Updated on 07.31.14

So, What Free Software Do You Use?

Trent Hamm

On Sunday, I reviewed the worthwhile book Getting Organized in the Google Era by Douglas C. Merrill, during which I mentioned that most of the productivity software I use for my work is free. A few people emailed me and asked about them, including this one (which made me smile) from Dot:

As much writing as you do I can’t believe you don’t use lots of expensive software! Good for you! (What do you use?)

Although I’ve mentioned my free software list a few times before, I figured there was no time better than the present to update this list.

Here are fourteen pieces of free software I use pretty much every single day for the work I do. Some of these come in free and paid versions – in each case, I’ve become such a loyal user of the software that I’m now a paid user, as I’m a big believer in paying for what I use.

Mozilla Firefox
I use my web browser far more than any other application – and Firefox has been my web browser of choice for a long time. Why Firefox? Identity theft protection. Popup blocking. Tons and tons of useful add-ons. That’s a start, anyway.

I use multiple computers. Xmarks enables me to access all of my bookmarks (and I have quite a lot of them) on all of the computers. It works with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Google Chrome, so it’s not just tied to Firefox. Even my iPod Touch has all of my bookmarks on it, and I can get to them on other people’s computers, too, though it’s not as seamless.

I’m starting to build up an image archive of photos taken with my own camera for various projects. Picasa has become my organizing tool, as it keeps them all organized and easy to find, enables me to do simple touch-ups (I bust out Photoshop for major changes), tagging, and easy web sharing, though I still use Flickr for most sharing purposes.

I use Skype for my business-related calls. Most of the features are free, but I pay $2.95 a month to have my own phone number and the ability to dial any phone number in the United States – very, very helpful. I use a headset with this to minimize echo, so I’m sometimes sitting at my computer with headphones and a little mic, talking to someone using Skype.

I often use this for sharing files between various computers, as well as sometimes making files available to others that I want to share with. While I have home networking set up, it isn’t seamless and it doesn’t allow retrieval from anywhere, so Dropbox fills in that gap incredibly well.

Remember the Milk
Remember the Milk handles my to-do lists for me. I usually use RtM hand-in-hand with processing my “inbox” (mail, notes to myself, and so forth). If there’s a task I need to do, I put it into RtM, and when I need to get down to business, RtM simply has my to-do list ready to go for me. I’ve used it for years.

The best thing I ever did was consolidate my email inside of Gmail. It enables me to effortlessly search through all of my email from any web browser, which is incredibly useful for both personal and professional things. I often just email things I need to remember to myself so I can search for them and find them later on within Gmail.

This serves as an incredibly effective personal schedule for me, enabling me to quickly see (from almost anywhere) what’s going on today, tomorrow, this week, this month, and so on. Recurring appointments, the ability to color-label different kinds of things, and the plethora of different views just a mouse-click away makes this an essential tool for me.

Whenever I’m brainstorming, I usually use Evernote to keep those notes. The same is true if I’m taking notes in a meeting or anything like that. Evernote allows me to take notes on one computer (or my iPod Touch) and the notes are easily accessible on any computer, allowing me to retrieve my notes and thoughts anywhere.

I use Digsby on any Windows-based computer I’m on to keep up to date with Twitter, Facebook, and the instant messaging programs I use all at once. Whenever something new comes along, it pops up in the corner and I can click on it to reply if I so choose. It’s great to have on if I’m just searching for ideas and it turns off with just a click when I need to focus.

Notepad++ is what I use when I’m writing posts (this article was typed out in Notepad++), writing code, or trying to organize ideas. It does so many little things better than the default Notepad that I consider it essential. I even type out long emails in it, copying and pasting when I’m finished.

Google Docs
When I’m assembling longer documents, doing basic spreadsheet work, or assembling presentations, I usually use Google Docs. Doing this allows me to work on those documents no matter where I am. Even better, you can effortlessly share these documents for collaborative purposes, allowing other people access to the document and allowing them to make changes and keep track of them.

Google Reader
I try to keep track of (literally) hundreds of different blogs. I use Google Reader to do this – it simply shows me the latest posts from all of these sites at once. I can group these sites into whatever collections I like and it keeps track of which ones I’ve read and which ones I haven’t.

