Here at Logical Increments, we receive numerous questions and comments from people who are either about to build a computer, are actively building a computer, or have just built a computer. (Shocking, I know!)
One question that has been common among all three groups is, ‘What programs do you recommend putting on a new computer directly after installing the operating system?’ Well, I can’t speak for the needs of every user (nor even for the preferences of every LI team member), but I can offer you a list of excellent programs that I personally install on just about every computer for my own use after building a PC.
All of them are free or have worthwhile free versions, and many of them are volunteer-produced and/or open-source software. These programs encompass an array of important categories, including workstation tasks, media playback, and hardware monitoring/security—and will be (loosely) grouped along those lines below.
Let’s take a look!
Best Free Productivity and Design Programs
Office Software: LibreOffice
For those of you looking for a conventional ‘office suite’ of programs, including a full-featured word processor, slideshow/presentation maker, and spreadsheet program—LibreOffice is the best free option of which I am aware. In fact, the article you’re reading now was originally drafted in LibreOffice Writer. LibreOffice also includes optional utilities for making/editing diagrams, databases, mathematical formulas, and charts (though, to be clear: I have never personally used anything other than LibreOffice Writer, Calc, and Impress).
Image Editing: GIMP
There are now several free image editing programs well worth considering, including applications like paint.net and Inkscape. But for the most thorough set of features and capabilities, I have always found myself gravitating back to GIMP. There can be a bit of a learning curve here, especially if beginning to use GIMP after having experience in a popular paid option like Adobe Photoshop, but it can do practically everything one would expect such an image editor to do (albeit with a bit less handholding).
Video Editing: Resolve
This is an outlier in this list, for the simple reason that this is the only program in the entire article that I do not personally use. But I felt I would be remiss if I failed to include a video editor, particularly when there is a piece of professional-grade software available for free. Resolve is a powerful color grading tool as well as a worthy video editor, but be forewarned: it is notoriously hardware-intensive (which is the only reason that I myself use—sadly not free—Adobe Premiere for video editing instead).
Audio Editing: Audacity
No frugal video or audio editor should have to go through life without being aware of Audacity, an excellent (and, again, free) tool for working on audio files. Boasting a huge array of file type compatibilities and an enormous library of community-made modifications and plugins, Audacity joins GIMP in being fully capable of producing professional work for users that don’t mind fewer niceties and a somewhat steeper learning curve.
Best Free Browsing and Entertainment Programs
Web Browser: Firefox
Firefox is a free and open-source program developed by a non-profit organization known as Mozilla, and is accordingly the only prominent browser option that I ever recommend. With a dedication to user privacy and control that is becomingly increasingly and concerningly rare in the world of free software, Mozilla’s Firefox remains a beautifully well-optimized, unobtrusive, and customizable option for accessing all of your preferred corners of the internet.
Network Media Playback: Plex
Plex is software that is so well-polished and impressive that the parts of it available for free are a consistent source of awe and admiration from me. Basically, Plex can be used to turn a PC into a media server for streaming video and audio to other devices, such as phones, smart TVs, and other computers. In other words, it can turn your personal media collection of local files (movies, TV shows, and music) on your machine into an interface that functions basically like a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Local Media Playback: VLC
Plex is great for consuming media from a couch, but it’s lacking in features and compatibility when compared to the (far less aesthetically polished, far more feature-rich) VLC. Thus, for local playback on my PC itself, I almost always favor VLC. Not only does it boast more extensive and specific control over media playback than most competition (while remaining completely free), but it can also be used to inspect the technical details of video and audio files with relative ease.
Screen Recording/Streaming: OBS
Finally, I present a piece of software that rides the line between this entertainment section and the preceding productivity section: Open Broadcaster Software. Long gone is the era where those hoping to record or stream their screens have to wade through watermarked freeware or expensive subscriptions. OBS is a robust, free, highly customizable, regularly updated, all-in-one program for streamers, YouTubers, and all manner of other people looking to capture activity on their PC in a video format.
Best Free Security and File Handling Programs
Antivirus Scanning: Malwarebytes
Modern PCs do not usually need dedicated third-party antivirus software. Between the security utilities natively in an OS like Windows and basic common sense, you should be pretty well-covered. That is, basic computer literacy (e.g. not downloading and running untrustworthy executable files, not downloading file extensions from unknown email senders, not inserting unidentified USB drives into a PC, etc.) is now typically more than sufficient to protect against the vast majority of ordinary computer viruses, exploits, and scams. All that being said, however, it may not hurt to have a program like Malwarebytes downloaded, whose free version allows the occasional manual scan for paranoid users (just be sure to disable it activating on Startup in Task Manager, so it doesn’t pester you or slow your machine).
Hardware Monitoring: Speccy
Speccy, at least in its free form, is a fairly basic program. All it really does is list out what hardware you have in your system, how it is configured, and (when available) what temperature that hardware is currently running at. But for those who are not major PC building enthusiasts, it can be a very convenient one-stop shop to have on your computer for whenever you want to double-check what hardware you have in your system, and whether anything is overheating.
Archive/Compression Software: 7Zip
7Zip is a utility for unpacking archive files (such as .zip and .rar). The really nice thing about 7Zip is that, unlike its more well-known peer WinRAR, 7Zip is entirely free and will therefore not incessantly bother you about purchasing a license. That on its own could make it worth recommending, but it also just happens to be a great, reliable piece of software.
Torrent Handling: qBittorrent
Torrent and related P2P files continue to be one of the best methods for moving large files and folders around the web securely. Sending or receiving such files involves utilizing a torrent or bittorrent client, and (as far as I am concerned) the open-source project qBittorrent is currently the best one. It simply does what it’s supposed to do, for free, without trying to advertise to you or harvest data from/about you. What more could one ask for?
Despite its selectivity, this list might still strike some of you as long enough to seem cumbersome on the first day with a newly built PC. Well, you’re in luck there too! Other than Plex, Speccy, and Resolve, everything recommended in this list can be multi-installed through Ninite. In fact, Ninite also supports installation of a number of programs that I do recommend, but which I ultimately decided were a little too specialized or potentially unnecessary to include in the main list (such as Blender, Notepad++, and HandBrake).
Please do note that the listed programs produced by non-profit and/or volunteer groups generally accept donations, and the listed programs produced by for-profit groups generally offer paid premium versions of their software. So if you particularly like one of these programs and wish to financially support its development, it’s very likely that you will be able to do that (although it is never strictly necessary).
Anyway, hopefully this list has introduced you to one or more useful free programs of which you were not already aware. And if it didn’t, then by all means feel free to share some further recommendations for people in the comments below!