Many free programs from Microsoft

Microsoft is one of those companies that many of us have a love-hate relationship with. Despite some possible ill will toward Microsoft based on our experiences with Vista, BOB and a myriad of other software issues, Microsoft does have a kind and generous side when it comes to producing and releasing numerous pieces of useful software for free. My favorite free software directory, Gizmo’s TechSupportAlert.com, recently compiled and published a comprehensive directory of free software from Microsoft, which can be found at www.techsupportalert.com/content/best-free-microsoft-downloads.htm.

Gizmo, and his volunteer staff, have tested and reviewed all of the free Microsoft software titles listed, and only those that met subjective quality and performance standards are listed. According to Gizmo and his staff, “An unavoidable fact is that some alternatives will be better than programs listed here, but the programs listed here are still good and useful — however, if a Microsoft program is ridiculously inferior to other free alternatives and simply not worth using, I won’t include it. If a program has a loose affiliation with Microsoft but is not actually a Microsoft product (e.g. Paint.NET), it won’t be listed here.”

The Gizmo listings of free Microsoft software are categorized into 11 types of utilities, including security software, Internet, system tools, desktop, multimedia, office, educational, programming, online services, entertainment and miscellaneous. At the top of the directory is a listing of recently added free Microsoft software. A few of these recently added programs include Standalone System Sweeper (creates bootable CD to scan and remove malware), Microsoft Safety Scanner (comprehensive computer scan to detect and remove malware), and Fix it Solution (Microsoft’s automated utility to repair or correct many common Windows and Microsoft software problems).

I have been a strong proponent of securing our computers and have repeatedly encouraged users to utilize any one or more of the many free or commercial security utilities that are available. For those who may like the idea of using free security software from Microsoft, such software is available. One of Microsoft’s most popular free software utilities is Microsoft Security Essentials, a decent and often well regarded utility that can provide real-time protection from viruses, spyware and other common forms of malware, as well as scan for malware already on the computer. In its review of Security Essentials, Gizmo says, “This may be the best free product ever from Microsoft, and it was chosen as Gizmo’s Freeware 2010 Product of the Year. MSE is a free anti-malware program with an interface ideal for average users, and effectiveness ideal for advanced users as well.” Microsoft Security Essentials will run on any computer with Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7. While this is an “essentials” program, only providing adequate protection against the most common threats, it does lack many of the features incorporated into other competitive free and commercial security products.

I am frequently asked about parental control software, programs that can give parents control over their children’s Internet activities. Microsoft obliges with its free Windows Live Family Safety, which comes in versions for Vista, Windows 7, and a special version for XP. This program can filter Web content and restrict e-mail contacts. Windows Live Family Safety can also create an activity log that allows parents to see who has been on the computer, and a list of which Web sites the child has visited.

Many Windows users like to tweak their computers in order to eke out any available performance increase or to better manage the software that is running on the computer. Microsoft has several excellent free system tools that can perform these tasks and more. One of my favorites, which I frequently use, is Microsoft’s Sysinternals Suite, a comprehensive collection of about 70 system utilities and troubleshooting tools that can be used to monitor and maintain most functions on the computer. Not all tools will run on all Windows machines (but most will), as some tools are XP only, while others will not run on XP, and some tools are for 32-bit systems only. Still, the majority of these utilities will run on most Windows machines. Another way of improving computer performance and speed, as well as to improve boot time, is to control what programs load when the computer is booted; Microsoft offers for free one of the finest startup managers available at any price, and this program is “Autoruns.” Autoruns can also be used to identify and disable malware that loads itself in the boot process, a critical step in the removal of many types of malware. Autoruns, which will run on any XP or later computer, is one of the programs that I routinely install on almost all computers that I work on, and is seen by many IT professionals as a mandatory item to use to analyze potential PC problems.

Under the heading “Image Tools” in the Multimedia category is another of my favorite free utilities, Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE). This program performs a task that most users are unaware of, but once used, becomes a fun task to accomplish when manipulating a series of digital photos or images. ICE is a “panorama stitcher” in that it can seamlessly merge a series of overlapping photos and use them to create a panoramic image. One this panoramic image is created, ICE can be used to crop, rotate and otherwise manage the image, and then save the new image in a variety of popular image formats. If the user chooses to do so, images created with ICE can be uploaded to Microsoft’s Photosynth Web site (photosynth.net) where they can join the 50,000 panoramic images that users have decided to share with the world.

Since taking digital photos and video have become some of the most popular personal activities, many of us have found a need to be able to edit our images and videos but are often unwilling to pay for expensive editing software. For those who want a decent but free utility to accomplish those tasks, Microsoft offers Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker. The Photo Gallery software enables the user to easily edit, organize and tag digital photos. Like most of Microsoft’s other free programs, Photo Gallery is totally adequate to carry out the most common image tasks but it lacks many of the enhanced features found on more comprehensive competitive products. Windows Live Movie Maker, like Photo Gallery, offers the user the most common video editing functions. Movie Maker can also directly upload videos to YouTube, Facebook and some other video hosting services. For anyone wanting to create a slideshow using digital photos, Photo Story 3 is a powerful program that can do that and much more. Photo Story 3 can create transition effects between images, pan and zoom in on images, as well as add text to the images, audio narration and music to the slideshow. Slideshows created with this software are saved in the popular and universally viewable WMV (Windows Media) format.

One of my favorite programs in the Educational section is Microsoft Mathematics, which is a full featured mathematical and graphic calculator. This free program can solve equations, perform unit conversions, display 2 and 3 dimensional graphs, and can process algebra, trigonometry and calculus. One very useful educational feature built in is its ability to display simple instructions on how to solve math problems, which is a valuable teaching and tutorial function. Microsoft originally sold this program commercially, but the newest version was released by Microsoft as freeware. One other interesting feature in Microsoft Mathematics is that it integrates with Word and OneNote as an add-in, which incorporates the math features into those programs.

These are but a few of the many free programs that Microsoft has made freely available to Windows users. It may be a worthwhile and profitable exercise to review the list of free software from Microsoft before purchasing some commercial software. All of this software is available for download directly from Microsoft for an excellent price that is hard to beat — free!

Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.

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