Windows Live Photo Gallery can organize your photos, but Picasa does a more comprehensive job scouring your hard disks for images and filing them in order. You can then organize them into albums, with handy searchable description. Its built-in editing tools provide a range of corrections and adjustments to your images, and even add special effects. You can also create slideshows and screensavers, order prints from UK services, and upload pictures to web albums. http://www.picasa.google.com
Windows Live Messenger is great for communicating via Windows Live or Yahoo, but what if you have friends on AIM, Google Talk, ICQ or Apple iChat? Pity the fool who has to monitor half a dozen different chat applications. Pidgin is a free alternative chat client that can connect to all of these services at once. You can even hold several conversations on different services at the same time, all from one simple interface. Just enter your details for each of the various chat services and Pidgin presents you with a single unified “buddy list”.
For those who want a little bit more from their chat client, there’s a whole range of optional plug-ins too, this can further extend Pidgin’s capabilities. You can add extra notifications, customize the appearance of the interface, tweak your security settings and even integrate your Pidgin conversations with other services such as Facebook and OKCupid. You’ll love it when a plan comes together. www.pidgin.im
Windows 7 comes with the basic Paint program, but Paint.NET is a much more advanced tool, with more than enough features to keep amateur photographers happy. It’s also blessed with a user-friendly interface, and will run on any modern PC. Noteworthy features include adjustment and retouch tools that rival commercial image-editing packages, plus the ability to build up and manipulate parts of an image in Photoshop-style layers. There’s a range of special effects too, and a strong community of users is constantly adding extra features in the form of free plug-ins. http://www.paint.net
If you regularly download files from the internet, you’ll know that a lot of things come in compressed formats such as Zip or RAR. This means there’s less data to transfer, so the load on the network is less and you get your files more quickly. Compression is also handy if you need to keep a lot of files together without filling up a DVD or USB flash drive. Windows 7 has built-in options for creating compressed folders, but 7-Zip is easier to use: once it’s installed, you can simply right-click on any regular file or folder and you’ll see options for creating a compressed archive. Right-click on a compressed file and you can extract it there and then. 7-Zip works with many different types of compressed file, including ISO disc images, so it’s a great enhancement for Windows. www.7-zip.org
VLC Media Player
VLC plays music and video files, as well as DVD media. To that extent, it’s a direct replacement for Windows Media Player. But VLC offers many advantages over Windows’ own player. For a start, it supports an enormous range of video formats – if you’re having trouble playing a file, just throw it at VLC and the odds are it’ll work like a charm. VLC also supports advanced playback features, such as bookmarks and subtitles.
If your disc or video file has multiple audio tracks – perhaps an audio commentary, or a dubbed dialogue track in a different language – VLC lets you choose between them. The software can even apply a variety of post-processing filters to make your movies look the best, and if you’re having trouble with audio that’s out of sync with the picture, VLC can fix that too. Useful video effects, such as cropping and zooming, rub shoulders with more frivolous adjustments, such as color inversion. VLC does it all: if you’ve the slightest interest in watching video on your PC it’s well worth a download. http://www.videolan.org