By Jay Garmon
If you’re considering buying a loved one a new PC this spring, don’t forget that software has as much (if not more) impact on your computing experience as hardware. If you’re going the Windows route, don’t hesitate to choose Windows 7 over Windows Vista; the former is leaps and bounds better than the latter. We’ve got a handy Guide to the Windows 7 Editions to determine which version of Windows 7 is the best fit for you.
Operating systems, of course, are just the start of your software decision-making process. Below we rate the best software applications in five categories — Security, Office Suites, Photo Editing, Video Editing, and Online Backup — and offer free alternative apps in each area, just in case you forgot to budget for apps when you laid down cash for your new desktop for dad, laptop for the recent grad, or digital camera for mom.
Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2010 — Kaspersky’s 2009 Anti-Virus product won top honors in our 2009 Antivirus Buyers Guide. This year, Kaspersky 2010 is the frontrunner to take home another Antivirus Editor’s Choice from Notebook Review. The reason for the praise: pure, unadulterated proactivity. Kaspersky consistently stopped our test viruses before we downloaded them, neutralizing threats before they ever got to our PC. While you pay for that safety in slightly longer scan times and larger memory footprints, Kaspersky is the most effectively aggressive virus watchdog we’ve tested yet.
Free Alternative: Avast Free Antivirus — Rated as Notebook Review’s Best Free Antivirus for 2010, Avast earns our praise for the same reason as Kaspersky: proactivity. While not quite as effective as a top-end paid antivirus suite, Avast was able to snag many sample viruses prior to download, and caught the same number overall as any paid or free solution we tested. The interface and features aren’t as pretty or versatile as you might find elsewhere, but if all you want to do is block malware infections, Avast is more than enough. And it’s free.
Microsoft Office Home & Student 2007 — Yes, Microsoft Office 2010 is due out on May 12, but only for PC manufacturers. You can order it preloaded on PCs from that date forward, though it may take a few days for Office 2010 systems to make it into the pipeline. You can’t order the retail version of Office 2010 until June. Not to fear, if you buy Office 2007 between now and September 30, you’ll get a free upgrade to Office 2010 when it’s released. The Home & Student version of Office can be had for a 90 percent discount, (so long as you have a valid .edu e-mail address). Home & Student includes the three main Office apps — Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, along with Microsoft OneNote. If you need Outlook, you can pony up for MS Office 2007 Standard, which replaces OneNote with Microsoft’s high-end e-mail client at the cost of the student discount.
Free Alternative: OpenOffice 3.1 — Of all the free alternatives to Microsoft Office we investigated, OpenOffice is still the best. Open Office 3.1 is like the store-brand version of your favorite name-brand product; it has all the same basic ingredients, and does the same job, but without all the pizzazz and polish. Where the metaphor breaks down is that OpenOffice isn’t just cheaper than Microsoft Office; OpenOffice is flat-out free. And if you hate the new ribbon interface in Office 2007 and 2010, OpenOffice will feel refreshingly familiar — like a time capsule of Microsoft Office 2003. While OpenOffice doesn’t include all the Microsoft hook-ins like SharePoint integration or direct file-saves to SkyDrive, it can open, edit and save almost any file format out there — even PDFs. That’s all the functionality most people need, anyway.
Photo Editing Software
Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X3 — Corel Paintshop Pro Photo X2 took home the Editor’s Choice in our 2009 Photo Editor Buyers Guide. The next generation of that program, PSP Photo X3, has done nothing to erode that position in our minds. Paint Shop Pro is known for its extreme ease of use, especially when compared to the notorious complexity of Adobe products, even the entry-level Photoshop Elements line. Paint Shop Pro Photo X3 is also cheaper than many of its competitors, but with that downgrade in cost, you also lose some of the more high-end features, like a powerful RAW file editor. On the whole, Paint Shop Pro Photo X3 gives you the best image-editing bang for your buck.
Free Alternative: Picnik — Here’s how good Picnik is: Google already owned a free, dead-simple desktop photo editor called Picasa, but they went ahead and bought Picnik anyway just so they could add all of the free, browser-based editor’s tools to Google’s stable of web apps. While there are certain file size limits and bandwidth slowdowns when you use an online photo editor — you don’t want to deal with uncompressed RAW files in Picnik –the ease of use, variety of tools, and zero-cost price tag make it a great option for budget-conscious photo enthusiasts.
