30 Essential Pieces Of Free (and Open) Software for Windows

Recently, I received a fresh new laptop from Dell. Upon receiving it, I did the traditional “installation of Windows from scratch” on it to remove a lot of the garbage that is preinstalled on Dells. Then I got really busy installing tons of great software that takes care of pretty much every software need I have. Not only was all of the software free, every piece of it was open source, which means that the code is peer-reviewed; no spyware here!

What follows is a list of thirty pieces of software that are the cream of the crop of open source software for Windows. Not only is every piece of it free, almost all of them directly replace expensive software packages.

Now, if only there were an open version of The Sims 2, I might go the whole way and switch to Linux…

In this article

    Thirty Free and Open Software Programs Worth Downloading

    Firefox logo

    1. Firefox

    Replaces Internet Explorer
    If you haven’t switched to Firefox for your web browsing needs, do it now. It stops annoying popups and it has tons of amazing plugins that can make surfing the web even better. I could evangelize all day about Firefox, but one thing’s for sure: the first thing I do on any new Windows machine is run Internet Explorer just long enough to download Firefox.

    2. Thunderbird

    Replaces Microsoft Outlook or Eudora
    Thunderbird is an email client that has five big things going for it: it’s free, it’s full featured, it’s lightweight and runs quick, it has an unparalleled spam filter, and it protects you from those ridiculous phishing attacks by clearly indicating which emails send you to a bogus website. If you’re not already using a web-based email solution, Thunderbird should be your client.

    3. Sunbird

    Replaces Microsoft Outlook’s calendaring functions
    Might as well get the Mozilla trifecta out of the way by mentioning Sunbird, which is the Mozilla Foundation’s calendaring program. It’s extremely easy to use (I figured out everything I needed in a minute or two) and easy to share your calendar with others. I consider a calendaring tool to be essential if you’re using a laptop, and this is no different.

    4. Abiword

    Replaces Microsoft Word
    Want a good word processor but find Microsoft Word too expensive? AbiWord is my favorite replacement for Word. It’s lightweight (meaning it runs quickly) and includes pretty much every feature that I use regularly in a word processor, plus it can save files in formats that you can exchange with Word and WordPerfect users, plus open any of their files, too.

    OpenOffice logo

    5. OpenOffice

    Replaces Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint
    If you want to replace the rest of the Office suite, your best bet is OpenOffice. It includes very nice replacements for Excel and PowerPoint (and workable replacements for Access and other Office elements). In fact, I actually prefer their Excel and PowerPoint replacements to the real thing.

    6. ClamWin

    Replaces Norton AntiVirus or McAfee
    ClamWin is a slick anti-virus software that’s quite easy to manage and is unobtrusive while keep your system free of viruses. That’s pretty much all I want from a package, so why pay money for McAfee to keep bugging me all the time?

    Gaim logo

    7. Gaim

    Replaces AIM, Windows Messenger, etc.
    This is a very clean instant messaging program that allows you to be on AOL Instant Messenger, Windows (MSN) Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger simultaneously with one program. There are other free packages that do this, but Gaim is stable and clean and simple.

    8. BitTorrent

    Original but essential
    From their website, “BitTorrent is a peer-assisted, digital content delivery platform that provides the fastest, most efficient means of distributing, discovering, and consuming large, high-quality files on the Web. Our mission is simple: to deliver the content that entertains and informs the digital world.” In other words, BitTorrent allows you to download large media files and also use your bandwidth to help others download these files. Search for media files you want and download ’em.

    9. GIMPShop

    Replaces Adobe Photoshop
    This is a version of the GNU Image Manipulation Program that does a pretty solid job of imitating Adobe Photoshop – a regular user of Photoshop (like me) can adapt to it quite quickly. It’s very richly featured and runs quite well – in fact, I see no reason to ever go back, even if Photoshop were free.

    10. Gnucleus

    Replaces LimeWire, BearShare, etc.
    Sure, LimeWire and BearShare are free, but why not just get the same basic software without all of the spyware? Gnucleus is pretty much identical to those software packages – but without all that extra junk that slows down your computer.

    11. VLC Media Player

    Replaces Windows Media Player, Quicktime, RealPlayer, etc.
    If you get tired of having tons of media players on your computer, get this package that runs pretty much every media type you’ll run across without breaking a sweat.

    Juice logo

    12. Juice

    Unique but essential
    Juice lets you effortlessly subscribe to podcasts, organize them, and listen to them at your convenience. In conjunction with PodNova, I find it easier to use Juice to organize podcasts than using iTunes itself.

