The Best Software Programs





Lossless Audio Compressor

  • Monkey's Audio Compressor (MAC) is not an audio encoder per se. Rather, it's a compressor. Small point, but worth noting. Monkey's also serves as a 'front end' for many command line encoders & compressors.

    If you've ever used a Zip file, you understand how lossless compression works. Unlike lossy MP3 files, which discard a portion of the audio information deemed unimportant, you lose nothing with MAC. Songs compressed with Monkey's (and other lossless codecs) have zero quality loss.

    Monkey's is for people who go bananas over audio quality. No matter how good MP3s or other lossy encoders get, they'll never match the quality of a lossless codec.

    Lossless compressors yield roughly 2-to-1 (50%) compression over standard wave files. Actually, 2-to-1 compression is optimistic. 60% of the original wave file is more realistic. By contrast, high-quality MP3 files offer ~6 or 8-to-1 compression (by discarding audio information deemed unimportant).

    Shorten is another lossless codec that is very popular, tho I've heard it's far from the best. The folks at the Hydrogen Audio forums prefer LPAC, even tho it doesn't support Apple Macs.

    Another lossless codec worth mentioning is FLAC, which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Since FLAC is Open Source (like Linux), I expect it to grow in popularity [it's currently at version 1.x]. The other compressors mentioned here are free, but not open source.

    The folks at Project Mayhem have selected FLAC as their lossless compressor of choice. That alone should ensure that it grows in popularity. The gang at r3mix forums may follow suit and dump LPAC in favor of FLAC.

    With hard drive capacities now at 250-GBs and climbing, and their prices continuing to drop, more people are opting for lossless compression everyday. Some people dedicate an entire monster-sized drive solely for their MP3s, & other digital media (video, images, etc.). For more info on lossless compression, see the Radified Guide to Lossless Audio Codecs.

PC Benchmarking


  • Either ZoneAlarm or Sygate will work nicely for you. Both offer both freeware & Pro versions. ZA is easier to configure; Sygate more configurable. This site will help you configure Sygate. Some folks use VisualZone with ZoneAlarm.

    Other software-based firewalls worth mentioning: Outpost,.. Kerio,.. LooknStop and Tiny. If you're connected to the Net with an always-on broadband connection, you need a firewall or you're aking for trouble. Some cable modems have built-in firewalls. You can even purchase a hardware firewall, such as SonicWALL's SOHO3.

    Reviews posted here and here. Interesting network-security-related reading is posted here (Steve's).

    Firewalls are generally divided into two classes: application-based and rules-based. The best offer both methods. Application based FWs are easier to configure. Rules are more complicated, but offer more control/power. You need to know what you're doing with a rules-only FW.

    I haven't tried Smoothwall, but they offer a freeware version. A separate box running a Linux firewall is the coolest option. Get configuration help at JustLinux.

    Firewalls are notorious for generating quirky networked-related problems, such as this one. I try to choose one that offers the greatest security while generating the least amount of quirky conflicts.

    Which firewall is best for you depends more on your computer skills. If you're a noobie, you want one that offers good protection with minimum configuration required. If you have skillz, you'll want one that offers more configuration options.

    The topic of Internet Security is huge. Whole web sites are devoted to the subject. See Ice Czars links for more along these lines.

Image Editor

  • Photoshop is the easiest decision on this page. Photoshop can do it all, and there are many plug-ins available for it. So its functionality is virtually limitless. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a plug-in to get Photoshop to do yourlaundry. =)

    Check out luminous-lanscape for a quick-start intro (the entire site rocks). Many consider National Association of Photoshop Professionals to be the ultimate PS resource, altho it'll cost ya. Nicky posted some nice Photoshop guides that won't cost ya anything.

    Fireworks by Macromedia is also good for web graphics used in conjunction with Dreamweaver. Lots of Photoshop books here. Also, Paint Shop Pro allows you to do a lot with images for a fraction of the cost of Photoshop.

MP3 Analyzer

  • EncSpot, for the MP3s you download, and want to find out about their quality .. such as which encoder was used to create it.

