Bruce Johnson asked for "a list of minimum programs and applications needed to...operate my laptop?"
PCWorld senior editor Brad Chacos wrote an excellent story about the best software for a new PC. But if we're talking the barest minimum, anyone with a Windows PC really, absolutely must have a program in each of the categories below.
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Browser: More than anything else, we use our computers to surf the web. Windows comes with a perfectly good browser--Internet Explorer. You can see how it fared against major competitors, including Firefox and my browser of choice, Google Chrome, in PCWorld's recent browser comparison.
Antivirus: Connecting to the Internet without protection is like leaving the front door open when you're on vacation, with a sign out front proclaiming "Expensive stuff inside. No one home." A good antivirus program, working in the background, provides the protection you need. I use Avira Antivirus, and PCWorld compared other major antivirus suites earlier this year.
Supplemental malware scanner: Your antivirus isn't perfect, so it's a good idea to scan your drive every week or so with an on-demand malware scanner, such as Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. I wrote about this necessity in more detail last year.
Backup program: You wouldn't believe how much email I get from frantic people who've lost important files because they didn't have a backup. You can check out my introduction to backup for details and recommendations, and you can check PCWorld's feature on free backup programs from earlier this year.
Password manager: You need a different password for every site you log onto. And the passwords must all be long and complicated. Since you can't memorize them all, you need a secure program to store them. I use KeePass Password Safe. I've already explained why.
PDF reader: PDF files are all over the place, and everyone assumes--with good reason--that you have software that can read them. My choice: FoxIt Reader.
Beyond this bare-minimum list, there may be other categories to cover depending on what you want to do with your PC. You may or may not need a photo organizer, web-authoring tools, or an accounting program. You probably need an office suite, but I'm not going to say that's an absolute, especially with so many web-based alternatives. There are programs, such as games, that you may not need but still want. Some of these useful programs are free, but please remember that software programmers need to eat, too, and be willing to pitch in a little money if requested.