Assuming that you plan to connect your PC to the Net or slap a thumb drive into one of its USB ports, you’ll need to have antimalware software installed. Windows 8 ships with Windows Defender activated by default (if your PC’s manufacturer didn’t preinstall premium antivirus trialware), and that’s a lot better than nothing, but Windows Defender isn’t as effective at fighting off the barbarian hordes as third-party options are.
AVG AntiVirus Free does a great job of blocking and eradicating malware, and it includes extras such as a secure shredder, Do Not Track protection for your browser, and the ability to schedule automated scans. Avast Antivirus Free is another top no-cost antimalware option, but AVG is the program I use to keep my computer safe and secure.
But wait! What if Windows refuses to uninstall some software and tosses up the dreaded ‘Program is in use’ message? Fear not: The superb Unlocker can neutralize pesky active processes, leaving programs open to slaughter. Simply right-click the software you want to uninstall, select Unlocker from the context menu, and then unlock or kill ’em all. Just be mindful during the installation process: Unlocker tries to install lots of bloatware on your PC
Piriform makes another must-have system tool: the legendary CCleaner. It does all the dirty work required to keep your PC running in tip-top shape, including ditching unwanted cookies, wiping your browser history, deleting unnecessary files, and keeping your Windows Registry sparkling clean.
Programs that aren’t up-to-date are programs with gaping security holes and missing features. Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector hums along silently in the background, automatically keeping your software patched, or—if it’s unable to update an app for some reason—notifying you when updates are available. ’Nuff said. Secunia PSI takes the hassle out of keeping your PC current.
Windows 8 has one other prickly problem: Unlike Windows 7, it’s incapable of playing DVDs out of the box. Your PC might have a DVD-playing program installed if you bought a boxed system, but if not, the simply wonderful VLC media player can play your flicks (and music, and podcats, and…) for free. It can even play (some) Blu-ray discs with a little fiddling.
Now that the workhorses are out of the way, it’s time to dig into handy-dandy extras, starting with Paint.net. Don’t let Paint.net’s freebie status fool you: This image editor may not have all the bells and whistles of Photoshop, but it packs everything that most people need (even layer-based editing) and costs hundreds of dollars less.
If you’re a graphics professional, and you can’t afford Photoshop but require more than Paint.net offers, check out GIMP. It has a challenging learning curve, but its capabilities are impressive.
Adobe Reader is the go-to PDF reader, but it’s clunky, constantly updating, and frequently targeted by malware peddlers. If you need only basic functionality, go with Sumatra PDF instead. Sumatra lacks the fancy extras found in many full-featured PDF readers, but when it comes to straight-up reading Portable Document Format files, Sumatra PDF is blazing-fast and completely accurate. Oh, and since it’s less ubiquitous than Adobe’s offering, hackers tend to stay away from Sumatra PDF.
Want to transform a doc or website or image or just about anything else into a PDF? Turn to CutePDF, a freebie that installs as a printer driver and lets you transmogrify things into PDFs via the standard File > Print interface. It’s an incredibly convenient feature to have available.
This small program fixes a major irritation in Windows. If you hover your mouse cursor over a window in Windows and try to use the scroll wheel, nothing happens if the program isn't the currently selected app—the one in the forefront, with focus. That's a headache if you're using several programs simultaneously in numerous smaller windows.
Macs don't suffer from the same irritation, but there's no need to turn to the Dark Side! Just install WizMouse and you'll be able to scroll through any inactive window you hover your mouse over. Yay!
A password manager
The high-profile hack attacks of the past few years have driven the point home: You need strong passwords, and you need a different password for each site you visit. Rather than juggling dozens of alphanumeric codes in your noggin, download a password manager. We recommend Dashlane, LastPass, or KeePass. Let them do the grunt work fo
In today’s multidevice world, cloud syncing and storage services are practically a must-have, as they allow you to pick up where you left off no matter which PC, phone, or tablet you’re working on. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is thoroughly intertwined with Windows 8.1, but if you’re using Windows 8, 7, Vista, or XP, be sure to grab the desktop app for your cloud service of choice to ensure that your files travel with you.
OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox drastically increased their available storage in 2014, while simultaneously sending prices plummeting. Heck, OneDrive andGoogle Drive rolled out unlimited cloud storage to Office 365 and Google Apps subscribers, respectively. Box has as well. That’s better than a hard drive in the sky.