CD Labeling

  • SureThing - Self-proclaimed Premiere CD Labeling Software. Use this program with glossy labels, and you'll be surprised at the difference they make. I use . Haven't used any other brands. Glossy labels are the key to great quality labels.


  • NOD32. Thanks to Ice Czar for the info.

    Norton Anti-Virus - the best deal is to purchase the Norton System Works Pro package, which contains NAV plus a few extra utilities. It's much cheaper this way, than purchasing each program separately. You will find a good deal on the NSW Pro package offered here (JCS Software).

    AVG now offers a free version..

    Operating a computer without virus protection is incredibly foolhardy, especially in this day & age. Whe someone tells me they're experiencing strange problems with their PC, the first question I ask is: "Are you running virus protection?" If they use virus protection, I ask, "Are your virus definitions up to date?" If they are up to date, I ask if their utility is configured to scan incoming email.

    Virii are yet another reason to become familiar with an imaging utility such as Norton Ghost.

Download Manager

  • GetRight - almost a must-have if you're on dial-up. Review here (CNET).

    FlashGet is free. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but have received several positives votes for it.

    Jerry Barham writes to say, "I noticed a glaring omission in Download Managers. Download Manager Plus (DAP) is the best commercially available download manager, but Download Express (DE) is every bit as good, if not better .. and it's free. If you haven't tried DE, you must give it a try."


  • ICQ. Many also like AIM. If you have friends who use different clients, Trillian lets you use multiple client from a single program. Pretty cool (free).

Internet Relay Chat (IRC)

  • mIRC - Apex will set you up here. Some also like BersiRC (freeware). Lots of IRC Help posted here.

Game Server Browser

  • GameSpy. Great program. I actually paid the $20 to register to support these guys. Its free, tho. The All-Seeing Eye is another Game Server Browser that's similar to GameSpy.

Web Browser

  • Internet Explorer comes free with Windows. In fact, it's so entrenched into Windows that it's nearly impossible to eliminate from your system. Not surprisingly, it offers the best compatibility with Windows (both are made by Microsoft). I like it smooth-scrolling feature. I can't get other browsers to scroll so smoothly.

    There are times when you'll want to use Opera. Best to have both on hand to meet every need.

    I used to keep a copy of Nutscrape on my system, just for the heck of it, but I noticed quirky system stability issues pop up as soon as I install it. Maybe M$ is sabatoging, maybe it's just my imagination, but I no longer install this browser. I also could never get it to scroll smoothly.

Pop-up Killer

Video Compositing

  • After Effects - another easy call. Compositing is to video what layers are to Photoshop. After Effects has SMP support (to take advantage of dual-CPU systems). Since Adobe makes both AE & Premiere, they work well together. Books here.


  • Final Draft - does all the formatting for you. Their motto is just add words. Easy to learn. Everybody has at least one good story in them. Wendy posted a short-and-sweet Screenwriting guide here, based on several classes she took at USC Film school in Los Angeles.

Drive Imaging & Cloning

Dictionary / Thesaurus

  • WordWeb is faster than similar programs that connect to the Internet, especially if you have a dial-up connection.

    I use WordWeb frequently. It also installs a button into MS Word for easy access/use when you're processing words.

    GureNet. A dictionary on steroids, married to a search engine. Billed as the leading provider of Answer Delivery solutions. Freeware.

    It installs a small collapsible toolbar in the lower-right corner of your desktop. I usually don't like any program installing anything on my desktop, but I actually find this toolbar helpful. If you rarely use a dictionary or thesaurus, you may not.

    You can also ALT-click on any word, and GuruNet will automatically bring up its definition. Cool feature. Best if you have a broadband Internet connection.

    For pure searches, I prefer Google, but for dictionary and thesaurus purposes I prefer GuruNet to either dictionary.com or Miriam-Webster.

Off-line Page Viewing

Bulletin Board Service

  • YaBB is an acronym that stands for Yet another Bulletin Board. It's Open Source, which mean that, not only is it free, but also, that and it has a bunch of enthusiastic coders working on it. Service Pack 1 to the Gold Release was released 15dec2001.

