OpenOffice package includes word processing, spreadsheet, database, mathematical equation editing, drawing and presentation software. OpenOffice works with Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Word files.
PDFCreator (PDF Creator)
Confused about how to create PDF files from your work? This software quickly and easily helps you make PDFs from any application. Use it just like a printer in any Windows application.
Portable Apps (Transportable Applications)
Take all of your applications and data with you. Many of the programs listed here have portable versions can be run from any portable data storage device (USB flash drive, iPod, portable hard drive, etc.) with little or no modification. Portable Apps offers downloads and support for these portable programs.
Spybot - Search & Destroy (Utility)
Detects and removes spyware. If your browser suddenly has a new homepage, new toolbars, crashes, or behaves sluggishly, your PC may be infected with spyware. Spyware is software that installs itself on your PC so it can monitor and report your surfing habits. This information can then be compiled and sold to advertisers.
Thunderbird is a free email program from Mozilla, the same group that produces the exceptional free browser Firefox. It is a full-featured mail client supporting both POP and IMAP email protocols. Thunderbird also includes news feed support, spam filters, spell check and anti-phishing protection.
Tux Paint (Children's Drawing Program)
Tux Paint is an award-winning drawing program for children aged 3 to 12. It is very easy and fun to use. One reviewer calls it "perfectly uncomplicated." Don't take our word for it, visit http://www.tuxpaint.org/comments and read the reviews from other parents.
Tux Type (Children's Typing Tutor)
Tux Type offers children a fun way to improve their keyboard skills through interesting games. It even offers a feature to allow teachers to create group exercises.
VLC (Video Player)
This is an excellent stand-alone video player. It can handle almost any video or audio format. VLC is strongly recommended for anyone viewing or sharing video.