For my uses, this is the best media manager software, but that’s partially because I use an iPod Touch. Without that, I would recommend Songbird. In either case, the software simply makes it easy to organize and sort through my music collection (which I listen to as I work), create playlists, track my preferences, and so on.

This list pretty much sums up the software I use on a daily basis – and it’s all free.

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  1. Yay for free software! I love all of the google stuff and picasa of course. I also use Gimp photo editor and Ubuntu….which is a Linux OS.

    There are of course other things too like open office, Chrome, Amarok (for music), last.fm, and so much more.

    Why pay?

  2. Trent,
    There are so many great tools available, it is hard to list them all in one spot.
    I think you missed your most important one though – WordPress!
    I also use Picnik.com for photo editing, Hootsuite.com in the way that you use Digsby, and Yahoo Pipes to combine my favorite RSS Feeds. I find that Pipes helps to keep my RSS Reader less cluttered.
    I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few, but those came to mind quickly in addition to the ones you mentioned in your post.

  3. Vicky says:

    Don’t forget Pandora Radio and Open Office! :)

  4. Jeff says:

    It’s nice that most of the items on your list are cross-platform, too.

    I’ve been using Ubuntu (a GNU/Linux distribution) for two years. In addition to being a completely free operating system, with free high-quality software packages, learning how to use open source server software has given me many bankable skills. Also, Ubuntu can typically run on older hardware, too, adding value to any computer purchase.

  5. N says:

    Lots of good open source software exists:

    Some big titles too, like blender, openoffice, etc.

  6. Dan says:

    I use primarily free software. The problem is that many programs have now become services that you must subscribe to on a monthly/yearly basis to get the most out of them.

    For example, here are some that I pay subscription fees for in order to make them usable for my requirements:

    Evernote, Sugarsync and Skype (for telephone calls; the sofware is free for pc-to-pc calls).

    I’m quite happy that I’ve been able to go from a computer that had ALL commercial software to one that is running mostly free/open source stuff :)

  7. Allie says:

    Just curious, but, have you actually used Songbird? For the majority of people, it’s nowhere near an iTunes replacement. It has potential, and it might one day be able to elegantly perform the functions iTunes does, but right now it’s just a mess.

  8. Diane says:

    I actually just made the switch to Ununtu (a free operating system) b/c my windows hard drive crashed. I’m loving it so far, its easy to use and very clean looking, much lesser screen clutter than windows. I would def recommend it to anyone that doesn’t want to shell out the money for Windows or a Mac.

    And of course Open Office is great. I use Google Docs a lot but Open Office has more features, which some people probably need.

  9. Vicky,
    Good call with Pandora. I dropped Open Office when I started using Google Docs though. Much easier to have everything stored online and accessible from everywhere. Just my $0.02.

  10. Virginia says:

    I love Outright.com. It helps me track all the information I need for taxes and planning for my small business. Everything is stored online so I can access my account everywhere. I don’t have to include and sensitive information like bank account numbers if I don’t want to bur I have found that the option to have may PayPal transactions automatically uploaded once a day is Incredibly helpful. All I have to do is manually enter transactions that go through my bank and cash transactions.

  11. Diane says:

    I’ve had trouble with Google Docs. I tried to downlaod an mp3 file a friend posted, and it came through with no recognizable file type (I use a PC with Windows XP). So I tried opening an account, although I don’t use Gmail, and it keeps telling me my cookies aren’t enabled, even though I keep enabling them. Any help for the technically challenged? Thanks!

  12. JP says:

    My favorite by far is Google Apps for Business. http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/business/index.html For those that aren’t familiar, Google will host your email for free and you get to use the really cool Gmail interface. Plus, you can use their online document suite to collaborate on spreadsheets, docs, and calendar.

  13. I’ll third Pandora…its great! :)

  14. Jonathan. says:

    I understand having to use iTunes for iPod syncing, but I’ve found Windows Media Player to be much more enjoyable and easy to use for day to day listening, especially in Windows 7.

