I’ve been writing about freeware now for more than a decade, starting out working freelance when the likes of Clif Sipe and Ian “Gizmo” Richards ruled the roost, until around 7 years ago when I hooked up full time with Dave here at DCT.
Back in the day, with new products constantly hitting the market place, there was always plenty to discuss and writing about freeware was a real buzz. These days, however, it seems every freeware category has been well and truly catered for and innovation has all but slowed to a crawl. It’s rare to come across a new freeware today which offers anything substantially different or over and above already established titles.
In my younger years, I thought oldies reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ was pretty boring, but now I have reached oldie status myself, I find I am doing the exact same thing… funny how that works.
Anyway, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the best freeware over the past decade or so and compile a list of my all time top 10 titles… so, here goes:
Criteria includes: Longevity (or withstanding the test of time), popularity, overall impact, and continuing support/development.
#1 All Time Best Freeware – Sandboxie
I was first introduced to this outstanding freeware not long after its initial release back in 2004 by the inimitable “Gizmo” Richards who continued to discuss and promote Sandboxie in his regular freeware newsletters. In those days, terms such as “sandboxing” and “virtual environment” were practically unheard of. I openly admit, it took some time before I fully comprehended Sandboxie’s true value myself.
Since then, Sandboxie has held a permanent place on every machine I’ve owned, and I’ve written about and recommended Sandboxie many times. If you don’t know what Sandboxie does, check this article out: Sandboxie: Why everyone should be using it. I firmly believe that if everyone utilized Sandboxie, we’d pretty much put computer repair shops out of business – certainly as far as cleaning up malware infected machines is concerned anyway.
#2 All Time Best Freeware – Avast & Avira
I honestly find it difficult to pick between these two stalwart antivirus solutions which have both been providing free protection for so many years – Avira since 1999 and Avast since 2001. I have been a long time Avast user myself and it has never let me down. However, the latest couple of releases have left me less than enamored and I’m currently using and recommending Avira.
Avira has always excelled in terms of detection rates and now the company has finally abolished the Ask Toolbar and incessant nag screen, it’s a pretty easy recommendation. Either way, these two are top of the free antivirus pops in my book.
*I’ve deliberately omitted AVG here, even though it was once the most popular free antivirus solution. Back in the day, every single client’s machine I worked on had AVG Free installed, as if it was mandatory or something… do you remember?
However, about 4 or 5 years ago, AVG went down a destructive path, with the free antivirus becoming overly bloated and impacting heavily on system resources. This caused AVG Free to quickly lose favor with users and the once ubiquitous freeware slipped into near oblivion. AVG has made somewhat of a comeback since but has yet to regain its reputation or position. Frankly, I am still reluctant to recommend it.
#3 All Time Best Freeware – CCleaner
Ask anyone to name their favorite top 10 freeware and I guarantee CCleaner will be in there somewhere, such is the popularity of this venerable and trusted maintenance tool. Personally, I no longer use CCleaner as, in my opinion, it has been usurped by the superb PrivaZer. However, just on longevity and popularity alone, I find it impossible to leave CCleaner out of this list.
There’s not much more I can say about CCleaner really, one of the most popular and widely utilized freeware titles of all time. However, I do recommend you check out this article here: CCleaner vs PrivaZer – Which is more effective? and maybe give PrivaZer a look see.
#4 All Time Best Freeware – VLC Media Player
Would you believe VLC has been round even longer than CCleaner? According to Wikipedia, VLC was first released in 2001 with CCleaner hitting the shelves 2 years later, in 2003. It certainly surprised me.
Even though the built-in Windows Media Payer would do the job it has always been sadly lacking in terms of codec support and practically devoid of advanced functions/controls. This has led to a slew of free 3rd party media players, of which VLC has always been very popular and remains so to this day.
With terrific codec support plus a plethora of advanced controls/functions, VLC has led the pack for a long time.
#5 All Time Best Freeware – IrfanView
Believe it or not, IrfanView is even older again, first seeing the light of day way back in 1996. According to IrfanView’s official website, since 2003, IrfanView has been downloaded over 1 million times per month.
IrfanView excels in terms of both features and quality, including support for a bevy of image formats, some of which I’ve never even heard of, and its impressive feature-set is loaded with useful tools. Just 2 of the reasons IrfanView continues to be one of the most popular image viewers of all time.
I am also a fan of FastStone Image viewer, however, strictly following the criteria for this list, IrfanView is matchless.
#6 All Time Best Freeware – Skype
First released in 2003, Skype’s influence on the communications landscape has been nothing short of immense and it will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most game-changing pieces of software of all time. I still marvel at the ability to video chat with friends across the other side of world, in real time and for free.
Skype has changed hands a number of times over the years, for substantial sums of money I might add, but the basic functionality has always remained intact and free. Now under Microsoft’s umbrella, and with the proliferation of mobile devices entering the equation, I doubt there would be a more ubiquitous freeware.
#7 All Time Best Freeware – Macrium Reflect Free
No such list would be complete without mentioning an all important backup software, and even though Macrium Reflect is a comparative youngster, it was the first modern and intuitive disk imaging and disaster recovery software made available for free. Up until that time, users relied heavily on the commercial Acronis True Image for creating and restoring full system image backups.
Paramount software in the UK took this basic system imaging functionality and released it as freeware in 2006. I still recall writing my first ever review of Macrium Reflect Free, including… “Macrium Reflect Free is so good, it’s difficult to believe it’s free“. Or words to that effect.
Since then, other developers have entered the fray of course, but Macrium Reflect Free set both the trend and the standard.
*I’m not 100% sure of the actual timeline here, but I’m pretty certain Macrium Reflect Free was the first of its kind. At least, I recall the fuss it created among the freeware community when it was first released, which tends to suggest that it must have been the original. However, I am open to correction.
#8 All Time Best Freeware – Firefox
What use is a PC without a browser to connect to the web? Okay, so there would still be some uses but you have to admit, overall usefulness would be substantially diminished without the good old browser.
Firefox first entered the browser fray in 2004 and, although not exactly an immediate hit with users, slowly but inexorably gained popularity. Internet Explorer was pretty much the only browser in those days with very little in the way of meaningful competition. Firefox was the first 3rd party browser to even look like making a dent in Internet Explorer’s dominance.
Firefox’s massive library of useful extensions (or add-ons) has contributed hugely to its ongoing popularity, and even though that popularity has been waning alarmingly of late, I believe it still deserves it’s place in the annals of history and, ultimately, in this list.
#9 All Time Best Freeware – The NirSoft Collection
Nir Sofer began listing his software online in 2001 and has now developed more than 100 applications under the “NirSoft” banner. Nir Sofer specializes in developing small portable tools and utilities for Windows and is one of very few who has continued in the true spirit of freeware.
From password tools to system tools through to programmer tools and forensics tools, all Nir Sofer’s applications are free, small, portable, clean, and effective. Admittedly, this is very much a personal selection and NirSoft is probably not a household name among average users but, it’s amazing how many times a user will post about a particular issue on the DCT forum and one of Nir Sofer’s tools will either provide a solution or, at the very least, assist with finding a solution.
- NirSoft’s extensive range of portable tools and utilities can be downloaded individually or altogether in a single package known as NirLAuncher, here: http://launcher.nirsoft.net/
#10 All Time Best Freeware –
You know what, I couldn’t come up with a number 10, and I didn’t want to change the title to “9” – not a good number, just ask Microsoft. 🙂
Anyway, if you can help out and come up with a suitable number 10, that would be greatly appreciated.
P.S. The numbering/order holds no particular significance, I just added the titles in as they came to mind.