Software Buyer’s Guide: Back to School 2009

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Opinions vary as to what constitutes “must have” back-to-school software but there are five basic application categories that will ensure the average high school or college student can complete most any assignment, organize a few fond memories, and not completely empty mom and dad’s retirement accounts. No budding scholar’s desktop, laptop, and/or netbook should be without a basic security program, a photo editor, a video editor, an office suite, and a personal finance application (the latter being the key to not breaking the parental bank).

Back to school

The good news is we have best-for-students picks in each of these categories. The better news is – in keeping with our pledge to minimize the impact on mom and dad’s wallets – we have free alternatives (which are perfect for low-power netbooks) for each type of software.

Security | Photo Editing | Video Editing | Office | Finance

arrow Security

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2009 for Notebook Reviews 2009 Back to School Software Guide

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2009

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2009 was named our Editor’s Choice for best antivirus application in Notebook Review’s 2009 Antivirus Software Home Buyers Guide, beating out ESET NOD32 Antivirus 4, McAfee Total Protection 2009, Trend Micro Antivirus+Antispyware, Norton AntiVirus 2009 and AVG Anti-Virus Free. Kaspersky’s product was far and away the fastest scanner in our test series, running full system scans in half the time of some of its competitors. More importantly, Kaspersky was the most proactive of the scanners we reviewed, detecting virus threats before they were downloaded. Trust when we tell you that, given the kind of Web sites many students find themselves surfing in search of (ahem) heavily discounted music or photographs of celebrities, having an antivirus application that stops malware downloads before they start is essential.

arrow Free Alternative: Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus Free

Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus Free is exactly what it sounds like: A free, reliable antivirus application that really, truly doesn’t cost you a dime. Grisoft gives AVG Free away as a sort of promotional product for its full-featured paid software, especially its enterprise-level solutions. AVG Free doesn’t have nearly the bells and whistles of a paid antivirus app like Kaspersky, but AVG does the basic job of virus-scanning just fine. AVG Free is much slower than any of the other products we reviewed, but if you want scanning speed, you’ll have to pay for it. It’s a bare-minimum product for a can’t-get-any-better price. And for those of you running Linux-based netbooks or refurbished PCs, AVG has a Penguin-friendly version, too.

arrow Photo Editing

Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 for Notebook Reviews 2009 Back to School Software Guide

Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2

Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 was far and away the most user-friendly of the consumer-grade image editors we reviewed, earning an Editor’s Choice selection in our 2009 Home PC Photo Editors Buyers Guide, outdoing Adobe Photoshop Elements 7, ACDSee Photo Editor 2008, and Serif Photo Plus X3. The main selling point of the software is its Learning Center, which offers on-the-spot instructions on how to use all the features tucked away in the program. Photo editors are notorious for their steep learning curves, and nothing frustrates parents more than spending good money on software that is too complicated or counter-intuitive for their kids to use. While PSP Photo X2 probably won’t prepare anyone for a career as a professional graphic designer, it will make sure that those homecoming photos get effectively retouched before the yearbook (or Facebook) gets hold of them, and that no one will be be screaming for professional help the day before that Photography 101 project is due.

arrow Free Alternative: Picnik

Picnik is a browser-based photo editor which can work with images stored on your computer or on any of several major online photosharing services, including Flickr, Photobucket, MySpace, Facebook and Picasa. Picnik offers a range of basic editing and retouching tools as part of its free service, though you can upgrade to one of several monthly pay plans that unlock more features. That said, Picnik’s basic suite has a number of intuitive retouch tools (including a great red-eye remover) and effects that will shape up the most common photo mistakes, and help you piece together a serviceable photo album, free of charge.

arrow Video Editing

Pinnacle Studio Plus 12 for Notebook Reviews 2009 Back to School Software Guide

Pinnacle Studio Plus 12

Pinnacle Studio Plus 12 beat out some heavy hitters to earn our Editor’s Choice award for best consumer-grade video editor in our 2009 Home PC Video Editor Buyers Guide, including Adobe Premiere Elements 7Corel VideoStudio X2 Pro, Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9Magix Movie Edit Pro 15, and Microsoft’s Windows Live Movie Maker Beta. Pinnacle gets the nod here for being the most intuitive of the editing suites we reviewed, thanks in large part to some nice animated tutorials. Despite its ease of use, Pinnacle Studio retains all the core functionality – multiple editing timelines, DVD output, direct Youtube upload – that make it worthwhile to buy full-fledged editing software, as opposed to settling for the basic utility that came with your video camera.