    Trent, With all of the GOOG in your life, you might consider purchasing an Android device when the time comes to replace the iPod Touch. You can buy a “Smartphone” off contract if you don’t want a cell phone data plan (you will pay more upfront for the device, but save more in the long run avoiding data charges). I think it would work better than your iPod Touch to integrate with Google products. You can get Motoroloa Droid, HTC Droid Eris, and HTC Droid Incredible on Amazon with no contract. Expect to pay $400-$600, but you will have a more functional device than an iPod Touch. You may even be able to add the phone to your current plan and refuse the data plan, since it was not purchased subsidized. Most of these phones have WiFi so you can use Internet like you would with an iPod Touch.

    There are also a few non-phone Android devices with WiFi, but they are not as cool.

  15. Jonathan. says:

    AH! I forgot one thing: Does that $2.95/month for Skype INCLUDE your Skype-In number? I thought you had to subscribe additionally annually to get a number that people can call.

  16. DIVX, Pandora, AIM << cant live without it!

    "Because ridicule is the most effective form of education"

  17. matt says:

    if you don’t need the fancy UI of a program like digsby, pidgin does a great job of integrating numerous IM clients. I also prefer Google Chrome over firefox, mostly because of the huge difference in speed. Other than that, I thought this was a great list.

  18. Tizzle says:

    I use evernote extensively (paying member) for my business. Why would I need dropbox also? Don’t they basically do the same thing?

  19. Edwin | Finantage says:

    Firefox, xmarks, Digsby, and pretty much everything Google. Thinking back just a few years its amazing how much these things have changed the way I work.

    On the other hand its amazing how much less productive some people can be due to things like Facebook.

  20. Suba says:

    Another pandora fan here! In addition to using Google Reader, I also use Read It Later to mark/download articles to read during commute.

    @Diane You might have tried this already, in case you didn’t, this might help — http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=57141

  21. Chris @ BuildMyBudget says:

    Don’t forget social software. Facebook and LinkedIn are fantastic tools for keeping in touch with personal and professional contacts.

  22. Peter says:

    AVG Free Anti-Virus has been on my computers for years now. Completely free anti-virus solution.

  23. J says:

    Every day I spend using Debian Linux (or the friendlier Ubuntu) is a better day. I use it every day at work to (very effectively) administer many, many Windows, Linux and Mac boxes. It’s just so refreshing to work on an operating system that’s entirely free of licensing headaches, vendor lock-in and so on. Oh, and it’s stable as all get out and runs fast even on old hardware, too.

    I also use Perl a lot, as well as many other scripting and programming languages that are absolutely free. To write code, I use the excellent Vim editor (although others use emacs, which is also free)

    I’m also a big Mozilla supporter, and Google’s applications and services are top-notch. The add ons are what make Mozilla great!

  24. Stephen says:

    Just like a couple of the commenters here, I use Ubuntu (GNU+Linux). For me it comes down not to free as in beer (no cost), but free as in freedom (liberty). Most of the software I use was developed by an open community where I can leverage and support the products of human volunteer contributions. I’m not against closed products (e.g. Skype), but whenever there is a free alternative, I’m there.

    If you like Firefox, check out Chrome (or ideally Chromium). It’s a great browser that is rapidly picking up market share and new functionality (like password, history, bookmark syncing built-in using Google, rather than just bookmark sync).

  25. Ryan says:

    While this won’t help anyone out on a day to day basis, I use Mozy at Home for file backup. A small program runs in my taskbar and automatically backs up my (encrypted) files to Mozy’s secure servers.

    2 GB comes free, which is enough for all of my documents.

    @ Tizzle,

    Dropbox is for transferring actual files while Evernote is for creating new notes (as you already know)

  26. Warren says:

    I use daily:

    Firefox (Internet)
    Grooveshark (Free music streaming)
    slickdeals.net (See if any super deals)
    Gmail (e-mail)
    Skype (for talking with family)
    Google talk (use to talk with wife, free texts with phone apps!)
    Mint.Com (Occasionally to look for better savings/checking deals)
    Google Finance (track stocks throughout the day)

    And slowly building a decent size blog roll to catch up on personal finance tips.

    http://odysseustoday.wordpress.com/ (My personal blog)
    and more as they become known to me.

