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Essential free apps for back-to-school laptops

This collection of must-have free apps should be among the first things installed on any new back-to-school laptop.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Heading off to class with a shiny new laptop is one of the best things about the back-to-school season, but we have yet to find a laptop that's perfectly set up out of the box. The typical first-time-use experience for a new laptop owner can be a frustrating one, with pop-up warnings from your free antivirus trial software; annoying settings to go through the first time you launch Internet Explorer (likely the only browser preinstalled on your machine); and missing or crippled apps for burning DVDs, opening ZIP files, or playing videos.

Unboxing and setting up a couple of new laptops every week has helped me put together a solid list of free must-have appsthat belong on any new PC. I usually keep the install files for these programs on an 8GB USB key I keep on my keyring (the excellent LaCie Iamakey, if you're curious).

Browse this collection of must-have free apps for your new laptop in the gallery below, which includes download links for each program. Interestingly, a few of these, such as Open Office, get less use now than they used to (as we've moved much of our word processing to Google Docs), which hints that cloud-based computing may further erode the need for traditional software in the future.

The back-to-school 2010 edition also includes suggestions based on reader feedback from previous free app roundups, including 7-Zip for opening compressed files, and the popular free antivirus software Avast. Several of these app have free Mac versions as well, but we'll follow up with a separate OS X version of this roundup in the near future. If you've got your own must-have free apps that belong on any new PC, let us know in the comments section.

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