Updated on 04.10.09

Nine Pieces of Free Software I Use Every Day

Trent Hamm

my mac barI spend hours each day at one of my two computers – either my desktop Mac (a Mac Mini – the most cost-effective type of Mac) or my Linux laptop. As a result, finding a core set of software to use for the things that I do every day is vital. Also important to me is that this software is cross-platform – I’d like to be able to run many of the same things on my Mac and on my laptop. I’m also pretty frugal, so I like to look for free software options.

After a lot of searching and a ton of trials of different pieces of software, I’ve found nine pieces of free software (both open-source and otherwise) that I use every day on both my Mac and for Linux – and all of these are available for Windows as well. With only a few little exceptions, these software packages are the only ones I use during a given day. I will also say that in many cases, I have donated to the creators of the software – my belief is that you should support what you actually use, and I certainly do use these pieces of software.

Let’s dig in!


My web browser is my primary tool, and Firefox is unquestionably the best option available to me for cross-platform use. It’s stable, fast, and runs every web application and web site that I need without a bit of worry. (Yes, I’m aware that Opera is an excellent browser as well – I just haven’t felt a compelling reason to switch.)

If you’re still using Internet Explorer, I beg you – give Firefox a try. Fewer security issues, fewer popups, and fewer hassles all around.

Key web applications I use through Firefox include Instapaper (a nifty way to save things I want to read later), Evernote (keeping notes; see below), Remember the Milk (checklists), Gmail (email), and GCal (calendars). I keep these sites on the bookmark bar on both my Mac and on my laptop, so the tools I need are available in both places


I use Evernote for pretty much all my text editing, not only on my Mac and my laptop, but on my iPod Touch as well and also on my parents’ Windows PC. Evernote is basically just a tool to keep notes synchronized across computers. You create a new note, save it, and then you can see it (and edit it) on any other computer with a web browser. Even better, notes can be little pieces of text, web clippings, voice recordings, or pictures. My notes are a mix of post ideas, things to think about, post drafts, and tons of other things – I literally have hundreds of notes at any given moment.

So why do I list this as a separate application? On Macs and Windows PCs, you can download a separate piece of software that allows you to do the same thing much more cleanly and offline, so that I can continue to edit notes and add new ones if the internet is out. When I’m on my Mac, I use the desktop client – when I’m on my laptop or any other computer, I use the website.

iTunes and Juice
http://www.apple.com/itunes/ and http://juicereceiver.sourceforge.net/

Listening to music isn’t that big of a deal – I have a pile of mp3s on both computers, but I often listen to radio stations via the web browser. My big concern is podcasts (for those unfamiliar, podcasts are basically short “talk radio”-style programs you can listen to whenever you want) – I listen to a number of podcasts and I like to be able to access them anywhere.

On my Mac (and on Windows, too), I use iTunes for this. It’s incredibly easy to just browse the podcasts available on iTunes, pick the ones you want, and iTunes will just download them for you so you can listen to them as you please. On Linux, I use Juice for much the same effect, though it’s a bit more difficult. I usually find interesting podcasts on my Mac, then subscribe to them later using Juice. This lets me listen to the podcasts I enjoy wherever I am.


I use Skype for both voice chatting (i.e., telephone calls) and video conferences with friends and family on both my Mac and my laptop. You can do this for free to other Skype users or make unlimited calls to phone numbers in the US and Canada (plus an hour’s worth of international calls) for just $2.95 a month. Videoconferencing works like a charm with Skype, which has been essential for some of my work-related opportunities, plus it’s fun to talk to family using it so they can see the kids and so on. It costs nothing if you do this with other Skype users – talk about a good deal!

I waxed ecstatic about Skype in the past – while it hasn’t replaced our phone service as of yet, I use it much more than our normal phone service at this point.


