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Top Free Software

This week we thought we’d have a look at some of the top FREE software available for your PC.

BACKUP: EaseUS ToDo Backup Free
Computer users should always perform two types of backup: one for files and documents, and the other for the system. EaseUS ToDo Backup Free is reasonably good at both types of backup and is straightforward to use. It can back up everything from selected files and file types to entire partitions or drives and includes cloning tools for upgrading from one drive to another. It provides you with backup scheduling options and support for incremental updates so backups are kept as small and efficient as possible. When restoring data, EaseUS Todo Backup gives a timeline of the date and exact time of backups so you can easily pick a point in time in which to find a backed-up file.
www.todo-backup.com

OFFICE SUITE: WPS Office Free
Available completely free of charge (although there are ads associated with certain features), WPS Office includes tools for word processing, presentations and spreadsheets and is fully compatible with Microsoft document formats. It includes hundreds of free fonts and templates and has a clear, easy to use interface. All of the most common tools and options are intuitively placed so you won’t spend ages searching for the setting or tool that you need. It even allows you to convert PDF files into Word format.
www.wps.com

PHOTO EDITOR: GIMP
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a brilliant photo editor for Windows. It has many excellent tools that are on a par with those you'd find in premium (and not free!) photo editing software, with more being added all the time. It has just about all the essential photo editing tools, features and commands that most users want: special-effect filters; exposure controls, and colour controls, such as hue/saturation; replace colour, bucket fill, paintbrush, eraser, selection tools, etc.
www.gimp.org

MEDIA PLAYER: VLC Media Player
VLC Media Player has a simple interface and is compatible with almost all video and audio formats. It supports DVDs & Blu Rays, plus MPEG and DivX streaming and can play videos as they're downloading, so you can watch the beginning of a film and then decide whether it's worth downloading in full. It can also search for album covers and a playlist function allows you to play multiple films one after the other.
www.videolan.org/vlc

Image Editor: Paint.NET
This is an image and photo editing software for PCs running Windows. It has a clean interface with support for layers, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. The program includes everything you would expect to find in an image editing package, but there are plenty of surprises considering that this is free software.
www.getpaint.net

Cloud Storage: Dropbox
Nowadays storing information in “the cloud” is pretty much the norm. Dropbox offers 2GB of free storage, which isn’t much, but you can increase it by referring friends and other tasks. Dropbox offers an app for every major device so you can take your files anywhere. It’s also easy to share files with others, and the service has a great interface on the web and desktop. Whether you use it for backup, as a cloud flash drive, or for setting up shared folders with others, you can’t go wrong with Dropbox.
www.dropbox.com

PC Cleaning / Management: CCleaner
Over time, Windows builds up useless files that take up space. CCleaner is our favourite disk cleaner and the foundation to a clean Windows 10 system, but it also has many more useful features inside its toolkit.
Aside from cleaning the caches of all kinds of software, CCleaner lets you easily
disable startup programs, find which files are taking up the most space, clean up your messy context menu, and create a quick text file of all installed programs.
www.piriform.com

Browser: Google Chrome or Vivali
Although Microsoft Edge comes pre-installed on Windows computers, there are several excellent free alternatives which can often be faster, have more options, and in many cases, be more secure than Edge.
Chrome is an extendable, efficient and stable browser that takes up the minimum of screen space. It has many easily obtained and installed extensions as well as support for parental controls. Admittedly it's not brilliant on machines with limited RAM, and because it is developed by Google, you might be uncomfortable with the ways in which your browsing data may be used.
www.google.com/chrome

If you haven’t tried Vivaldi, you should give it a go. You might be surprised by how much you love it, as a backup browser if not your main. Since it launched in April 2016, it has grown a great deal and is becoming increasingly popular. It offers great flexibility, and features such as web panels make it attractive as a browser option. However, you may find it a bit slow compared to other browsers and the unfamiliar interface takes a bit of getting used to.
www.vivaldi.com

Video Streaming

Streaming is a way of watching films and TV via the internet. Although traditionally done on a PC or laptop, you can watch on your normal TV, games console, smartphone or tablet. As long as your broadband is fast enough, why buy the latest Blu-rays or box-sets when you can have them streamed to you instantly. But with so many streaming services available, which should you choose?

