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Just your luck: for some reason – maybe a virus infection, maybe a corrupted hard drive – you had to reinstall your operating system. In the process, you lost all of your data and your favorite programs and now you’re left with a blank slate. Instead of fretting over the situation, consider this an opportunity to start off on the right foot.

Here are the essential apps that will take care of 99% of your computer activity and, best of all, they’re available for free.

Anti-Malware: Malwarebytes

essential-windows-malwarebytes

Malware and virus infections can be a pain in the neck. Best fcase scenario, they’ll slow your computer down to a crawl and make daily computer use a frustrating experience. Worst case scenario, they’ll steal your passwords and other sensitive data, making your life a living hell. Malwarebytes is the best free malware cleaner Stop & Delete Spyware With Malwarebytes for Windows Stop & Delete Spyware With Malwarebytes for Windows Read More I’ve ever used, and it will serve you well, guaranteed.

Anti-Virus: Ad-Aware Free

essential-windows-adaware

Malwarebytes might be useful after you contract a malware infection, but Ad-Aware Free is the best free tool for preventing an infection in the first place. Think of Ad-Aware Free as the vaccine while Malwarebytes is the treatment – you need both, so don’t skimp out. There are plenty of strong anti-virus programs that will get the job done, but I’m privy to this one. If you don’t like it, I’d also recommend AVG Free.

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Browser: Pale Moon

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Your choice of Internet browser is probably the most important choice for a newly installed operating system. If you’re on the Internet as much as I am, then your browser will shape and mold much of your computer experience, and dealing with a frustrating browser will really soil your days.

This one ultimately comes down to personal preference. The big name browsers are all packed with great features and some of those features may be more important to you than they are to me, and vice versa.  For quick reference, those browsers are Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari. My personal favorite, Pale Moon, is a fork of Firefox.

Compression: 7-Zip

essential-windows-7zip

Over 20 years after the release of the ZIP file format, we’re still using it. We’re also using other compression formats like RAR and now 7Z, which was pioneered by the 7-Zip compression program. I love 7-Zip because it’s small, lightweight, and versatile enough to handle all major compression formats, plus it won our file compression method comparison test What’s The Best File Compression Method? MakeUseOf Tests Zip, RAR & More What’s The Best File Compression Method? MakeUseOf Tests Zip, RAR & More File compression is an important and common task users frequently ask of their computers. Reducing a file’s size makes it easier to email or place on a flash drive. It also reduces bandwidth usage and... Read More .

Documents: Libre Office

essential-windows-libreoffice

No computer would be complete without an office suite. Students need it for their assignments and office workers need it for their paper-pushing. Even if you are neither of those, a word  processor will come in handy when you need to draft resumes and letters while spreadsheets are useful for budgeting and general organization. There’s no reason to overlook an office suite.

For your most basic needs, Google Docs might suffice, but Libre Office is a great free alternative to the usual Microsoft Office. Read our Libre Office overview LibreOffice - A Free Office Suite For Windows, Linux & Mac LibreOffice - A Free Office Suite For Windows, Linux & Mac Read More for a better idea of what it offers.

PDF Reader: Sumatra

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Adobe has a well-earned reputation for producing slow, security-hole-ridden software products that often require frequent updates – sometimes as often as daily. That’s why I avoid using Adobe Reader, and so should you. Instead, I recommend using Sumatra PDF, which is an open source reader that not only reads PDF, but also XPS, CBR, EPUB, and MOBI formats.

It’s fast, lightweight, and more secure than most readers, which makes it one of the best PDF readers for Windows The 6 Best PDF Readers For Windows The 6 Best PDF Readers For Windows Most people don’t stop to think about the PDF reader they install – they just install Adobe Reader. Adobe's PDF Reader isn’t the only option, though – there are quite a few high-quality, free PDF... Read More .

Storage: Dropbox

essential-windows-dropbox

If you aren’t careful, there are some dangers in using cloud storage, but as long as you take the proper precautions, cloud storage can be tremendously helpful for organization, extra space, and file backups. Nowadays, there are a number of cloud storage services that you can choose from, but Dropbox remains ever popular. For those of you who are new to cloud storage, we have a Dropbox guide to get you started The Unofficial Guide To Dropbox The Unofficial Guide To Dropbox There's more to Dropbox than you might think: you can use it for file sharing, backing up your data, syncing files between computers and even remotely control your computer. Read More .

