Believe it or not, there is a bigger software question this holiday season that “Do I need to upgrade to Windows 7?” (For those struggling with that question, we have a To Buy or Not To Buy guide for Windows 7 and a Guide to the Editions to sort out which flavor of Windows 7 is right for you.) But for the largely issue, what software stocking-stuffers should you buy for a new (or old) PC? Below we rate the best software application in six key categories — Security, Office Suites, Photo Editing, Video Editing, Online Backup, and Personal Finance — and offer free alternative apps in each sector for those of you shopping for software on a recession-friendly budget.
Kaspersky Anti-Virus — In our 2009 Antivirus Buyers Guide, Kaspersky took home the Editor’s Choice award on the strength of being the fastest and most proactive antivirus solution we tested. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some of its competitors, but when it comes to blocking malware without wasting time or slowing down other applications, Kaspersky is the frontrunner. Kaspersky has released a more recent version since our original review, and they’ve only improved on their strengths.
Free Alternative: Microsoft Security Essentials — For anyone running a “genuine” copy of Windows, which to say anyone who has a Windows Genuine Advantage verifier installed, MS Security Essentials is a totally free, dead-simple security suite. It’s a little slower than the third-party security apps, but its Windows intergation means it’s very efficient and doesn’t hog system resources. For those of you who don’t truck with Windows Genuine Advantage — or Microsoft’s less than stellar security record — there’s always the new AVG Free Antivirus 9.0, which is slightly slower but still a solid security app that’s solidly free.
Microsoft Office Home & Student 2007 — Honestly, you shouldn’t buy any office suites this holiday season, but if you must MS Office is the heavyweight in the productivity software department for a reason; it’s the app with the most features and (yes, really) the most polish. Moreover, Microsoft is going to force the new Ribbon interface into a market standard, so you need to get used to it now. The Home & Student version of Office is almost always available for a steep discount, and it includes the three classic apps — MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, along with Microsoft OneNote. If you absolutely must have Outlook — which is increasingly an exception in the age of Web mail — you can move up to MS Office 2007 Standard, which trades out OneNote for the signature Microsoft e-mail app, though you won’t find nearly the discounts for Office Standard. All that said, if you can afford to wait until next year, MS Office 2010 comes out and it will be much more polished than Office 2007, particularly where the ribbon is concerned.
Free Alternative: OpenOffice 3.1 — Open Office 3.1 is like a great cover band version of MS Office 2003 — it hits all the notes you’re used to, it just feels a bit different. Perhaps most importantly, OpenOffice 3.1 doesn’t have the controversial Ribbon interface, but it does have all the classic MS Office features and it locates them in familiar menus and layouts. Best of all, it’s completely free, so for all those power users who actually notice the quirky differences between OpenOffice’s and MS Office’s upper-end features will be satisfied knowing they didn’t pay a serious cover charge to enjoy the imitation performer.
Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 — Corel has a long history in image editing, but what let the old veteran displace the current heavyweight Photoshop Elements in our rankings is Corel’s Learning Center, a highly effective interactive tutorial system that eases even novice users into Paint Shop’s high-end filters and effects. The Learning Center combined with Paint Shop’s near pro-grade feature set helped Corel take home the Editors Choice selection in our 2009 Photo Editor Buyers Guide. Give it a whirl.
Free Alternative: Picnik — Flickr users will recognize Picnik as their photosharing site’s built-in photo editor, but Picnik actually has a life of its own. This Web-based app offers all the basic photo editing and correction tools you’ve come to expect, but in a clean interface that’s very user-friendly. The red-eye correction in particular is dead-simple to use and its basic autocorrect tool fixes most common point-and-shoot mistakes. Power users and serious photographers won’t be satisfied with Picnik’s basic feature set but the average holiday and family-function photog will do just fine. And you can’t beat the price: Free.
Pinnacle Studio Plus 12 — Pinnacle is the consumer version of the professional grade Avid video editing software, but that’s not why it took home our Editor’s Choice award in our 2009 Home Video Editing Software Buyers Guide. Pinnacle Studio Plus 12 was the most user-friendly editing application and it boasted the most effective user tutorials. Given how complex most video editors can seem, and how many features are often lurking under the hood, being easy to use makes Pinnacle the soundest investment of the bunch.
Free Alternative: JayCut — Believe it or not, there are actually several free Web-based video editing applications out there, but JayCut outshines most of them in two key areas. First, JayCut is exceedingly simple to use despite having a decent feature set; you can trim a video timeline and perform basic edits and corrections. Second, and perhaps more importantly, JayCut is one of the few video-editor web apps that lets you download your finished products back to your local hard drive, rather than locking them up on its own Web servers. Combine ease of use with that freedom, and you’ve got a nice, lightweight video editor that will serve the average home user quite well until they graduate to a more serious solution.
Mozy — You have to like an online backup service that gives away the first two gigabytes of storage for free and then prices additional storage at competitive rates. Consider it a try-before-you-buy option on the service. Mozy offers solid Windows integration and was the overall Editors Choice selection in our 2009 Online Backup Service Buyers Guide. While not the most feature-rich online backup service, Mozy has a commitment to customer service that impressed us, especially the option to ship you a DVD-ROM copy of your backed-up files via FedEx, just in case you want a hardcopy of your data. Very nice.
Free Alternative: Microsoft SkyDrive — Somehow Microsoft has failed to adequately tell the world that anyone with a free MS Live account (which means anyone with a Hotmail account) can post up to 25 GB of files to an online datastore for free. This service is called SkyDrive and it’s got all kinds of hooks into MS Office 2010 (due first half next year) but for now this is like having a shared network drive out on the Internet. It isn’t as seamless or automated as a classic file/folder online backup product, but it’s massive and it’s free and it will only get better as Microsoft starts gearing up for SkyDrive’s central role in the new Office product lineup.
Quicken Deluxe 2009 — Quicken took home the Editor’s Choice award in our 2009 Personal Finance Software Buyer’s Guide. It also ran Microsoft out of the personal finance app market this year by forcing the discontinuation of MS Money. In many respects, Quicken is the last man standing in this space, and it’s got the features and — most importantly — the online bank and investment service interactivity to stay there for a while. The in-program advertisements can be annoying, particularly the constant pokes to sign up for a Quicken Visa card, but on the whole Quicken Deluxe 2009 is a solid financial planning app that will get your household budget in order with a minimum hassle.
Free Alternative: Mint — Mint was considered the free, online Quicken-killer, so much so that Quicken maker Intuit bought the company lock, stock and barrel earlier this year. Mint is the ultimate online bank statement, automatically downloading all your transaction data from credit cards, bank accounts, and online bill-pay sites and aggregating it into a single interactive budget. Its analysis tools are basic but easy to use. Mint is also light on active budget guidance, and you can’t directly pay bills or move money around using Mint, but when it comes to providing a global view of your finances. Mint is solid. It’s also free, which means you’ll be shopping smarter the minute you use it.