In no particular order, let’s step through twelve Windows apps everyone should install right away, along with alternatives for each category.
1. Internet Browser: Google Chrome
Our top pick in this category is Google Chrome. It’s still super-speedy, includes little conveniences like instantly searching Google for an image, and hosts a great library of extensions. Throw in cross-platform syncing that lets you open your desktop tabs on your phone and vice-versa, and you’ve got a fantastic browser for all purposes.
Chrome isn’t without its faults, however. Plenty of people dislike Chrome, but the good news is that you have plenty of other fantastic browsers to choose from. Firefox lets you customize everything, Opera is criminally underrated, and lesser-known contenders like Maxthon Nitro are worth a look, too.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Edge doesn’t deserve a place as your default browser yet.
2. Cloud Storage: Dropbox
Once a novelty, storing information in “the cloud” has become an everyday occurrence. Dropbox is the cloud app you should install. The 2 GB of free storage isn’t much, though you can increase that by referring friends and other small tasks. Dropbox offers an app for every major device so you can take your files anywhere.
It’s also super easy to share files with others, and the service sports a great interface on the web and desktop. Whether you use it for backup, as a cloud flash drive, or for setting up shared folders with others, you can’t go wrong with Dropbox.
You can take advantage of alternative cloud services in conjunction with Dropbox to get more free space and separate your files. Google Drive (our guide) offers an impressive 15 GB for free, and you can upgrade to 100 GB for only $2 per month. OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud software, comes installed on Windows 8 and 10, and while Microsoft cut the free storage significantly, OneDrive remains a solid choice, too. Whichever you choose, make sure you read our tips on using cloud storage creatively or in ways you might not have thought of.
3. Music Streaming: Spotify
Years ago, listening to music on your desktop meant painstakingly importing and organizing a collection of MP3s. No longer; music streaming services eliminate the need for buying individual albums physically or digitally.
There are several music streaming services in the market, but we recommend Spotify. Its ad-supported free plan lets you listen to as much music as you like, and the $10 Premium upgrade is definitely worth it for avid listeners. Spotify also has a dedicated Windows app (and a great web app), while Apple Music requires the bloated iTunes and Google Play Music is web-only.
4. Office Suite: LibreOffice
No Windows user should be without LibreOffice. It’s a completely free and powerful office suite that includes alternatives to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and more. Once you get used to a few small aesthetic differences from MS Office, you’ll be flying through your work with LibreOffice.
5. Image Editor: Paint.NET
Whether you want to try your hand at image manipulation, need a way to blur sensitive info from photos, or want to recolor/retouch old photos, everyone should have an image editing program installed. You probably think of Photoshop as the gold standard for this, but there are plenty of free tools that are more accessible for the average user.
Paint.NET is our top choice. It’s far more powerful than Microsoft Paint, but doesn’t overwhelm you with all sorts of confusing icons and choices. You can easily blur out parts of an image, auto-level photos to make them look better, and add text and shapes to your pictures in just a few clicks. Plenty of plugins allow you to expand its functionality, too.
If you find Paint.NET too basic, GIMP is a more advanced solution. For more choices, have a look at the best photo editing programs for novices.
6. Security: Panda Free Antivirus
While you can take steps to protect your PC without an antivirus program, it’s smart to keep one installed. There’s plenty of debate about which antivirus is the best, and no tool is perfect. However, some rise above the rest.
For most users, we recommend Panda Free Antivirus. It’s a cloud-based solution, so it doesn’t bog down your system resources. Setup is quick and easy, and if you want to set up scheduled scans or exceptions, you can. People who just want a set-and-forget solution, though, won’t even have to touch Panda once it’s set up.
After you’ve installed it, take a minute to disable the promotional ads. You can do this by opening the app, clicking the three-bar menu at the top-right, and choosing Settings. Under the General tab, scroll down and uncheck Show Panda news, and you won’t hear from Panda unless there’s a problem.
