As PC Advisor's CD editor explained on page 1, we test the software we recommend – and we are highly selective about the programs that make it on to our cover discs. You can grab many items from the internet for free, but they won't come with the sort of assurances you get by loading up the vetted items we give you.

We're not allowed to feature software from some companies – the likes of Microsoft and Google have strict licensing rules. But there are plenty of great programs we can include. Here are some of our favourites:

Photo editing

Adobe hasn't got the photo-editing market totally sewn up, but it's fair to say that Adobe Photoshop is the best-known program of its kind. ButThe Gimp is an open-source freebie with some powerful tools and powerful coders behind it.

Google Picasa 2 is a good choice for basic but effective photo fixes – indeed, Vista now sports some editing tools that work on similar principles. You don't get plug-ins or additional tools, nor regular updates, so if a new file format comes out you're out of luck.

The paid version of Corel SnapFire has just been renamed, but we like the simplicity of SnapFire itself. You can use it to organise and roughly edit photos, then show them off by creating slideshows, greetings cards and more.

As with other companies that have a good pedigree in commercial programs, Corel is aiming to attract a new, less technical customer base. And who are we to argue with that, given that the supporting tutorials and other support is second to none?

Web browsers and email clients

Mozilla Firefox (Firefox review here - download Firefox here) is the much-lauded alternative to IE (Internet Explorer) that really took off when IE was subjected to so many security attacks it became all but unusable.

The Mozilla Project runs on similar open-source principles to the Linux community, so it's worth reporting any problems. Mozilla has an excellent track record of quickly fixing issues.

Any plug-ins you find yourself in need of are almost certain to be available. An alert pops up when you visit a site that needs a particular BHO (browser helper object) or plug-in that you haven't yet acquired, along with an offer to install it on the spot. Agree and Firefox does everything for you.

Mozilla Thunderbird is another superb and cleanly written piece of software that we thoroughly recommend. It's an email client that sits on your desktop. You can set up a separate inbox for webmail if you wish.

Gmail, also known as Google Mail, is a great webmail program. You can view the on- or offline status of friends and contacts, search messages, view threaded, colour-coded email conversations and get instant messaging chat and RSS feeds via the same login details. The storage limit now exceeds 2.5GB so you may never need delete messages again.

The down side is that fixes for glitches don't always turn up as quickly as with, say, Mozilla applications – and it's far from uncommon for the Gmail server to be a little busy and delay access to your inbox for a few minutes.

Windows Mail almost seems like a comeback on Microsoft's part to the excellence of Thunderbird and Eudora. It's actually a redesigned and renamed version of the free Microsoft Outlook Express. As you'd expect, integration with Microsoft Outlook and other Office programs is strong.

Also, see our recent feature on 10 great free online apps that aren't Google!

Free software links

See also:


In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.