I’m a Twitter addict. I don’t tweet that much myself, but I follow a small handful of people and love to dive into random conversations on topics that interest me. You can do Twitter via their website, but I often find it cumbersome to do this kind of thing, plus it’s easy to get massively overloaded with people who update too much.

So, I’ve been trying out Twitter clients that help with those problems, and the best one I’ve found (by far) is Tweetdeck. The big feature is “grouping” – I can define my own groups of people on Twitter and just pay attention to that group, like “Personal Friends” or “Interesting Thinkers” or “Fellow Money Bloggers.” This lets me follow certain sets of people closely without getting flooded with minutiae too much. I can also easily search Twitter for topics of interest, browse through conversations on those topics, and dig into conversations to my heart’s content. Yep, I’m a Twitter addict – and Tweetdeck makes it very easy to do what I like.


Quite often, I need to edit and share documents with friends. I also use spreadsheets to keep track of my money, plus I use presentation software as I begin to engage in speaking opportunities. For most people, this means ponying up for Microsoft Office, but OpenOffice does all that for free – and it works almost identically on my Mac and on Linux (and on my parents’ PC).

OpenOffice includes document creation, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, basic drawing tools, and lots of other little bits – and it doesn’t cost a penny.


I’ve been experimenting with podcast recording for a while now, trying to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. At times, I’ve recorded at my desk and on my laptop using a USB microphone. In both cases, I’ve found that Audacity does everything I need to do – I can edit pieces together, add music snippets, move pieces around, record from the mic, and it all just works.

I tried using GarageBand on my Mac, but it often felt like using an elephant gun when a peashooter would do the trick. Other solutions I tried crashed or had stability issues. Audacity just does the trick whether I’m at home or on the road.


What is Freemind? Freemind is basically a workspace where you can jot down little pieces of ideas, connect them together, and organize them really easily. I use this whenever I’m trying to figure out how to organize my ideas for a complex post. Where it is really shining right now, though (and I’m using it a lot lately), is for putting together the basic framework for my next book. I can just take little ideas (keywords or phrases) and move them around in groupings and connections however I wish.

Freemind makes all of this easy. If you’re trying to put together a complex idea, it can be truly invaluable. Better yet, it works on tons of different platforms – I use it on both of my machines and I’ve used it on PCs in the past. If you do creative work or are dealing with a large project, give it a shot.


BOINC? BOINC doesn’t really do anything, but it runs more than any other program on both of my computers. To put it simply, BOINC takes your unused computer cycles and contributes them to large research projects, like SETI@home or protein folding. For example, when I’m working, I’m usually not using much of my computer’s processing power – text editing doesn’t really eat up the processor, you know. So I keep BOINC running, and it uses those wasted resources and puts them toward a good cause. It’s a way to be charitable with something you would otherwise completely waste. I run it constantly on my Mac and (when I think of it) on my laptop when it’s plugged into a wall socket.

BOINC keeps track of your progress and lets you see your contributions to whatever projects you choose (I usually contribute to SETI@home). It’s kind of fun to look at the data I’ve helped to analyze and realize that I’m helping a large scientific project go forward – and it only costs me a few pennies in electricity.

One final note… one free application I used almost constantly for Windows was Digsby. It allowed me to keep track of updates on every instant messaging service I use, most of the social networking websites (like Facebook and Twitter), and emails, too. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available for Mac and Linux, so I’m still waiting… but for all you Windows users, this one’s great.

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  1. J says:

    Firefox also has many, many useful add-ons that will let you customize the browser to make it work how you want. My personal favorites:

    IE Tab (lets you load pages that gripe about IE be loaded in a tab (Windows only, though))

    All-in-one Gestures (use mouse gestures for browsing — once you get used to it, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t figured this out sooner)

    Adblock Plus with an updater (I use Filterset.G, there are others). Load pages quickly without ads. No more punch-the-monkey and other annoyances.