SugarSync is a great alternative (read our SugarSync review SugarSync: The Most Well-Rounded Free File Backup & Syncing Service SugarSync: The Most Well-Rounded Free File Backup & Syncing Service File backup is not a new conversation or topic by any means. If you search Google for “file backup” you will likely be overwhelmed by services and articles on the topic. It is a vast... Read More ) as are Google Drive and SkyDrive. Check out our cloud storage comparison The Cloud Storage Showdown - Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive & More The Cloud Storage Showdown - Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive & More The cloud storage scene has heated up recently, with a long-awaited entry by Google and a revamped SkyDrive from Microsoft. Dropbox has gone unchallenged by the major players for a long time, but that’s changed... Read More to see which one fits best for you.

Utility: Everything, TeraCopy, WinDirStat

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These three tools are miscellaneous utility tools that will make it more convenient for you to manage your computer files. Everything is a lightning-fast search tool 7 Awesome Alternatives To Windows Search 7 Awesome Alternatives To Windows Search Although there are some things you can do to improve searching using the Windows Search - and the search application seems to be much more improved in Windows 7 - there are some excellent alternatives... Read More that will find any file on your computer in under a second. TeraCopy is a powerful file transfer 4 Ways To Copy Files (Faster) In Windows 4 Ways To Copy Files (Faster) In Windows Windows 7's file copy dialog is okay. It isn't the fastest when copying a large number of files. However, there are faster ways to copy files. The traditional Windows file copy dialog's worst problem is... Read More utility. WinDirStat is a tool that scans your disks and shows you statistics on file space usage Visualize your Hard Drive Usage with WinDirStat Visualize your Hard Drive Usage with WinDirStat Read More . These three are absolute must-haves, if you ask me.

Video: Media Player Classic – Home Cinema

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Finally, no computer would be complete without a proper video player. If you like the default Windows Media Player, feel free to stick with it, but you should know that there are much better alternatives out there like Media Player Classic – Home Cinema.

It’s fast, lightweight, handles practically all video formats out of the box, and packed with wonderful features. Of all the free media players on Windows, I consider MPC-HC to be the best.

Conclusion

Next time you need to reformat your drive or reinstall Windows, these are the essential apps you should install right away. In the realm of free software, all of the programs listed here are widely considered to be best of class and most have made it to our Best Windows Software page. They’ve never let me down and you would do well to make use of them, too.

What other essential programs do you think should be installed on a brand new Windows setup? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!

  1. Andrej
    November 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

    My list for Vista 32-bit
    Avast! (Free Edition)
    Ccleaner
    Auslogic DiskDefrag
    7-zip
    LibreOffice
    Notepad++
    Adobe Acrobat XI
    Mozilla Firefox
    Mozilla Thunderbird & Lightning
    Skype
    uTorrent
    Gimp
    Inkscape
    Aimp3
    VLC

  2. Iran
    October 21, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    What happened to VLC Media Player?!

    • Joel L
      October 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      I much prefer Media Player Classic Home Cinema over VLC in every way. :)

  3. Leonard
    October 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Hi Joel,
    Thanks for your tips, really usefull!

    I really want to use Pale Moon, but unfortunately it does not support Sticky Password Addon.
    Do you know when it will be possible?

    Best regards!

    • Joel L
      October 8, 2013 at 2:26 am

      Sorry, I don't know. You may get an answer if you send an email to Pale Moon! :)

  4. Doc
    October 6, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    Must-haves: RocketDock (portable mode), Firefox Portable, CCleaner, Defraggler, AVG 2014, FileZilla, GIMP, Notepad++, QTTabBar, VLC Portable, SpiderPlayer Portable, Kompozer Portable, Portable Apps Platform, Sumatra PDF Reader (Foxit Reader has gone to a butt-ugly "Visual Studio" UPPERCASE-MENUS-on-white theme, and Sumatra opens more file types).

  5. Nero T
    October 6, 2013 at 3:59 am

    I recommend Ninite.com, I always visit this site when I reinstall Windows. It's contains all essential programs you need, includes all apps that is metioned above.

