Firefox

The Firefox Web browser is nearly always the very first thing we put on a new laptop. So much so, that we keep the latest install file on a USB key for easy access.

The reasons are many, but primarily because your new laptop very likely only comes with Microsoft's Internet Explorer preinstalled. That browser has devolved into such a bloated mess that it's painful to use; it's filled with preinstalled toolbars, pop-up reminders, and other inconveniences.

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Google Chrome browser

It took us some time to warm up to Google's Chrome as a usable browser. Initially, many of the Web tools we used were not fully compatible, and its single address/search bar required an adjustment period.

Lately, however, it's become a must-have on any new laptop we unbox. That's largely because we've moved a significant portion of our writing to the cloud-based Google Docs, and that always feels a little faster in Chrome than in other browsers.

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AVG Free

There are several very good free antivirus programs out there, but we personally prefer AVG Free.

Be sure to uninstall whatever free antivirus trial software came with your new laptop (you know, the one will the annoying pop-ups, reminding you to register). Instructions and tools for doing that safely are on the next slide.

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Reader recommendation: Avast

Though we personally prefer AVG Free, a good number of readers have voted instead for Avast. This free security software has a slick-looking interface and includes real-time shields for Web, mail, and even instant messaging and peer-to-peer downloads.

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Norton and McAfee removal tools

One annoying trend we've seen in laptops for 2010 is how aggressive preloaded antivirus software has become about bugging you to register (and of course, convert to a full paying customer).

If you plan to switch to AVG Free or a similar package, be sure to fully remove the existing software first. If you have Norton antivirus trial software you want to get rid of, use this handy Norton removal tool . If your laptop has McAfee, use the McAfee removal tool.

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OnLive

OnLive allows nearly any laptop or desktop to play high-end PC games, by offloading the CPU and GPU-intensive tasks of actually running the game software to a remote render farm, then beaming the gameplay back to you as a streaming video.

As unlikely as that scenario sounds, in practice the system actually works quite well, and for casual gamers who are interested in sampling the latest PC games, there's a lot of promise here.

Check it out here.

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WinDirStat

This executable does an in-depth analysis of your hard-drive contents, generating a color-coded chart that shows you where the biggest space hogs on your laptop are.

WinDirStat makes it especially easy to zero in on huge video and game files that might be making your new laptop feel cramped; it also helps root out excess bloatware.

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OpenOffice.org

We're keeping Open Office on this list, even though our word-processing and spreadsheet tasks have largely migrated to Google Docs.

This free suite of productivity apps has been a lifesaver more times than we can count. It reads and writes all the major Microsoft Office file formats, and makes knocking out blog posts and reviews while on the road easy and painless. Plus, it's great for Netbooks, which can groan under the strain of current bloated versions of MS Office. Just be sure to select the correct file format when saving.

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Audacity

Basic audio editing isn't something we do all the time, but if you need to record or edit sounds for a podcast or an interview, Audacity is a great way to do it.

Outputting files in the MP3 format requires a few extra steps to set it up the first time, but it's telling that Audacity has become a go-to tool, even for audio pros.

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Digsby

Instant-messaging clients are also easy to find. We use Digsby because it combines IM, Gmail, FaceBook, and Twitter in a single, easy-to-use app.

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ImgBurn 2.5

There are many free CD/DVD-creation apps to choose from (see a partial list), but we keep ImgBurn on our software USB key because it's light, easy to use, and free of the advertising, upgrades, and toolbars that mar similar apps.

It has no frills, to be sure, but it's handy every once in a while for burning data to discs for backup.

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VLC Media Player

Sure, your new PC has Windows Media Player, and probably some custom media software from HP, Sony, or another manufacturer, but they're typically bloated and hard to navigate.

VLC Media Player is a simple app that works with virtually any file format and has a mercifully small footprint.

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Reader recommendation: 7-Zip

A frequent reader recommendation to our must-have free software roundups is 7-Zip, which can create and open ZIP, TAR, GZ, and other compressed data formats.

ZIP files are not as prevalent as they used to be, but every once in a while you'll run across one and be glad you installed this app.

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