    13. Audacity

    Unique but essential (for some)
    If you’re interested in recording your own podcast (or just want to make your own voice recordings for whatever reason), Audacity and a microphone are pretty much all you need to get the job done. I’m not much for podcasting (let’s just say I don’t have a radio voice), but I use Audacity for other voice recording purposes.

    RSSOwl logo

    14. RSSOwl

    Unique but essential
    RSSOwl is one of many open source RSS readers. In other words, it enables you to use one program to keep track of the content of a lot of different blogs; if you read a lot of blogs, it’s the only way to keep tabs on all of them without devoting hours jumping from site to site. If you have a laptop, it’s preferable to using sites like Bloglines, but if you’re on a desktop, a web-based feed manager might be better.

    15. Filezilla

    Replaces WinFTP
    Many people occasionally have a need to FTP files to other computers; if you ever have the need to transfer files in such a fashion, FileZilla will do the job slickly and quickly.

    16. Keynote

    Unique but essential
    Keynote is basically designed specifically for the task of taking notes on a laptop. If you ever find yourself in a meeting or a presentation with your laptop open and want to jot down notes and organize them just a bit, Keynote is unquestionably the program for you. It’s not good at quality word processing, but that’s not the point. In my professional work, I find myself using Keynote almost as often as any other utility.

    17. MusikCube

    Replaces iTunes
    If you’re not already committed to downloaded music from the iTunes Music Store, then MusikCube is the best choice available for a music organizer and player. It organizes your mp3s, makes it really easy and really fast to find them, and allows you to make some incredibly clever smart playlists.

    18. Handbrake

    Unique but essential
    Handbrake enables you to stick a DVD in your DVD drive and have the contents of that film stored to your hard drive in a form that can be read by pretty much any media player. I often use it to put a few movies on my laptop for travel purposes, so I don’t have to worry about keeping track of DVDs while on the road.

    19. X-Chat 2

    Replaces mIRC
    X-Chat is a free IRC client. For those unfamiliar with IRC, it’s a place for technical people (and, as my wife loves to point out, nerds) to meet and discuss topics in an open environment. I often find it very useful when piecing through difficult technical issues.

    KeePass logo

    20. KeePass

    Unique but essential
    KeePass is a program that securely stores and manages the abundance of passwords we all use on a daily basis. I have literally hundreds of usernames and passwords spread out all over the place; KeePass keeps them all for me and keeps them safe.

    21. TrueCrypt

    Unique but essential
    TrueCrypt enables you to convert a memory stick into a strongly encrypted data storage device, meaning that you can store personal data on it without worrying about losing it and having personal information get out and about. I use it to keep some of my most personal data off of my laptop and strongly secured, just in case.

    22. PDFCreator

    Replaces Adobe Acrobat
    PDFCreator creates a virtual printer on your computer that, if you print a document to it from any program, creates a PDF of that document that can be read on any computer with Acrobat Reader on it. After installing PDFCreator, all you have to do is print like normal and out comes a PDF!

    23. Freemind

    Unique but Essential
    Freemind is a “mind mapping” software program. In essence, it enables you to brainstorm and link together ideas quickly, creating “maps” of concepts similar to what you might do on a whiteboard. I find it incredibly useful when putting together ideas for new posts or planning small projects or assembling the backbone of a writing project.

    24. NASA Worldwind

    Replaces Google Earth
    WorldWind is very similar to Google Earth in that it allows you to browse the globe. While it isn’t strong for creating maps (but why not just use Google Maps for that?), it is utterly incredible for viewing three-dimensional landscapes of any place on earth.

    25. Notepad2

    Replaces Notepad
    Notepad2 is a replacement for the traditional Windows Notepad that just adds a few sweet little features: multiple documents; line, word, and character counts; and some highlighting of tags. In fact, I’m using Notepad2 as I draft this post (after using Freemind to organize it).

    26. HealthMonitor

    Unique but useful
    HealthMonitor enables you to keep an eye on the health of your computer. It identifies slowdowns and other system issues quickly and lets you know (for example, it gives a popup if your system memory gets to a certain percentage of fullness, or if your hard drive has only 10 GB free). This can keep you out of trouble and also give you clues to problems your machine might be having.

    27. Workrave

    Unique but useful
    Sometimes late into a writing session, my wrists get sore from too much repetitive movement. Workrave basically jumps in before this happens and locks down the computer for a while, preventing me from working too much and causing repetitive stress injury. Since I’ve started using it, it hasn’t significantly hurt my productivity at all and my wrists are thanking me!

    28. GanttPV

    Replaces Microsoft Project
    If you do any project management (or have a need to dip your toes in the water), GanttPV does a brilliant job of managing the task quickly, easily, and freely. If you need to move to MS Project later, you can export from GanttPV to Project, but once you start digging into GanttPV, you’ll likely have no reason to use Project.