  27. Jason says:

    Fantastic list… except I’d absolutely replace Firefox with Chrome. Once you start seeing the speed improvements as well as the “Omnibar” (type your search into the same place where you put URLs), you’ll be hooked.
    Other freebies I swear by: SlickRun, Keepass, AVG Anit-Virus, and Paint.NET

  28. Steven says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for the Dropbox recommendation. As a tele-commuter who works from home, my computer (and files) are everything. And Dropbox has made so many things so much easier (switching to the laptop) for example. Not to mention the fact that it also serves as a backup (no more plugging in the external hard drive at the end of every night!) I’ve been using this for only a couple of hours, and am already recommending it to all of my other W@H colleagues.

  29. Tizzle says:

    Thanks Ryan @11.

  30. dajol says:

    Some more Windows free software I’ve come to depend on are:

    This is an image viewer/converter that handles any image format and is great for converting.

    Free CD/DVD burning software

    Audio Editor with professional quality features.

    and finally

    This is the ultimate time saver for me. It’s a macro language that allows me to automate anything in a Windows environment. It comes with a great, helpful community via it’s forum.

  31. Ralph says:

    There are so many free software tools available its nuts. I love Hootesuite, Pandora, Disqus, anything having to do with Firefox, the list goes on and on. I’ve never heard of “remember the milk” but I’ve been looking for a good tasks list organizer that can be synced with Google calendar and my Blackberry. Thanks for the tip :)

  32. grover says:

    How do you manage to efficiently use Dropbox, Evernote and Google Docs?

    I always find that I default into using one of the three for a while. Then I realize that my files are spread across several different services and I have to spend ages cross-checking and updating everything!

  33. Hilary Jackson says:

    How about http://www.Instapaper.com and another great one, http://www.followup.cc

    Just so darn useful, both of em!

  34. I stinkin’ LOVE Picasa. I do use Photoshop for more particular editing, but for sorting and lots of basic photo editing steps, Picasa is easy, fast, and free.

  35. Matt says:

    As another Ubuntu Linux user, it would be far easier for me to list the software that I _have_ paid for than what I use that’s free! I’m a pastor, so I do a lot of writing, studying, communicating, and scheduling. The tools I use on a regular basis are very similar to Trent’s:
    *Google Chrome (or Firefox)
    *Google mail, calendar, docs, and reader
    *Remember the milk
    *Open Office
    Many of these programs also sync with my Android-powered smartphone, which makes managing all my information soooo much easier.
    If you’re interested in the free-software way of life I recommend trying out Ubuntu – you’ll be amazed at how many great programs are available to freely and easily download through the Ubuntu Software Center!

  36. J says:

    Picasa’s facial recognition is cool and creepy at the same time. I use it for all my photo management.

    We use Mozy, as well. If you exceed the 2GB limit, it’s only $5/month for unlimited storage. Carbonite is another similar service I have heard good things about. With 2GB of space, you can back up a lot of important documents like resumes, contact lists, wills, etc. It might not cover your MP3 collection or your photos but once you see how easy it is (and realize that you are one corrupt hard drive away from losing years of memories), it’s a real no-brainer. Especially for those of us who never had the discipline to keep up with the “make a cd as a backup” thing.

  37. littlepitcher says:

    I’d love a column on apps, especially those you use to interface your iPod Touch and your computers.

    I’m trying out Portable Apps suite and love it for my older computer.

  38. These are great bits of software. I find Google takes care of pretty much everything I need, except I do not care much for Picasa or Google Docs. I’ve had a lot of problems with photos mysteriously disappearing from where they are posted. I use my blog to host the occasional image used outside my blog. Personal photos go to photoworks. I don’t like their editor and it’s a pain to transfer from my Word documents. I find it easier just to email myself docs in Word and they are there for me when I need to work remotely. I also use email for all my to-do items. A spreadsheet helps me keep all my clients and assignments organized.

    It would be nice is there was a free version of OneNote. I try not to pay for anything, but I simply need it to organize my several web projects, notes, ideas, designs, etc.