Netflix offers more than 3,000 movies and TV shows, with several series, such as House of Cards, being exclusive to Netflix itself. Film-wise, it is mainly back catalogue stuff. If you have a 4K TV, Netflix has a selection of TV shows and movies to watch in this resolution. The Basic Plan (watch on 1 screen, Standard Definition) costs £5.99 a month; £7.49 for the Standard Plan (watch on 2 screens, full HD) and £8.99 for the Premium plan (watch on 4 screens, Ultra High Definition). The first month is free.

Amazon Prime Instant Video is part of a brilliant package – Amazon Prime. For a £79/year subscription you get the full Amazon Prime Instant Video service (members can watch thousands of movies and TV shows at no additional cost), music-streaming, free delivery on on-line purchases, unlimited cloud-based photo storage and a load of books on the Kindle store too. Subscription to Amazon Prime Instant Video alone (a more limited selection of content) costs £5.99 per month. If you don’t want to subscribe at all, it is still possible to rent and buy content - you just pay per film. Prices vary - from £3.49 (SD) and £4.49 (HD) for rental and £9.99 (SD) and £13.99 (HD) to purchase. Amazon, like Netflix, has exclusives, such as the new Jeremy Clarkson car TV show (coming soon).

Now TV is a service offered by Sky for those without a satellite dish or who want something more flexible than a conventional TV package. If it's movies you're after, you certainly can't get much better for the price as it offers 800+ films and up to 16 new ones each month. The picture quality, however, is not good. There are various pricing structures to choose from depending on which package best suits your needs.

Google Play is an Android app that allows you rent movies to stream or download via a web page, Android phone or Android tablet. The app is free and movie rentals start at £1.49. Renting a film is simple: you log in to your Google account which has either credit or a credit card attached, then you just click on Rent and the movie is yours. You have 30 days after making a purchase to watch rented movies. Once you start watching you have 48 hours to finish watching the film although you can watch the film multiple times throughout that period.

Why PC Gaming is the best

I’ve been playing video games since the early 1980’s and I’ve had almost every console that Sony, Nintendo or anyone else has ever made. However, for me, nothing can beat gaming on a PC. Here are some of my reasons why:
  • Cost
A fairly decent PC that’s comparable in quality to the latest consoles will set you back about £500. OK, so that’s about £150 more than the latest PlayStation however not only are most PC games about £20 - £30 cheaper to buy on release than PlayStation or Xbox games, you can also get big savings throughout the year in sales from Steam, EA or G2A. In addition, the online site “humble bundle” regularly offers great deals on PC games and there’s an abundance of free-to-play games, from first person shooters such as Team Fortress 2, Flight Simulators like War Thunder and the biggest ones such as League of Legends.
  • Backward Compatibility
PCs are completely backwards compatible with older games, and with sites like GOG you can always have another crack at a vintage game, something that the latest generation of consoles from Sony & Microsoft can’t offer.
  • Upgradability
PCs are infinitely upgradable meaning that games can look amazing graphically. The latest generation of consoles struggles with displaying a full HD picture in lots of games, something PC’s have been doing for years. A relatively standard desktop from the Windows 7 era can play most games purely with the addition of a graphics card for about £100.
  • Social Gaming
Compared to console sales, there are 27 million daily players of League of Legends and about 7.5 million playing at any given moment, and best of all, it’s free to play! Another big boy in PC gaming is World of Warcraft, which has been running for 10 years now and boasts 10.3 million subscribers.
  • Virtual Reality
The biggest thing to hit PC gaming in 20 years landed this spring and it’s called Virtual Reality. Two companies, Oculus (owned by Facebook) and HTC, have released devices which look like a cross between a ski mask and a mobile phone. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are both in fact ridiculously clever pieces of kit that, once strapped to your face, can fool your brain into thinking that you’re actually active within a game, ie from flying a spaceship to diving underwater with blue whales. They track your head movements too so that when you lean to the left or turn right, it does too. They are both amazing and pretty realistic.