arrow Free Alternative: JayCut

Believe it or not, there are actually several free and/or browser-based video editing applications available, but JayCut is the most straightforward of the bunch, offering a standard sceneline for video editing that works very much like traditional editing software. JayCut isn’t feature-rich – video correction is notably absent, so users are at the mercy of the original footage quality – but transitions, text overlays, and audio track insertion are all there in familiar forms. Plus, JayCut offers direct upload to your Facebook profile, which (don’t kid yourself) is a student priority.

arrow Office Suite

MS Office 2007 Ultimate  for Notebook Reviews 2009 Back to School Software Guide

MS Office 2007 Ultimate with Student Discount

Most people will acknowledge that Microosft Office is the de facto standard office suite – provided you can pay for it. Fortunately, college students can buy MS Office 2007 Ultimate for almost an order of magnitude discount – roughly 91 percent off retail – so long as they possess a valid .edu e-mail address. While most users have the option of including a version of MS Office when purchasing a PC, odds are it will cost more than the $59.95 that Microsoft is charging colleges kids for Office 2007 Ultimate. What’s the catch? You need current access to a valid .edu e-mail address, because that’s the only place Microsoft will send a link to to buy the discounted product key. Thus, incoming freshmen who haven’t gotten an e-mail address yet aren’t eligible, nor are high school students or anyone not attending an accredited college. If you can wait to buy until your .edu email address goes live, we recommend it. If not, MS Office 2007 Home and Student is available for just under $100; it has fewer features but is still cheaper than the $200-300 you’d pay if you bought MS Office 2007 Ultimate at retail.

arrow Free Alternative: Google Apps

Before you ask, no, Google Apps is not a full-fledged replacement for a true, package-software office suite. Google Apps does, however, replicate the 20 percent of Microsoft Office functionality that most people use 80 percent of the time. Gmail is indisputably the best Web-based mail client on the market, and Google Calendar is surprisingly robust, especially in its ability to share and incorporate calendars from other users. Google Docs, however, is where the real action is at. Basic word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation (as in PowerPoint) apps are all there for the asking. While you won’t be creating any press-ready layouts or advanced analytical pivot tables with these tools, they are more than adequate for typing up term papers, organizing lab report data, or running a slide show for art history. Oh, yeah, and being Web-based means you can actually do group projects without trading disks, thumb drives, or e-mails with team members – and that a fried hard drive won’t cost you any of your previous drafts. Just don’t tell your professors; the blue of screen of death is, for the time being, still the modern equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” Enjoy it while it lasts.

arrow Personal Finance

Quicken Deluxe 2009 for Notebook Reviews 2009 Back to School Software Guide

Quicken Deluxe 2009

Everyone expects Quicken to be at the top of the personal finance application heap, and we couldn’t find any real reason to dispute that conclusion in our Personal Finance Software 2009 Buyers Guide. Intuit’s latest version of their budget-minding app has virtually every feature you could want, and even a few you don’t – especially if you don’t want or need a Quicken Visa credit card (which the application constantly needles you to apply for). Our real advice here is for parents and students to both get a copy of Quicken Deluxe 2009, and for the parents to include the kids’ bank accounts in their tracking profiles, just so they can be sure that no seriously credit-damaging bills are going unpaid.

arrow Free Alternative: Mint

Mint was the runner-up in our Personal Finance Software 2009 Buyers Guide, largely on the strength of its incredibly simple, intuitive, and effective user-interface. Also, Mint is free and browser-based so it doesn’t add to your bills. More importantly, with Mint, a stolen student laptop doesn’t mean stolen student financial data. If all your student needs is a way to keep track of bills and spending, Mint is absolutely perfect, maybe even more so than (the feature-overloaded) Quicken. Just load in your back’s online access, set up your bill due dates, set some spending caps in a few key categories, and Mint will keep you on budget with e-mail alerts, Twitter updates, or text messages to your phone. Mint can also send these alerts to extra e-mail accounts, so mom and dad can be alerted if a certain someone has spent their entire monthly allowance in one week. Now that’s some serious fiscal oversight.

arrow Looking for more?

Moms, Dads, and Grads

Whether you’re shopping for your student or just looking to land a great deal, back to school season is a great time to check out what’s next in tech. Let the editors of the network help you pick the right camera, smartphone, printer, desktop, or notebook, with our Back to School Buyer’s Guide.

To see our top tech picks in all categories visit our main buyer’s guide page on



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