You’ve unboxed yourself a brand new laptop, logged in, changed the wallpaper to something more your taste, and... now what? Let us direct to you a collection of the best free software you need to install straight away, whether your new machine is running Windows or macOS.
For a lot of you Chrome will be the go to browser to install alongside Edge or Safari, but we’re here to tell you that Firefox is better than you remember. Since the major Quantum overhaul last year, it looks better, runs faster, and is leaner than before, and it even comes with its own integrated read-it-later service (Pocket). You can sync your browsing data between computers, and between mobile devices with Firefox for iOS and Android too.
If you don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office you can use Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides for free on the web, but there’s also LibreOffice: a powerful, open source office suite that can handle all those Word documents and Excel spreadsheets people keep sending you. The different software components are packed with features, stylishly designed, and a breeze to get around, and you get diagram and database software included as well.
GIMP continues to excel as the leading free alternative to Photoshop, and if you’ve got some advanced photo editing to take care of then it’s worth installing—support for layers, cloning, pixel-by-pixel retouching, script add-ons, detailed color adjustments, and much more mean it can match a lot of the features in Adobe’s software. There are better image editors for simpler tasks (see below), but GIMP is the best all-round package you can find.
Speaking of simpler apps, Pixlr runs in your browser (so you can use it on a Chromebook too) and gives you the choice of two different modes: the full Pixlr Editor or the more stripped down Pixlr X. Whatever type of image tweaks you need to do, from resizing images to blending two pictures together, Pixlr has a tool that can help, and it stays slick and responsive no matter what you throw at it. The Pixlr Editor is reminiscent of Photoshop, and the features gap between the two isn’t as big as you might think.
So much for editing photos, what about managing them? Google Photos keeps your precious images and videos safely backed up in the cloud, easily searchable, and available on any device, as well as throwing in some basic editing tools—and you can store an unlimited number of photos and clips for free if you don’t mind some downsizing. Use the Google Backup and Sync tool to get pictures and videos uploaded from your computer.
Both Windows and macOS can open up zip files easily enough when you have to deal with them, but if you need to do any kind of archive creation or switch between formats then 7-Zip is the tool to have on call: It’s not the most beautiful-looking app in the world, but it does the job. The only point that counts against it is that it’s only available for Windows machines—if you’re using a laptop running macOS, give the excellent Keka a look instead.
Audacity is widely acknowledged as the go-to freeware for audio editing on a computer: It’s packed with features at the same time as being accessible to beginners and power users alike. You can trim and combine audio clips, cut out noise and silences, apply a range of equalizer effects on top of your audio, convert clips between different formats, and much more besides. There’s plenty of built-in help included for learning the ropes as well.
What we love most about VLC Media Player is the sheer number of audio and video formats it can handle without breaking sweat, and on top of that it comes with just about everything you could ask for from a music and media player: Support for online streams, video and audio filters, subtitle support, easy playlist management, and more besides. Whatever type of media file you need to get up on screen, VLC Media Player does the job.
If you need to manage large libraries of music and movies then iTunes is an obvious choice for Windows and macOS (particularly the latter). If you feel like Apple’s media manager has become too bloated though, and you’re on Windows, try MusicBee —it supports metadata editing, equalizer filter effects, smart playlists, device syncing, interface skinning, and more. It’s even compatible with a few WinAmp plugins for doing more with your music.
You don’t actually need a Kindle ereader to enjoy ebooks, because Amazon makes Kindle software available for just about every platform out there, including Windows and macOS. You do have to pay for a lot of the ebooks in Amazon’s catalog, but you can find plenty of classics that are free too, to load up in your leisure time. You can sync your reading progress across multiple devices and across an actual Kindle device, if you have one.
Another web app suitable for Chrome OS as well as Windows and macOS, Google Keep has quietly grown into a very impressive note-taking app. As well as the usual blisteringly fast search you would expect from Google, you can color-code your notes and add tags to make them easier to find, add drawings and images to your notes, and collaborate on notes with other people (handy for those shared family shopping lists).
Finally, we’d like to recommend Canva for all your graphic design needs. Unless you’re an actual professional graphic designer needing something more powerful, Canva is a fantastic tool for putting together winning designs for posters, invites, flyers, resumes, presentations, social media posts and more. Start with a template or start from scratch, then use Canva’s intuitive editing tools to put together something really eye-catching.