Overwhelmed by software choices?

Question: Hey TechnologyTips. I’m new to computers and just got a spanking new PC. I’m looking for software for it. What are my options? I know there’s a million things to do and choose from. Also, not interested in video games. Sorry for the wide open question. —Bob D.

Answer: Not surprised that you are overwhelmed. Choosing the right software can be perplexing especially if you’re starting from a blank slate. So here’s a top ten list of software categories that you might find useful on your new computer. Because there are a few Mac folks out there too, I’ve include Mac titles as well as products for Windows computers.


Office suites: Let’s face it, you need a package of useful programs that includes word processing, spread sheet functionality, presentation capability etc. A software suite that includes all of these is both economical and time saving. It’s ideal to have software that works in concert so that you can create business documents, crunch financial data and create presentations to liven up your speaking engagements. The two competing suites available right now are Microsoft Office XP (where to buy) and Corel WordPerfect Office 2002 (info, where to buy). The Microsoft product dominates the industry and has become the de facto standard. However working with the Corel product may be an option if you work with other users who use it. It can also import and export Microsoft Office documents. A Mac version of Microsoft Office is available.

Contact management software. There’s an old adage that goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” so it’s helpful to efficiently track contacts. To do that you’ll need contact management software. The functionality is included in office suites (Microsoft Outlook, for example, is included in Microsoft Office) but some independent programs offer more options and flexibility. The three recommended programs for Windows computers are Goldmine Business Contact Manager (info, where to buy), Maximizer (info, where to buy) and ACT! (info, where to buy). For the Mac, look at bManager (info), Contact Manager (info) and Marketcircle’s DayLite Personal Edition (info).


Small business accounting software. If there is one type of software you won’t be able to live without, then it’s a comprehensive bookkeeping package. You certain can track financials with a spreadsheet program that comes with your office suite, however most small businesses opt for accounting software package. If you need to balance your business’s books, generate profit/loss statements, handle payroll, calculate tax payments and interface with online banking then an accounting program will manage these effectively. Products to look for include: Intuit QuickBooks (US: info, where to buy; Canada: info), MYOB (US: info, where to buy; Canada: info) which was acquired by Intuit, ACCPAC Simply Accounting (info, where to buy). The MYOB Mac product is called MYOB AccountEdge.

Personal account software: If you need accounting software to track your personal finances then look to Microsoft Money (US: info, where to buy; Canada: info) or Intuit’s Qucken (US: info, where to buy; Canada: info).

Scanner software: The paperless office failed to happen. In fact studies show we are using more paper than ever. Nevertheless you can use software to store and work with paper-based documents. A scanner is used to covert paper documents into digital files a computer. Most scanners come with scanning software, however there are several packages you might consider if you want deluxe features. Two products to consider are Pagis Scanning Suite and Paperport Deluxe, both by Scansoft (info, where to buy). You might also want to investigate an OCR or Optical Character Recognition software package such as Scansoft’s OmniPage Pro (info, where to buy). This allows your scanner to read text in a paper document and convert it into a text file or word processing document so that it can be edited. Another recommended scanner software package is FotoLook by Agfa (info). It’s available for the Mac and PC.

Store and share: Adobe Acrobat (info, where to buy) allows you to covert paper documents or data files into small portable data files called PDF files that maintain fonts, graphics and layout of the original document. They are small enough to e-mail, can be viewed by anyone with the free Acrobat Reader (also available at adobe.com). PC and Mac versions are available.

Fax software: Instead of using a fax machine, you can send and receive faxes from your computer using your scanner to get documents into digital format. Perhaps the one and only package you should consider for is Symantec’s WinFax Pro (info, where to buy). On the Mac it’s FAXstf X (info, where to buy).


Data backup and recovery software. Imagine arriving at work one day to find out that the project you’ve been working on for six months had vanished from your hard drive. If you’re like many people the idea of regularly backing up your data is akin to the idea of eating healthy food; you know you should but there’s always tomorrow right? In a world where hackers, system failures and viruses can render your data useless there’s no better solution than software that creates the backups for you. Norton Ghost (info, where to buy) is an excellent and comprehensive program with which to safeguard your valuable data to CD-R, CD-RW and soon DVD-R or DVD-RW drives. Also look at Retrospect Backup, which works on PC and Mac systems (info).

CD Burning Software: Writeable CD drives usually come with a backup program so you can burn data to a CD, however, Roxio’s Easy CD Creator is a great software option if you want a deluxe product on your PC (info, where to buy). Also investigate Ahead Software’s Nero Burning ROM (info, where to buy). Roxio’s CD-burning software for the Mac is called Toast.

Viewing and editing pictures and graphics is something you probably are going to want to do a lot, especially if you create web pages or use a digital camera.

There are a variety of software tools that can be used to do this. Perhaps the simplest for viewing and converting all kinds of different photo and graphic files is Irfanview. It’s a free tool available from irfanview.com that works on Windows computers.