Laptop Buing Guide

Going off university or college without a decent laptop is akin to refusing to take pads and pens. However, don't just buy whatever is on sale; you need the right laptop for your specific needs. As there's a wide variety of sizes, features and prices, choosing the right laptop can be a challenge.
Let’s start this week by looking at the internal components of a laptop.
Processor – CPU
As the "brains" of your computer, the processor does influence performance, although the choice will depend on what you need to do. If you're looking for a standard laptop with the best combination of price and performance, buy a Core i3. Intel Core i5 or i7 CPUs will be better for multitasking, multimedia tasks, high-end gaming, but are more expensive. Try to steer clear of computers with Celeron, AMD E1 or C1 processors as these are mainly found in cheap systems. Cheap sounds fabulous if you have a small budget but be warned that the majority of these PCs have VERY limited specifications.
Storage – Hard Drive
This is the part of the laptop on which all your data is stored. Most people struggle to fill a 250GB Hard Drive with photos, programmes and music since the average size of a photo or MP3 is about 4MB. In other words this means you can store about 62,500 photos or MP3’s on a small 250GB Hard Drive. If you play around with video files however, 250GB will be hugely insufficient and you should look to 1,000 GB drives which can store about 24 hours of HD video.
Memory – RAM
RAM is fast, temporary storage that Windows uses to load both itself and whatever it is you are doing at the time. So if you are surfing the internet, you are using some RAM for Windows, a little more for the web browser, a little more for your anti-virus program, etc. 4GB is the bare minimum amount of RAM you should have in a laptop, 8GB is ideal.
Wi-Fi
Make sure you get a laptop with at least 802.11N Wi-Fi standard, rather than the older 802.11g.
Battery
You’ll undoubtedly be spending a lot of time in locations where plugging in a laptop is difficult, therefore you’ll need at least 6 hours of battery life, with 8+ hours being ideal. But be realistic, sitting in the library watching cat videos on You Tube with the brightness turned up to 11 or playing a video game will eat battery life in no time.
Get the right OS & Software
Check with the university about software requirements as they may need you to have a specific type of software or operating system. Windows 10 is the most popular and versatile operating system. Also check with the college or university before you buy Microsoft Office as you may be able to get it SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper through them.

Buyer Beware

When buying a new computer cheap does not always mean cheerful. There are some computer manufacturers who have started selling VERY cheap laptops and netbooks, which sounds fabulous if you have a small budget. However, the majority of these PCs have VERY limited specifications.
Two thirds of the cheap PCs recently on sale at one of the big out-of-town outlets did not have enough hard drive storage to let Windows 10 update to the latest version without the purchase of additional storage items. They have 32 Giga Byte eMMC drives, often sold as little Solid State Hard Drives, which is a type of disk often favoured because of the speed increase you can get with them, but they are very much not little Solid State Hard Drives
. These are in fact the same type of chips that you’ll find in USB or Camera SD Cards, meaning they are slow. This, in my humble opinion, makes them not fit for purpose.
To quote Microsoft, who have mentioned this in the system specifications for Windows 10,
“Small storage devices, like devices with 32GB hard drives or older devices with full hard drives, may need additional storage to complete the upgrade. You'll see instructions during the upgrade telling you what to do. You may need to either remove unneeded files from your device, or insert a USB flash drive to complete the upgrade.”
Not only do these aforementioned laptops have insufficient hard drive storage, they also have, by today’s standards, a tiny amount of RAM, just 2Gb! And what’s worse is that there is no way to upgrade either the internal storage or the RAM!
So, how much hard drive storage and memory (RAM) should you need as a minimum when buying a new computer?
Storage or Hard Drive - this is the part of the laptop on which all of your data is stored. It is measured in Giga Bytes. Each Giga Byte (GB) represents 1000 Mega Bytes (MB). The minimum we would recommend is 128GB, on which you can store about 30,000 photos or MP3’s. If you play around with video files, you should look to 1000 GB drives, which can store about 24 hours of HD video.
Memory (RAM) – this too is measured in Giga Bytes. RAM is a fast, temporary type of storage that Windows uses to load both itself and whatever it is you are doing at the time. So when you surf the internet you are using some RAM for Windows, a little more for the web browser, a little more for your anti-virus program, a little more for the nice picture on your desktop, etc. The rule of thumb with the current generation of laptops is 4GB of RAM is good start and more is obviously better.