    Firefox also has a great pop-up blocker, anti-phishing and a great password manager built in. IE is such a steaming pile compared to it, it’s not even funny. I try to avoid using it whenever possible, although some applications I use require it :(

  2. 4 for 9 on the every day. 5 for 9 when you include Skype which I don’t use often. Love FF, hate iTunes (but use it), addicted to Tweetdeck, and use OO and nothing else.

    Firefox addons are fantastic. I’m using Chrome for 60% of my internet browsing though, the speed is fantastic. IE is a pinto, FF is a Camry V6, Chrome is a Ferrari.

  3. Oh I forgot, I also run Folding@Home out of Stanford.

  4. leslie says:

    I recommend TwitterGadget for your customized Google page (google.com/ig). I just could not handle the TweetDeck interface at all.

    I also want to mention Meebo.com for web-based instant messaging and Mibbit.com for a web-based irc client.

  5. Arvin says:

    OpenOffice, even at 3.0, is horrendous (slow, buggy, especially the spreadsheet app) on the Mac, I found out after having been a huge PC OO advocate.

    That being said, NeoOffice is OO specifically made for the mac, and runs silky smooth and exactly as it does on the PC.

  6. Stephen Waits says:

    Running BOINC isn’t free. Do the math, you might be surprised what you’re paying to run it.

  7. liv says:

    i love skype.

  8. Bill in Houston says:

    I got Windows Explorer for free with my operating system. In addition you don’t need Evernote either if you’re a Windows user. Windows has had an option called Briefcase since Windows 95. Right-click on your desktop in a blank area, select New and select Briefcase. Set one up on your main machine. When done you can either drag it to a memory stick or set up another on another machine. You synchronize them. Neat tool. I’ve been using it for years.

    On the other hand, Freemind sounds like a great little tool. I’ll research it. Since I’m writing a book (science fiction, not finance) the text file I’m using to gather ideas is a bit clunky.

  9. Candi says:

    Wow to be as young as I am, I don’t use any of those. First, I simply don’t need to do most of those things online and don’t want to. Second, I used firefox many years ago and did not like it at all. Has it gotten better?

  10. Zach B. says:

    There are a large number of geeks that will be surprised to discover that some of those programs are free software. But I’m not fighting Richard Stallman’s battles for him.

    I use all of those suggested except iTunes and Freemind, the latter of which I shall check out. I think these lists are great to get in front of the general public so they can see that quality software doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag.

  11. Dan says:

    Trent, you don’t need Digsby. Try Adium.

  12. ann says:

    If you like Firefox, you’ll love Chrome. It’s slicker, faster and more intuitive. It’s not available for Mac yet, but it has totally changed the way I navigate the Web on my PC.

  13. Jake says:

    Microsoft’s Office Live Workspace is another very useful free tool for securing document storage and sharing. Like the sixth entry in this list, it makes sharing files very simple, allowing you to give permission to others of your choosing to access the files that have been stored in your online workspace. This makes group editing and reviewing of documents easy and possible to do without meeting up in person.

    Check it out: http://www.officelive.com

    – Jake,

    MSFT Office Live Outreach Team

  14. All terrific choices.

    I find myself using Google Voice more than I use Skype.

    I tried using Freemind over the years, to no avail. I find that XMind – also free and multi-platform – is far more usable.

    Tweetdeck is terrific client. On the Mac, I find that Nambu is a strong contender and that Pwitter is a pleasure to use if you don’t need grouping. For web-based clients, I’ll agree with @leslie and endorse TwitterGadget in iGoogle; after you fiddle with the settings a bit and figure out its clicking and shortcut conventions, it becomes an astonishingly good web-client. The PowerTwitter extension for Firefox also makes the actual http://twitter.com site very usable!

  15. spritemv says:

    If you have a fairly power-hungry processor, won’t BOINC run up your electricity bill quite a bit?

