Best software guide

It's vital to choose the right software application for your needs. While paid-for applications often provide premium features more tailored to the professional, there are an increasing number of freeware apps for those that don’t want to shell out. Windows picks out a selection of software packages to suit your budget and needs.
Best software guide
By Derek Francis
Tue 09 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

It's vital to choose the right software application for your needs. While paid-for applications often provide premium features more tailored to the professional, there are an increasing number of freeware apps for those that don’t want to shell out. Windows picks out a selection of software packages to suit your budget and needs.

Paid-for (Security)

ESET NOD32 Antivirus

Cheaper than its two big rivals, ESET has carved a name for itself by offering virus protection that's second to none. NOD32 now boasts a much sleeker interface than previous versions and is less demanding on the system, while being effortlessly easy-to-use. It has consistently been rated highly by independent testers, thanks to its thorough virus lists and updates.

The down side? It stands accused of often failing to remove the threats as it detects them. But at $39.99, it's one of the cheaper paid-for antivirus packages - pity then, it doesn't feature other security features like parental control, site blockers or what-not. For that, you'll have to fork out $59.99 for ESET Smart Security.

McAfee Internet Security Suite 2008

Another huge name in security and protection, this McAfee suite is a 10-in-1 bundle with a huge reputation and great user interface. A PC health feature allows users to monitor and improve their PC performance by removing unwanted files, while McAfee's SiteAdvisor will help you avoid dangerous websites and make use of parental controls.

It's most definitely a winner, but there are some question marks around the strength of its firewall. And like other paid-for security apps, it is also considered a system hog. But for those after a wealth of features, this has it all.

Norton 360 Version 2.0

Norton is definitely one of the best known names in the world of PC security, with an award-winning suite of applications, including Norton Antivirus. As the name suggests, Norton 360 Version 2.0 is a rounded package, with comprehensive antivirus and anti-spyware protection.

Compared to other applications, this can be a bit of a drag on your system's memory - but it provides such a strong level of protection against all types of threats, from viruses, spyware, phishing scams and more.

Free

Consistently thought of as the best anti-virus program available for free, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition does not slow your system down while providing the essentials in PC security. A real-time shield gives you anti-virus and anti-malware protection.

Elsewhere, Avast Home Edition is equally suitable for the average home user, with a skinnable interface that looks more like a media player than a virus blocker.

This protects from a range of e-mail clients, instant messaging apps, and offers P2P protection, a web shield and much more. Novice users will also like PC Tools AntiVirus Free Edition, which is a freeware version of its paid-for tool, and features an intuitive interface with all the usual bells and whistles.

For a different approach to virus protection, check out ThreatFire AntiVirus Free Edition, which offers real-time protection by identifying threats as they happen, so-called ‘zero-day' events. It doesn't offer an on-demand scan for viruses already on your system, but it is quick to sound out any suspicious activity on the spot. Paid-for (Office)

Microsoft Office 2007

Its first iteration was released in 1990, and Microsoft Office soon revolutionised the way we created documents, spreadsheets and perform most of our daily needs. Microsoft Office 2007 is the next step in this evolution, redesigning the interface for a more intuitive experience and calling it the Fluent User Interface.

Instead of the usual File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table and Window categories that line the top of the window, this new version replaces it with more intuitive tabs: Home, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, View.

This version of Word also introduces Web 2.0 functionality like built-in blogging, while being compatible with new file formats. All the applications available in Office integrate much better with one another too. However, it's still prohibitively expensive, and many users won't like having to adapt to its new way of working. Corel WordPerfect Office X4 - Standard Edition

There was a time when WordPerfect was the de facto word processing program around. We remember the days when we used to place a plastic stencil over the function keys of the keyboard to display all the commands for the software. This keyboard-based application has evolved into something more akin to Microsoft Office.

But there's something to be said for a non-Microsoft Office option. WordPerfect has survived against all odds largely because of its trademark performance, and uncluttered design.

The pros include a cheaper retail price than its market-leading rival, and one of the major new features it boasts is PDF support - with some PDF editing tools that surpass anything Word 2007 offers.

There's also an optical character recognition (OCR) ability to go with it, which is impressive in its intention if not performance. But Quattro Pro doesn't seem to have the same inspired design; its chart-rendering and data visualisation tools are far behind that of Excel 2007.

The thing is, if you're already a Microsoft Office user (and who isn't?), you'd have little reason to jump ship to Corel's package. Also, if it's a question of price, then OpenOffice or IBM Symphony might be more attractive to you.

Free

OpenOffice

At first glance, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that you were using Microsoft Word, when actually you were actually using OpenOffice Writer. Even after the second or third looks you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Originally derived from StarOffice, an open-source office suite acquired by Sun Microsystems, OpenOffice is the premier open-source office package.

Many critics say that this equals Microsoft Office in terms of features, being compatible with a huge number of file types and able to run in 27 languages on Windows, Linux and Solaris. More importantly, it's forced Microsoft to up its game and compete better in terms of features and pricing.

IBM Lotus Symphony

This is arguably the newest suite of applications that's free of charge, available for download since late 2007. Originally released in 1984, you might recall Lotus 1-2-3 as the main spreadsheet program doing the rounds at the time, while in more recent days, Lotus Notes is an e-mail application preferred in many business settings.

So with this well-known brand, IBM Lotus Symphony contained three applications: Documents, Spreadsheets and Presentations - the equivalent to Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

It'll save your work in the Open Document Format and allow you to export to PDF, but this is also compatible with older Microsoft Office formats, not the new Office 2007 formats.

It's a perfectly able application suite and since it's still in beta testing, there's plenty more room for improvement when the final version is released. Paid-for (Photography/ Creative)Adobe Photoshop (CS3/Elements 6)

When it comes to creative software apps, Adobe is the first out of the blocks. Adobe Photoshop CS3 builds on the professional image editor's already impressive set of tools. But unless you're a professional, the $649 price tag is likely to dissuade you.

