Free software download guide

There's plenty of free software on the internet, but is it any good?
 
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  • Updated:19 Sep 2007
 

01 .In brief

Cartoon of laptop with free sign
  • Free software can be as reliable and functional as paid programs.
  • You won't always get all the features or support with a free version.
  • Watch out for hidden traps. Free programs may include advertising or sypware.

Free software is appealing because you can find useful office and multimedia applications without the hefty price tag. But there are a few drawbacks to consider.

Free software doesn’t usually come with any support, so you’re more or less on your own if something goes wrong. There are unlikely to be regular updates to correct bugs and security flaws. Also, some free programs may not have all the features that paid programs offer. You probably won’t get any discs, but you can easily re-install the software from the internet if you need to.

On the plus side, there may be a loyal following of users who can provide advice and help if you’re experiencing problems. User forums are often the best places to go for support. There are usually both Windows and Mac versions, but you may need to wait before there are versions available for the latest operating systems such as Windows Vista or Mac Leopard, which goes on sale in October.

There are so many programs available, it’s hard to know what worth a try. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of useful programs that you can install in place of paid software. We haven’t tested them, but we have installed and tried them to determine how they run.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Programs we've looked at

Office applications

  • Google Docs & Spreadsheets
  • OpenOffice
  • Primo PDF
  • SyncBack Freeware
  • ThinkFree Office

Handy tools

  • FixYa
  • Sxipper
  • NoteLens

Browsers

  • Mozilla Firefox
  • Flock
  • Opera

Messaging

  • Jangl
  • Meebo
  • ooVoo

Audio/video

  • CDBurnerXP Pro
  • Audacity
  • Lame MP3 Encoder
  • VideoLAN
  • RealPlayer basic
  • jetAudio 7 Basic

Photo editing

  • Paint.NET
  • GIMP
  • Serif PhotoPlus
  • Movavi
  • PhotoMesa

Security

  • AVG Anti-Virus
  • Spybot Search & Destroy
  • ZoneAlarm Basic

Find your own

  • download.com  
  • fileforum.betanews.com  
  • majorgeeks.com 
  • nonags.com
  • snapfiles.com
  • topshareware.com
  • tucows.com
  • voodoofiles.com
 
 

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02.Office Applications

 

Office applications

Office software is one of the most important — and expensive — components of your computer system. Most people only consider big names like Microsoft and Adobe when it comes to office programs, but there are alternatives for working with word processing, spreadsheets, PDFs and databases.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is the latest offering from Google. It's a free word processing and spreadsheet program that can run over the internet — you don’t download the program to the computer. You can also permit others to update your files from their own computers. The downside is that it may not run on older versions of browsers.

OpenOffice is a comprehensive suite which includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing software. It’s compatible with Microsoft Office and runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Primo PDF lets you create Portable Document Format (PDF) documents from Word, Excel and other programs. You can download it to your computer or use PrimoOnline, a free web-based service that lets you upload and convert files into PDFs via the internet.

SyncBack Freeware is a backup utility that’s compatible with Windows 98, 2000 and XP. You can find the program in the Downloads section of the 2BrightSparks website, under Freeware.

ThinkFree Office includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software and is compatible with Microsoft Office programs. You can use it on a PC or over the internet. It also offers internet-based file sharing and storage. ThinkFree Office is compatible with Windows and Mac, as well as Unix and Linux.

Handy tools

Free support programs come in all shapes and sizes. They range from simple password prompts to handy applications that let you use the computer to record notes and thoughts. The following examples are just a taste of what’s out there; many other applications can be used to personalise the computing experience.

FixYa logoFixYa provides useful information on how to deal with faults, troubleshooting, repairs and technical problems for a range of consumer electronics, computer and entertainment products. The site lists recent postings on the front page and you can also search under brand to find a solution, as well as answering other people’s questions yourself.

Sxipper is a free add-on for Firefox that helps you keep your passwords together within the browser. When you reach a website with a form to fill in, Sxipper opens a window so you can select what information to provide (just don’t forget to set a master password to keep everything secure). It is suitable for both Windows and Mac operating systems.

NoteLens is great tool for capturing a thought, address or snippet of text into a file that you can search instantly. It’s only suitable for Windows, but it will synchronise with Outlook to import notes and contacts from PCs and handheld organisers that run Pocket PC.

03.Browsers / messaging

 

Browsers

Internet Explorer is the default browser with Windows, but this free, ubiquitous program is by no means your only choice — there are quite a few others. The good news is that they work just as well, and some even offer features not available with Internet Explorer.

Mozilla Firefox is the most popular alternative to Internet Explorer on the web today. It offers plenty of useful add-ons, tabbed browsing and a range of plug-ins. Firefox is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux.

Flock is a web browser with a focus on networking and sharing. The browser has shortcuts that allow users to share photos, stay up-to-date with content from favourite sites via RSS and search the web. Flock can also be used to drag and drop comments onto MySpace, upload pictures to Flickr and PhotoBucket, and compile and upload material to blogging sites such as Blogger, TypePad and WordPress.

Opera is another popular browser with a range of unique features such as ‘Speed Dial’ to quick launch favourite sites, a built-in email program, and voice-controlled browsing. It works with Windows, Mac, and Linux and even has versions for some mobile phones, smartphones, and the Nintendo Wii.

Messaging

Broadband internet has aided the development of a range of internet messaging applications that combine real-time chat, voice calls, video calls and voice mail messaging. Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live Messenger are the well-known programs, but there are others if you prefer to try something different.

JanglJangl is a program that lets you make free phone calls over the internet. You register with an email address and receive a phone number to make and receive Jangl calls.

