Windows is bathed in a sea of free applications. Which ones can you trust and which ones are the best?
Consult this list for ideas and discover apps you didn’t know existed. We’re continuously seeking out the best Windows software for all your needs. Almost all of the applications are free and you can quickly find what you need by browsing the listed programs by category.
Note that some installers pack bloatware, useless adware that’s pre-selected to install. It’s the bane of freeware. Fortunately, bloatware can be removed. Just keep your eyes open during installation and remove checkmarks for “features & services” you don’t want. We have made an effort to point out the presence of bloatware where possible. You can help us out with a comment if we missed it somewhere.
Last updated: December 19 2014
Navigation: Antivirus, Malware Removal, Firewalls, Defragging, File Recovery, Uninstallers, Backup & Sync, PC Maintenance, Browsers, Email Clients, Communication Tools, Image Viewers, Image Editors, Audio Tools, Video Tools, Files & Drives, Online File Storage Tools, Text Editing, PDF Tools, Ebooks, Productivity, Optical & Disc Image Tools, Download Tools, Miscellaneous
Antivirus tools are a cornerstone in protecting your computer from external attacks. While it shouldn’t be your only protection, it’s important that you install a single antivirus application only! Installing several antivirus tools on the same computer can potentially cause issues, to the point where they lock your computer up.
Lightweight and solid antivirus package. Awarded one of the best free antivirus suites in 2013 by AV-Comparatives and one of the best tools in their 2014 “real world” protection test. Security made in Germany.
Comes with protection for your computer, web, identity, emails, and a firewall. Like Avira, it came out as one of the best antivirus packages in AV-Comparatives’ 2014 “real world” protection test.
The free antivirus software from Avast packs a lot of features into a clean interface. It provides all-around protection against viruses and trojans.
In a recent poll for best antivirus software, we found that Microsoft Security Essentials was still very popular among our readers. Nevertheless, we presently advise against using MSE. If you are running Windows 8 or up, you’ll be offered Windows Defender instead of MSE.
Malware Removal ^
The following tools complement your antivirus application. While they might have overlapping features, both with your antivirus and each other, you can install one or more of these programs on a single computer.
The popular anti-malware scanner detects and removes worms, trojans, rootkits, rogues, spyware, and any other malware that infested your PC. If you’re not interested in the premium version, unselect the free trial option before completing the installation.
Spybot Search & Destroy’s free version targets spyware only and compliments your main antivirus app. Home and professional versions include antivirus and other advanced features for a small annual fee. Spybot offers an ad-free download via its own mirrors.
Should I Remove It? scans the software installed on your computer and points out adware, bloatware, and other software worth tossing. It draws the information from a database of applications, fed with the wisdom of the crowd, to which you contribute by using the service. If you’re unsure which programs to purge, try this!
A standalone scanner for malicious objects that can be used alongside your existing virus scanner with no installation required.
If you frequently install and test software, you might want to take additional precuations. Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) scans over 3,000 third party applications and promises to close the backdoors they bring in.
Beyond this set of anti-malware tools, you might want to try SUPERAntiSpyware for tricky cases.
A good firewall completes your basic security setup.
Emisof’s firewall for a malware free world is considered one of the best firewalls out there. Your initial download is a 30 day free trial of the premium version, which you can downgrade to a free limited version once the trial expires. The free version comes with the firewall and a host intrusion prevention system (HIPS). On top of that, the premium version offers advanced controls and a banking mode.
Comodo continues to offer one of the best free firewalls on the market. You can monitor in/out connections and manage traffic on your PC through an intuitive interface. Comodo offers Default Deny Protection (DDP) technology, which ensures that no malicious connection attempt escapes your attention.
While the website needs a facelift, the application itself sports an intuitive user interface that quickly lets you handle its comprehensive features.
Other popular tools in this category:
- ZoneAlarm Free Firewall, a popular firewall with comprehensive features.
- PeerBlock, a tool for controlling your PC’s communication with ad or spyware servers
A portable defragging tool, sporting solid features, paired with a pleasing and intuitive interface. You can benchmark your drive, view a file list and drive map, as well as examine drive health.