  16. Kim K says:

    My favorite freebie is Pandora. It also works in the iPhone. Go to http://www.Pandora.com, set up an account and add a few bands that you like. Each band will end up as it’s own radio station. Then from there they will play songs of the similar genre. It’s a great way to find new bands that you never heard of. You can always find a song to listen to and it’s always free. We haven’t had to buy any songs from iTunes because of Pandora.

    Since it works on the iPhone, as long as we have 3G coverage, we use that for our radio station.

  17. G says:

    I second what Stephen Waits says about running BOINC.

  18. Mats says:

    Have you tried Podcatcher? It´s included on every new mac running OS X 10.5 Leopard.

    Podcatcher makes it a childs play to record and put a podcasts online.

  19. JF says:

    As said above BOINC is going to cost you a lot in electricity, probably more than you think.

  20. kevinf says:

    Have you tried gnucash? I’ve been using it for about two years now, and I love it.

    There is a steep learning curve, because you have to understand some concepts of double entry accounting.

    I’ve never tried MS Money or Quicken, so I can’t compare them.

    Also, I enter every transaction by hand, so I don’t know if it downloads transactions easily or not.

  21. candylover says:

    Instead of skype, my family uses Yahoo Messenger. It has video and voice capabilities, so we can chat and see each other the same as Skype.

  22. Meghan says:

    I’ve heard about Digsby and FreeMind elsewhere, but you’ve convinced me to finally give them a try. The former might help me reconnect with old friends, while the latter may help me to get my first novel rolling.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

  23. Jerry says:

    I disagree that running any of the distributed computing software costs a lot in extra electricity. Shutting down Folding@home dropped my watt meter reading 20 watts. My computer is on roughly 4 hours a day:
    20 watts times 4 hours = 80 watts times 365 days = 29200 watts a year, divided by 1000 = 29.2Kwh times US$0.11536 (my current bill’s charge for electricity) = US$3.37 I think that’s a small price to pay a year for the future potential of lives saved.

  24. Anitra Smith says:

    If you like Digsby, you should try Adium on your Mac.

  25. Celia says:

    Awesome list! I just found out about Audacity myself. It’s definitely a great program, and it’s very easy to use. I think I’m going to check out FreeMind.

  26. Mike Dunham says:

    +1 for FreeMind. I use it for lots of stuff – website layouts, program whiteboarding, discovery plans in legal cases, you name it. I have one huge map for my house – each room is its own node, and then various projects are listed by room. I’ve never deleted any project – just put a “check” icon next to the ones that are done – I get a kick out of seeing how much I’ve accomplished in the time I’ve lived here.

  27. Mario says:

    6/9! Fortunately, I was able to buy Office Ultimate for less than $60 while I was a student a year ago, and that’s turned out to be a godsend. I have no use for Audacity or Boinc. Other than that, great list!

  28. Swaroop C H says:

    I would highly recommend XMind ( http://www.xmind.net ) over Freemind. It’s a lot more pleasant as well as cross-platform.

  29. Wide Moat says:

    Thanks for the post. Evernote sounds useful for creative work, and I’ll give it a try.

  30. Sierra says:

    Cool! I recently got hooked on Twitter too, and am eager to try Tweetdeck.

    My current favorite free software toy is Todoist.

  31. Great list, I would throw in Gimp, which is a personal favorite of mine to share. Forget about paying for Photoshop, Gimp does it all for free,

  32. JamesH says:

    Obligatory Gmail
    Google Docs
    Google Bookmarks (means multiple PC’s and no need for a Portable USB (preferred notebook))
    (No I’m not a Google ‘fanboi’, but would definitely be stuck without it)
    Hand Brake and DVD Video Soft Ripper
    DVD Video Soft You tube to mp3 (try and use vidtomp3.com most of the time)
    CADemia and Sketchup for work
    Video Thang

  33. those are some good ones listed. Sadly, I only use a few of those (skype and FF daily for business). I am downloading open office to give a try on a spare laptop. Thanks for posting this list!

