April 21, 2010
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time online, you’ve undoubtedly come across lots of free software. But figuring out whether it’s any good—or even if it’s available for your computer, if you use a Mac or Linux machine—can be a challenge. Sometimes it may seem easier to just go and (gasp) pay for what you want.
Step away from your wallet! Times are tight for everyone, so there’s no need to resort to something so drastic. Regardless of which OS you use, the 35 utilities and productivity programs we’ve found will give you capabilities that rival—and in some cases surpass—what you can get from commercial software. And all you’ll have to sacrifice are a few minutes of download and install time.
We’re not counting truly ubiquitous apps like Adobe Reader or Skype, or traditional Web browsers like Firefox, Chrome, and Opera here—you probably already know about all those anyway. Also, we’ll let you know if any of the software has a mobile component that you can run on your smartphone, or whether it is “portable” and can be run from a USB drive.
If you notice that we’ve missed one of your favorite Windows–Mac–Linux apps, let us know about it in the comments. Otherwise, start downloading—no matter what your computer and OS of choice.
This open-source tool sets the bar for what you can do with audio for free. It can record anything you play on your computer and edit it in ways you can’t conceive of until you start playing around. Limitations, such as no native MP3 export, are overcome by free plug-ins. If you want to podcast or mix music on the cheap, Audicity is what you need. (Read a full review of Audacity 1.2 on PCMag.com.)
Open-source tools for making animated movies that rival anything out of Hollywood server farms? Yes, it’s possible with Blender—and a metric ton of hard work and talent. If you lack the latter, you can still play with Blender’s serious modeling, shading, animating, and rendering tools—even if you end up creating only a 3D stick figure.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program is the ultimate open-source alternative to Photoshop; in fact it can handle just about any professional image editing and creation tasks asked of it, at a price anyone can afford. You shouldn’t expect everything you get from Adobe’s behemoth, but you’ll be amazed at how much you can do. There’s a separate download site if you want GIMP 2.6 for Mac OS X. (Read a full review of GIMP 2.4.7 on PCMag.com.)
There are lots of free bitmap editors and even 3D programs, but what about vector graphics? If you’re looking for Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw on the cheap, check out the open-source equivalent Inkscape, which uses the open Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format for files. Check out some of the possibilities you can create with Inkscape in the Open Clip Art Library.
The open-source office software suite that includes all the tools you find in expensive off-the-shelf products like those from Microsoft, OO.o (as it’s known in shorthand) does Microsoft one better by supporting all operating systems. Furthermore, OpenOffice.org does just about everything you can imagine in an office suite (including extras like math and drawing applications), it works with MS Office files, and it has one amazing über-feature: It’s free for everyone, all the time, for any purpose. Period. (Read a full review of OpenOffice.org 3.2 on PCMag.com.)
The flip-book animation of the modern age is on the computer. Open-source Pencil makes it simple for any hand-drawing 2D animator, beginner or experienced, to get going on some future Oscar winners.
Dropbox is the epitome of a set-it-up and let-it-go service. Install it on any desktop or laptop computer and all the files in your Dropbox folder appear on all systems (or on a friend’s if you share a folder). It’s free for up to 2GB of data you sync, and that’s data you can access on your iPhone or via the Web, too. (Read a full review of Dropbox on PCMag.com.)
Google Desktop 5
Why can’t searches of your local hard drives be as effective as Googling the Web? With Google Desktop, they can be, as the software indexes your data files to find things fast. It then incorporates the results into search results from the Web. You’ll never go back to your OS’s built-in search tools.
Now that it’s added Mac OS support to its mix, Launchy now can be the ultimate application launcher no matter what your operating system. It helps to know a little bit about what’s under the hood of your OS, but if you do, this nifty and skinnable open-source keystroke launcher can speed up your computing in a big way.
If you use multiple operating systems, you’ve likely wished you could access files on them all in the same manner. Try muCommander. Written in Java, it looks the same on all OSes: a simple dual-pane explorer-type app that handles file compression and comes in 23 languages.
SpiderOak provides 2GB of free online storage that backs up in the background. It also offers Linux support and promises “100 percent zero-knowledge privacy.”
You can get more features with a full commercial virtualization program like VMware or Parallels, but try to beat the price of VirtualBox, which lets you run just about any other operating system you can imagine within any other OS. They all have to support x86 chips. Shared folders mean you can access the same files on the host OS or the virtual OS; the same goes for USB devices.
The client software for the BitTorrent protocol, which makes sharing a breeze, is not as good as its competition, but it still sports fast performance across all OSes. (Read a full review of BitTorrent on PCMag.com.)
As ebooks get more popular, you need a way to keep track of them all. Calibre is gaining thousands of users each month doing just that. It sorts ebooks by title, author, rating, and more, plus you can tag them as you like. It will convert ebook formats (so you can make EPUB or PDF files from MOBI and TXT, or vice versa). It will even sync with some ebook readers if you don’t use the built-in viewer to read on your computer screen.
Travel the galaxy with this planetarium software, which uses an “exponential zoom feature” to make traveling through the stars seamless no matter the scale. If the package doesn’t include the stars and celestial objects you desire, there’s every chance an add-on in The Celesita Motherlode will.