  6. Bismo Funyuns
    October 5, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Notepad2-mod
    Miranda IM
    WavePad Sound Editor
    QuiteRSS
    aTube Catcher
    Portable WinCDEmu
    FileHippo Update Checker
    lamedropXPd3
    VirtualDub
    Camtasia Studio 8
    Any Video Converter
    Tor Browser
    Spek
    WinSCP
    XenonMKV
    UniversalThemePatcher
    Windows 7 Start Button Changer
    Send To WP7 Desktop
    FL Studio
    Mp3tag
    Abyss Web Server
    Free Download Manager
    Microsoft Visual Studio
    Photomatix Pro

  7. Jainey
    October 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Another "first" to install for me is Win Patrol made by Bill Pytlovany. He's a recognized
    coder who helped design AOL, Windows. There is a free version and a plus version. Both
    will tell you if something was installed that you didn't want and it will remove them if you
    want. I used the free for 3 years and finally said, 'duh. If it's this good why not see what the
    paid for version is?

  8. Wilders M
    October 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    PDF Xchange viewer is better. It has many features and very light too.

  9. Sajeel Aqdas
    October 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I use Foxit Reader for PDF viewing. I think it is better than Sumatra.

  10. Arpit N
    October 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm
  11. Taha Shaikh
    October 5, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I reinstall OS after my fidgeting gets too out of control. And my one stop solution after reinstall has been Liberkey Suite of portable apps. It includes almost everything I need to get going after fresh install.

  12. Manuth C
    October 5, 2013 at 6:14 am

    You don't even need a PDF reader in Windows 8, it already has one

    • Saad S
      October 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      The built in Windows 8 PDF reader is a Metro app, which some people really dislike.

      So having a desktop reader is a better idea than using the built in reader I think!

  13. Katy
    October 5, 2013 at 1:07 am

    this is my list of essential programs:

    -anti malware: malwarebytes

    -anti virus: windows defender/microsoft security essentials.I used to have AVG free,but after I got infected with a nasty worm and AVG failed to even detect it,I changed to mse,since this anti virus didn't have any problem detecting the worm and disinfecting my computer.

    -browser: pale moon :D

    -compression: winrar,works great,does everything I need it to do and it's lightweight.

    -documents:microsoft office 2010

    -pdf reader:stduviewer

    -storage,I prefer having an external hdd as a back up,but I also use adrive and google drive,better safe than sorry :D

    -utility:ccleaner,everything and QTTabBar

    -video player: potplayer,best media player,hands down.

    -music player: musicbee,best music player and library organizer,does everything foobar does,without needing extra plugins and tons of hours to configure it.

    also,honorific mention to internet download manager,dfx,cleanmem(seriously,the program is a must have) and startisback,if you're on windows 8.

  14. Katy
    October 5, 2013 at 1:03 am

    this is my list of essential programs:

    -anti malware: malwarebytes
    -anti virus: windows defender/microsoft security essentials.I used to have AVG free,but after I got infected with a nasty worm and AVG failed to even detect it,I changed to mse,since this anti virus didn't have any problem detecting the worm and disinfecting my computer.
    -browser: pale moon :D
    -compression: winrar,works great,does everything I need it to do and it's lightweight.
    -documents:microsoft office 2010
    -pdf reader:stduviewer
    -storage,I prefer having an external hdd as a back up,but I also use adrive and google drive,better safe than sorry :D
    -utility:ccleaner,everything and QTTabBar
    -video player: potplayer,best media player,hands down.
    -music player: musicbee,best music player and library organizer,does everything foobar does,wothout needing extra plugins and tons of hours to configure it.

    also,honorific mention to internet download manager,dfx,cleanmem(seriously,the program is a must have) and startisback,if you're on windows 8.

  15. J Enrique F
    October 4, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    Good selection there, but as a Windows 7 pro user, these programs work for me:
    AVG internet security, fast and light
    google chrome... fast way to browse the internet and to keep same browser set up in multiple pc.
    7-zip... easy to use
    teracopy, fast!!!
    Foxit reader (PDF) light and fast!! i will never go back to adobe
    Dropbox, i love dropbox
    microsoft office, libre office is another good choice if you couldn't buy MO (MO is like 15 bucks for students in the US... im not sure when this promo ends though)
    Glary utilities, very fast... im running it as i type.
    Saluto, will give new life to your old pc or laptop

