Useful Computer Applications & Utilities

I’ve listed some applications that you may find useful. Some are concerned with data and communications, some are just general. All are free, and they can be downloaded and used quite legally. This is directed mainly at PC users, so my apologies to MAC and Linux users. I’ve given them a Nerd Rating as a guide to how much knowledge they will need to set up and use, but don’t be afraid to have a go with any of them.

IMPORTANT: Always download them from the official site that I’ve linked, or an approved mirror. Some of the applications are very popular, but provided by small companies or developers. This means that rogue sites can “outbid” them get to the top of a Google search by using a very similar name. Use the exact link I give here, or an approved mirror site, or a site you are sure you can trust.

(Web Browser)
Nerd Rating: Easy

  • The web browser that comes with Windows is Internet Explorer (IE), but it is not the best choice. It just takes a few minutes to install Firefox. Once you have done that, you can choose from thousands of add-ons to give extra functions. By the way, it doesn’t replace IE – it will still be on your PC if you ever want it.

Two add-ons to get you started:

  • Adblock: removes the adverts from web pages
  • Trashmail: creates a “disposable” email address on web forms, so you can sign up to things without exposing your email inbox to extra spam.

(Email client)
Nerd Rating: Moderate

  • There are two ways to access your email. You can leave it on your mail server and view it with a web browser (Gmail, Hotmail, etc). Or you can download it to your own PC and work with it there. The best known of these email clients is Outlook, which comes with Windows. However, Thunderbird (another open source application from the Mozilla Foundation) is a good alternative. Once you install it, you will need to configure it to receive your email. It will attempt to do this automatically for you, but you may have to set it up manually, which requires a little bit of knowledge – or searching on Google!

(Backup utility)
Nerd Rating: Easy

  • If you are using Firefox and / or Thunderbird (as of course you should be!) then grab a copy of this little utility. It simply backs up your Firefox settings and all your Thunderbird emails.

Nerd Rating: Easy

  • You MUST keep an up-to-date antivirus running on your machine, and Avast! is a good choice. You simply register once a year, and there is no charge. They will occasionally offer you an upgrade to the paid version, but you don’t have to take it. The free version performs quite well enough.

Nerd Rating: Fairly Easy

  • If you are currently running another antivirus you will need to remove it. Do things in this order: (1) download Avast! (2) Disconnect your PC from the internet (3) uninstall old antivirus and reboot (4) install Avast! and reboot (5) connect to internet and let Avast! update. (If your current antivirus is Norton, change Nerd Rating to “can be a pain”).

Spybot S&D
(Anti spyware)
Nerd Rating: Fairly Easy

  • Spyware, adware and other malware can slow down your computer, cause problems or even compromise your personal details. In addition to the protection from your antivirus, you should have a dedicated anti spyware program. Spybot runs some resident protection, but it doesn’t update automatically. Every week or two update it, use the immunise feature, then scan for problems.

(Anti rootkit)
Nerd Rating: Easy, but see *Caution*

  • Rootkits compromise a computer’s security by operating at a very low level. They may hide their own presence and that of other malware such as viruses, preventing your normal antivirus or anti spyware program from cleaning your system completely.

*Caution* Because rootkit removal tools such as TDSSKiller have to operate at a fundamental level of the system, they always pose a slight risk of causing unexpected problems. The best policy is to carry out your regular data backup (which of course we all do, don’t we?), set a system restore point, then run the rootkit removal tool.

ZipGenius or 7-Zip
(File archiver)
Nerd Rating: Easy or

  • Better alternatives to WinZip for unzipping files that you download.

(Office Suite)
Nerd Rating: Easy

  • Same capabilities as MS Office suite, but you don’t need to take a second mortgage – it is free. You can even open MS Office files, and save in the MS format. PDF export is built in. If you are frequently converting to and from MS files you may get one or two minor glitches. You will also find a few annoying bugs or odd layouts. But give it a try, it is worth it.

Note: This is a development from OpenOffice. You can use OpenOffice instead while it is still available.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)
(Graphics Editor)
Nerd rating: Easy to Advanced, depending on what you want to do with it

  • A fully featured graphics editor that compares very well with Adobe Photoshop – especially as GIMP is free and Photoshop costs £657.

(Text Editor)
Nerd Rating: Easy, but with Advanced features if you need them

  • Just like the basic Notepad that comes with Windows, but with a million times more features. Good for the general user; an absolute must for anyone doing any scripting.

Vidalia Tor
(Controller for “The Onion Router”)
Nerd Rating: Moderate to Advanced

  • Every device that connects to the internet has a unique IP address. When you use the internet you create a route between all these devices which can be traced or blocked. It is not just international arch villains who might want to avoid this – the right to privacy for everyone is enshrined in the Human Rights Act. Tor effectively creates an alternative route which is hidden until your data emerges somewhere else in the world through an exit node. If you are embarrassed about your interest in steam trains, or you think your government might one day try to block your internet communications, this is a good tool to have.

(Firefox add-on)
Nerd Rating: Easy once Tor is installed.
Install from Firefox add-ons

  • Adds a simple toggle to Firefox that enables and disables Tor.

(Internet Relay Chat)
Nerd Rating: Easy to Advanced depending on how much you want to do with it
Various, eg.

  • A simple text based chat client. Multiple users connect to a channel and chat in a text box.

(Disk Encryption)
Nerd Rating: Moderate to Advanced

  • Encrypts your private data to protect it from prying eyes.

(Password Manager)
Nerd Rating: Fairly Easy

  • Manages and protects all your passwords and login details with a master password.

Codec Replacements
(Audio and video COder and DECoder)
Nerd rating: Fairly Easy
Links: see below

  • To be able to present audio and video media, your PC uses a number of codecs, a sort of coding and decoding format to interpret the data. The problem is, many of these are provided by companies who are less than 100% scrupulous about what they are installing on your machine. So, you have the choice of installing a risky application, or not being able to access the media you want. Fortunately, there are some alternatives – and because the codecs themselves are not owned by these companies (only the crap packaged around them) you can legally use them. (Actually, RealNetworks whined that their product had been illegally back engineered, but they never got anywhere trying to prove it). The two below are really worth installing:


  • Once you have installed this you can REMOVE DivX from your computer.

Real Alternative
Discontinued, but still available for download eg.

  • Comes complete with Media Player Classic, which looks like a very primitive Windows Media Player, but which has the advantage that (unlike its bloated Windows counterpart) it can actually play stuff without all the error messages and crashing. When you have installed Real Alternative you can REMOVE the appalling Real Player from your computer.


I hope you find at least some of these useful. If you have any questions about any of them, just send me a message. If you have any favourite utilities to add to the list, let me know.


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