Software can be broadly divided into the operating system and its supporting files (such as libraries and device drivers), and applications. We're going to look at applications first.
The Operating System
The first software decision you have to make when building your own computer is what operating system you will be using. A computer's operating system performs many vital functions, including:
Keeping track of what devices are installed on a computer and managing communication between the devices, the operating system, and the applications.
Providing a common default interface by which humans can communicate with the machine and activate applications.
Providing a common platform and application interfaces to enable programmers to design applications without, for example, having to build into those applications drivers for every single printer on the market.
Allowing the transfer of data between applications (for example, by using the "clipboard" to "cut and paste" text from a web page to a text editor or word processor).
At the time of this writing, the most popular operating systems among home computer builders are:
The most popular desktop operating system in most of the world is Microsoft Windows. As of this writing, Windows 7, which comes in several versions differentiated mainly by price and features, is the current Windows version. But because some applications don't run properly on Window 7, Windows XP, which comes in Home and Professional editions, is still available. Windows Vista, which came between Windows XP and Windows 7, is also still available, although it's not very popular.
Because Windows is the most popular operating system, it's also very easy to find applications written for Windows, and virtually all hardware devices come with Windows drivers. In addition, Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate can run a "virtual" Windows XP system on top of Windows 7.
The second most popular operating system for home computer builders is Linux, which was originally created by Linus Torvalds when he was a computer science student in Finland. Linux is an open-source operating system: The source code (the human-readable programming before it is compiled into machine language) is freely available to all, and it may be modified by those possessing the ability to do so. It's estimated that between 65 and 75 percent of the world's Web servers run on Linux.
If you're considering building a Linux box (and especially if you've never built one before or have never used Linux), then we urge you read this first. In addition, please read our reviews of three popular desktop Linux distributions: Mepis, Linspire, and XandrOS. Also be sure to check out Ubuntu, the popular new Linux distribution that's gaining converts worldwide.
Applications are programs that allow a computer to perform some specific task, such as word processing, browsing the Internet, editing photos, and so forth. You need to think about the applications you'll be using before you decide on the operating system, because most applications run on only one particular OS.
If you're building a computer to use for business, now would be a good time to look at new software to help you run your business more efficiently and profitably. For example, SWG supplies FM Software — a powerful suite of management tools which maximizes the efficiency of a wide range of asset, building and service activities.
Another application that I like is Quicken personal finance software. It's full-featured personal finance and money-management software that's ideal for people who want to balance their checkbook, print checks, track their income and expenses, and keep track of their investments, but who don't need the advanced business accounting features of full-fledged accounting programs. In other words, most ordinary folks.
Again, it's important that you decide on your application needs before deciding on your operating system. If you use business applications that run only on Windows, for example, then you must choose Windows as your operating system.
Computer security software is a special and essential category of software, especially for Windows machines. Although there are many different kinds of security software, the security software most commonly needed by home users are an anti-virus program and a firewall.
Anti-virus software is designed to detect and protect against malicious code that can be contained in Web sites, emails, downloaded files, shared files, pirated software, and even on legitimate, commercially-released software on CDs or DVDs once in a while. Most anti-virus software works by examining the code against a database of known malicious code (commonly known as "signature checking"), and also looking for software that has characteristics that make it suspicious, even if it's not in the database ("heuristic" checking).
Good anti-virus software, when properly maintained and updated, will catch all known viruses "in the wild," accurately catch new viruses using heuristics, have a very low false-positive rate, and not slow down your machine by using up a lot of system resources. My personal favorite anti-virus program is ESET NOD32 Antivirus. I've been using it for years, and it has NEVER missed a virus on any of my machines. Not convinced? Try ESET NOD32 Antivirus free for 30 days: click here.
The other essential security application is a firewall. If you're connected to the Internet through a properly-configured hardware firewall (or a properly-configured router with firewalling capabilities), then probably the firewall included with Windows is adequate. But if your computer is connected directly to the Internet (or if you're not too confident that the router or firewall is configured properly), then you need a good software firewall. In this case, I recommend ESET Smart Security. It includes the ESET NOD32 virus scanner that I like, plus a firewall and other security applications. This probably is the best choice for most users unless you are certain that your external firewall is properly configured.
You can find many free applications for Windows computers here.
You can find many free applications for Linux computers here.
- Getting Started