Being a dark fiction author has its drawbacks: food, clothing and shelter, to name a few. So by day, I have a paying job as a mild-mannered IT guy. This exposes me to lots of different software. Some are free. Some are useful. Some are both.
People ask me all the time what software I use, and what FREE alternatives are out there that actually work. So with the help of my fellow IT guru Saveau, I’ve put together a Free-And-Useful Software list that I update around Christmas each year as a gift to friends, fans, and readers of conradzero.com. Here are links to previous year’s lists:
- Merry Christmas 2008 Free Software!
- Your 2009 I.T. Christmas Gift – Free Software!
- Free Software For Christmas 2010!
Some of this list will be the same as previous years, but there are several new additions that I’ve updated for Christmas 2011. This year, I’ve added apps for android smartphones. Everything referenced here has been IT tested and approved by myself. The programs are divided into 3 sections:
- APPS – for use on mobile devices. I use an Android smartphone myself, but other formats might be available for i-os, blackberry, windows etc.
- SOFTWARE – that you download and install on your computer. Mostly Windows based, but other versions might be available.
- SERVICES – that you log into on the internet to use through a web browser interface. These should work on any device that can browse the internet.
THE CHRISTMAS 2011 LIST OF AWESOME, FREE MOBILE APPS
Why bother buying another device to read e-books when you can install Aldiko and read e-books on your phone? Aldiko is worth loading even if you have another e-book reader, since it allows you to “sideload” e-book formats or sources that your current bookreader might not handle.
Manage your wishlist on Amazon.com year round with the Amazon App. Add items by picture, description or by zapping a product bar code.
I tried over a dozen task-manager apps before I found Astrid. Now, I use it every day at work for keeping track of deferred tasks, long-term tasks and large IT projects. It syncs up with Google Tasks quite nicely.
I’ve raved about Evernote before, and its value just goes up when you can add to, edit and access your own personal information database from your smartphone. I call my phone “my second brain” because of this app. Read more about Evernote below in the “Software” section of this blog post for more great reasons to use this app.
This little app was difficult to find. Audio Recorder Apps abound, but ones which record directly to MP3 format are rare. Even the Hi-Q MP3 Recorder app will only record 10 min at a time unless you pay for the non-light version. But with a dead-simple interface and 44K 128 bit recording, the free “light” version works great.
The Lookout App draws a lot of system resources, but it’s worth it. Three things make Lookout a must-have app for your smartphone.
- Security – Lookout provides anti-virus, anti-malware and anti-spyware on your phone, preventing bad apps from doing bad things.
- Find Lost Phone – Ever lose your cell phone then call it with another phone and wander the house, listening for the ring? Doesn’t help much if your ringer is off or the battery is dead. And did you actually bring it home, or is it still at work? Or the gym? Or the bar? Go online to the Lookout website and SEE exactly where and when your phone last “checked in” with a signal. Make your phone “scream” an alarm even if you left the ringer off!
- Backup – Lookout backs up your Contacts to the cloud, and lets you restore them back to your phone if they ever get lost or deleted.
The Premium version adds Remote Lockout/Wipe so if your cell phone gets stolen, lock it down or wipe it out from the lookout website.
Since the world is about to end, there’s no point lying to yourself anymore. You know I-tunes sucks donkey balls. For those who want access to free music and drm-free music, there’s Google Music. The only bad thing about Google Music is that you still have a bunch of songs and credits at the I-suck store. Too bad. When you’re ready to ditch the shiny plastic i-thing and play any music on your phone or computer, try out the Google Music app.
Tie your library account to the Overdrive app, and check out e-books from the Library! Nuff said.
Mobile electronic transactions are here. Both Paypal and Square let you accept credit-card payments, but Square actually gives you a free credit card scanner and the app allows for signatures.
Decode QR codes from the real world (via your smartphone’s built-in camera) or from pictures or websites. Encode your own QR codes for sharing information. This is a great way to get information from one phone to another.
