Web that help you surf better, work with e-mail better, and also keep your computer safer that the difficulty is in finding the best. While there are plenty of worthy contenders, consensus is moving strongly in favour of the following programmes.
Google made a splash with Gmail (http://www.gmail.com) when it originally announced that users would get a whopping 1 gigabyte of storage space with their Gmail accounts. That amount is now up to 2.6 gigabytes - and growing.
What's even better is that Gmail has overcome the bane of most free e-mail providers: spam. Gmail's built-in anti-spam tools really works - so well, in fact, that many Gmail users consider their Gmail address as their primary e-mail account, since most effective anti- spam tools for traditional e-mail programs are fee-based.
Gmail also now offers POP access, meaning that you can configure and use Outlook, Outlook Express, or other traditional e-mail programs to handle your Gmail. The only downside to the whole Gmail experience is the Google ads you'll see reading your mail on the Gmail site. The ads appear to the right of messages - easy enough to ignore.
If you're like most people, you've probably heard of Mozilla's Firefox (http://www.mozilla.com) - the Web browser that's giving Microsoft's Internet Explorer a run for its money - but you haven't tried it. There's good reason to change that.
Previous browser challengers seem always to have been bested by Internet Explorer in one way or another. But Firefox really is different. It can be an Internet Explorer work-alike for those giving it a whirl - even brining over your Explorer favourites without a hitch.
But the little things are what set Firefox apart. Firefox tends not to get bogged down over time, beset by spyware or other issues that occasionally prevent Internet Explorer from loading pages correctly - or at all. Firefox also prevents Web sites from annoying you. It's easy to configure the browser to block not only pop-up ads but most ads in general. The browser also prevents other tricks - such as "sticky" sites, status bar tickers, or links that hide where they're taking you.
Firefox is just as smooth and fast as Internet Explorer - and virtually everything can be done with the keyboard as well as with the mouse, making it commendably accessible. The browser is a small download and gets along well on the same system with other browsers, so it's well worth at least a tryout.
Sure, the free Google toolbar has form-filling capabilities, but they're not nearly as nice as those of the veteran RoboForm (http://www.roboform.com). With RoboForm you get more sophisticated form recognition - sometimes Google's form-filler toolbar function refuses to recognise legitimate Web forms - and a host of other Web- related time-savers. Among them is a password vault, complete with encryption, phishing fighters, backup ability, and synchronisation. Add in the ability to define custom field names that the normal form filler might not recognise, and you have a power-packed tool that no Web browser should be without.
It's been a while since a world-class e-mail program has come along to challenge the likes of Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express. That's what we have, though, in Mozilla's Thunderbird (http://www.mozilla.org/products/thunderbird), which does for free most of what users like about Microsoft's expensive Outlook programme.
While few complain about the full-fledged Outlook, its best e-mail handling features are matched by Thunderbird. Thunderbird is just as intuitive and provides users with effective anti-spam technology that doesn't require registering to keep current. Thunderbird is strong on search and, like Outlook Express, has a built-in newsreader. Thunderbird actually bests Outlook with its sophisticated RSS feed handling. RSS feeds can be delivered directly to your inbox.
The other usual must-have e-mail capabilities - spell check, anti- phishing controls, and easy configuration - are present as well.
StartUp Monitor (http://www.mlin.net/StartupMonitor.shtml) is not necessarily a application only for Web users, but it is one that can help you prevent your Windows computer - and your Internet browsing - from slowing down over time.
The main culprit behind Windows computer that become slower are startup programs - little applications that insert themselves into your Windows startup procedure and remain there the entire time your computer is on. Although small, these applications can have a big impact on performance, as they chew up valuable clock cycles and, along with other startup programs, eventually degrade performance of your entire PC.
Startup Monitor sits quietly in the background and warns you whenever a program tries to install itself as a startup process. You'll have the option to allow the process or deny it.
The landscape of free software is constantly changing. Some programs cease to be developed and others go to more of a fee-based system. But the programs here are likely to remain free - and supported - for some time, since they're created by large companies with diverse revenue streams and built on a principle innovation at no cost to the end user.