    I just might take the Google Chrome suggestion from Jason. I was a die hard Opera user, but once I finally switched to Firefox, I am now dependent on that. Maybe Chrome would make me even happier? I love so many other Google products…

  39. sefcug says:

    I am a member of two computer user groups (MS Windows), and am working on setting up a SIG (Special Interest Group) on Freeware / Open Source applications.

    I use Firefox (with Xmarks), and many freeware / open source applications myself on a daily basis.

    I do have to have some paid software, due to my full time work, and I use MS Publisher 2003 and 2007 for editing user group newsletters (both versions obtained free through user group review programs).

    If I find that a free software becomes a part of my standard set of applications, I will usually send some kind of a donation to help the author(s) defray expenses.

  40. DiscoApu says:

    Lots of great suggestions. I would add.

    I would add to keep the cpu efficent
    Revo Uninstaller
    super anti spyware free
    malwarebytes anti-malware

    I use “search everything” as the file searcher

    pdf xchange viewer rather then adobe’s bloatware
    vlc player

  41. Marle says:

    eDiane, the reason you couldn’t download an MP3 from Google Docs is because GD isn’t file storage, it converts Word documents and OpenOffice documents and other documents and converts them into its own document format. GD doesn’t work for sharing MP3s, which is why that didn’t work.

  42. Stella says:

    Excellent list! I use many of the programs you cited plus Gimp (a photo editing application), Text Wrangler (free Text Editor for the Mac), TweetDeck (Twitter aggregator) and Adium (IM consolidator).

  43. Crystal says:

    Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Google Maps are my big ones…

  44. t says:

    VIM => Text Editor (big time saver!)
    Mercurial => Version Control
    VLC => Audio and Video Consumption
    Audacity => Audio Editing
    SyncToy 2.0 => Sync Drives
    Firefox => Web Browser
    Dropbox => Shared, Sync’ed folder
    Filezilla => FTP and File Server
    VirtualBox => Virtual Machine (to run UBUNTU Linux on Windows)
    XVI32 => Hex Editor
    mirkes.de TinyHex => Hex Editor
    FoxIt => PDF Reader
    Python VM => for writing up quick scripts
    CutePDF => PDF Printer
    WinMERGE => Text file diff (I also use vimdiff’ing)

  45. Bill in Houston says:

    As a rule of thumb I avoid any software that begins with the letter “g” (as in Google). Why? They have no concept of privacy. For example, G-mail targets you with spam. Google Chrome shares your clicks with Google.com. Then there’s the Google Calendar. I found this: “Google employees will not read your private calendar information except in the limited circumstances described in the “Information Sharing” section of our Privacy Policy.”

    Y’know Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil”? They don’t really mean it. After all, this is the company that gave names of Chinese dissidents to the Chinese government.

    Oh, freeware I use? Adaware is about it. I pay for a lot of shareware like Spybot. I also prefer Microsoft Office and Adobe Technical Communication Suite… but that’s me. I would use more freeware, but several of my side biz clients have always insisted on creation from registered software.

  46. This is a terrific list: definitely want to try some things that were unfamiliar to me.

    Have just started using a new browser – Camino – and love it. It kills dead ALL ads.

  47. Alex says:

    Have you thought of using Google Chrome as your main browser on all machines? It has its own book mark syncing which uses your Gmail account, so it would integrate nicely with the other Google Products you’re using.

  48. Debbie says:

    What about financial software to do a budget? I don’t want to pay the high cost for Quicken. Any ideas for free ones?

  49. J says:

    @Bill in Houston.

    Spam isn’t “targeted” at anyone. Spammers use all sorts of ingenious and brute-force methods to fill your inbox with it. Or corporate email server rejects outright 90% of incoming mail because they are easily identifiable as spam. Gmail does the best job I’ve ever seen of dealing with it. But they don’t make it.

    You do know that Google pretty much got hacked by the Chinese government, then publicized that they were, and now have pretty much told China to stuff it and are delivering uncensored search results to the Chinese? They are one of the few companies that seem to be putting their reputation (and revenues) on the line in facing down China.