Remember what it was like to hook up a cable to download pix or music files off your smartphone to your desktop computer? That’s a thing of the past with SugarSync. Once you set it up, SugarSync simply syncs your cell phone data to the cloud and out to any of your computers with SugarSync installed.
If your smartphone has wi-fi capability, you’ll want to install WiFi Analyzer, which shows signal strength and names of all available hotspots.
Ever held your cell phone up at a concert because you didn’t have a lighter? Install the Zippo Virtual Lighter app, and you’ve got a lighter that’s good for anything except lighting cigarettes or starting fires.
THE CHRISTMAS 2011 LIST OF AWESOME FREE ONLINE SERVICES
These items are not “software” in the traditional sense, because you don’t download them onto your computer (Although there are hybrid exceptions that allow you to load an app or software client.) You access most of these services by logging into a website with a username and password. They should work for any computer that can access the internet with a web browser.
Evernote Personal Information Database
More than just a picture/text/file storage site, Evernote is an upgrade for your brain. Here are just a few uses:
- Home Organization – Go paperless at home and move that entire cabinet of receipts and monthly statements up to the cloud.
- Engineers and Project Managers – Store and organize project data, task lists, website contents, pdfs and more.
- Writers – Save story ideas, plot outlines, characters, locations and more. Read more about why Evernote is great for writers.
- Students – Store and organize class notes, lecture audio files, online research and more.
- Save all your paid software install codes, CD keys, website passwords, etc.
Finding info in evernote is easy. Notes can be tagged, and searched in a miriad of ways. Evernote even has text recognition in uploaded pictures, so if you take a picture of something that has text in it (a road sign, wine label, paper document, etc.) you can search for the text within the picture!
The paid version lets you upload up to 1GB per month, but most people will be just fine with the free version which caps uploads at 60Mb per month. The mobile app has turned my android phone into my “second brain.” See the SOFTWARE section for more coolness about Evernote.
Shields Up at GRC.com Internet Security Testing
For techies only. Shields UP! tests your computer, router and firewall for vulnerabilities. No login necessary. Very useful when setting up your new router/internet service.
Gantter Online Project Management Software
Microsoft makes great products, but I have a hard time justifying a list price of $600 for Microsoft Project 2010. Especially when gantter.com is free. You don’t even make an account on Gantter, you simply use it. You either create a new project from scratch, or upload your own Microsoft Project file or access a project that you’ve previously saved in google docs. When you’re done editing, simply download your project as XML, or as a Microsoft Project File (!!!) or stash it in Google Docs.
Best. E-mail. Ever. Free. ‘Nuff said.
Google Docs Office Application Suite
If you’re looking for a FREE alternative to Microsoft Office, you could go with OpenOffice or IBM’s Symphony, but I don’t know why you would, since you already have access to Google Docs through your free gmail account.
These are becoming less relevant as more people move to the social media sites like Facebook for their filesharing, but Google’s Picassa and Yahoo’s Flickr websites still get the job done. They offer lots of free space, and make photo and graphics sharing a snap. If you already have a Google or Yahoo account, I’d recommend you stick with them just to reduce the number of username/passwords you have to remember. Otherwise, picking between them is a matter of taste. Try them both and see which seems more user-friendly to you.
Wanna know how fast/slow your internet connection really is? Go to speedtest.net (NOT DOT COM!!!) and click “Begin Test” (Watch out for other cleverly-named buttons on the site that are for other things) . In a few seconds you’ll have your real upload/download speed.
WordPress.org Free Website/Blog Development
It’s hard to believe WordPress software is free. WordPress lets users setup and customize a website without touching a single nybble of code. Setup is the hardest part, but the beauty of the plugins, themes, posting, widgets and website components makes WordPress worth paying for – only you don’t have to. Add in the free website hosting on WordPress.com and there’s no reason someone with something to say or something to sell can’t have their own blog.
THE CHRISTMAS 2011 LIST OF AWESOME FREE SOFTWARE DOWNLOADS
These programs are software you download and install on your computer. Make sure you are downloading from a valid source and I recommend scanning any installers with the latest virus/spyware scanners before running them on your system.
