101 fantastic freebies

Once upon a time you actually had to pay for great software and services — hard to believe, but true.

Luckily, we no longer live in that world. The Internet is stuffed with great downloads and Web sites offering free software and services of every kind. Want to tune up your PC, keep it safe, create graphics, or back up your system with gobs of free storage space? You can find free software and sites to do all that, and plenty more.

We revved up our cable modem and searched for the most intriguing free offerings out there. After we took each download or service for a test-drive, we picked the very best, and came up with the following list of 101 great freebies.

We didn’t do it alone, though — you helped. We polled readers, asking for your top freebies in several categories, so here you’ll find your favorites as well as ours.

System Utilities

Windows XP Tweaks

Winner: Fresh UI

Fresh UI is a tweaker’s heaven: With it you can change scores of settings in XP, many of which you probably never knew existed. Want to alter most any aspect of the Windows interface? Go ahead. Customize the Start menu? No problem. Change global menu settings and dozens of network and Internet settings? You can do them all, and a whole lot more.

Microsoft Power Toys for Windows XP Who says Microsoft can’t write great software? These easy-to-use tweaking tools allow you to customize XP in countless ways.

Tweak and Tune This freebie doesn’t have as many options and tools as Fresh UI does, but it’s simple to use and well laid-out.

Windows Vista Tweaks

Winner: TweakVI Basic If you want to do some serious Windows Vista tweaking, you need this utility. Microsoft seems to have gone out of its way to make Vista unfriendly to power users. But this great freebie gives you hundreds of ways to adjust the operating system, tasks that otherwise would be extremely difficult to do. Whether you want to, say, hack the Start menu, put an image on Internet Explorer’s toolbar, or optimize your CPU’s cache, this program has something for you.

VistaBootPRO Want to change how Windows Vista boots? Ordinarily you’d have to learn the ins and outs of the incomprehensible BCDEdit command-line tool. But this simple, graphical program lets you master Vista’s boot-up and startup without ever touching the dreaded BCDEdit.

Easy BCD Another BCD editor, this one is great for setting up a machine with Vista and other operating systems, such as Linux or XP.

Security Software

Winner: Avast In a world filled with high-priced subscription-based antivirus programs that bog down your PC while protecting it, Avast stands out. This program is one of the few free antivirus applications that do as good a job as any of the big boys. Avast includes more than seven different varieties of shields, safe-surfing tools, and real-time virus protection for your OS, as well as for Outlook. The program downloads and installs updates automatically, and Avast works with both Windows Vista and XP. Given all this, why pay?

ZoneAlarm This free firewall still beats anything Microsoft puts into Windows, including the features in Windows Vista. It offers outbound as well as inbound protection.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Protecting against viruses and hackers, this app works with both Windows Vista and earlier versions.

SMAC This utility lets you change the MAC address — the unique ID — of a wireless adapter. Use it to perform vulnerability testing, or to keep your identity private.

Microsoft Windows Defender Though not everyone is a fan of Microsoft’s antispyware program, we love some of its tools. We’re particularly fond of the Software Explorer feature, which lets you disable programs that launch on Windows startup.

Spybot Search and Destroy We still adore this perennial favorite. But remember — since no single antispyware program can detect and kill all spyware, Spybot should be just one piece of your security arsenal.

Registry Cleaner

Winner: TweakNow RegCleaner Standard

The Registry is a scary place; like Dante’s underworld, it should have a sign reading “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” TweakNow RegCleaner Standard is your virtual Virgil, a guide into the depths of the Registry. It automatically scans your Registry and reveals problems. After you examine the changes and tell the software to do its magic, it cleans the Registry for you.

Clean My Registry This Registry cleaner will not show you quite as much information as TweakNow does, but it is fast and it does a good job of sweeping away the junk.

Hardware Utility

Winner: Belarc Advisor If you’re looking for an exquisitely detailed audit of your hardware, this is the download you need. The program starts with the basics, such as the computer manufacturer, installed RAM, hard-disk size, and processor type and speed. But it also shows you the motherboard maker, hard-disk manufacturer, chassis serial number, PC service tag, bus type and speed, multimedia devices…the list goes on and on.

SpeedFan This must-download for serious overclockers touts itself as a monitor for your system’s temperature and fan speed. The real reason it’s worthwhile is that it lets you easily overclock your PC and adjust the fan speed so it doesn’t overheat.

M2 Information This program performs a quick scan of your computer and lists details such as the processor type and speed, the RAM amount, and disk information.

Communications and File Sharing

E-Mail for Free

Winner and People’s Choice Award: Gmail The heavyweight <externalLink