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30 Essential Pieces of Free (and Open) Software for Windows
We live in a golden age of computer software, where there are freely available software packages for almost any purpose. But isn’t there no such thing as a free lunch? Who makes free software, and why?
Some free software is the result of people simply writing programs that they find useful and sharing them with others. Some free software is ad-supported. Other free software packages are given away using the “freemium” model, which means the basic version is free with some advanced features available for paying customers. Still other free software packages are made available by large companies as enticement to get you to try their other software.
With these options and the easy access to software that the internet provides, there are tons of great software choices out there that you don’t have to pay a dime for.
What about malware?
One concern many people have with free software is malware. Malware can do any number of things to your computer, including identity theft and holding your files for ransom.
There are several simple steps you can take to avoid malware. First, only download software directly from the official app store of the platform you’re using or directly from a well-established software company. For Windows, the place to start is Windows Apps. You should also strongly consider an antivirus software package. At minimum, use Microsoft’s Defender, which is free with Windows.
Free software for Windows
What does it do? Online backup
Microsoft OneDrive is Microsoft’s online backup solution that’s integrated heavily with Windows. It includes 5 GB of storage for free. This is great for backing up important but not highly personal material, like digital photographs.
Alternate option: Dropbox Basic, http://www.dropbox.com/
What does it do? Web browser built for security
Although Windows comes with a built-in web browser, Mozilla Firefox is a great alternative as it’s designed from the bottom up for security. It blocks third party tracking cookies and social trackers by default, meaning advertisers keep their nose out of your web browsing as much as possible.
Alternate option: Google Chrome, https://www.google.com/chrome/
Windows Storage Sense
What does it do? Automatic junk file remover
Many software packages download things like web pages and extra files to your computer and then never delete them. Windows Storage Sense, which is already a part of many versions of Windows, automatically takes care of those excess files, maximizing the free space on your computer for files you actually care about — applications, photos and so on.
Alternate option: CCleaner, https://www.ccleaner.com/ccleaner
What does it do? Speeds up your hard drive
Over time, as you add more files and programs to your computer, they become internally disorganized. Think of a filing cabinet where new files are just stuffed at the front. Ultra Defrag organizes the “filing cabinet” under the hood of your computer, which will help speed up things like application launching and file searching.
Alternate option: Auslogics Disk Defrag Free, https://www.auslogics.com/en/software/disk-defrag/
What does it do? Video conferencing
When video conferencing between Windows computers, Skype does the job quite well for free without any significant limitations. While there are many packages in this category, Skype offers the best set of free features overall.
Alternate option: Zoom, https://zoom.us/
What does it do? Email
In terms of feature richness and ease of use for free, nothing beats Gmail. It offers a great, easy to use web interface that works well even with limited internet connectivity, good default spam filtering, and lots of advanced search and filtering features for when you need them.
Alternate option: Thunderbird (if you have a non-Gmail account you still want to use), https://www.thunderbird.net/en-US/
What does it do? File recovery
Have you ever deleted a file and then immediately regretted it? That’s what file recovery is for, and Recuva Free is the best free option available. Simply run the program and it will help you find and recover lots of recently deleted files.
Alternate option: Windows File Recovery, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/windows-file-recovery/
What does it do? Permanent file deletion
This solves the opposite problem of file recovery tools. You use this if you want a file permanently gone forever, without any chance of recovery. Think of it as the equivalent of a digital paper shredder.
Adobe Photoshop Express
What does it do? Image editing
This is a free version of the incredibly robust Adobe Photoshop image editing software. It contains lots of tools that make basic editing of pictures for personal use simple, such as cropping, resizing, rotating, and basic color correction.
Alternate option: GNU Image Manipulation Program, https://www.gimp.org/
What does it do? Maps and location images
Many of us use Google Maps or other mapping software on our phones for navigation. This is a more powerful free version of these tools for your computer, allowing you to easily see high-res images and create printable maps and turn-by-turn directions for places all around the globe.
Alternate option: Google Maps, http://maps.google.com
What does it do? Music listening
If you want an endless stream of music playing from your computer while you do other computer tasks or chores around the house, Spotify is a great choice. In its free version, it’s ad-supported and requires an internet connection, but it allows you to listen to literally millions of songs for free and lets you listen based on your favorite artists and genres.
Alternate option: Youtube Music, https://music.youtube.com/
What does it do? Notes you want to keep
A simple notes repository is incredibly useful. It lets you save things like project plans, recipes, ideas for the future, and gift lists with a simple drag-and-drop interface where you can just type where you’d like and pull in images and web pages quite easily.
Alternate option: Evernote, http://www.evernote.com/
What does it do? Document writing
Need to create a document or type out a letter to someone? Google Docs does this very efficiently and for free. It offers a ton of really easy formatting features and also enables easy sharing with others so you can work together on the document.
