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Essential Apps to Install on your Windows PC or Mac
You just bought a new laptop, built a new desktop PC, or are simply clean installing on a new solid state drive, good for you! Gotta love the taste of a fresh new machine, but now you have to get back to productivity zen by recovering your files and installing programs.
Not sure which ones? Well, let us help. We've compiled a list of essential programs to get you started. From security utilities to productivity tools, and many suggestions for the areas in between, with a special emphasis in great free software you can download right away.
Browse the Web + One Essential Add-on
Windows 10 offers Edge, a serviceable browser that's kept getting better with every release, however you'll rarely find power users favoring it over Chrome or Firefox. Meanwhile, macOS offers Safari, a very solid browser by most standards, especially if you live in Apple's ecosystem and perhaps the reason a sizable share of Mac users (~40%) don't look beyond it.
And yet the default choice for most remains Google Chrome. What used to be a speedy browser, nowadays gets bugged down like most others, but thanks to its myriad of extensions and cross-platform support, we'd still call it the best browser for most users. Chrome is great for Android users, too, as you can natively sync across devices.
Then there's Firefox which is long time contender that's got up to speed for the most part.
If you're up for a little experimentation, Opera remains a slick and feature rich browser that is based on Chrome's engine. Same goes for Vivaldi (from the original makers of Opera), it's not as polished as Opera on the UI front, but is very customizable and offers many power user friendly features.
Add a Password Manager
Top pick: Lastpass
It's a fact that many people still use terrible passwords. Even those that prefer something harder to crack than "123456" often have the same login credentials for several sites. There's also the problem of forgetting which passwords go with which websites.
A password manager is an essential add-on, we'd recommend you start with one of these (if you haven't already made your choice): Lastpass, 1Password, KeePass or Dashlane. Also worth mentioning, there's a new open source alternative in town called Bitwarden. We've yet to review it extensively but many early adopters love it.
Cloud Storage & Backup
For more storage: Choose and pick between the four big: Dropbox, OneCloud, iCloud or Google Drive.
Full backups: Use a paid service to back up all your data to the cloud. It's relatively inexpensive.
Cloud storage and backup are a must-have in your toolbox. There is nothing more convenient than accessing data from any place or device, and having that data sync across devices. Backing up and restoring information has never been smoother either, and even though there's a huge array of options we've long been spoiled by Dropbox's ease of use.
Dropbox offers 2GB of free cloud storage which is not much, but you can earn up to 18GB via referrals and a few other tricks (... cough). For most users we often recommend using this along with Google Photos, which allows you to save an unlimited amount of photos and videos, including automatic backups from your smartphone, then put on the Google cloud and made easily searchable. We love the service.
If you have bigger storage requirements, we'd look at all the best alternatives and the different pricing tiers before making the decision. Major alternatives to Dropbox include Microsoft OneDrive, which is integrated into Windows 10, Google Drive and Apple's iCloud. Odds are you already rely in one (or more than one) of these four. Luckily competition for cloud backup has been fierce for a few years and prices have come down a little.
Finally, for full backups, there are better suited alternatives than the above. First of all, you get specialized backup software, file versioning, and often unlimited storage so you can offload terabytes of data and remain at ease. Recommended cloud backup providers include Backblaze, IDrive, SugarSync, Carbonite and SOS Online Backup.
Windows user: WhatsApp and Hangouts for video.
MacOS user: Built-in iMessage and FaceTime will get you covered. WhatsApp to reach everyone.
For work: Slack or Microsoft Teams.
Information is power but having the right information at the right time is even more important. The most ubiquitous personal messaging platforms are WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, though only the former offers native desktop applications. iPhone/Mac users will be happy to use the integrated iMessage, however not everyone may be available in the platform.
For video calls Skype remains one of the more popular options but honestly, we kind of hate it these days, it's a convoluted mess. Google Hangouts can be used free for voice and video calls, several people can join on a single meeting and because it's web-based it works across all platforms. In fact, if you're running Chrome there's nothing you need to do to join a meeting. It's not perfect but it works.
A second good alternative is Viber, offering similar voice and video capabilities, with an added spin on security. Unlike Hangouts, Viber offers native applications for Windows, macOS and even Linux, as well as Android and iOS.
It's always fun to stay in touch with family and friends, but if you need to collaborate in a workgroup then Slack is the most popular platform for that purpose. The free plan works well for small groups, and there are paid options (per seat) if you have bigger storage and history requirements, as well as more security control. Alternatives include Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams, the latter is a likely candidate if you're already paying for an Office 365 subscription.
And if you're interested in having all your different communication services in one place you can try Franz.