Meebo is an instant messaging site that lets users chat without downloading or installing software. You must register to use Meebo but you can also log-in using Google Talk, Yahoo!, MSN, ICQ or Jabber. You can also add the Meebo chat window to a blog, MySpace profile or website to chat via your own page.

ooVoo is a messaging program that lets registered users chat, make video calls and send video messages via the internet through its chat window. You can also chat with up to six people at a time, send files and import contacts from Microsoft Outlook and Live Messenger.

Audio/video

There are many free programs on the internet to burn CDs and DVDs, create podcasts or record audio and video. It’s just a matter of choosing which one to use.

CDBurnerXP Pro will burn CD-R, CD-RW DVD+R/RW DVD-R/RW discs. However, it doesn’t currently offer the capability to burn double layer discs. It also includes an audio editor and it will convert MP3 and WAV audio files. The website also includes a list of disc drives that will work with the program.

Audacity logoAudacity is an open source program that can be used to record and edit audio in a variety of formats. You can mix soundtracks, create podcasts and audio files. It’s compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.

If you want to use Audacity to make a podcast you’ll need Lame MP3 Encoder, an application that will encode your file as an MP3 and provide the identification tags for podcasting software. Go to the home page and click on the Lame MP3 Encoder under the Audio Codecs tab.

Media players

If you think you’re stuck with a choice between Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes, think again. There’s plenty of free media player software available to download from the internet. And with so many file formats, you’ll need more than one program.

VideoLAN is compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems and will integrate with Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers. It will play a range of audio and video file formats, as well as stream files over a network.

RealPlayer logoRealPlayer basic is Windows compatible and will play many audio and video file formats; however, the free version won’t burn DVDs or record video. Click on the Free RealPlayer button to choose the XP or Vista version.

jetAudio 7 Basic is only suitable for Windows and doesn’t have a plug-in for Firefox compatibility. It will play a good range of video and audio file formats and has a paid version with more advanced features such as MP3 encoding and sound recording.

Photo editing

It’s hard to justify the cost of buying an expensive image editing program if you only edit the odd photo. That’s where free image editing programs can be very useful. Many have an extensive range of features and tools to keep the most creative artist happy.

Paint.NET logoPaint.NET offers layers, tabbed windows and special effects. The developers add new features and updates regularly and an enthusiastic online community provides plug-ins and tutorials. Paint.NET has a useful unlimited undo function that shows every edit in a small history sub-window. It’s suitable for Windows XP and Vista.

GIMP is an image editing program that has an extensive selection of editing tools, editing layers and a red eye removal tool. The website has links to books, tutorials and a Wikipedia entry, but it only has the source code for the program. The easiest way to download GIMP is to go to Sourceforge.

Serif PhotoPlus is a simple photo editing program for Windows 95, 98, 2000 and XP. The program includes tools for layers, masking and resizing. The website includes PagePlus for desktop publishing, WebPlus for website design, DrawPlus for illustrations and 3DPlus for creating graphics. The free programs are older versions and you can buy the current versions from the site.

Movavi is a web-based video conversion service that lets you change the format of video clips without conversion software. You can load up to five different video files, up to 100MB in total size, and choose from 11 different formats for output.

PhotoMesa is a photo organiser that lets you display, preview and sort photos in bulk. You can search folders, name, group and add captions in preview without needing to open each file. PhotoMesa can also drag and drop files into email. It’s suitable for Windows 2000 and XP.

05.Security software

 

Security

Don’t even consider connecting to the internet without security software to protect your personal information and files. You don’t need to hand over large amounts of money to ensure your machine is secure; there are plenty of programs available on the internet that will offer a range of security and protection.

AVG Anti-Virus offers anti-virus protection, although the free version doesn’t include spyware, spam or firewall protection. It will scan files and programs as they’re opened and has automatic updates, but comes without technical support.

Spybot Search & Destroy logoSpybot Search & Destroy scans and removes spyware from your computer. It’s compatible with Windows operating systems and there are versions for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and smartphones that run the Windows Mobile or Symbian operating systems.

ZoneAlarm Basic is a free firewall program that monitors outgoing and incoming traffic through your computer to prevent viruses and other nasties from being unintentionally installed on your machine. The free version is buried within the site, however. Click on the Home & Home Office tab and follow the ZoneAlarm link to find the download window.

Find your own

There are hundreds of thousands of free applications, add-ons and programs available on the internet. They may not all work and some may contain spyware or other nasties, so it’s important to be cautious about what you download. Reputable download sites should scan software for adware and spyware and offer user recommendations to check their validity. And watch out for ‘sponsored’ links to software where the developer has paid to have the software listed.

www.download.com is one of the most popular sites for safe, free software downloads. The site features an extensive range of programs for both Windows and Mac, as well as some for smartphones and handheld computers.

http://fileforum.betanews.com describes each program and also includes information on the additions and features in each new version. It also has a download cart so you can collect multiple downloads, but you must register for this feature.

www.majorgeeks.com covers a huge range of software from antivirus and data recovery to office tools and security programs. There’s also a long list of new downloads updated daily on the front page.

Nonagshttp://nonags.com promotes itself as having free software that’s also safe to download. Each program has a description and rating, but you may need to register for some downloads.

www.snapfiles.com lists freeware, shareware, and free trial versions. Each program has a description, rating and screenshots.

www.topshareware.com offers free programs for business, software development, internet, multimedia and utilities. There are also other categories such as editor’s picks, recent downloads and essential programs for back-up and security.

www.tucows.com has Windows, Mac, Linux and handheld versions of software. The site presents programs in categories such as business, education and security.

www.voodoofiles.com lists its free software in games, multimedia, diagnostic, security and many other categories. It also lists new files available daily on the front page.