Steps Setting Up a PC for the First Time

It’s Christmas and you’ve decided to treat the kids/your partner/your parents/your grandparents/yourself* (*delete as appropriate) to a new PC. “Hooray” they cheer as they unwrap their surprise – “we want to use it NOW!”
Oops. You see, unlike most electronic devices, which can be plugged in and used immediately, Windows PCs need to be properly set up. There are a few simple actions you should undertake when you first turn it on to make it safer, faster and better prepared for the future.
Install Windows Updates
Depending on when Windows was installed on your computer, there may be many updates, some of them large, to download. Connect the PC to the Internet, go to Settings, then System and Security > Windows Update > Check for Updates. Your system will search for updates, which you will need to download and install. Reboot your computer and do it again… and again… until the update check fails to return new entries. Be patient, it may take some time.
Customize
Do create a user account and password. Only forgo this step if you're 110% sure no one else will want to gain access to this PC. Ever. If the computer is to have multiple users, it really is a must.
You may also need to set your language, time zone, and clock and calendar. We would also advise adjusting the power settings, especially if you've got a laptop that is unplugged while in use. The "high performance" pre-sets will run the battery down faster.
Install an Anti-virus program
As we’ve mentioned numerous times in previous blogs, keeping your PC safe from malware and viruses is crucial.
Clean out the cr*p…
Large PC manufacturers install software on their computers at the factory. These "extras" are referred to as bundleware, bloatware, shovelware, and perhaps the most accurate, cr*pware. Download PC Decrapifier, a FREE tool that scans your PC for known bloatware, then allows you to delete it all in one click.
…then fill it up again!
Of course you needed to make room for your own stuff! Although we can't decide for you what software you need, no PC is complete without at least an office suite like Libre Office, a photo-editing tool, a media manager, Web browser and e-mail. And there are free alternatives for almost any program you might need – see next!
FREE Alternatives.
For popular and FREE Windows applications, such as web browsers, system tools, media applications, and cloud storage programs, go to www.ninite.com. Tick the programs you want to install, click Download Installer, and Ninite will download a single .exe file onto your system. Run the downloaded Ninite installer and it will automatically download each program you selected, installing it in the background. It’s brilliant.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our customers.

Don't Cross The Streams!!

lego-music-dude
Music streaming is a fantastic alternative to music download services. You can access millions of songs from your PC, mobile device or home audio system without the need for spending hours downloading tracks. This means you don’t need to carry your music collection with you and you won’t use up valuable hard drive space.

But with dozens of music streaming services out there, which one do you choose? Here’s our pick.

APPLE MUSIC launches on 30th June. It will be an app combining a song and music video library and a 24 hour live internet radio station called Beats 1. It draws from two sources - your iTunes library of downloads and ripped CDs and also from the 30 million plus songs available from the iTunes Store. Siri has also been programmed to work with Apple Music.
Cost:
Approx. £9.99/month (to be confirmed).
Available on: PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Apple TV, Android phones.

SPOTIFY has 30 million tracks in the library. You'll find many major artists as well as plenty of smaller bands. You can create your own playlists as well as export and share playlists with your friends. It recently rolled out podcasts, videos, news and activity-based playlists. Spotify Running matches music to your running tempo to keep you motivated during your run.
Cost:
FREE ad-supported service (audio adverts interspersed between songs).
£10/month for Premium service (no ads).
Available on: PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Samsung SmartTV.

DEEZER offers 35 million tracks, Facebook integration, recommendations based on listening habits. A laptop is the best way to use Deezer, although the mobile apps are easy to navigate once you know the layout.
Cost:
FREE ad-funded service.
£9.99/month (no ads).
£14.99/month for the Elite service.
Available on: PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, BlackBerry.

TIDAL offers 25 million tracks, sharing of music as well as offline listening. It’s ideal for anyone who misses CDs and the quality they used to bring. You’ll need a decent set of headphones or expensive audio equipment to make the most of the high-fidelity sound quality.
Cost:
£9.99/month for Tidal Premium.
£19.99/month for Tidal Hi-Fi (take out the free trial to decide if it’s worth paying for). Available on: PC, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android.

Also worth considering are Google Play All Access and RDIO, both of which give access to over 30 million songs at a reasonable monthly cost.

As all of these services offer free trials, why not sign up for each one consecutively? It'll give you several months of free music, by the end of which you'll know which one is right for you. DO REMEMBER to cancel at the end of each free trial to avoid paying for the next month’s subscription.

What do all those numbers mean?

We are constantly asked by our customers why buying a laptop has to be so complicated. So this week I’m going to try to help out with a little guide on the 3 main things to consider for when buying a laptop.
Processor – (CPU)
This is the brains of the laptop. It does all of the calculations that make everything from a web page appear on your screen to a game play. The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether you need low battery usage, speed or both. Intel (a CPU manufacturer) makes the low battery usage chips a little easier to see by popping a letter ‘U’ on the end of the chip name. Speed on the other hand is a lot harder to tell. The easiest is to look the processors name up on an independent website, such as www.cpubenchmark.net, which lists all processors, thus making it easier to gauge which is right for you (a score of 1500 is about average).
Storage – Hard Drive
This is the part of the laptop on which all of your data is stored. It is measured in Giga Bytes. Each Giga Byte (GB) represents 1000 Mega Bytes (MB). Most people struggle to fill a 250GB Hard Drive with photos, programmes and music because the average size of a photo or MP3 is about 4MB. In plain terms that means you can store about 62,500 photos or MP3’s on a small 250Gb Hard Drive. But if you play around with video files, 250GB is no where near enough and you should look to 1000 GB drives, which can store about 24 hours of HD video.
Memory – RAM
Confusingly this is measured in Giga Bytes too. RAM is a fast, temporary type of storage that Windows uses to load both itself and whatever it is you are doing at the time. So if you are surfing the internet you are using some RAM for Windows, a little more for the web browser, a little more for your anti-virus program, a little more for the nice picture on your desktop, etc. The rule of thumb with the current generation of laptops is 4GB of RAM is good and more is better.
There are other things to consider, such as the size of screen or whether you want touch screen or faster graphics cards but these are more about personal choices.