This defragger is easy to set up and runs in the background. Be sure to read our IObit Smart Defrag review for advice regarding setup and advanced settings.
File Recovery ^
Did you ever wish you could turn back time to recover your lost files? With the following tools you need neither a DeLorean, nor a flux capacitor, a little luck will do. Just remember not to write any data to the disk you wish to recover files from.
The Recuva wizard can take you through the process of recovering files or you can manually pick drives to be scanned. Designed for intuitive use by the makers of CCleaner. To recover photos from digital camera memory, try TestDisk’s open source companion PhotoRec, which can recover a wide range of accidentally deleted files, including photos.
Open source tool that’s considered one of the best applications for recovering lost partitions or making non-booting disks bootable again. Is operated through a command prompt window, but comes with thorough documentation, which will allow even novices to compile information for recovery by a professional.
More recommendable applications in this category:
- Panda Recovery, free file recovery software for any type of file, also available as portable app.
- FreeUndelete will recover files removed from the Recycle Bin.
Probably the most popular tool in this category. Easy to use and thorough, even comes with a hunter mode that will track down and eliminate programs based on icons or shortcuts on your screen. See our review of third party uninstallers for more details.
Why would you want to install an uninstaller? The developers of IObit Uninstaller 2 must have wondered as much and made the tool a lightweight portable app.
Other tools in this category:
- Absolute Uninstaller can fix invalid program entries and supports batch uninstalling.
- Geek Uninstaller is fast and reliable, it comes with a force removal option, and it’s completely portable (our Geek Uninstaller review).
Backup & Sync ^
When your computer came with Windows 8, you don’t need a fleet of backup tools. Windows 8 has a built-in Time Machine backup and with OneDrive you can sync files and folders across devices. It never hurts to have alternative backup solutions though.
Open source folder comparison and synchronizaton tool optimized for ease of use. Also available for Linux and Mac and as portable Windows app. We thought it was a better sync tool than Microsoft’s SyncToy. Be sure to deselect bloatware during setup.
If nags are a no-go, try the following alternatives:
- FBackup instead comes with similar features as FreeFileSync and supports plugins for typical backups, such as Firefox profiles or IE favorites.
- My personal favorite Cobian Backup comes with similar advanced backup features, but hasn’t been updated for a few years.
Free backup solution that includes disaster recovery option. Can back up files and folders, create an image of the entire operating system, or clone disks to migrate data. Supports comprehensive full backup, incremental backup, and differential backup. See our EaseUS Todo Backup review for more details.
- Clonezilla Live, an open source and cross-platform alternative for cloning drives
- DrimeImage XML, a tool to backup drives or partitions and browse & restore images.
10 GB free online storage & cross-platofrm sync included with a personal Box account. File transfers are encrypted with high-grade SSL and stored with 256-bit AES encryption. Desktop apps for Windows and Mac, mobile apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry available.
More apps in this category:
- SyncBack supports scheduled backups to an FTP server (our SyncBack review).
- Toolwiz Time Freeze can instantly put your Windows system into a sandbox and protect it from undesired changes.
PC Maintenance ^
Third party applications can impact your system’s performance. They can accumulate temporary files and huge caches, launch with Windows and consume resources in the background, while getting outdated over time. PC maintenance tools can help you keep your computer running smoothly on the software side or analyze issues with your hardware.
CCleaner is the PC maintenance gold standard. The award-winning optimization tool scores high points all around. Clean junk files, make your browsing safer, or speed up your startup times. If you absolutely have to use its registry cleaner, be sure to back up the registry first.
PC Wizard is a comprehensive benchmarking tool for your PC and its components. If you prefer a more selective overview, try CPU-Z (our CPU-Z review) for basic CPU, mainboard, memory, and system data, GPU-Z (our GPU-Z review) for information about your graphics card, and SpeedFan (our SpeedFan review) to monitor PC voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. Watch out for bloatware from CPUID when installing PC-Wizard or CPU-Z.