Further, in this category, we recommend a blended solution. In addition to your normal antivirus app, you should keep a copy of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free installed for occasional deep scans.
7. Media Player: VLC
With YouTube’s popularity, you probably do most of your video viewing in a web browser. However, you should still keep a solid player around on your desktop for when you need to play media files locally.
For this task, nothing beats VLC Media Player. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of media players, capable of playing nearly every format imaginable. Whether you need to play videos recorded on your ancient cell phone or in some weird format you’ve never heard of before, VLC will get the job done. It’s also capable of playing audio, along with all sorts of other tricks.
You might not break it out often, but give VLC a download and save yourself the hassle of messing with video codecs or using the awfully insecure QuickTime.
8. PC Cleaning / Management: CCleaner
Aside from cleaning the caches of all kinds of software, CCleaner lets you easily disable startup programs, find which files are taking up the most space, clean up your messy context menu, and create a quick text file of all installed programs.
You should stay away from the useless Registry cleaner, but everything else CCleaner offers is top-notch.
9. Screenshots: ShareX
Screenshots are useful for everything from recording funny moments to having a record of information, so you need a better tool for the job. Windows’ basic Snipping Tool for grabbing screenshots, however, only provides a barebones feature set.
You won’t find a better free screenshot tool than ShareX. With tons of capture methods, a powerful built-in editor based on Greenshot, automated steps after you take a screenshot, and extra tools like a color grabber and ruler, ShareX has an impressive feature set for no cost.
10. Backup: CrashPlan
It’s worth paying for a backup app, but if you want to go free, we like CrashPlan. It lets you back up your computer to an external drive, another computer on your network, or a friend’s computer over the internet for free. You can configure multiple backup locations and everything runs without your monitoring. With the premium plan, you can also back up to CrashPlan’s servers for maximum protection.
11. File Compression and Extraction: PeaZip
Windows includes native support for some zipped files, but anything beyond the basics requires a more powerful tool. While these aren’t super exciting, they’re important for working with any kind of archived files you might encounter.
PeaZip is a great choice for your compression and extraction needs. It’s much more attractive and user-friendly than its competition, and includes useful features like repairing damaged archives and converting their file formats.
12. Messaging: Franz
Chances are that you use at least one messaging service to stay in touch with your friends during the day. With so many options to choose from, there’s no way we could pick the best messaging service, because it all depends on what your friends use. So, why not pick all of them?
Franz is our pick for the best messaging app on Windows. It lets you add accounts from dozens of popular messaging services, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Telegram, GroupMe, Hangouts, Discord, and many more.
Franz simply adds a new tab for every service you use, letting you keep up with every group in one window. It’s easier on battery than using browser windows for these apps, and you can close it when it’s time to focus.
Check out more awesome messaging apps if Franz doesn’t support your favorites. If you primarily use older services like AIM and MSN Messenger, Pidgin is the app for you.
Odds and Ends: Five Other Awesome Tools
As a bonus, there are five other programs we think everyone should install. These don’t fit into any of the above categories, so we’ll mention them briefly here.
- Unchecky automatically watches checkboxes during software installation and makes sure you don’t install any “recommended” junk. Everyone misses these sometimes, so it helps to have a second set of eyes.
- Ditto Clipboard Manager increases the usefulness of the Windows clipboard many times over. With it, you can keep dozens of copied entries close at hand and search through your clipboard history.
- F.lux automatically filters blue light from your PC’s screen when the sun goes down, allowing you to continue working at night without a blinding light in your face.
- Everything provides near-instant search to your entire Windows system. If you need to locate a file and the default search isn’t doing the job, Everything can find it.
- TreeSize Free allows you to quickly analyze your hard drive usage and see which folders are taking up the most space.
Which Tools Are Essential for Everyone?
Now you know which apps to install right away on a new computer — and they’re all free! If you don’t prefer one of our favorites, you’ll find a suitable alternative without much trouble. We think most users will get plenty of use out of these programs.