    Look up how Google works. It absolutely requires that “clicks be shared”, since it ranks pages based on how many people use the sites they click though.

    And here’s the “Information Sharing” section of the Calendar Privacy Policy:

    Information Sharing

    * Calendar gadgets may be provided by third parties, not Google, who may receive and process information in your calendar in order to provide their service. When you add one of these gadgets to your calendar, we will let you know. Use of your information by these third parties is not governed by this Privacy Policy.

    And from the overall Google Privacy Policy:

    Information sharing

    Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

    * We have your consent. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.
    * We provide such information to our subsidiaries, affiliated companies or other trusted businesses or persons for the purpose of processing personal information on our behalf. We require that these parties agree to process such information based on our instructions and in compliance with this Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.
    * We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request, (b) enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations thereof, (c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, or (d) protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

    If Google becomes involved in a merger, acquisition, or any form of sale of some or all of its assets, we will ensure the confidentiality of any personal information involved in such transactions and provide notice before personal information is transferred and becomes subject to a different privacy policy.

    We may share with third parties certain pieces of aggregated, non-personal information, such as the number of users who searched for a particular term, for example, or how many users clicked on a particular advertisement. Such information does not identify you individually.

  50. Derek Cormier says:


    Great article, big fan of free and open source software. I will throw my hat in as well and say that for long term very basic text editing…JDARKROOM (http://www.codealchemists.com/jdarkroom/) is a great thing to have.

    It is a Java Based “DarkRoom” text editor. The text is green on black and it begins to “push-up” the text about halfway down the screen so you don’t strain your neck. It also is full screen so it helps you avoid distractions.

    God Bless and take care good sir.

  51. Bill in Houston says:

    J, I was being slightly facetious when I said targeting spam. I meant to say targeting ads. To me, getting any kind of advertisement in my email account, free or not, is spam. I had a G-mail account back when they started the service, for all of two weeks. Ugh.

    I don’t even use Google as a search engine. I believe the organization to be greedy and corrupt. Of course, that’s only my opinion.

  52. My husband tried to go for a whole day without using a Google application…and he couldn’t. :-)

    Now we have a Droid phone and Google owns us…
    but it’s cool. It does what we need it to do, on the cheap, and that is the whole point.

  53. For investing, try http://www.zignals.com.

    Offers free stock alerts, stock charts, stock screener, portfolio manager and automated trading stragies – ones you build yourself are free to you and can be sold for a 50:50 revenue share with Zignals.


  54. BeBob Esq says:

    You should also have a look at SSuite Office for free office software. :)

    Their software also doesn’t need to run on Java or .NET, like MS Office and so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small, efficient, and easy to use. :D

    You may try these links for more info:


  55. Dan says:

    Every few months I give Firefox a try, but it takes me so many more clicks to get things done than with Opera. I put up with it for a while and continue to explore it, figuring I can find add-ons for all the features firefox is missing. Then I discover the addons either don’t exist, don’t work the way I like, or are no longer supported on current versions of firefox. An example is the “paste and go” functionality of opera. IS there a way to do that in firefox? I tried CTRL+SHIFT+V, but nothing. There is a page on the mozilla addons site for a paste&go addon that is years old, but I can’t even download the old one (404).

    Similar problems with Chrome, although I do find it speedy (except when you add up all the chrome processes it even uses more ram & cpu than firefox!)

    Also I think digsby looks really cool but I don’t like how they use up to 75% of your CPU cycles for distributed computing that they get paid for. I especially don’t like the fact that until recently this wasn’t clearly spelled out. So for me its Empathy for IM.

  56. I love mint.com. I used to pay upwards of $60 for Quicken which I never could make work correctly. Mint is easy to use, has the same online security as major banks and I can pull it up on any computer instead of just the one I have my Quicken account loaded onto. Its also free which is the best part!

  57. Gordon says:

    I noticed you haven’t done an article on this in about a year. I’d be interested if you’d made any software changes, etc.

  58. Todd says:

    Great article! That is the kind of information that should be shared around the web.
    Disgrace on Google for now not positioning this publish higher!
    Come on over and visit my website . Thanks =)

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