If you despise installers packed with unsolicitated apps, try Speccy, an advanced and stylish system information tool for your PC, made by the creators of CCleaner.
Software Update Monitor, short SUMo, monitors your installed software for available updates and downloads them for you. Be sure to deselect the default homepage setting during installation and click Cancel when prompted for it again! You can also quit the survey.
In addition to the tools above, we also recommend the following:
- WinDirStart visualizes your disk space usage.
- TreeSize can scan your directories to find space hogs and recover hard drive space.
- Process Explorer is an advanced Task Manager from Microsoft.
- d7II is a multi-tool designed for IT professionals from Foolish IT. It automates diagnostics, comes with Windows repair features, and can help you remove malware from infected systems. The tool is available for evaluation before you must commit to a monthly subscription.
Google’s minimal design browser that went from zero to hero in record time. Best browser if you’re already sold onto Google products. Receives frequent automatic updates and supports extensions from the Google Play store. See our Guide to Google Chrome to find out about custom settings and hacks.
With more than 6,000 add-ons, Firefox remains the most customizable browser on the market, offering its users more freedom than Chrome ever will.
Opera has pioneered new features like tabs or the speed dial. It’s working hard to remain the fastest browser on the market.
Email Clients ^
Mozilla’s trusty and easy to use email client. Supports tabs, add-ons, and is also available as portable app.
Do you know of any other free desktop email clients worthy of this list? Tell us which ones and why in the comments!
Communication Tools ^
Microsoft’s ultra popular cross-platform VoIP application to stay in touch with friends and family. Has reasonable rates for calling mobiles and landlines and attractive subscription packages. In an effort to compete with Google Hangouts, Skype now supports group video chats for non-premium accounts.
Image Viewers ^
All in one image browser, converter and editor that has never let us down. Supports all major graphic formats, including RAW and other digital camera formats. The makers of FastStone Image Viewer also offer a Capture tool and a Photo Resizer.
Simplistic on the surface, but awaits with advanced features under the hub, yet remains intuitive and easy to use. Classic image viewer, which you can also use for simple edits or batch-processing files.
Cross-platform image viewer, organizer, and converter that comes with a huge selection of filters and supports 500 different formats.
Image Editors ^
Advanced open source and cross-platform image editor, often touted as free Photoshop alternative. See our review for a quick GIMP walkthrough.
Free image editing tool with an intuitive interface for beginners and comprehensive features for intermediate users. Supports layers, unlimited undo, special effects, power tools, plugins, and when you’re stuck you can rely on a selection of tutorials and an active online community. See our Paint.NET review for more insights.
Potential alternatives to GIMP and Paint.NET, with a focus on photo editing:
- PhotoScape supports animated GIFs and RAW to JPG conversion.
- Zoner Photo Studio lets you remove unwanted objects and create HDR images.
We also recommend the following image editors:
- Picasa for organizing, editing, and sharing photos online.
- Inkscape for professionally editing vector graphics.
- XnConvert for batch processing images.
- RIOT for quickly optimizing photos.
Audio Tools ^
Advanced cross-platform audio player with highly customizable user interface. Supports gapless playback, can rip audio CDs and transcode supported audio formats, and is best used with custom keyboard shortcuts. See our foobar2000 review for more details.
If you have a large media collection, MediaMonkey can help you keep it organized (our MediaMonkey review). It manages video and audio files, playlists, and can fill in missing track information automatically.
Streaming music service complete with Facebook integration, iDevice management, and playing music to remote speakers.
Other notable applications in this category:
- AIMP3, a lightweight music library manager and audio player, which rivals foobar2000.
- Tomahawk, a cross-platform social music player that unites your downloads, cloud music storage, radio stations, and streams from various sources into one neat player interface where you can share it with friends.
- Audacity, an open source software for recording and editing audio tracks and sounds.
- TagScanner is a multifunction program for organizing and managing your music collection.
Video Tools ^
Free and cross-platform video player that can play almost any video file. Supports DVDs, CDs, VCDs, and a selection of streaming protocols, including YouTube playlists. It can also rip and transcode videos or record video from your webcam.
