Software on the Cheap (Free)
When an office or family buys a PC they get it back, set it up and then marvel at all the things they can do. Of course shortly after that moment the truth sets in when they realize those neat programs that came with their PC are trials versions that expire shortly after we figure out how to use them. You see unlike our car or TV, when you buy a computer it does not come with everything we need except power, we need programs to make it do what we want it to do.
However do not despair because over the years more and more free software has appeared. Now free used to mean limited trial or just plain crappy, with a few exceptions. Today however there is a lot of high quality free software that can easily fill your family or small business needs. If I where to make a list of the various programs that are offered you would be here reading all day. Instead below you will find a list and a link to the various programs I consider the best in each category.
Computer Protection: When you get that new PC one of the first things you should do is make sure it has protection on it from the malware that seems to be all over the internet. Most new PCs come with some form of protection pre-installed, this si fine but it is a trail and gives the user a false sense of security, one of the first things you should do is remove it and get full protection on your PC. The good news is that there are some great free solutions for doing this, my persona favorite is Microsoft Security Essentials. Not only is it free, it is also simple to use and does a great job of staying out of the way when using your computer. I have used this program on my home PCs and helped a lot of people set it up, and no one has been disappointed.
Productivity: Did you know that Microsoft Office is one of the most pirated programs in the world? The reason is simple, everyone uses it at the office and at school. The problem is the cost, well at least that is the argument given. I have over the years shown people alternatives that are free, most prominently Open Office, however I hear the same argument all the time that they do not want to mess with the compatibility. Well Microsoft has decided that more people need access to Office and introduced Office WebApps. You need to create a Live account and the program works in conjunction with Live Mail and Skydrive.
You have available a toned down version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that is 100% free and can be used anywhere you can get internet access. The programs store your documents using the SkyDrive system making them available wherever you are and with no need to worry about your system crashing causing you to lose files. It is completely compatible with the full version of Office so compatibility issues do not crop up. While not as powerful as the full version of Office it is a great alternative to piracy and fills the needs of families with ease. It can even handle light business work as well from my experience.
Photo Editing: This is an area that keeps growing in use when it comes to family PCs but also for business. A lot of companies use photos to record various aspects of their companies and sometimes need to edit them down for size to use on social networking sites or for reports. While basic functionality can be reached using Live Photo Gallery, some people want more than to crop and remove red eye or give basic touchups. For a more full featured package I suggest Paint.Net. There are other great programs out there but most of them come loaded with various trail software and load slowly, Paint.Net is clean and fast yet with enough power to handle pretty much any photo editing need.
Movie Making: Another area that is growing in the realm of the home and small business user is making of home of movies or presentations. Being able to take pictures, short videos and music or even a narrative and put them all together is something a lot of people are doing these days. It can be a compilation of home movies, an anniversary presentation, wedding memories, the family vacation or even an office project. For this there is nothing I found for free that beats Live Movie Maker, a part of the Live Essentials Package. This powerful little program makes it easy to create simple films, complete with transitions, special effects and sound and then put them on a DVD to give out. The really nice part is that when you get the Live Essentials package you also get instant messaging, basic photo management, a blog writer (like the one I am using), a good email client and more. So while the Movie Maker might be what we are after we get a more full featured packaged.
Entertainment: Now you might not expect this to be a category but I feel there is a need here. A lot of families use their PC for someone to enjoy music or even watch TV on. Again this is an area that is rife with piracy, most especially in music. However if you are using your PC to play music there are great free and legal alternatives. Right now I am torn between two different systems, Pandora and Grooveshark. Bother offer the ability to play the music you want to hear without being forced to pay money for every song you play. For video we are currently blessed with a wealth of options as many networks have started airing full episodes of their prime series. However the most comprehensive list can be found at Hulu. While each of these offer pay features I have found their free features can easily meet most peoples needs.
Gaming: Surely you did not think I work through this list and leave out computer gaming? The number of GOOD free games has grown a lot over the last year. One game I have seen played in a lot of home and a few offices is various forms of golf. Lets face it sometimes weather or life just gets in the way of enjoying some time on the greens and while playing on the computer might not be the same, it sure beats working. EA Sports decided to experiment and they have given us the excellent Tiger Woods Golf franchise for free with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. Played fully online there is little in the way of installed software and this also means you can play your round at the office during slow times and finish at home later in the evening. Of course you can also gather your buddies together and all do a round of golf together, not bad for a free game.
Perhaps you are a more “traditional” gamer, the MMO world continues to expand, provide better games and many of them are free. If you want to grab a sword or fire off a spell then Lord of the Rings Online is my preferred choice. Set in the rich world of Tolkien the game lets you see the famous landmarks you only got to read about in your youth. Maybe you want a simpler game that can engage the kids, then look no further than Wizard 101. A simple game system with amazing efforts to protect kids in the game system has made this an award winning MMO that continues to rank higher on the charts every year.
My personal choice for free gaming right now has been influenced by the movie industry and this summer of super heroes, Champions Online. I go back with Champions a LONG time, first starting to play the pen and paper version in late 1981. During the following years I played it off and on a lot and have some great memories including weekly gaming sessions with my friends and the founding of the super team, The Round Table. My character back then was called Blue Knight (think Iron Man with Stark not being a playboy). This all came back like it was yesterday as I played Champions Online and today I now defend Millennium City as the Blue Knight once again. A solid game system, good graphics that remind you of the old comics and just the plain fun of being a super hero makes this an awesome free choice.
I could keep listing programs all day long but I think you begin to get the idea, there is a lot of great free software out there. This is a small list and does not come close to covering all the options and choices but these are the programs I have found that use and enjoy the most. If you have a great free program you fee deserves notice be sure to add it as a comment to this post. In the mean time enjoy the truth of an old saying that I will paraphrase, “Many great things in life are free.”