Last month, I disclosed the contents of my computer to Slate readers: I went over the 18 programs and services that I use to surf the Web, manage e-mail, make phone calls, jot down reporting notes, and write articles.
I also asked readers for their own computing tips. The response was enormous. I got more than 100 e-mails—and dozens of "Fray" comments—from people who thought I'd overlooked certain apps or that I'd been using stuff that was hopelessly old-school. I've been trying out many of your suggestions since, and I've distilled them into this short list.
As always, if you've got any more suggestions, please send me an e-mail or post to "The Fray" and let me know. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Digsby. For many years, I'd been using a program called Trillian for all my instant-messaging needs. I loved that it connected to several different IM services (you can chat with friends on AOL, Yahoo, etc.) and that it had a slick, customizable interface. But lots of readers told me to ditch Trillian in favor of either Pidgin or Digsby. Each of these worked pretty much like Trillian, but they've both got one extra feature—they connect to the Jabber network, the same protocol that Google's chat service uses. That means both programs let you chat to Gmailers, too. (You've got to pay extra to get Trillian to do this.) Digsby is the winner because it adds alerts from Twitter and Facebook, making it a one-stop app for all-day procrastination.
AVG Anti-Virus. A few readers chided me for failing to mention any anti-virus programs in my line-up. (Mac and Linux users, you're exempt from this discussion.) The truth is, I hate anti-virus apps, and I've never used them very diligently. Many are resource-hungry (they slow down your PC and spin your hard drive for hours on end), and they're always asking you to update their virus lists, usually with some kind of pitch to get you to shell out for a "Pro" version. I'm not suggesting anti-virus apps are useless—I'm sure they've saved many machines. But in my years of using Windows computers, I've never had a serious infection, and my data is sufficiently well-backed-up that a serious infection won't bring me down. (And as I said last month, I do use an anti-spyware program, Spybot Search & Destroy.)
Still, to please the scolds, I went out in search of a good anti-virus app. AVG was the best I found: It doesn't seem to use every bit of computing power to scan my machine, and it doesn't constantly pressure me to buy an upgrade. (The basic version is free.) I set it to analyze my computer when I'm asleep, and so far, it hasn't worked my hard drive hard enough to wake me up.
VLC media player. I'd forgotten to add this great video app to my list, and lots of readers reminded me of my omission. If you download many videos in many different formats, you need VLC. This fast, free player works on Mac, Windows, and Linux machines and seems to handle just about every type of video file you throw at it, even files that are slightly broken.