It might be eight years old, but almost half of the world's desktop devices are still running Windows 7 – and for good reason. It's an excellent operating system that's still supported by Microsoft and receives regular security updates (unlike Windows Vista), doesn't pester you with popups like Windows 10, is much more open than macOS, and is easier for beginners to master than Linux.
Windows 7's version of Microsoft Paint is a big step up from the edition provided with Windows Vista, but it's still not much use for editing photos or creating your own graphics from scratch.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a brilliant open source photo editor that's amazingly powerful, and is available to download and use completely free. It's not quite as feature-packed as Adobe Photoshop, but it has everything hobbyist photographers need to make their shots look amazing before printing them or sharing them online.
You can even add more tools and filters by installing plugins – including ones designed for use with Photoshop.
Review and where to download: GIMP
If you're still using Windows Media Center to play music in Windows 7, you're doing your tunes a disservice. MusicBee is designed to organize songs and podcasts in a logical way, add accurate metadata, and give you the best sound quality your PC can provide – whether you have a high-end soundcard or not.
MusicBee supports every music file format you can name without the need to download additional codecs, as well as streaming services and online radio.
Review and where to download: MusicBee
MusicBee is the best free music player for Windows 7, but for video you need VLC Media Player. Again, it supports a huge range of file formats (far more than Windows Media Center), and can be expanded with user-created plugins and skins.
VLC Media Player is also an excellent way to enjoy DVDs and Blu-rays on your PC (provided you have the necessary optical drive), and you can optimize playback to suit your system.
Review and where to download: VLC Media Player
If you poke around in the Accessories section of Windows 7's Start Menu, you'll find the Sound Recorder. 'Basic' hardly describes it – all it does is take input from a microphone and save it in WAV format.
If you want to make your own podcasts, record music, or edit existing sound files, you need something far more powerful. That something is Audacity.
This open source audio editor lets you record in stereo, remove noise, apply various effects, edit channels individually, cut and combine files, remove vocals from songs and much more. Like GIMP and VLC Media Player, Audacity also supports plugins so you can tailor it to suit your exact needs.
Review and where to download: Audacity
Windows Movie Maker was a great video editor when it was first released, but its inelegant interface and cheesy effects now look very dated. After many long years of service, it's time for Windows 7 users to wave goodbye and upgrade to Shotcut instead.
Shotcut isn't the most powerful free video editor around (that would be Lightworks), but it strikes a perfect balance between features and usability. You don't need to study a manual to start making a great-looking video, and there's a a huge set of tools and filters to experiment with.
Review and where to download: Shotcut
You might be happy sticking with Internet Explorer in Windows 7, but Microsoft has moved its attention to Edge – a new browser that's exclusive to Windows 10.
If you haven't experimented with many other browsers before, Google Chrome is a great place to start. It's hugely customizable via plugins, fast, and integrates with your Google account so you can sync bookmarks and preferences between different devices – including phones and tablets.
Review and where to download: Google Chrome
If you don't like the idea of Google getting its roots into all your online activity, or you just want an alternative for occasions when privacy is particularly important, take a look at Tor Browser.
Tor (the Onion Router) works by encrypting your data and redirecting it through a series of remote servers around the world, making it all but impossible to trace.
Be careful if your Windows 7 PC is on a work or college network though – some organizations take a dim view of Tor because it's often used for nefarious purposes like pirating movies and music.
Review and where to download: Tor Browser
Another way to protect your privacy online is to use a VPN (virtual private network) service, which disguises your identity and location using remote servers. Take care, though – there are lots of dodgy free VPNs around that are actually malware in disguise.
WindScribe is the real deal – a free VPN with a very generous data allowance of 10GB per month. That's not enough for streaming movies (for that, you'll need to upgrade to the premium version), but it's ideal for online shopping and banking.
Review and where to download: WindScribe
Windows 7 can open PDFs without any trouble, but it doesn't let you annotate them, make text changes, or perform security checks.
That's why you need Foxit Reader – a free PDF reader that's full of useful extra tools you didn't realise you needed, but can't live without. The scan-to-PDF tool is particularly handy if you have a paper worksheet or handout to convert, and the Microsoft Office Plugins are a brilliant touch.
Review and where to download: Foxit Reader
That said, Microsoft Office isn't your only option when you're using Windows 7 at work. LibreOffice is a totally free suite of programs that almost perfectly replicate all the features of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more.