BEWARE! – Many of the following softwares have both a free version and a paid version. Sometimes the paid version offers more functionality which you may not want or need. Make sure you are downloading the right version.
SugarSync Automatic File Backup, Sync and Sharing software
When I take a picture with my groovy Android phone, moments later it auto-magically appears on my desktop computer and laptop computers. How is this possible? Through the magical SugarSync program that runs in the background, monitoring folders on each computer and keeping them not only backed up to the cloud, but synchronized so that changes in files on one computer percolate over to other computers.
Dropbox is another popular auto-backup and sync software, but Sugarsync is better. I gave a detailed comparison of the two programs here: Great Software For Great Authors – Sugarsync vs Dropbox.
Steam Gaming Software
Originally created by Valve as an online security/license checking software for use with the Half Life 2 series of games, Steam is becoming the security method of choice for third party games, and the distribution method for smaller game studios around the world. Many games (like the latest kick-ass-RPG Skyrim) requires Steam in order to play on PC, even if you bought the product off the shelf. While some might find this a bit pushy, the benefits of Steam are too good to pass up.
The library function of Steam saves your game install software and license keys in the cloud. No need for the install media anymore. If you replace your computer, or you’re visiting a friend’s house and feel like playing, just install the steam client, (which runs on MAC or PC by the way) login and download/install/play. Not all games can be registered through Steam, but after using it, you’ll wish they could be. Game patches and updates are delivered seamlessly in the background. I only wish it could keep your saved games synced up to the cloud as well.
The community features let you friend up your posse and see when/what they are playing online. Voice chat or message your buddies through Steam and set up teams to play Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2, then voice chat in-game with Steam running in the background. Press F12 to grab screenshots of your game. These functions work even if you aren’t playing a steam-registered game!
The online store is evil genius. I’ve bought and downloaded more games through the Steam client in 2011 than I bought off the shelf. If you keep an eye out, you’ll be astonished by the prices. Oblivion was listed for $4.99 for one day only. I just picked up Portal 2 for $7.50. There are many free games and demos that you can get through Steam, including Alien Swarm. And purchasing games as gifts for friends is slick and easy.
Steam works on Windows or Mac. Make sure to friend me up on Steam, my user name is Conrad Zero.
Delicious Website Bookmarking
If you bounce between different computers, or different browsers on the same computer, you’ll quickly turn the word “Bookmarks” into a curse word. But Delicious.com‘s lovely online bookmarking service is an elegant solution. Install the delicious toolbar and your bookmarks are saved/synced to the cloud and all your computers/browsers .
FREE Antivirus Software from your Internet Service Provider
Many people are missing out on a free antivirus option. Comcast, Qwest, and other internet service providers (ISPs) offer you free antivirus software along with your internet service. Check your ISP’s website and see if they have a free antivirus program available. Usually, you will have to log in to the ISP website with your account info (username and password) and look in the support section, or search the site for antivirus download.
Avast FREE Antivirus Virus Protection
Avast works great, it’s low profile and QUIET, something I cannot say for other antivirus programs, even ones you have to pay for.
CCleaner Hard Drive Cleaner (older versions only)
Formerly “Crap Cleaner” and formerly free, I’m told the latest version is a 30 day trial, then you must pay to continue using it. But FileHippo has older versions of CCleaner which are still free to use and do the job. (I’m not sure exactly where the versions change to trial versions, but I’m currently running version 3.03 which should never time out if you don’t update it.)
CCleaner does exactly what you think it does: it cleans crap off your hard drive. Temp files, browsing history, cookies, recycle bin… It’s a great way to tune up your slow computer and recover some hard drive space. I always run CCleaner before scanning for viruses/spyware and defragmenting hard disks.
Malwarebytes AntiMalware and Spybot Search and Destroy Malware Removal
Antivirus software is not enough. Malware is not the same as a virus, and virus scanners won’t find it. The horribly named programs Malwarebytes AntiMalware and Spybot Search and Destroy will. Update and scan with BOTH of these programs AND your antivirus software anytime you have odd or slow computer problems. Do this BEFORE you call your techie friend for help. Please.
