2015 is here, and now that the dust has settled on our New Year's shenanigans, we find ourselves squinting, bleary eyed, into the year ahead. Need a hand working out what lies in store for those of us with downloads on the brain? Then fear not; TechRadar is here for you, my friend.
Because while we haven't yet mastered hover boards or self-drying clothing (copyright Back to the Future II), there are a lot of exciting tech trends set to come of age in the next 12 months. The good news is you can tap into these trends from your PC right now with the help of the following free downloads, so strap yourself in and take a ride into the (near) future now.
Give Windows 10 a test drive with this free pre-release version.
2015 will be the year of Windows 10, but why wait until it finally arrives in October when you can start familiarising yourself with it now? Microsoft has made the pre-releases available to the general public – all you need to do is sign up for the free Windows Insider program and you can download and install the latest pre-release version of Windows 10 to explore its new features and discover how it works.
All pre-release software comes with risks attached, so make sure you install the Windows 10 Technical Preview on a second PC or – failing that – on a virtual machine such as VirtualBox so your precious data, settings and programs aren't put in danger.
Take remote control of your PC from any other computer or mobile device.
The notion of ubiquitous computing has been gathering pace as apps and services make themselves available across a range of platforms and devices. With wearable tech such as smartwatches set to take that one step further, why limit yourself to specific services when you can make your entire PC accessible from any computer or mobile?
Install TeamViewer on your main PC, and you can enjoy on-the-go access to your entire desktop – files, settings and programs – from anywhere. All you need is to install TeamViewer on your other computers, or add the free mobile app to your tablet or phone – iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone are all supported.
The best free 3D modelling and animation tool for your PC.
2014 proved three-dimensional printers weren't a passing fad, and 2015 should see them hit the mainstream as prices start to become more affordable. Once you've bought yours, how can you start generating your 3D objects? The answer lies with the brilliant free 3D modelling and animation tool, Blender.
Create your 3D object using its modelling, painting and sculpting tools, then switch on the built-in 3D Printing Toolbox extension via the File > User Preferences > Add-ons (search for '3D' then enable the Mesh: 3D Print Toolbox option) to ensure your finished object will appear correctly when sent to your 3D printer.
This user-friendly personal assistant makes it easy to access data and information.
Skynet may still be some way off, but AI is evolving fast and 2015 will see it hit the mainstream when Microsoft rolls out its AI-powered personal assistant (Cortana) to Windows 10. But you don't need to wait for Microsoft when there's a free personal assistant ready and waiting for you now in the form of Braina.
It works in the same way as Cortana (along with Siri and Google Now), providing you with information from the net, playing your choice of songs and videos, finding and opening files on your PC or setting alarms and reminders. As you use it, it learns your behaviour to better anticipate your needs. Control can be done via your keyboard or your voice (use your PC's mic or separate Android app).
Rid yourself of ransomware
Regain control of your computer after it's been infected with ransomware.
Malware continues to evolve at a frightening rate, and 2014 saw the emergence of a particularly nasty brand. Ransomware locks and encrypts people's computers before demanding payment in return for the code required to give you back access to your computer and its contents. It's already made big bucks for malware authors – so ransomware won't be going anywhere soon – but the anti-malware companies are fighting back at last.
If you find yourself infected, all isn't lost – download Kaspersky WindowsUnlocker to a clean PC, then right-click the ISO file and burn it to disc, which you then boot from on your infected PC. Click the Start button and choose Terminal, then type windowsunlocker and hit [Enter] to get started – visit Kaspersky for full instructions.
Log on to your PC using your webcam and facial recognition technology.
Apple's new fingerprint logon system for iPhone and iPad points the way for how users will access their machines without the kerfuffle of remembering a passcode or password. In 2015 this trend is set to continue, and you can tap into an equally convenient – but much less expensive – way of logging on to your PC by installing KeyLemon Basic.
This tool builds a profile of your facial features using your webcam, then allows you to log on in seconds without having to touch your keyboard – just frame your face in the right spot, and KeyLemon will detect it and log you on automatically.
Increase cloud encryption
Quickly and effortlessly add an extra layer of encryption to your data.
Just how secure is your cloud-stored data? 2014 saw some big questions asked about privacy in the wake of various scandals, and this year those questions need to be answered. If you want to wrap an extra layer of protection around any particularly sensitive data stored online in places such as OneDrive, Dropbox or Google Drive then you should install Cloudfogger.
This adds another level of encryption to your data in addition to that already used by your cloud provider, making it doubly difficult to break. You can even instruct Cloudfogger to store the all-important encryption key locally, so you don't have to worry about your cloud provider handing over your data to whoever asks for it.
Team Fortress is one of the best and most popular free-to-play games for the PC.
The rise in popularity of free-to-play games looks set to continue throughout 2015, and one of the trailblazers, Team Fortress 2, continues to make waves years after it became free to play. It's still regularly updated and is even branching out into animated short movies thanks to its active user base – the community made End of the Line update and short animated movie are new releases for 2015.
It's the ultimate team-based game – choose a character (nine types are available, from scout to spy and from engineer to soldier) and then go head-to-head in various game modes such as capture the flag or king of the hill.
Back up, share and access your data on the go from any device.
The cloud continues to be where it's at, particularly when it comes to putting your data at your fingertips. And when it comes to choosing a cloud storage solution, Dropbox sits at the top of the cloud-computing tree.
It's universal, easy to use and comes with 2GB free storage, which you can quickly build up to 5GB or more by jumping through hoops such as connecting to Facebook or referring friends. Sharing files and folders is easy via the Windows desktop client, and you can of course access your data on the move via a myriad of mobile apps.
Create a personal VPN to protect your privacy and security on the net.
It's become increasingly difficult to use the internet without revealing all kinds of information about yourself, and 2015 will only see more and more of your actions monitored. Ditching the net altogether isn't practical, so instead why not install Hotspot Shield instead?
This clever tool re-routes your internet connection through a private tunnel known as a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Not only does it hide your IP address and location from view, it also provides a secure connection, protecting you from hackers and spies should you access the internet through unprotected open Wi-Fi hotspots when out and about with your laptop.