For the novices, Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 is a slightly watered-down - but still powerful - program with a more accessible design.

With it, you'll be able to perform all the necessary tweaks to your images, as well as perform more advanced modifications if you want to create something special.

Corel Paintshop Pro Photo X2

It may be trailing Adobe in the image-editing market, but part of the reason is because it's only compatible with Windows XP and Vista, whereas Adobe Photoshop is available on Macs - the system of choice for the print publication industry.

The first version was released in 1992, and Corel acquired the name back in 2004.

This is still a good alternative to Adobe's Photoshop, priced at the same level as Photoshop Elements. Digital photographers will find a wealth of features including Makeover Tools, Perspective Correction and Photo Aging Tools. Its ability to work in CMYK colours also sets it apart from the same-level competition.

Free

There are plenty of free image editors for download for those tight on the purse strings. XnView has is good-looking graphics browser that uses a tree structure making it simple to browse through your image library.

It's capable of reading over 400 file formats, while supporting image-editing tricks like red-eye correction, crops and file type conversions.

2 Pic offers users more editing options including funky effects such as mirror distortion, gradients, all the while featuring the usual contrast and brightness toggles.

A hugely popular free image app is IrfanView, a viewer/converter designed both for beginners and professionals.

You can apply simple modifications, including cropping, batch conversions, sharpen or blur effects and it has plug-in support for image, video and sound formats.

For layer support, unlimited undos and special effects, Paint.NET is the app for you. Version 3.35 fixes many long-running bugs, and works as a great one-stop shop for image doctoring. Paid-for (Multimedia players)

AtomixMP3

More a mixer than a player, this MP3 app acts like a digital DJ turntable, letting users mix tracks together on the PC. Cool features include pitch control, crossfading, playlist functionality and a beat-matching algorithm - all underpinned by a drag-and-drop interface for added ease.

With real scratch capability to boot, a skinnable interface and plug-ins for extra effects, this is a hip mixing tool for the inexperienced or seasoned veteran.

CyberLink PowerDVD 8

It may sound pricey for a DVD player, but this comes with many capabilities for the ultimate film buff - and you won't find a video player that's as feature-packed as this. Great at playing High Definition (HD) video, it also supports Blu-ray discs.

It has a nifty picture-in-picture feature - the in-thing in video playback. The menu is fully customisable, you can assign parental controls and it supports a full 7.1 surround sound audio system.

Blaze DVD Player 5

This has all the usual bells and whistles, but suffers from a buggy performance that seems to be prone to crashes (according to online posts).

But other users say it's a stable system that stands out for its ability to let you record any DVD scene you wish or take screenshots of the film you're watching. Its not a bad looker, either.

Free

There are just so many to choose from. Winamp used to be the media player of choice, back when MP3s were first becoming popular. The Nullsoft-developed app is highly skinnable, and able to stream numerous audio and video formats, as well as tuning into online radio.

The new version includes song recommendations, features for users to discover new songs.

DivX for Windows is optimized to play every DivX file with full support for all the advanced features. This is the codec of choice for video file compression. Another well known name is Sonique, an attractive audio player compatible with MP3s, WMAs, audio CDs and more.

It features a windowless-interface and a fully animated menu system. The elaborate download process, involving registration, may put some users off.

Our personal favourite is the free VLC Player. It is easily the best when it comes to media compatibility; where Windows Media Player will fail to play because of a missing codec, VLC works like a charm.

The application also supports streaming audio and video and has very light system requirements; ideal. Paid-for (Messaging and Video)

miRC

This is the classic Internet Relay Chat client that allows users chat, play games and share content with other over IRC networks around the world. Friend lists, file transfers, SSL encryption and customisable sounds are all part of the fun.

Because you're essentially connecting to IRC servers, you will be able to log on to more than one server at a time or chat through proxy.

You can even create your own channel and set up meetings with your friends or colleagues. It can be a bit of a headache for new users, but after a few hours of use, you'll find it comprehensive and feature-packed.

Camfrog Video Chat

This is definitely on the expensive side, but it's much better at video conversations that other free messaging clients. You can join real streaming video chat rooms, allowing you to see, hear and talk to several people at once.

Rooms can contain up to 1,000 users, and you can instant message them to get to know them first, before clicking on their name to see them. If you want to take it a step further, you can set up your own multi-user video conference for others to join.

There are rooms focusing on all kinds of subjects, and the ability to see the person you're talking to makes all the difference.

Active Webcam

Okay, so this isn't a traditional messaging or webcam chat client. But it does put your webcam to good use, capturing images up to 30 frames per second and broadcasting the content to be viewed using any web browser, or uploading it to an FTP server.

You can also run any number of cameras connected to your system, making it a great surveillance system. When you're away from home, if the program detects motion in the capture area, it sounds an alarm, e-mails you the captured images and starts broadcasting or recording live video. Even better, you can fully customise the Web page where you post videos and stills.

Free

There are plenty of people who use Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo Messenger, and it's great that these two are now compatible with each other. But Trillian is possibly better than either two - analogous to Mozilla Firefox 3.0's superiority to Internet Explorer 7.

One of Trillian's best features is tabbed chatting, which is ideal for maintaining several conversations at once. It also has enhanced message functionality and a new Instant Lookup feature.

It is compatible with Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, ICQ, mIRC and AIM. For video conferencing with a difference, check out ManyCam Virtual Webcam, which lets you add live CGI effects to your video and - as its name suggests - broadcast your webcam simultaneously on MSN, Yahoo, Skype, AIM, Paltalk and CamFrog. Splitcam is another free app for download that does the same thing.

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