    29. GnuCash

    Replaces Microsoft Money or Quicken
    GnuCash is a slimmed-down version of the bloated Microsoft Money and Quicken packages, but it contains all of the features I want for managing my money. The interfaces are incredibly simple – it functions much like a checkbook ledger on your computer – but there’s a lot of meat hidden throughout the software.

    30. True Combat: Elite

    Replaces Quake IV, Halo, etc.
    After all this downloading, you’re going to need to blow off a little steam, and I’ve yet to find a more enjoyable free game than this one. It’s basically a third person combat game, but the graphics are spectacular and the game is quite engrossing.

    If you’ve downloaded and installed all of these, you’ve got access to all the productivity software you’ll likely need, clean and open and best of all free.

    A brand-new computer comes with a host of pre-installed software, some of which are only accessible as limited free trials. Fortunately, many of the best open source software are not only able to completely replace their paid counterparts but they also (arguably) perform better since they are peer-reviewed. If you’re on the hunt for the best free software, start with our open source software list below:

    Best Free Software for Personal Use

    Apache OpenOffice

    Replaces Microsoft Office
    Apache OpenOffice provides word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, a formula editor, and database management applications, all of which generally offer the same functionalities and features as MS Office.

    Firefox

    Replaces Internet Explorer
    A popular alternative to Chrome, more than 30% of web users use Firefox as their browser. Firefox stops annoying popups and has tons of amazing plugins that can make surfing the web more personalized and efficient.

    Google Chrome

    Replaces Internet Explorer
    Google Chrome isn’t an open source software but it’s a viable alternative to Firefox (if that isn’t your thing). It’s free, fast, and efficient — and comes with an abundance of add-ons so you can customize it to your liking. There’s even an option to open an incognito window, which doesn’t save your cache or browser history if prefer to keep things more private at home or in the office.

    Thunderbird

    Replaces Microsoft Outlook or Eudora
    Thunderbird is an email client that has five big things going for it: it’s free, it’s full-featured, it’s lightweight and runs quick, it has an unparalleled spam filter, and it protects you from those ridiculous phishing attacks by clearly indicating which emails send you to a bogus website. If you’re not already using a web-based email solution, Thunderbird should be your client.

    Mozilla Lightning Calendar

    Replaces Microsoft Calendar
    Meant to be used with Thunderbird, Lightning enables you to organize your schedule and important events in a calendar that’s fully integrated with your email. You can manage and share multiple calendars, create recurring events, add to-do lists, invite friends to events, and subscribe to public calendars, including holidays.

    PDFCreator

    Replaces Adobe Acrobat
    PDFCreator creates a virtual printer on your computer that, if you print a document to it from any program, creates a PDF readable on any computer with Acrobat Reader installed. It supports many Adobe PDF options, including password protection and 128-bit encryption. All you need to do is print and it creates a PDF!

    Pidgin

    Useful
    If you have multiple instant-messaging accounts, use Pidgin to use them all at once. It supports AIM, ICQ, Google Hangouts, Jabber/XMPP, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, IRC, MXit, Novell, and more.

    Best Free Business Software

    GanttPV

    Replaces Microsoft Project
    If you do any project management (or need to dip your toes in the water), GanttPV does a brilliant job of managing the task quickly, easily, and freely. If you need to move to MS Project later, you can export from GanttPV to Project, but once you start digging into GanttPV, you’ll likely have no reason to use Project.

    FreeMind

    Useful
    Mind mapping is a key process in many businesses, and this mind mapper does a great job providing an easy-to-use hierarchical editor and other tools to help organize your ideas into one coherent overview.

    VirtualBox

    Unique but essential (for some)
    VirtualBox is a desktop virtualization software, which functions to separate your physical desktop from your desktop space and applications so you can access it from anywhere. It also makes recovery of lost files much easier since all the components are saved in a data center. VirtualBox comes with impressive processing power so your desktop isn’t slowed down.

    Notepad++

    Replaces Microsoft Windows Notepad
    Notepad++’s minimalist, user-friendly style is pleasant to use and comes with features such as multi-view, multiple tabs for separate documents, word auto completion, zoom functions, and bookmarking. On top of that, their systems minimize carbon dioxide emissions by using less CPU power!

    Greenshot

    Useful
    With Greenshot, you can take full or partial screenshots and add text and shapes to it so your colleagues quickly understand what you’re visually describing. Greenshot supports several image formats.