Alternate option: LibreOffice, https://www.libreoffice.org/
What does it do? Spreadsheets and calculations
Google Sheets is a great simple spreadsheet program that makes it easy for you to do things like make basic calculations and assemble a budget. If you’ve ever made financial plans, Google Sheets is a great tool to have in your arsenal.
Alternate option: LibreOffice, https://www.libreoffice.org/
What does it do? Presentations
If you ever need a great free tool for making a presentation to a community group or even in your workplace, Google Slides makes it very easy. It also can store your presentation in the cloud, so you can quickly present from any computer with internet access that’s attached to a larger screen.
Alternate option: LibreOffice, https://www.libreoffice.org/
Adobe Acrobat Reader
What does it do? Reading PDF files
PDFs are documents in a flexible file format that preserves the design and is readable on lots of platforms. Adobe Acrobat Reader allows you to access them.
Alternate option: Foxit Reader, https://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf-reader/
What does it do? Creation of PDF files
What if you have a document and you want to turn it into a PDF to send to a friend or colleague? That’s what PDFCreator does! It creates a “virtual printer” on your computer, so all you need to do to create a PDF is go to “print” and select PDFCreator as your printer.
Alternate option: CutePDF, https://www.cutepdf.com/
What does it do? Remote screen viewer
Ever struggled to get technical help from a friend or family member over the phone? TeamViewer can make it easy. It allows someone you choose to remotely access your computer and see what you see, making it easier for them to walk you through technical problems.
Alternate option: Screen Leap, https://www.screenleap.com/
What does it do? Password management and security
LastPass is a secure password manager for your computer. It helps you create complex unique passwords for each important website you use, then saves and encrypts them locally with your own master password, which is the only one you need to remember. LastPass Free works on a single device forever, but paid versions add a lot of features.
Alternate option: BitWarden, https://bitwarden.com/
VLC Media Player
What does it do? View video files
If you have an old video file from a camera you used 10 years ago, or a friend sends you a video clip in a strange format and you can’t play it… that’s what VLC Media Player is for. It will play almost any type of video file out there.
What does it do? Locate lost devices
Prey enables you to keep track of your digital devices, letting you know if your laptop, tablet or phone leaves a certain area or helping you locate it if you can’t find it. The free version enables you to keep an eye on three devices.
Alternate option: Cisco Meraki, https://meraki.cisco.com/form/systems-manager-signup
What does it do? Video editing
Shotcut is a free video editing tool that offers an enormous array of features, though there’s a bit of a learning curve. If you want to make some nice, well-produced videos, the time invested in learning Shotcut will really pay off, and you can’t argue with the price.
Alternate option: OpenShot, https://www.openshot.org/
What does it do? Digital calendar
Need to keep track of appointments and important dates? Google Calendar has everything you need, and it’s easy to use. You can also share your calendar with others.
Alternate option: Microsoft Outlook, https://outlook.live.com
What does it do? Listen to podcasts
Want to find, listen to and subscribe to podcasts without additional ads, for free? That’s what Grover Podcast does. You can find and subscribe to tons of free podcasts and listen to your heart’s content. The software will automatically download new episodes of your favorite podcasts for you, so there’s always something fresh to listen to.
Alternate option: Spotify, http://www.spotify.com/
What does it do? Personal finance and accounting
GnuCash is a very robust free personal finance software package that also has some basic accounting tools, enough for a very small business. If you want to put together a budget and analyze your expenses offline, this is the right tool for you.
Alternate option: Mint, http://www.mint.com/
What does it do? Project management
If you find yourself having to manage a complicated project, beyond what a calendar can really handle, consider using ClickUp. It’s a free, (relatively) simple project management tool that’s perfect for smaller projects.
Alternate option: MeisterTask Free, https://www.mindmeister.com/mt/
What does it do? Mind mapping and brainstorming
Many of us jot ideas down on paper, connect them with lines and circles and use that as the basis for a project or something we’re building. Miro does this digitally, and for free! You’re limited to three saved mind maps at a time in the free version, but you can restart any of them at any time, which makes it work just fine for personal use.
Alternate option: MindMeister Free, https://www.mindmeister.com/
What does it do? Drawing
If you’re interested in using your computer for drawing and art creation, take a look at Inkscape, which is an incredibly robust but free software package for computer-aided drawing.
What does it do? Desktop publishing
Need to create a fancy document that’s beyond what word processing programs can easily pull off? Scribus has what you need, for free. It’s got a bit of a learning curve, but if you want to create great documents and newsletters consistently, it’s well worth the effort.
Alternate option: Lucidpress, https://www.lucidpress.com/
What does it do? Audio recording
If you need to make an audio recording, such as a podcast episode or a voiceover for a video or simply reading a story aloud to a child or grandchild to be played later, Audacity is for you. It makes recording pretty simple and offers a ton of features for editing (so you can remove coughs and pauses).
Alternate option: Ocenaudio, https://www.ocenaudio.com/
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