The first two parts of this four-part blog covered the not-optional portions of most home PCs, since handling email and feeding your web-browsing habit is probably the reason you bought a PC in the first place. But a PC is a computer and not just an average piece of furniture. And the best thing about owning your own computer is that it can run other software. In my case, most of that software handles various media, from music and pictures to video and audio. This list contains the ones I use most often.
Apple's iTunes - A must for those of us that have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, although Songbird (see below) is a strong contender for basic iPod music players. iTunes allows you to buy, rent or download music, videos, movies, TV shows, 100,000+ applications, and my favorite, podcasts. My personal podcast favorites (all free of course) include GeekBriefTV, The Jazz Suite, Dilbert, The Welch Way and TikiBar TV. You can find iTunes at http://www.apple.com/itunes. You'll also get QuickTime in the download (see blog part 2 for more info) and Bonjour, which allows various Apple devices to find each other without a lot of messy configuration. You might also pick up Safari, Apple's very capable web browser, although it's #3 in my book. See blog part 2 for better choices.
Mozilla's Songbird - An open source media player that can be downloaded from http://www.getsongbird.com. The one major drawback to iTunes is needing to build playlists in order to download specific music to an iPod. And if you have a lot of music and you ever need to rebuild all your playlists in iTunes, you'll find that's a huge hassle. Songbird can sync music-based albums or artists without needing to predefine anything. iTunes and Songbird can co-exist on your PC, but only one of them can control an iPod at a time.
Audacity - Another open source favorite, Audacity can record and edit audio. I've used it to create ring tones for my cell phone by clipping a few seconds from an audio file, and to build compilations of various components into a single audio file. Audacity is located at http://audacity.sourceforge.net. SourceForge is a treasure trove of open source software and worth searching when looking for free software.
Google's Picasa - Simply a great, free photo organizer that can import pictures from a scanner or digital camera. Simple to post photos to their free web service, order prints, group photos into albums, and their latest feature, facial recognition. Picasa includes some basic photo editing capabilities, but the three I use most frequently are cropping, lightening and straightening. Cropping allows you to just include a portion of a picture, lightening is great to fix those "too dark" pictures and straightening allows you to rotate a picture slightly, for example, to make that door in the background appear perfectly vertical. You can find Picasa at http://picasa.google.com.
AutoStitch - Sometimes you just can't get the scene you want in one picture and viewing several pictures just doesn't work for you. AutoStitch takes a series of pictures and "stitches" them together to form one panoramic picture. The result will need to be cropped (see Picasa above), but it's truly magical what this program produces. To find the download, enter "AutoStitch" into your favorite search engine.
Skype - The most popular free Internet voice and video service, it now handles about one-half of all international voice minutes. Calls between PCs are free and very popular in situations where friends and family are at a distant college or on an oversea assignment. My personal favorite is to access audio conference calls, since these are normally "800" number calls (free), avoid using my cell phone minutes and I can use a $10 headset which frees up my hands. Skype even lets you know when you start talking into your muted phone. You can call any phone for a per-minute fee if needed. Call quality on Skype is stunning, just like those "you could hear a pin drop" commercials from years ago. Also useful to call places that cell phone companies typically block to avoid fraud (in my case the U.S. Virgin Islands). The software is available at http://www.skype.com.
Google Earth - You can get lost for days (in front of your PC) traveling around the world exploring the canals of Venice, the streets of Paris, the Pebble Beach golf course or the neighborhood where you grew up. Download from http://earth.google.com.
One caution - some of these applications, and other web-based video services, might just require a newer computer to run properly. We're not talking a $1,000+ high-end machine however. Most new machines will run just fine. And if you find yourself in the market, buy an extra couple gigabytes of RAM. You can send me a thank-you note in a couple years.