    YaBB is written in Perl. There are over 100 different style templates available for YaBB, located at the Template Vault, which allows you to change the entire look of your board by replacing a single file (template.html) .. which takes only seconds.

    The default style looks like this. I prefer something more along these lines. YaBB has a great community of helpful folks that are eager to help.

    Another nice feature available for YaBB is the Board Mod Tool, which allows you to easily modify the board, adding new features (such as polls) and applying security patches on-the-fly. It basically modifies the code for you, with the press a single button, for those of you who are not handy with programming code. FAQ for the BMT is posted here.

    Bulletin Boards come in two main categories: free and not-free. The not-free versions can be pricey. You're not going to find one for $19.95. For example, vBulletin (which I like) is $160. Project Mayhem uses vBulletin. FuseTalk, which Anandtech uses, is $249.

    Back on the free side is phpBB, which I also like. The Storagereview uses phpBB.

Spyware Removal

  • Ad-aware. It may cause some of your ad-based programs to stop working, so be aware (of Ad-aware). They may have fixed this is more recent versions.

CPU Stability Tester

  • Prime 95 is freeware. Download the .zip file, rather than the .exe. The .exe file does not work for me, for some reason. Prime95 does not stress your gfx card, like a 3D game will. So this can help you troubleshoot and isolate stability problems. HotCPU Tester Pro (US$20). See here for more.

Image Viewer

Optical Character Recognition

  • Omnipage. Scan a document. Output a text file that's editable. I have seen reviews that prefer FineReader.



Video Editor

  • Adobe Premiere is the closest thing there is to a standard video-editing program. It was the first of it's kind. It's coded to take advantage of SMP (dual-CPUs) systems .. now with an Avid-like option for single-track editing in version 6.0. And it integrates well with other Adobe programs, such as After Effects and Photoshop. Editing books are posted here.

    Mac users will probably want to use Apple's excellent Final Cut Pro. We prefer FCP to Premiere, but don't have a Mac (but have used them with FCP). Much as I hate to admit it, FCP is an excellent video-editing program. We know people who use a Mac for video-editing, and a PC for everything else.

    The thing that makes a Mac & FCP so nice is it's user-friendliness. People that are not very computer savvy are able to get up and running with a Mac & FCP easier than on a PC-based system.

    When you edit with FCP, one company (Apple) makes the computer, the operating system, and the video-editing program. This yields less chance for quirky compatibility glitches, and Macs are generally more user-friendly than PCs.

    Ulead's MediaStudio Pro is less complicated than other video-editing programs, tho less powerful. Good for beginners who only want to perform the most basic editing functions.

    A freeware video-editing program worth mentioning is Virtual Dub. I've always had problems with Virtual Dub tho, giving me errors and crashing.

    If you want to get serious about editing video (and have the cash), I can easily recommend Avid's Xpress DV. Avid is considered a professional editing program.

    Discreet makes a variety of superb high-end video-editing program that makes many people drool, as does Incite.

    Many people have written to say they love Sonic Foundry's Vegas, but I haven't tried it yet. I love everything Sonic Foundry makes. Their user interface is very intuitive, considering how powerful their programs are. Many people use one program for editing video, and another for audio. Since SF is primarily an audio-software company, this would be the program to get if you concentrate on audio & want to edit video with the same program. I've used earlier versions of Vegas that were designed primarily as an audio sequencer and multi-track compositor. It rocks. Student discounts available.

Audio Editor

  • Sound Forge by Sonic Foundry is the Photoshop of audio-editing. Like Photoshop, it's the Windows standard and also employs a plug-in format.

    There are a million plug-ins available for Sound Forge, made by third-party companies. Many of these plug-ins are more expensive than Sound Forge itself, which is surprisingly user-friendly for the power it offers. With each subsequent release, Sonic Foundry continues to include new features in Sound Forge, without raising its price.