- Pot Player, the successor of KMPlayer with a rich set of advanced features.
- Media Player Classic, a lightweight media player with built-in codecs.
- UMPlayer, a cross-platform media player that, thanks to 270+ built-in codecs, may actually be able to play everything, including incomplete or damaged media files.
Open source, cross-platform, media converter that can convert video files between many different formats.
Alternatives to HandBrake:
- Freemake, a video converter and DVD burner that supports over 200 file types.
- Format Factory, a media converter that can also rip your DVDs and music CDs.
- SUPER, a universal and free media converter, player, and recorder. Watch out for adware during installation!
A cross-platform video transcoder that can read DVDs and Blu-Rays and convert them into free formats. The Blu-Ray feature is a free trial.
A high quality freeware screen capture utility with support for lossless video output. Perfect for creating screencasts or video tutorials.
An alternative to KODI is Plex, a media center based on XBMC and originally designed for the Mac. It now also supports movie trailers. James Bruce thinks Plex is the best media center software around.
Files & Drives ^
Copy and move files at maximum speed and pause & resume file transfers. When an issue comes up, TeraCopy won’t terminate a transfer like Windows Explorer does. Instead, it will show you the failed files after the transfer was completed.
EaseUS Partition Master is an advanced alternative to the built-in Windows partition manager. It supports merging of adjacent partitions, copying partitions and disks, upgrading system disk to a bigger drive, and it can recover deleted or lost partitions from unallocated space.
A free, lightweight and robust FTP client for transferring files to and from the web.
A feature-packed alternative file manager to Windows Explorer that uses a dual-panel layout. If all you desire is a file explorer that supports tabs, we recommend Explorer++. For more options, see this article on alternative file explorers.
Additional tools in this section:
- Z-Zip, a free archive manager that can extract or compress to ZIP, RAR, and many other archive files.
- Unlocker, a tool to unlock files in use, so you can go ahead and edit or delete them.
- DropIt can automatically sort files based on file type.
- Free Opener is a lightweight tool to open strange file types.
Online File Storage Tools ^
You can never have enough storage space. The advantage of cloud storage is that you can access it from anywhere and as long as the service and your Internet are running, you have nothing to worry about. The following are the most popular and reliable options available.
Dropbox is available across platforms and allows you to sync folders and files to the web and other devices connected to your Dropbox account. Great tool to auto-upload photos from your mobile phone. It’s being challenged by Microsoft OneDrive, which offers more storage capacity and potentially better Windows integration.
The evolution of Google Docs keeps your documents synced between the cloud and your PC (our Google Drive review).
Microsoft’s cloud storage solution comes with 15GB of space for storing documents and images.
Text Editing ^
Free cross-platform Microsoft Office alternative with a tabbed interface and more reliable support for collaborative features, such as tracking changes and comments. Self-absorbed ads can be a little annoying, but are easily ignored.
A Notepad alternative with tabs and advanced features, useful especially for coders.
Compose your blog posts, add photos and videos, format everything, then publish to any of the popular blogging and content management services with a click straight from Windows Live Writer.
PDF Tools ^
Light PDF reader with advanced features. Supports tabs and will remember the files you had open when you close it to re-open them during your next session. Great alternative to Adobe PDF Reader.
- Nitro Reader is a powerful free PDF reader that also lets you create PDF files via drag & drop from any file.
Free graphical interface version of PDFTK to merge, split, decrypt, encrypt, watermark PDF files.
Amazon’s Kindle app lets you read and manage your eBook collection from your Windows PC.
- MartView is an innovative ebook reader with a beautiful interface and it includes a page turning animation.
Free and open source eBook manager. Comes with a library to manage your eBooks, can convert eBooks from one format to another, syncs to your reader devices, downloads news from the web and converts it into eBook format, functions as an eBook viewer, and can edit eBooks.
Powerful virtual desktop manager. Expand your screen with virtual desktops and use them to separate open windows based on tasks. A similar tool is VirtuaWin, a lean desktop manager with a minimalist set of features.