Google Earth 5.0
This is so much more than just Google Maps in a desktop app. Earth is a virtual exploration app that lets you explore not just the surface of the planet, but also the ocean floor and the sky. Google Earth can even take you on a quick trip to Mars, or back in time via historical satellite images. (Read a full review of Google Earth 5.0 on PCMag.com.)
Got a DVD you want to back up to your hard drive (which you’ll only do if you own it so it’s legal, right)? The open-source and cross-platform Handbrake will do this for you on any OS. What’s more, it can convert video from the DVD, or any other digital video on your hard drive, into other formats more useful for playback.
Version 2.5 of Miro stresses that it’s an open-source HD video player and podcast collector; it gathers new episodes of shows instantly. Miro pulls HD versions when available, even from sites like YouTube, and a BitTorrent client and RSS reader is built in. Because it can download the videos it manages and plays, with Miro you can take your shows on the road when you don’t have Internet access.
Wishing you had iTunes for your non-Apple smartphone? Organizing audio for these devices is just one of Songbird’s better features. It will play just about any music format, and even will play music embedded on a Web page; Songbird will even handle DRM files from iTunes by hooking into QuickTime. And it organizes everything in an iTunes-esque interface that’s easy to understand.
VLC media player 1.0.5
No-frills video and audio playback on any OS that works with just about any media format you can imagine (including DVD but not Blu-ray)? That’s what VLC media player is all about. It can even stream media, both live from a mic or Webcam, or using pre-recorded files. VideoLAN’s Wiki will take you through this programs powerful feature set. (Read a full review of VLC media player 1.0.5 on PCMag.com.)
This multiprotocol IM client is one we once loved, and still like (see the review for particulars) It’s especially noteworthy because it was among the first to deeply integrate social networking with IMs by including access to updates from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace. It even includes e-mail, such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail, as well as POP3 and IMAP accounts. It’s nicely customizable in appearance, too. (Read a full review of Digsby on PCMag.com.)
The self-described “social Web browser” is built on the same underpinnings as Firefox, but it gets its social on by integrating with sites and services—most recently, Twitter and Facebook.
Another project of Mozilla Labs, Lightning is technically an extension for the Thunderbird e-mail software. And what an add-on it is, providing full calendaring support with a task list. You can even sync it with your Google Calendar.
It’s been the best desktop alternative to Outlook for a long time. Version 3 of Mozilla’s e-mail and RSS news reader adds a new feature to the interface: tabs (just like in Firefox). And, of course, it’s always supported cool extensions. It’s not for businesses, but for everyone else eschewing Web-based email, it’s the best choice. (Read a full review of Thunderbird 3 on PCMag.com.)
If you want to handle all your webmail on your desktop along with a POP/IMAP account or two, Zimbra gives you an Outlook-esque interface from which to do so. Set up all of your accounts and it will handle messages, plus contacts, calendars, and more.
Because it uses Adobe Air, TweetDeck runs on all the major desktop OSes, using the same popular, multi-column interface to show off Twitter (plus Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace) updates. You can even access multiple Twitter accounts and keep track of hot trending topics and manage your Twitter lists. Your TweetDeck column setup can be synced across multiple PCs and even to the iPhone app for backup.
Though it looks like Outlook, Chandler is all about keeping track of the notes, to-do lists, and meetings in your future.
Data Crow 3.8.11
It calls itself the “ultimate cataloger” of media; behind the claim is the fact that Data Crow handles a wide variety digital data, tracking music, books, images, video, and even software titles and your contact list. Data Crow runs on any system that supports Java.
We once mistakenly called this a Mozilla project because of its name. It’s not. This free FTP client software started as a computer science project in 2001 and blossomed into an open-source staple.
A mind map is like a flowchart/illustration/diagram of all the words, ideas, and pictures you can imagine as you brainstorm new ideas. Mind mapping software, such as FreeMind, helps get those ideas down before they slip away. It’s written in Java, so it runs on all OSes, providing an interface similar to an outline on steroids to track whatever you insert as you think think think.
Security expert Neil J. Rubenking says LastPass has almost every feature of the competition (like auto-filling in browser forms), as well as a few unique tricks of its own. Your info is stored securely online, so you can share it across operating systems (and, if you’re willing to pay a $1 a month, with your mobile smartphone) and integrate with multiple Web browsers (IE, Firefox, and Chrome at the moment, plus Safari on the Mac). (Read a full review of LastPass on PCMag.com.)
Small open-source app PosteRazor takes images from a variety of file types, rasterizes them to enlarge them without pixelation, and formats them for printing out in large formats, so that you can physically stitch them together as a poster. This could be the secret to printing a billboard of that embarrassing picture of your sister.
Sweet Home 3D 2.3
This interior design app lets you build a 2D view of your home’s floor plan, with 2D representations of furniture. Then, Sweet Home 3D gives you a 3D preview of what the room will look like. It’s better than making a friend help you move a couch around to find the perfect spot.
Open-source TrueCrypt creates a virtual disk for your most important data, which it then encrypts. Or you can just encrypt an entire drive or partition, even the one on which your OS is installed. The strength is AES-256 and it’s automatic, happening in real-time when files are saved.
When it comes to image viewing and converting, we love IrfanView, but XnView goes a little farther by supporting more operating systems. It, arguably, has a prettier interface for converting the 400+ graphic file formats it supports.