Video Editing Software
Pinnacle Studio Ultimate Collection 14 — Pinnacle Studio is the consumer-grade cousin of the Avid line of professional video editing software. That heritage is on display in Pinnacle Studio’s feature set, but what earns Pinnacle top marks with us (and gave Pinnacle Studio 12 our Editor’s Choice award in our 2009 Home Video Editing Software Buyers Guide) was unabashed user-friendliness. Pinnacle Studio 14 has extremely simple, effective, and useful user tutorials — the sort of guide that helps you unlock all the cool tools that you’ve always suspected were hiding under your video editor’s hood. You can spend more on higher-grade video editors and get more features for your money, but odds are that extra video-splicing horsepower won’t be anywhere near as understandable as the features offered in Pinnacle 14.
Free Alternative: JayCut — JayCut is a simple, barebones online video editor that distinguishes itself in two key areas: it’s totally free, and you can download your edited videos. Many other free online editors don’t let you download a modified file, but instead simply allow you to embed the edited version of a clip using their proprietary player. While the JayCut feature set can’t compete with a desktop editor (yet), you can still trim and splice video, add transitions, mix in music, and directly export to YouTube or Facebook. For 75 percent of the video-editing audience, that feature set is more than enough.
Online Backup Software
Mozy — Here’s what earned Mozy the Editor’s Choice in our 2009 Online Backup Service Buyers Guide: The first two gigabytes of storage are free, and unlimited storage is a mere $4.95 for the consumer-grade product, MozyHome. Your files are stored in a virtual drive that shows up in your file explorer, just like any traditional hard drive. There is a robust set of options for ensuring that backups don’t grab unnecessary files and don’t interrupt your regular activities (file uploads can crush your household internet bandwidth if not managed properly). And should you ever have the need, Mozy will FedEx you a DVD-ROM of all your files, just in case you need a physical copy of your data. That’s a level of redundancy that’s tough to beat.
Free Alternative: Microsoft SkyDrive — SkyDrive is Microsoft’s answer to Google Docs, Dropbox and Mozy, rolled into one and all for free. Anyone with a Microsoft Live ID (which is to say anyone with an MSN, Microsoft Messenger, or Hotmail account) is allotted 25 gigabytes of free file storage. And any files you upload to SkyDrive can be viewed or edited by Microsoft’s new Office Web Apps (where applicable) or directly opened by Office 2010 desktop applications. There are some clunky bits, which are to be expected in a Microsoft product, and there’s no automated file syncing, but 25 free gigabytes of easily used storage is nothing to sneeze at.
Additional Tools and Guides
Top 10 Google Chrome Extensions for Better, Faster Browsing — Google Chrome is arguably the fastest, safest web browser available today, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Here are ten extensions the ramp up Chrome’s functionality (along with 15 “missing” Chrome extensions that may never have existed).
Top 10 Firefox Add-ons for Improved Browsing — Firefox is the most popular alternative to Internet Explorer for a reason, but even the upstart could use a little revolution now and then. These add-ons will get your Firefox installation browsing faster and more safely in no time.
Online Photosharing Site Roundup — Are you a compulsive sharer of online photos, or do you guard your privacy when uploading pics to the web? Are you simply an enthusiast, or do you intend to sell your photos for profit? Are you willing to shell out serious money for serious extra features? Your answers, and this roundup, will determine which is the best online photosharing site for you.
Consumer Video Sharing Roundup — Before you archive your home movies to the World Wide Web, find out which video sharing site has the best combination of features, price, and privacy for your cinematic ambitions.
Online Video Service Buyers Guide — Netflix or Hulu? Amazon or iTunes? Which online video service offers the best combination of video quality, selection and price to command your loyalty for (legally) watching movies and television shows on your computer? We break it down in this buyers guide.
Free Online Music Services Listeners Guide — Pandora or Slacker? Last.FM or Grooveshark? There is a host of free streaming music services on the Web, but which one has the best features to go with its giveaway price? We sound it out in this listeners guide.