Note: Our best free PC software round-up has been fully updated.
Every PC needs good software, but that doesn’t have to mean serious investment. Thanks to the beauty of open source and ad-supported development – and the generous, competitive spirit of many of the biggest names in tech – you can pick up high-end, top quality apps which don’t cost a penny.
But the world of free software can be a bit of a minefield – you could get bombarded with ads, or find a once-reputable package has either gone bad, stopped development or disappeared altogether.
So, we’ve scoured our sources, listened to your feedback and compiled this guide to our top 10 free PC apps for 2016, a collection that will ensure you have everything you need on your PC for all but the most obscure tasks.
That’s not to say that these are the only free programs out there that do these things, and you may well disagree with our picks; leave a comment and let us know if we’ve missed one of your favourites!
1. Best web browser: Google Chrome
While Microsoft is putting up a heck of a fight with Edge – the rejuvenated, rebranded Internet Explorer – and Mozilla’s Firefox is a competent, memory-friendly browser, we still find ourselves recommending Google’s Chrome browser over any other.
It’s super-stable, highly compatible, and comes with a huge catalogue of free extensions to fully customise your web experience or intercept security threats. Signing in to it with your Google account means your bookmarks, browsing history and personal configuration will move with you to whichever machine you’re on.
Chrome’s key feature is one you won’t necessarily see: it runs each of its tabs in a distinct memory space, meaning a crash in one won’t take down your whole browser. This isn’t necessarily friendly to machines with small amounts of RAM, then, but Chrome is still the best browser around.
2. Best office suite: LibreOffice
Creating documents might seem like the sort of thing you’d only trust to a paid package like Microsoft Office. But LibreOffice – the forked, superior successor to OpenOffice – lacks little compared to its venerable competitor.
It’s fully compatible with opening and saving files in all of Microsoft’s standard formats as well as the widely supported Open Document Format, and you’ll find all of the formatting and formula tools you’d expect in a high-end office package.
With a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), Powerpoint-style presentation software (Impress), a database (Base) and more, this package is ready for just about anything. LibreOffice is, admittedly, not highly polished – we’ve learned to cope with the occasional crash – but it’s by far the best free office suite around.
3. Best antivirus: Avira Free Antivirus
Our always-connected computers are, by the same token, always vulnerable. So it would be foolish not to take the negligible performance hit and run decent antivirus software. Our favourite freebie, ignoring its frequent pleas to upgrade to the paid version, is Avira.
It uses a cloud-based network to ensure all of its users are protected against the latest nasties as soon as a new one crops up in the wild, it can discover trojans and other malware hidden in legitimate apps, and has a straightforward, easy-to-use interface. And, most importantly, it hit a 100% detection rate on AV-Test’s latest round of antivirus punishment, so you can rest relatively easy.
4. Best antimalware: Spybot Free
Spybot is dedicated to seeking out and eradicating the little things your antivirus won’t catch: tracking cookies, spyware, browser hijacks and the like. Unlike antivirus, it’s not an app you absolutely need to leave running all the time – an occasional blast is all it takes to clean up the mess and potentially leave your PC running faster.
For deeper protection, Spybot can assist you with switching off startup items, and immunise your machine against known malware sites and malicious cookies.
Once upon a time we might have put Malwarebytes Antimalware in this spot, but it’s now available only as a free trial – if you have a problem that Spybot can’t seem to fix, it’s one to consider, though.
5. Best photo editor: Gimp
Every time we write about this package we have to apologise for its name. It’s actually short for GNU Image Manipulation Program, a hint to its open source origins, and it’s a free photo editor that can do (almost) everything Photoshop can without the price tag.
Gimp isn’t just for photos, of course – if you’re looking to create a logo, resize images for the web, or do any kind of image manipulation it’s precisely the sort of tool you’ll want to have on hand. It handles layers, masks, paths and numerous gilders with aplomb.
One recommendation, though: the default multi-window mode can be a bit jarring, so switching to single-window (pictured) is well worth your time and gives a much more Photoshop-esque feel.
6. Best audio editor: Audacity
Audacity isn’t the most advanced editor around, but it’s absolutely perfect for tweaking audio levels, reducing hiss and noise, and performing basic equalisation thanks to its wide range of built-in effects. You can use it to convert audio between formats, and record directly into it – with a live waveform display which is handy for keeping an eye on your levels.
Audacity’s key selling point – as if it needed one, being free – is its multi-track editing interface, which is perfect for cutting and splicing together podcasts and such. Do be warned, however, that this app requires negotiating a bit of a learning curve to get the most out of it.
7. Best media centre: Plex
This is a bit of an unusual pick, perhaps, but we’ve found no media front-end we like more than the browser-based Plex. Providing you have a machine powerful enough to handle its transcoding features, it’s the absolute best way to stream your entire media library to all of the devices around your home – tablets, computers, games consoles – regardless of screen size.
You can even use Plex to stream your media library over the web, giving you access on mobile devices wherever you are – transcoded down appropriately, you can watch and listen over 4G without hammering your data cap too severely.
Perhaps Plex’s best feature is the ability to appropriately present your (legitimately obtained) media utilising a number of sources around the web, with episode guides, artwork and more automatically imported. If you’re looking for a one-machine media centre, it’s worth considering Kodi, which can run on the cheap-as-chips Raspberry Pi – but if you have processing power to spare, don’t overlook Plex.
8. Best media player: PotPlayer
Continuing the leftfield choices, we’ve plumped for PotPlayer over VLC for those times when you just want to play some media without going through the rigmarole of adding it to Plex’s library. Why? Well, we’ve found it to be slightly more stable than recent versions of VLC, and it comes with numerous codecs as well as OpenCodec support for those more obscure files.
PotPlayer is overflowing with cool features to make your viewing experience absolutely perfect, too – we’re impressed with its wide range of filters, which can clean up murky video rips (or compensate for dodgy monitors) rather nicely. PotPlayer is also clever enough to analyse filenames and automatically pick up the next episode if you’re watching a TV series. Just make sure you name your files appropriately.
9. Best PC cleaning software: PC Decrapifier
Just about every new PC, if you don’t set it up yourself, comes complete with a whole raft of software you neither want or need. But that second part of the equation can be a little difficult to fathom sometimes – who knows if removing a particular application will cripple your machine? Well, PC Decrapifier knows.
Run it on a fresh machine and PCD will skim through everything your PC’s manufacturer has snuck in there, matching apps against its database to give you information about what the software does and whether it’s safe to remove. You’ll usually be able to wipe the offending software clean quickly and easily, often in an unattended manner.
So if you’re picking up a new laptop, make sure you have this on hand – and PCD is even useful for cleaning up well-used Windows installations.
10. Best app launcher: Launchy
The Start menu has been much-maligned since the transition to Windows 8 and 10. Perhaps this is an issue of personal taste or nostalgia, or perhaps Microsoft’s renovations really were that poor – we’ll leave that up to you to decide.
While Launchy doesn’t directly replace said menu (try the excellent Classic Shell for a Windows 7-style experience) it does show that there’s a better way of doing things. A quicker way to get your apps launched, without using the mouse at all.
Just hit Alt+Spacebar to pop Launchy up, and start typing to find your chosen app. But it doesn’t just run programs – Launchy knows where your files are so you can type part of a filename to start it, or even start typing a directory name to automatically open an Explorer window at that location. Windows’ own search facility replicates many of these features, but we reckon Launchy does it a lot better and far less intrusively.