    Mac users will no doubt holler about Pro Tools. We've used Pro Tools and prefer Sound Forge. Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro is also great. If you need something better then these two audio-editing programs, check out Steinberg's Wavelab.

Encryption (Email & File)

  • PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy, is a program that allows you to keep your confidential data secure (private), whether it's in transit across a network or over the Internet, or stored on your hard disk. PGP is the brainchild of Phil Zimmerman, and was free for a long time. Now it's owned by a company called PGP Corp.

    They still offer a freeware version, but have removed most of its functionality. They probably want to encourage users to upgrade [read: pay money for] the personal version [US$80, for 1 year, $165 for a perpetual license]. Anyway, I thought I'd upgrade to version 8.0 [released 03dec2002]. What a mistake that was.

    PGP installs Encrypt & Decrypt buttons [plug-in functionality] to your email client [I use Outlook Express], which allow you to easily encrypt & decrypt your email. With the freeware version of v8.0, these buttons no longer work. Instead a dialogue box pops up saying: This feature isn't available with the freeware version. You need to upgrade to the Personal version for plug-in functionality.

    I traded a few emails with PGP's "Limited Support" group, asking them what's the point of even releasing the freeware version of v8.0, because it has been stripped of all its good features. Their reply:

    You can use the current window or clipboard encryption option offered in the PGPtray. You may also use Hotkeys found in PGP Options to this end. With Freeware you are not allowed the use of plug-ins or PGP Disk.

    If you're using Windows XP, you have no choice but to use the freeware version of PGP v8.0, because v7.03 doesn't support WinXP. Or you have to pay for the personal version, which offers the cool features. If you're using Windows 2000, I recommend you stick with PGP v7.03 [freeware], which is loaded with all the cool features.

    I actually uninstalled v8.0 and reinstalled v7.03 [Win2000]. My PGP public key is listed with my contact info, linked at the bottom of the main page. I like all that crypto-techno-cyber-geek stuff.

    Windows 2000 offers a similar Encrypting File Service (EFS), which you can read about both here and here [how to here]. Windows XP Pro offers a similar feature. More info posted here.

    If you don't mind spending ~US$29, DigiSecret (by TamoSoft) is a nice program with powerful encryption that also allows you to make self-extracting archives.

Multimedia Authoring

  • Director by Macromedia, which has teamed with Intel to bring bandwidth-friendly 3D to the web. Most agree that Director 8 Dymystified is the best book for learning Director. It is one of the biggest books I've ever seen (~1200 pages), but the lay-out is very pleasing, and it's enjoyable to read.

Content Management System

  • PHPNuke. Freeware. PHP Website is also worth mentioning, as is PostNuke. What's with all the Nuke themes?

    My web hosting provider discourages use of CMS's, claiming that they put too much strain on virtual servers (multiple sites using the same server). If you want to use a CMS, they want you to have a dedicated server. I've also heard that PHP Nuke is inefficient.

Hard Drive Partitioning

  • Partition Magic. This is almost a must-have program. It's especially useful for modifying preexisting partitions, cuz it can do so without destroying data in the affected partitions.

    I should add that I've heard of people having problems with PM opertions. Proceed with caution. Reboot before you do anything. Open no other programs. Perform only one operation at a time. Back-up before you do anything. Cross your fingers, knock on wood & say a prayer.

    FDISK, which comes free with Windows, will work fine for the initial partitioning. See Doc's Über FDISK Hard Drive Partitioning Guide for help using FDISK. See my Guide to Partitioning Strategies for ideas on the best way to divvy up your drive.

    Partition Commander is also supposed to be very good, but I haven't tried it.

Usenet News Reader

File Sharing

  • WinMX (you need good nservers.dat file). Comparative review posted here. If you want to delve into the technical aspects of file sharing, see here. Interesting reading here (Salon.com).

    Morpheus has many fans, and is used for more than just MP3s. KaZaA is also popular, but having some legal trouble. Check out OpenSource giFT. A program called SwapNut is posted here. SwapNut = Limewire + new marketing. There's also eDonkey, altho people have trouble connecting to their servers.