    FileZilla

    Replaces WinFTP
    Many people occasionally have a need to FTP files to other computers. FileZilla will do the job slickly and quickly, especially with their simple drag-and-drop functionality. FileZilla is especially efficient for batch transfers.

    Best Free Accounting Software

    TurboCASH 5

    Replaces Quicken
    TurboCASH 5 is a small-business accounting package that includes such functions as invoicing, debtors, creditors, VAT accounting, balance sheet and income statements, and reporting. It’s accessible to multiple users and companies.

    GnuCash

    Replaces Microsoft Money or Quicken
    GnuCash is a slimmed-down version of the bloated Microsoft Money and Quicken packages, but it contains all of the essential features for managing money. The interfaces are incredibly simple — it functions much like a checkbook ledger on your computer — but there’s a lot of meat hidden throughout the software.

    Best Free File-Sharing Software

    Ares Galaxy

    Replaces BitTorrent
    Ares Galaxy is a BitTorrent and chat software program with an easily accessible interface and a built-in audio/video viewer. You can share any types of digital file and publish your them through their own peer-to-peer network.

    eMule

    Replaces BitTorrent
    eMule is a peer-to-peer file-sharing client that includes robust search features, checks for file corruptions during downloads, and previews of downloads.

    Tribler

    Replaces BitTorrent
    Tribler enables its users to discover and share video, audio, photos, and other files.

    Best Free Graphics Software

    GIMP

    Replaces Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro
    GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the most popular free alternative to Photoshop. It is known for its versatility, as you can use it as a simple Paint program or for more sophisticated capabilities, such as photo retouching, layering image rendering, and format conversion.

    Blender 3D

    Replaces Maya, 3DSMax
    Blender is a 3D graphics-creation program that enables you to perform animation, modeling, rendering, post-production, real-time interactive 3D, and much more.

    Dia

    Replaces Microsoft Visio
    Very similar to Visio, you can use Dia to create a wide variety of diagrams, such as flowcharts and relationship charts. You can save your pieces to an XML format and export them to EPS or SVG formats.

    Inkscape

    Replaces Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw
    Inkscape is a vector graphics editor that includes features such as shapes, paths, markers, clones, text, gradients, and patterns while supporting functionalities such as layers, node editing, bitmap tracing, and more. You can import JPEG, TIFF, and PNG files and export as PNG or other vector-based formats.

    Scribus

    Replaces PageMaker, InDesign, QuarkXPress
    Scribus, a desktop publishing application, supports many major graphic formats as well as SVG import and export.

    Best Free Audio/Video Software

    VLC Media Player

    Useful
    VLC is a fast and powerful multimedia player that supports various audio and video formats, including but not limited to MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, and MP3, as well as DVDs and VCDs. It plays almost any file, CD, DVD, webcams, and other devices.

    SMPlayer

    Useful
    SMPlayer is a free media player with the added ability to play and download YouTube videos. On top of that, if you’re the type not to sit and commit to an entire movie, SMPlayer will simply replay where you left off, which is perfect for busy folks.

    Handbrake

    Unique but essential
    Handbrake enables you to stick a DVD in your DVD drive and have the contents of that film stored to your hard drive in a form that can be read by pretty much any media player. This is awesome for travel since you can store all your movies in your laptop instead of carrying around DVDs.

    Audacity

    Unique but essential (for some)
    If you’re interested in recording your own podcast (or just want to make your own voice recordings for whatever reason), Audacity and a microphone are pretty much all you need to get the job done. Audacity is also very useful for other voice recording purposes.

    Media Player Classic

    Useful
    Media Player Classic plays a wide swath of audio and video formats, including MPEG/MPEG-2/MPEG-4, DivX, Xvid, and CD/VCD/DVD media.

    Best Free Security & Anti-Virus Software

    KeePass Password Safe

    Essential
    KeePass is a lightweight and intuitive password manager for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and mobile devices. Your passwords are kept safe in an encrypted database, which you can quickly access with a master password.

    TrueCrypt

    Replaces BitLocker
    TrueCrypt enables you to convert a memory stick into a strongly encrypted data storage device, meaning that you can store personal data on it without worrying about losing it and having personal information get out and about.

    Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition

    Replaces Norton Antivirus
    You can hardly tell Bitdefender is running, as it works quietly but efficiently. It’s excellent at blocking and removing malware as well as protecting your computer from phishing.

    HealthMonitor

    Useful
    HealthMonitor enables you to keep an eye on the health of your computer. It identifies slowdowns and other system issues quickly and lets you know (for example, it gives a popup if your system memory gets to a certain percentage of fullness, or if your hard drive has only 10 GB free). This can keep you out of trouble and also give you clues to problems your machine might be having.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder of The Simple Dollar

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.