More than a mere blank slate, a new PC is a fresh opportunity—a collection of components that, with the right software installed, could accomplish anything from balancing your household budget to helping to cure cancer.
Yes, stocking your PC is an intensely personal task. Even still, some programs are so helpful, so handy, so useful across the board that we heartily recommend them to everybody. These are the programs you want to install on a new PC first.
Warm-up: A browser
Before you roll up your sleeves and start slinging software around, make sure to snag your Web browser of choice. Using Windows’ default Internet Explorer when you’re accustomed to something else feels like wearing somebody else’s shoes. (Blech.)
Firefox and IE 11 are both tremendous options in their own right, but our money’s on Chrome, which won PCWorld’s browser showdown. But hey, they’re all free! Try before you “buy.”
Ninite makes loading up a new computer a breeze. Simply head to the Ninite website, select which free software you’d like to install on your PC—it offers dozens of options, including many of the programs named here—and click Get Installer to receive a single, custom .exe file containing the installers for those programs. Run the executable, and Ninite installs all of them in turn, and it automatically declines the offers for bundled bloatware so many free apps try to sneak in. No muss, no fuss, no hassle. It’s wonderful.
AVG AntiVirus Free
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.
Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free
Well, AVG is one of the programs I use to keep my computer safe and secure. No single antivirus utility offers bulletproof protection, especially against the latest and most clever threats. MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free was designed specifically to find and eliminate those cutting-edge “zero day” threats. You can’t schedule scans or even use it as a regular antivirus program, but it’s invaluable when you think that something nasty has slipped by your primary antivirus utility.
Now that you’ve installed security software to protect your PC from invasion, it’s time to clean all the preinstalled junk off your computer. Most boxed PCs come chock-full of bloatware intended to make dough for the PC makers, and you probably don’t need (or want) most of it clogging up your system resources.
That’s where PC Decrapifier comes in. This pint-size wonder program scans your PC, brings up a checklist of the bloatware installed on your machine, and helps you wipe ’em all away in one fell swoop. Yay! A secondary screen lists all of your programs if you want to nuke even more. Ignore it, or just be careful to avoid erasing something important.
A Start-menu replacement (Windows 8 only)
Keep right on scrolling if you’ve picked up a new Windows 7 PC, which still sports the Start menu you’ve known and loved for more than a decade. Computers rocking the Start-menu-free Windows 8 are far more common these days, however. Sure, you can tweak the live-tiled OS pretty extensively to get a near-optimal desktop experience, but if you want the classic Windows feel (or just want to skip the modern-style Start screen completely), you’ll need a Start-menu replacement.
Many of Windows 8’s native programs—from Mail to Music to Internet Explorer—are modern-style apps, which practically forces you to take a jaunt into the Start screen from time to time. That is, unless you have Stardock’s stellar ModernMix, a $5 utility that opens modern apps in desktop windows. You’ll want to pick it up immediately if the mere sight of the modern Start screen sends you into an apoplectic rage.
A word of warning: As with Start menu replacement software, improvements in Windows 10 will render ModernMix useless, as it will run metro apps in traditional desktop windows on PCs. Until then, this app is still a must-have.
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.