Like many of the programs in this list, LibreOffice is open source, which means anyone with the skills and time is free to develop their own plugins for fellow users. It also has a huge team of dedicated volunteers who keep it updated with new features and squish bugs as soon as they're identified.
Review and where to download: LibreOffice
LibreOffice is excellent, but if you just need to get your head down and do some serious writing, FocusWriter is the tool for you. It's far superior to Windows 7's Notepad tool, with a full-screen mode that completely blocks out all distractions, including the clock, Start menu and notification area.
You can set yourself writing goals and configure alerts for specific times to keep you on track. There's also an excellent Focus feature that highlights the paragraph or sentence you're currently working on, while everything else fades into the background. No more procrastinating.
Review and where to download: FocusWriter
If you cast your mind back (keep going… further… there), you might remember once tracking your finances using a program called Microsoft Money. It was discontinued a long time ago, but Money Manager Ex does essentially the same job, making it easy to monitor your accounts and credit cards, record spending, schedule payments, and make sure you're sticking to your budget.
It can't link directly to your online banking service, but this might be a good thing as far as security's concerned and entering the figures manually isn't too time-consuming.
Review and where to download: Money Manager Ex
FileZilla is an FTP (file transfer protocol) client – a handy tool designed for moving files between PCs or remote servers. It's not as flashy as a cloud storage service like Dropbox or OneDrive, but it means you're in total control and aren't trusting your data to a third party.
FileZilla can store login data for up to 10 remote servers, letting you connect and start shifting your data with just a couple of clicks.
Review and where to download: FileZilla
Torrents have a bad reputation thanks to their popularity with copyright-infringing pirates, but they have lots of legitimate uses too. They're simply a way of sharing particularly large files, and many artists and producers are now choosing to release material this way. They're also handy for downloading copyright-free media, games and other content.
To use torrent files, you need a dedicated client software, and qBittorrent is the best for Windows 7. It's not cluttered with ads, has a clear interface, and is easy to get to grips with.
Review and where to download: qBittorrent
If you're unlucky, you might know the horror of emptying your Windows 7 Recycle Bin, then realising too late that it contained a file you accidentally needed. Or you might have been unfortunate enough to lose data due to physical damage to a drive, or corruption.
There's no guarantee that free file recovery tool Recuva will be able to bring your documents and photos back, but it can be an absolute lifesaver in an emergency. Install it now and be prepared.
Review and where to download: Piriform Recuva
Piriform – the delightfully-named developer of Recuva – also makes an excellent PC optimization tool called CCleaner. It performs much the same job as the various system-sweeping tools you'll find under Accessories in Windows 7's Start Menu, but is much faster and easier to use.
CCleaner can also clear our your web browser's cookies and stored passwords for added security. Just make sure you read the description of each item carefully before erasing it, so you don't accidentally purge anything useful.
Review and where to download: Piriform CCleaner
When it comes to gaming, Minesweeper and Solitaire just won't cut it. If you want something more entertaining than watching paint dry, you need Steam – Valve's huge PC gaming platform and store, where you can find almost every title you could wish for, often with deep discounts.
Download here: Steam
If games aren't your thing, you might be more interested in Any Video Converter Free – a video downloading and converting tool that can grab clips from all the biggest sites and save them in any format you like. You can even rip the audio from videos and save it for listening later.
Just make sure you have permission from the copyright holder before you start downloading videos from YouTube and Vimeo.
Review and where to download: Any Video Converter Free
Continuing the theme of entertainment, let's move to ebooks.
We've tried lots of e-readers for Windows 7, but Amazon's official Kindle app is easily the best. It makes organizing your ebooks a breeze, with an excellent search tool, and reading is a thoroughly pleasant experience thanks to the carefully designed pages and customizable colors and fonts.
There are links to the Kindle store, naturally, but they're surprisingly unobtrusive and you won't be harassed by prompts to buy more books.
Download here: Kindle for PC
Hopefully you now have a good idea of which programs you need to get the most from your Windows 7 PC, but there's just one more we recommend.
Windows 7 comes with a tool for extracting compressed file archives, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of different types around and it only supports a small handful. 7-Zip is far more capable, and integrates into Windows Explorer and the context menu so it's there whenever you need it.
Review and where to download: 7-Zip