If you need as similar tool with a few more features and support, there’s ACDSee which is an integrated viewer, converter and file manager. (info, where to buy) for the PC. For the Mac, try Corel’s Painter (info, where to buy).

For the professional, the best tool to use is Adobe Photoshop. The latest version (7.0) has numerous image editing and converting features. One of the most notable is the “heal” tool, which can remove flaws (and even wrinkles!) from photos. Photoshop is available for the Mac and PC (info, where to buy).

Like any machine, a computer needs maintenance. Instead of nuts and bolts repairs, your computer will need digital fixes. Data gets scrambled, hard drives get disorganized and registries get overwhelmed. There are software packages designed to help you clean house. The most famous is Norton Utilities from Symantec (info, where to buy). This set of tools checks the health of your system and makes repairs where necessary. To clean up old files and data leftovers, there’s Norton Cleansweep (info, where to buy). If you want these tools and several others, including Norton AntiVirus, then look for Norton SystemWorks (info, where to buy) which is a suite of fix-it titles integrated together.


Anti-virus software: New viruses are being released onto the Internet at an alarming rate. If a worm or Trojan horse (a program that allows someone on the Internet snoop on your computer) makes its way into your company’s e-mail or onto a company computer then you could find yourself temporarily out of business while the problem is addressed. Worse yet you could find that large amounts of data are badly damaged or wiped out completely. Start by getting effective anti-virus software from a reputable source. Almost as important make sure you get software that updates its files to keep current on new viruses. The two best anti-virus packages available for small business are Norton Antivirus 2002 (info, where to buy) and McAfee VirusScan security suite (info, where to buy
). The Norton product works on Mac and PC.

Firewall software: If your computer is connected to the Internet on a broadband connection, such as a cable modem or DSL (digital subscriber line), know that you are exposed to the Internet and the ne’er-do-wells that are interested in digital mischief. It’s is advisable to install a firewall program that will guard your computer from interlopers. There are several packages worth investigating. Perhaps my favorite for business is ZoneAlarm Pro (info, where to buy
). Also look at SmithMicro’s Checkit Firewall (info, where to buy) and Norton Personal Firewall (info, where to buy). Note that you will not need firewall software if your computer network is guarded by an Internet router appliance that has built-in firewall functionality. Symantec’s firewall software also works on Macintosh computers.

Web browser: Most people these days use the Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser. It’s built into Microsoft Windows and a version is available for the Mac. Upgrades are available for free. Alternately, Netscape Navigator is the competition (info). It’s free too.

E-mail: Most people cannot live without e-mail and it is unusual to not have a personal e-mail address these days. It’s kind of like not having a telephone number 30 years ago. E-mail of course is also perhaps the best way of reducing long distance phone bills and moving small data files between people. There are three products that are worth looking at. Microsoft Outlook 2002 is a product that comes with Microsoft Office XP (info, where to buy). Besides email, it has a contact management system and datebook built-in. If you are looking at alternatives, consider Microsoft Outlook Express (info) which comes with the free Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser. If you want to go non-Microsoft, then Eudora (info, where to buy) is solid e-mail package. Your Internet provider will likely provide you with e-mail software when you sign up. On the Mac, Entourage is the equivalent to Outlook and comes in the Microsoft Office suite for the Mac. Outlook Express also comes in a Mac version.

FTP: One of the lesser know Internet tools is FTP or file transfer protocol. This is a method of moving large files between Internet-connected computers. If you have a Web site then you’ll learn very quickly that is useful to move large files onto your Web server so that others can retrieve it. Perhaps the best software product to do this is Ipswitch’s WS FTP Pro (info, where to buy ). On the Mac, there’s Fetch (info).


One of the most effective marketing tools for your small business is a website. While many companies will charge you hefty fees to design and administer your website you can also do it yourself. While this takes some expertise and training to master the world of Web development, there are several tools that make it easier. Macromedia Dreamweaver is perhaps the best product on the market for web site development (info, where to buy). Hot on its heels is Adobe GoLive (info, where to buy). If you buy the “Professional” version of Microsoft Office XP, you will receive FrontPage 2002, a web design software package from Microsoft (info, where to buy). I can’t personally recommend it. It is difficult to use and produces programming behind the scenes that is rather unorthodox. If you create you Web site with FrontPage and then later hand it over to a professional web designer, they will secretly curse your name. There are Mac versions of Dreamwaver and GoLive.


If you travel frequently and need access to your computer back at the office then there are a couple of tools that are handy to have at your fingertips. The granddaddy of remote access tools is Symantec’s PCAnywhere (info, where to buy). This product is installed on both your office computer and a laptop. When you are on the road you can use it to take control of your office PC and use it as if it were in front of you. An excellent alternative is GoToMyPC (info, where to buy). This is a combination web service and software. Instead of paying for the software upfront, you rent it by the month. To use it, you install a small program on your office PC and then you can access it from any computer anywhere in the world provided that it is connected to the Internet in some way. One caveat, your office computer back home must be connected to a high speed always-on Internet service to use this remote access tool. GoToMyPC works on both Windows and Mac computers.