5 Reasons why PC Gaming is better than consoles.

I’ve been playing video games since my parents bought me a computer in the early 1980’s and I’ve had almost every console that Sony, Nintendo or anyone else has ever made. However for me, nothing beats gaming on a PC. Here are some of my reasons why:
  • Cost
A half-way decent PC that’s comparable in quality to the latest consoles will set you back about £500. OK, so that’s about £150 more than the latest PlayStation but hear me out. Most PC games are about £20 - £30 cheaper to buy on release than PlayStation or Xbox games. You can also get big savings throughout the year in sales from Steam, EA or G2A. In addition, the online site “humble bundle” regularly offers great deals on PC games. There’s also a myriad of free-to-play games, from first person shooters such as Team Fortress 2, Flight Simulators like War Thunder and the biggest ones such as League of Legends.
  • Backward Compatibility
PCs are completely backwards compatible with older games, and with sites like GOG you can always have another crack at an old game, something that the latest generation of consoles from Sony & Microsoft can’t offer.
  • Upgradability
PCs are infinitely upgradable meaning that games can look amazing graphically. The latest generation of consoles struggles with displaying a full HD picture in lots of games, something PC’s have been doing for years. A relatively standard desktop from the Windows 7 era can play most games with the addition of a graphics card for about £100.
  • Social Gaming
Compared to console sales, there are 27 million daily players of League of Legends and about 7.5 million playing at any given moment, and best of all, it’s free to play! Another big boy in PC gaming is World of Warcraft, which has been running for 10 years now and boasts 10.3 million subscribers.
  • The Oculus Rift
The next big thing in video gaming is coming next year - the Oculus Rift. This is a totally immersive virtual reality headset with full high-definition graphics and 3D head tracking. If you ever wanted to escape into a fantasy world, this will be the way to do it. It’s coming to PC and Mac next year (not consoles funnily enough).
Oh, and one more thing? You can do your homework on them!

Top internet shopping security tips

As the festive season is fast approaching and many of you will be buying Christmas gifts on-line, I’d like to give you some tips on trying to keep safe when internet shopping.
  • If you don’t know the website, stay clear. This may sound a little obvious, but if you don’t know who the retailer is, are you sure you can trust them? Make sure you’ve either heard of them or that they’ve been recommended to you as safe. Don’t trust website reviews from people you don’t know but in the event that a particular online retailer is the only place to get what you want, make sure you check that you’ve got plenty of contact details such as a name, phone number and postal address.
  • Returns Policy. Make sure the retailer you buy from has got one and that you know what it is.
  • Make sure the retailer has a secure website. When you are at the checkout and before you type in your credit card details, do check the security of the website. There are 2 ways of doing this: firstly look for a padlock in the web browser’s address bar; secondly check that the address in the address bar starts with https:// (the ‘s’ stands for secure).
  • Use a credit card. Avoid using a debit card online as you will have significantly less protection than using a credit card. In addition, some credit cards will give you free extended warranties.
  • Split your email addresses. You’ve quite possibly got 2 email addresses already, one for work and one for home. You should consider at least 2 email addresses for home use, one for all the social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and another for shopping and banking. That way if your social media address gets hacked, it won’t be as much of a security issue as the shopping/banking one. We’ve always recommended free email addresses which are available from Microsoft but Google, Yahoo and Apple offer similar services.
  • Set a serious password. Coming up with a good password that is easy to remember and yet strong can be quite hard. The best passwords are made up of phrases, upper and lower case characters and punctuation. So for example “iloveShopping4shoes!” or “iwantaCheesesandwich4lunch!” would work really well (although obviously not now as I’ve just told 10,000 readers!).