The Only Web Software You Need
When library customers ask me to show them how to use their laptops, I can't help but notice all the junk they've got that's slowing their computers way down. Some of this is manufacturer-loaded software, but the lion's share of it is from Web sites they've browsed to which inform them they need a particular program or plug-in to run correctly. This is something I addressed at length in my post on Avoiding Sneakware. To further aid you in avoiding bloatware, I've come up with a list of the only software you should need on your computer to properly use the Web. Once armed with these programs, feel free to ignore any offered you by a Web site. Your computer will thank you.
Flash is required by many sites to play video and audio. A decreasing number of sites are built entirely with Flash. Thanks mostly to Steve Jobs' refusal to allow Flash on iPhones and iPads, purely Flash-based sites are in steep decline. The Google Chrome Web browser comes with Flash built-in, so you don't need to download and install it separately if you use that browser.
Adobe Reader is the most commonly-used program for displaying and interacting with PDF files. While there are other programs out there that replicated Adobe's functionality with a much smaller footprint, you'll want to use Adobe if you're filling out important government or employer software.
Java is a computer programming language commonly used on the Web to create applications that run inside a browser regardless of what type of computer is being used. It, like Adobe Flash, is less common that it used to be, but you'll still want to have it installed.
Apple's Quicktime is a program for playing specific types of audio and video in Web browsers. While there are other programs out there which can do the same thing, none of them works quite as well as Quicktime. They'll try to get you to purchase the "Pro" version. Don't bother; you don't need it.
Silverlight is Microsoft's answer to Adobe's Flash, an answer to a question I don't believe many asked. Somehow it's become more ubiquitous than I'd like. For example, Silverlight is required to play Netflix in a web browser.
Windows Media Player
New computers running Windows 7 or 8 come pre-installed with the newest version of Windows Media Player, which, like Quicktime, is required to play certain types of audio and video on the Web. If you're running an older version of Windows, like XP or Vista, you may want to check if you're running the latest version. Mac users will want to download the Windows Media Components for Quicktime, the default media player on OS X.
Internet Security Software
There's a pretty good chance you already have some form of Internet security software installed. It is absolutely vital to know the brand of security software you're running, be it Norton, McAfee, Kapersky, AVG, ZoneAlarm, or one of the other common programs.You need to know the brand name, what it looks like, and how it notifies you of threats. Why? One of the most common ways malware finds its way onto computers is through banner ads, pop-ups, and phony sites that declare your computer to be infected with millions of viruses. If you know ahead of time what your security software looks like, you can easily dismiss these scams.
Other programs you might be required to install at some point (but probably won't) that are also ok:
Adobe Connect is a web conferencing tool used by businesses and schools for meetings, classroom sessions, conferences, and anything other interaction that require simultaneous attendance.
Go to Meeting
This is another web conferencing tool, this time from Citrix. It is an alternative to Adobe Connect (or maybe that's the other way around) that is required for all the same purposes.
Unity Web Player
The Unity game engine is a piece of software that many high-end online games are built ontop of. If you're a frequent visiter to online gaming sites, you'll likely be prompted to install Unity.
What you don't need:
You absolutely do not need any toolbars. Not from Google, not from Yahoo, not from Bing, not from Ask, not from anywhere. They only thing they will do is occupy screen space and slow-down your browsing. If a site or a program installer ever prompts you to install a toolbar, decline the offer.
Real Player was a vital part of the multimedia Web as the primary means of streaming audio and video over dial-up Internet connections. The wide-spread adoption of broadband combined with the invention of revolutionary media compression technologies has made Real Player obsolete. I haven't seen it try to find its way onto my computer in a while, but not to toot my own horn, I'm savvy enough not to visit sites that would try to trick me into installing it. Others, maybe you, are not, so don't ever let it on your computer!
The Windows Registry is a database file that simply records system settings and installed programs. A common belief is that cleaning the registry of unnecessary entries will speed up your computer. In truth, it really won't. Still, this is one of those established "facts" that everyone "knows," and you'll see a lot of advertisements for registry cleaners. Steer clear. They're probably malware in disguise.
There are steps you can take to "optimize" you Windows PC for speed and performance, but not a single one of the programs you see advertised will do anything more than to slow your computer down. Avoid these programs at all costs.