There are lots of guides out there for the best free Windows software, and I’ve read probably a good third of them. Terribly nerdy. Back in my modem days, I spent more time downloading free software just for the heck of it than I did playing video games. So I may as well compile a short list of good stuff on my own.
Non-Horrible Software is often very small in size and sharply focused on its main use case. It is elegant in function, design, and intent. If you don’t like or need the software, removing it is simple and it leaves no mess behind. No nag screens, bloated runtime dependencies, needless skins, online activation, or other nonsense. Requirements are similar to those of tinyapps.org.
The list, then.
A List of Non-Horrible Software (and the things that are not horrible about them)
SumatraPDF (free, open source, portable) – A fast, no-frills PDF reader. For a while, FoxitPDF was great for reading PDFs compared to Adobe’s overweight desktop ambassador, Adobe Reader. Now, FoxitPDF is experiencing its own irritating feature creep, including built-in advertisements for the paid version. Unlike these two jokers, SumatraPDF is a completely non-commercial, portable, free, and open source PDF reader. It made my favorites list recently when I found out that it now automatically recalls the last page of every PDF it opens, which saves much time flipping through pages. Even if SumatraPDF is too feature-free for advanced use, it’s still worth keeping around because it’s fast and as free of irritants as cotton underwear.
AxCrypt (free, open-source, partially portable) – A seamlessly integrated file encryption utility. It’s getting rare that a genuinely useful bit of security software for Windows isn’t some ad-laden tie-in to a costly subscription product. They pop up ads, make loud noises when they update, and seem to require constant attention because they are, after all, ads themselves. AxCrypt, on the other hand, hardly calls attention to itself at all.
An example: To encrypt a Microsoft Word document, right-click on it, select the appropriate menu option, enter a password, and the file is encrypted as a .doc.axx file. After that, you’re essentially done. Any time you need to open the file, you enter your password, and the file is opened — as a .doc — in Microsoft Word (this is the ‘seamless’ part). Under the covers, AxCrypt has decrypted the file, appropriately renamed it as a .doc so Word doesn’t freak out, and launched Microsoft Word per usual. When you’re done, AxCrypt re-encrypts the file, shredding the temporary .doc first, with no further prompting from you.
Boiled down, this means that any encrypted file basically acts like any other file on your computer, as long as you have the password. It’s almost like AxCrypt isn’t even there. There isn’t even a splash screen. How marvelous.
That’s not all. Right-click a folder, and you can encrypt (or decrypt) every file within it, or even securely shred the whole works. You can open encrypted files on machines without AxCrypt by using a portable AxDecrypt program, or embed a decryption routine within the file itself. AxCrypt has you covered in nearly any situation in which you may want to encrypt files. All this, in an install size that would fit in an email attachment. Utterly indispensable.
Slightly Horrible Software That’s Still Pretty Good To Have Around
7-zip – This archive software is really two things: a free, open-source compression format, and an archive manager GUI (the visual interface with which you compress and decompress archives). Both have been under development for years, and though the project is solid enough for daily use, it has its flaws. The 7zip format, for example, implements a very high compression ratio in part due to solid compression, which reduces corrupt file recovery ability and increases update time (since it is essentially fake, decompressing and overwriting the entire volume). It also does not offer robust error recovery, a very attractive feature of WinRAR (shareware). On the other hand, it does achieve very good compression ratios, a ton of other industry standard features (like encryption and SFX archives), and is free.
7zip’s file manager, which you will be almost exclusively using, is simple, integrates seamlessly within Windows, and handles a good dozen other compression algorithms, including ZIP. On the other hand, it is rather homely, and has an interface somewhat out of harmony with the default Windows shell. To give an example of how far it has come, and the mindset behind, there was once a time when the developer refused to consider drag-n-drop functionality!
It still has a way to go, but for an ‘advanced’ user, 7-zip an excellent choice as an archive tool. For those willing to shell out, or deal with a nag screen, WinRAR is arguably better. Beginners can stick with IZArc (freeware), which emulates the familiar WinZip interface and focuses on ease of use.