And if you're interested in having all your different communication services in one place you can try Franz.
If you know what you're doing, both Windows and macOS come with decent security out of the box. Common sense should be enough for power users, while the average user may want to add another layer of protection that won't turn into a burden for your system.
Malwarebytes is the first tool you should consider. A veteran specializing in preventing malware and rootkits attacks, it's great and free for personal use. There's also VirusTotal.com which you can use to scan downloaded files for threats before you open them.
For gaming we have to recommend Steam first and foremost. Valve's killer gaming platform does an awesome job at being a one-stop shop for most PC gaming. It's a great hub and gaming communication platform, also known for its sales.
Unless you're invested in Apple's ecosystem, music streaming is synonymous with Spotify, so you can download that here. YouTube is another great place to discover music, not just the latest releases but finding old live performances of your favorite artists.
For watching your favorite movies there's VLC Player. If you just want to press play and go, VLC has that going for it. But it's also a powerful player with support for subtitle synchronisation, video filters, and equalization, should you need that. Many people swear by MPC-HC (Media Player Classic) though it's no longer actively developed, in its place an open source fork has emerged, called MPC-BE. Other worthwhile mentions: PotPlayer and KMPlayer.
Also, to be fair, Windows 10's built in player works well and supports a variety of formats, too. Last time we checked, it saved battery when playing movies on a laptop, so we certainly wouldn't discard it. On Macs we also like to use MPV and Movist, although the latter is not free. If you are using your PC to act as a hub for streaming content around the house, check out Plex.
Office Suite + Email
Microsoft Office remains the king of office productivity and some are not having as hard a time justifying a subscription to Office 365 if you need it for work and if you take advantage of most of the apps and included perks like 1TB of OneDrive storage.
Now, as you are likely aware, free alternatives abound here. Mac users get iWork out of the box, which is a great way to get started on documents, spreadsheets or presentations. On the Windows side, some of our writers swear by LibreOffice, while others simply hate it. The open source office suite offers all the basics (and then some) but at zero cost. Same goes for WPS Office Free. Google Docs is the default choice for browser-based office apps, sharing and collaboration.
For simple note-taking there's OneNote, which Microsoft now offers as a free cross-platform, cloud connected app.
For screenshot grabbing, annotation and sharing, we like Monosnap though OS tools are improving every year and macOS's upcoming revision will do most of what we like about Monosnap out of the box.
If you need an actual image editing tool, the best free stuff includes GIMP, Paint.net and Inkscape, but otherwise you will have to pay for a more robust option. Adobe applications are top notch and professional, but there are other high quality alternatives like Corel PaintShop Pro 2018 and Pixelmator.
Teamviewer is the default choice for cross-platform remote control and desktop sharing. It's also a pretty good tool to have handy should you need to transfer very large files that are impractical to add to your cloud storage.
F.lux is a nifty little app that shifts the color of your computer's display to adapt to the time of day and become easier on your eyes. If you like to work at night, F.lux is a godsend. Major operating systems have also begun building in an option for filtering out blue light, including Windows 10 (with the Fall Creators Update), macOS, Apple iOS, Android, and Amazon's Fire tablets. For more information, check out our feature about enabling "night mode" on all your devices.
Wox is a fully featured launcher for Windows, that honestly needs it much more than macOS. Search your PC and the web effortlessly
Clipboard managers make it much easier to re-enter text or anything else that you've recently copied and pasted, adding an array of new capabilities to your OS' default clipboard. There are dozens of different choices but our current top choices are ClipClip for Windows and Flycut for macOS.
For a long time CCleaner has been the most popular system-cleaning tool for Windows, extending its reach to other platforms like macOS and Android phones. However it's been a stormy ride for app since last year that's had many doubting how trustworthy the tool is. While we haven't dropped the ball completely on CCleaner, Wise Disk Cleaner is a good alternative.
Old school Windows users consider Classic Shell a must, but unfortunately its development has come to a halt which will pose a serious issue moving forward. An open-source replacement (Open Shell) is in the works that hopefully will be updated regularly.
Backing up all the ever-important family photos and videos on Google Photos is easier using the upload tool.
For the geogeek Google Earth is always cool to have loaded and ready.
E-book readers consider Calibre to be a must-have.
If you want to check out your PC's specs, Speccy does the basics without much fuss.
Not Needed Anymore?
Also, there's stuff we used to install but we normally don't anymore: third-party antivirus, PDF readers, print to PDF utilities (OS support this natively), download managers, software firewalls, WinAMP, to name a few. Of course, there's still use for many of these, but we no longer install them right away unless and until they're needed.
Is this list missing something? Tell us about your own app suggestions and recommendations.