  16. DR
    October 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Personal Computer (Not for Work but Play) On Windows 8:
    -------------------------------
    ShareX - https://code.google.com/p/sharex/
    WSCC - http://www.kls-soft.com/wscc/
    Everything - http://voidtools.com/
    Malwarebytes Pro - http://www.malwarebytes.org/
    7-zip with Theme Manager - http://www.7ztm.de/
    Notepad++ - http://notepad-plus-plus.org/
    Microsoft Office
    Google Chrome
    Firefox
    Piriform CCleaner - http://www.piriform.com/
    HostsMan - http://www.abelhadigital.com/hostsman
    VLC Player - http://www.videolan.org/vlc/
    Bittorrent - http://www.bittorrent.com/
    RapidEE - http://www.rapidee.com/en/about
    Steam

  17. Madge Villegas
    October 4, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Some stuff I would reinstall. I never had to reinstall Windows 7 since I got it 4 years ago.
    Malwarebytes Anti-Malware
    Microsoft Office
    K-Lite Mega Codec Pack, QT Lite
    Winamp, VLC Player, Zune, Plex Media Server
    Firefox
    uTorrent
    WinRar
    SkyDrive, Skype
    Flash Player/Shockwave/Adobe Reader X, Sliverlight
    OpenHardwareMonitor
    Unlocker
    Geek Uninstaller
    Oracle VM VirtualBox

  18. BigBadBubbleButt
    October 4, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, the hosts file from http://winhelp2002.mvps.org/hosts.htm, HiJackThis, common sense 2013.

    Internet Download Manager, Microsof Office, WinRAR, FoxitReader, Fraps, PowerISO.

    Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Collins COBUILD Advanced Dictionary.

    Firefox (with EPUBReader, Ghostery, SaveFrom.net helper add-ons), TOR.

    Java (disable it in the browser, though), DotNet, AMD drivers, DirectX, ffdshow, Flash Player, OpenAL, PhysX, Shockwave, Visual C++ Red, Xvid.

    IrfanView, QuickTime, Winamp, MPC-HC, VLC.

    LOIC, Entis Cursors, hping3, slowloris, utorrent.

    jv16 PowerTools, Raxco PerfectDisk Pro, Ultimate Windows Tweaker, CCleaner, Temp File Cleaner by OldTimer.

    Service Packs; updates, VMware Workstation, Win 98.

    Autoruns, ProcessExplorer, ProcessMonitor, CPU-Z, GPU-Z, SpeedFan.

    Disable all the startup stuff you don't need via regedit, and the Windows Services you don't need (check out Black Viper guides).

    • Joel L
      October 8, 2013 at 2:24 am

      Wow, that's a lot of stuff! You must've reinstalled Windows a bunch of times by now since you're on the ball. :P

    • BigBadBubbleButt
      October 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm

      It's not a lot, unless you're new to it. Usually happens once a year, either due to tinkering whilst drinking beer, or due to getting a healthy dose of my own medicine all over the screen at 2am ;D, or electricity conking out during BIOS updates lol. Every year, it's something new, though. Forgot to mention TweakGuides Tweaking Companion :-).

  19. Joshua T
    October 4, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    This is what i installed after reinstalling Windows
    Anti-Malware: I leave the job to Microsoft Defender and Microsoft Security Essential
    Anti Virus: BitDefender IS 2013
    Browser: Google Chrome
    Compression: WinRAR or WinZIP
    Documents: Microsoft Office 2013
    PDF reader: Adobe Reader X or 11
    Storage: I use Mediafire.com for storage
    Utility: Revo Uninstaller / Add Take Ownership option to my registry / Resource Hacker / Rain meter / Process Hacker and other.
    Media Players: GOM player / VLC player / Windows Media Player Classic

    I'm happy with these software and with this set up. They didn't give me an headache :)

    • Scott
      October 5, 2013 at 11:26 am

      I thought MSE *was* an anti-virus program. But you also have BitDefender installed for that. Do you have both of them running for real-time protection (which I thought was a no-no), or do you only use BD for that while using MSE only for manual scans ?

    • r
      October 11, 2013 at 1:15 am

      Try PEAZIP ... it's very mighty and freeware

    • swarfega
      October 12, 2013 at 10:48 am

      This is a website rather than limited paper based media. How can you be limited?

  20. elsocplayer
    October 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I also like having CCleaner. I've used a few of the apps myself on my pc. Trying out a few of the others like libreoffice and sumatra PDF on a PC I'm refurbishing for my church.

    • Joel L
      October 8, 2013 at 2:23 am

      CCleaner is a good one and if I had any more room in the article, I likely would've included it. :)

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