    Malwarebytes Anti-malware is one freebie you should add to the list. Twice now, this thing has caught a virus that Norton missed. And I pay for Norton! Malwarebytes also have very low false-positive results, takes up very little space and is constantly updated. And its freeeeee!

  34. Adam Bavier says:

    For a free online photo editor check out http://www.pixlr.com It is very fast, and you can open files directly off your computer and save them directly to your computer. They have both a simple editor and one more like Photoshop. I found this site the other week and have got good use out of it.

    Try the Gimp if you are looking for a photo editing application to keep on your computer.

  35. Megan says:

    Trent, I am interested in who your “interesting thinkers” are.

    I would put in that group @chrisguillebeau, @modite and @ElasticMind

  36. Jeff says:

    Second for Meebo.com! I never log into IM clients anymore. All my logins in one place. AIM, Yahoo, MSN, gmail/jabber – even facebook and myspace now! I use it every day, and can access it from any browser. Meebo even has a firefox plugin (more features) and a notifier that turns meebo into something like a desktop client. I highly recommend it!

  37. Jeremy says:

    Firefox is great when it is working, currently it crashes on every scripting error and doesn’t run flash correctly on the Linux operating system. This forces me to use Opera which doesn’t compare to Internet Explorer or Firefox when the applications are working correctly. I run Ubuntu on a dual boot with Windows XP Pro and Ubuntu is a great operating system. I only use windows for QuickBooks Pro (I paid for) and Sibelius (which I paid for) that I do not plan to replace.

  38. rob says:

    love the list.
    recent news – evernote now has twitter support.
    when worlds collide…

  39. Janine says:

    Very interesting. Did you see that mint.com featured you? http://www.mint.com/blog/

    I thought I would share that.

  40. Helix says:

    I downloaded audacity a while ago because I record concerts (with band permission) and share with friends (also with band permission… in fact I owe several artists some promised CDs). I had trouble getting long files separated into tracks… guess I need to play with it a little more, especially now that I have a DAT recorder. :)

  41. DrGail says:

    Great suggestions, everyone! I know have a “shopping” list to check out.

    I’ve been using Firefox for quite a while and have been very happy with it. My two favorite add-ons are StumbleUpon and CoolPreviews.

    StumbleUpon takes you to interesting websites nominated by other users. You set it up by choosing categories that interest you, then all you need to do is hit the StumbleUpon button to visit some website that you probably would never have encountered otherwise.

    CoolPreviews makes surfing a breeze. Any link on any webpage can be opened in a smaller window overlaying the original page. (Think picture-in-picture) It takes some time to get up to speed with it, but it is really a Godsend.

  42. Elizabeth says:

    As far as music players are concerned, you do have two options.

    Option 1: Run iTunes with Wine (winehq.org). For those who don’t know, Wine is a program that allows Windows programs to be run on Linux computers. Fairly easy to do.

    Option 2: Songbird (getsongbird.com), which is an open source cross between iTunes and Firefox. This program runs on all three platforms (Windows, Mac and Linux).

    (I do realize that there are hundreds of other musicplayers for free, however, I do really like Songbird because there is little to no learning curve if you know how to use iTunes and Firefox.)

  43. William Gerald says:


    Beginning to look forward to your emails . . . as opposed to most.

    I also use, enjoy and recommend Audacity for audio projects and am trying to learn more about podcasting.

    Your mention:”At times, I’ve recorded at my desk and on my laptop using a USB microphone.” leads me to a question.

    I would like to invest in a moderately good and reasonably priced microphone and wondered if you have found something that would fit in that category? Would appreciate any suggestions and/or comparisons you might offer. So many podcasts that I have seen or heard online have less than stellar sound quality and this tends to diminish the overall listening/viewing experience.

    Finally, do you have any podcasts online?

    Thanks again for your insightful content, keep up the good work.

  44. Jim Wang says:

    Just a few comments.