Ditto is a clipboard manager that allows you to keep a record of your Windows clipboard backed up for later use or sync clipboards across multiple computers. Also available as a portable app. Similar to ClipX and many other clipboard managers.
A cross-platform utility that employs keyboard shortcuts to launch programs and files independently of Windows Explorer or the Start Menu.
Other notable applications in this section:
- SendToSendTo helps you customize the Windows Send To menu.
- Right Click Enhancer, a tool to edit Windows context menus.
- AutoHotkey enables desktop automation with hotkeys via custom scripts.
- Fences, a tool to organize the icons on your desktop.
- Rainlendar, a stylish and lightweight calendar for the Windows desktop.
- OneNote, Microsoft’s free and cross-platform note taking app.
- Wunderlist, a cross-platform app for keeping and collaborating on lists.
Optical & Disc Image Tools ^
Feature rich, yet easy to use burning tool for CDs, DVDs, HD-DVDs, Blu-Rays, ISOs, and bootable discs.
- ImgBurn, a lightweight CD, DVD; HD-DVD, Blu-Ray burning application.
- DVD Flick specializes in burning DVDs for your DVD player, media center, or home cinema set.
Simple tool to convert DVDs to AVI or MPEG for backing up your DVDs on your local drive. Includes its own codecs and can re-use codecs installed on your system. If your DVDs turn out too big to be stored locally, try DVDShrink to reduce their size.
CDex rips audio CDs to MP3 and other formats. Supports a range of encoders and the source code is open.
We’re thankful they didn’t call their tool Dolly, as it wouldn’t increase our confidence in its quality management. SlySoft’s Virtual CloneDrive allows you to mount image files from your CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs and play them virtually. It supports up to 15 virtual drives, meaning you’ll never have to swap discs again. The tool is also ideal if you want to run optical discs on a Windows device that lacks the matching drive.
Download Tools ^
Lightweight BitTorrent client with a staggering number of features packed into a tiny application. Ads can be an annoyance, but they can be turned off easily.
Free and open source download manager. Allows you to start, stop, and pause your downloads, set bandwidth limitations, and auto-extract archives. Your antivirus may detect it as a threat, but rest assured it’s a false positive. Potentially comes packed with bloatware.
- Mipony optimizes your Internet connection and comes with an embedded web browser.
- FlashGet can download videos from various sources, collaborates with your antivirus, and optimizes system resources.
- Free Download Manager supports HTTP, FTP, and BitTorrent. Can resume broken downloads and you can adjust traffic usage.
This utility helps you prevent eye strain and sleep better by adapting your screen brightness and color saturation to ambient lighting. It also supports scheduling, as shown above.
Classic Shell is more than a Start Menu replacement for Windows 8. Next to adding a customizable Start button and menu, it features tool- and status bars for Windows / File Explorer and Internet Explorer. Great productivity tool to make Windows better.
VirtualBox is the easiest way to create a virtual machine within Windows. You can install any operating system on your virtual machine and run it like it was a regular program. We have used VirtualBox to run Windows 10 on Windows, Linux, and Mac. Refer to our VirtualBox guide for more information.
TeamViewer allows you to remote connect to another computer over the Internet, either to provide technical assistance or to access files and programs. By far the best free remote desktop connection manager you can get. It’s cross-platform and easy to set up, too.
Hiren’s BootCD is one of those apps every techie should carry around. Burn the ISO to a CD or create a bootable USB with Rufus and you’ll always have a digital toolbox with you to fix some common computer issues. Comes with recovery tools, can reset your Windows password, test hardware, compile hardware information, and much more.
Portable and open source password manager with plugin support. Helps you protect your online accounts with strong passwords. The app stores passwords on your computer or USB drive.
You may know that deleting a file in Windows doesn’t actually erase it. How else would it be possibly to recover deleted files? Eraser is an open source utility and portable app that permanently deletes files by overwriting them with random patterns. Best used with hard disk drives since erasing data from a solid state drive can cause damage and other issues.
The End ^
Have you tested any of the applications above or have we missed your favorite software? Please tell us! We will improve the list based on our tests and your input. Please share your feedback in the comments.