    The most clandestine traders (I hear) are using Internet Relay Chat. The big boys demand lossless compression, and simply burn CDs full of lossless files, and trade that way (sharing files).

3D Design & Animation

  • Let me preface by saying I don't use this stuff. It's very complex and takes a commitment (or a gift) to learn. These are not programs that you can learn by 'clicking around'.

    I heard that 3D Studio MAX is easiest for the home user to learn, and Maya is the choice of professionals (Demo & free version here). Maya books here. My Maya-using friends tell me that the best book to get started with Maya is this one. Review here. Forums here. 3dsMAX books here.

    I know jack about animation, but I heard some students at USC's Animation school claim that Soft Image is the ultimate animation tool. Again, these are not programs that you can learn by 'clicking around'. Animation books here. Soft Image books here. Paint Shop Pro comes with an Animation program.

MPEG-1 Encoder

  • TMPGenc (freeware) is the best. TMPGenc encodes the best-looking MPEG-1 video. Standard (VCD) MPEG-1 files are ~10MB/minute. TMPGEnc has plenty of settings that allow you to increase the file size (I use ~30MB/min), thus improving video quality.

    It also encodes MPEG-2 files. You have to pay for the MPEG-2 encoding after a 30-day trial.

    The Ligos LSX-MPEG encoder is another option. For US!29, it offers a plug-in for Adobe Premiere. TMPGEnc by the clear winner, both in quality & cost.

Video Format Convertor

  • Discreet Cleaner XL - considered the standard .. formerly called Media Cleaner Pro. A freeware program for working with MPEG1/2 files is Flask. I've had problems getting Flask to do what I wanted, and finally gave up. Maybe the newer versions work better.

Hard Disk Defragger

  • Windows comes with a default defragger, but it sucks (slooow). I heard that the Windows default defragger for both Win2K & WinXP is made by Diskeeper (a stripped down version), but I haven't confirmed this.

    Most people will do fine with SpeedDisk, which comes with Norton Utilities, which comes as part of Norton System Works. NSW also comes with Norton AntiVirus and a few other utilities, which makes this package a good value. The Pro version of NSW includes a copy of Norton Ghost.

    My favorite defragger is Diskeeper. It's fast, but does not arrange files according to usage.

    O&O Defrag is another good option. O&O is a German company that wins lots of awards for their defragger. It can be hard to justify paying for a defragger when Windows comes with one (free), and you can get SpeedDisk, with a handful of other utilities included from Norton/Symantec.

    O&O offers three defrag methods. One is only for free space. If you're a home user like me, the method you want to use is called Complete/NAME, which rearranges files in ascending alphabetical order, starting at the beginning of the volume (drive). The last method is called Complete/DATE, which is for Servers.

    The first time I ran O&O Complete/NAME on my boot partition, it took 5 hours to finish.

    Defrag Commander is only $19, but I haven't tried it.

Trace Route

  • NeoTrace Pro. When you want to see where people are from. I use this program more and more all the time. The freebie version works fine for me. This will give you a little idea of what the program does. You can also use it to find out where emails originate from.

Email Client

  • Outlook Express. It comes free with Internet Explorer, which comes free with Windows. Currently at v6.

    Plenty of people prefer Eudora (made by Quallcomm, which is a great company). I tried it, but didn't care for it. Maybe it's because I'm so used to Outlook Express.

    I also tried Outlook (not Express). But it's more of a Personal Information Manager (PIM) than an email client. I also found it to be buggy. Maybe v2002 is better. For a PIM, I simply use a pocket Daytimer (non-electronic).

    If you *do* use Outlook, I heard that you want to ensure that you use the same version as your Microsoft Office Suite. For example, if you use Outlook 2000, you want to also use Office 2000. Mixing different version will aggravate program stability issues.

Synchronize PC Clock

  • Atomic clock. But this program crashes my system (W2K) occasionally when it does its synchro thing.

Web Animation

  • Flash by Macromedia. 90% of web surfers have a Flash player installed on their system. Flashkit can help get you started.






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