    @Jerry – the folding software does cost a lot of money in electricity. Most modern computers have power management – so that if you’re not using maximum CPU, it sucks down much less energy. Since I have a four core CPU, I noticed it quite a bit when I stopped running BOINC. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CPU_power_dissipation)

    And I can’t stand iTunes. It’s bloatware. I have to use it because of my iPod touch, but it should not take 70 megs and 5 seconds of startup time for an audio player. Check out winamp.

  45. Kris says:

    Great list, and many of these applications have a portable version as well that you can put on a flash drive and use on any computer.

    @ Kevinf: I also use gnuCash and prefer it over MS Money or Quicken. I don’t think the importing of bank statements is as easy though so I don’t use it, but I prefer the “by hand” method so I can reconcile at the same time.

    I also agree with adding Gimp to the list.

  46. verbal says:

    I definitely second the recommendation of Adium for a mac application that does multi-protocol chatting.

  47. Kate says:

    > I beg you – give Firefox a try.

    Just wondering why you’re ‘begging’ people to try Firefox. If it’s a great product, then no begging is required.

  48. Deborah says:

    I thought you needed to purchase a license for Open Office (or any other open software) if you’re using it for commercial purposes.

  49. Kiri says:

    So I keep BOINC running, and it uses those wasted resources and puts them toward a good cause.

    Knowing your frugal leanings… it’s more accurate to describe the resources as “idle” rather than as “wasted”. Your CPU may not be running at 100% usage, but to get it up there, it has to consume more power. So by running BOINC to consume the idle cycles, you are also running up your power bill. If you have a Kill-a-Watt or other metering device, you might try monitoring your computer with and without BOINC running, and see how much total power is used over, say, a day. Depending on your own use of the machine, the difference may or may not be substantial, but you probably want to be aware of it.

  50. Kiri says:

    I just noticed that others have also pointed this out. :)

  51. Jacqui says:

    I can’t believe you’re not hooked on Adium yet. Multi-protocol rules. But big props to my fellow RIT alums for coming up with Digsby. My PC classmates used to be so jealous of my Adium (it’s been around for years), but now they’ve got a great program of their own and it’s my turn to be jealous ;)

  52. Rob says:

    Fantastic list!!!!! Too much to download to my mac in on night!

  53. Jerry says:

    @Jim Wang (comment #44), Trent runs a Mac Mini and a laptop for his computing needs. Together they probably eat less power than a Quad Core desktop.
    My desktop with Folding@home running and the monitor in standby mode pulls 129 watts. I could leave it running 24/7 and the total cost (assuming 11cents a Kwh) for a year would be $124.30 or Thirty-four cents a day. I give more than that to charity on a regular basis. As I noted in my earlier comment my computer is on roughly 4 hours a day and I’m generally using it during that time. So for me and others that don’t leave the computer on for long periods of time when not in use, the contention that distributed computing “costs a lot” is inaccurate.
    Do you leave your computer on 24/7? If yes, why?

    Kiri (comment #48) mentioned getting a Kill-a-watt meter to see how much power your computer is using. They cost roughly US$30 (I bought mine at Harbor Freight on sale for $19.99) and can save you more than that in a month just by learning what appliances/gadgets are using power even when you think they are off.

  54. Dylan says:

    I agree with the above poster, get Adium. It’s a fantastic free IM client that interfaces with all of the major IM services, and many that I haven’t even heard of. Just get it, it works great, is frequently updated, and is very customizable.

  55. Jake J says:

    You can’t forget to include Ubuntu. It includes many of the aforementioned programs, and it is a great free operating system. I have used it to bring life back into old PCs – definitely a money saver.

  56. Mabute says:

    Some of my fave freebies are: yahoo answers http://answer.yahoo.com

    climarks, xmarks, and although not a freeby, you can try fo thirty days: ad muncher. works with all browsers and systems. my pages look so blank now w/o all them adds and other things it blocks.

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