Malwarebytes now has a paid version that runs in the background and provides continuous updated protection like your antivirus program, but most people can get by with the free version that must be updated and run manually. (Make sure to Decline the real-time version when you install, or you’ll end up with a 30-day trial of the paid version.)
Ashampoo Burning Studio Free CD/DVD/Blu-Ray Burning
Ashampoo is easy to use, burns anything to anything, and it isn’t a background hog or “notice whore” like Nero and Roxio. Make sure you download the FREE version, and don’t upgrade this program. The updated version only works for a limited time unless you pay. The free version works great.
K-Lite Codec Mega-Pack Audio/Video Codecs
Saveau sez: K-Lite allows your computer to play back every form of non-mechanical media known to have been in use in this sector of the galaxy. Ever. It will integrate with Windows Media Player, or use the included Media Player Classic, or both, and runs without issue on XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It can even allow older, slower computers to play back some modern HD content. If you run into a media file that Windows won’t play or you get a “missing codec” error, you need this program.
Imgburn The Ultimate Image Burner
Exactly what it says it is, imgburn does two things well: Creates ISO files from CD/DVD and creates CD/DVD from ISO files.
Virtual Clone Drive Virtual Drive Utility
Ever since discovering Virtual Clone Drive, I use it all the time instead of CD/DVD media. From the website:
Virtual CloneDrive works and behaves just like a physical CD/DVD drive, however it exists only virtually. Image files generated with CloneDVD or CloneCD can be mounted onto a virtual drive from your hard-disk or from a network drive and used in the same manner as inserting them into a normal CD/DVD drive.
The upshot is you can right-click ISO images and ‘mount’ them, then they become a drive in your computer just like you had put the CD/DVD in a drive. With Virtual Clone Drive you can move your entire catalog of games, movies and other optical media onto your hard drive! And accessing the virtual drives makes games load faster than from the CD/DVD drive.
Winimage Floppy Disk Imaging
In case you didn’t know, floppy disk technology is pretty much obsolete. But what if you still have a drawerful of recovery boot floppies, diagnostic programs and archaic hardware install floppies?
You need winimage. Winimage creates an executable image of many disk formats, including floppy disks. Running the executable file will ask for a target blank disk, which will be written with an exact duplicate of the original. This means you can now e-mail a bootable floppy disk, archive bootable floppy disks on your hard drive, and upload bootable floppy disks to the internet. Convert all those floppies to .exe files and store them on a USB drive or upload them to the cloud. Then, simply run the .exe and create clone floppies as you need them.
Winimage is trialware, meaning it is free for 30 days of use, but generally that’s all the time you need to archive that drawer full of floppy disks.
7Zip File Compression Utility
Saveau sez: Windows handles .zip files natively and WinZip and WinRAR can be used free with nag screens, but 7zip has the advantage of not merely being freeware, it is also a better program than either of those venerable commercial stalwarts. It is heavily multi-threaded to take advantage of multiple processor cores and can handle just about every compression scheme in existence. I can’t imagine a computer without it as part of a standard build.
Yes, I know I’ve already pointed Evernote out in the Apps and Services sections, but the Evernote software client is a must-have. Install the local client on your computer and it runs in the system tray, ready to grab screenshots, selected text, or clipboard contents with a click. The browser plugin lets you grab full webpages, which makes it great for storing online purchase receipts, confirmations, website layout ideas… the uses are endless.
TeamViewer Remote Control and “MSTSC”
Teamviewer lets you remote control a computer across the internet with ease, even through firewalled network connections. The target user runs a small app which generates a session ID and password. You (the remote support person) type in the ID/Password of the target and whammo, you’re connected, controlling and viewing the target user’s computer, and showing grandma how to attach her cellphone camera pix to an e-mail. Again.
MSTSC stands for MicroSoft Terminal Server Connection, and it’s built into most Windows operating systems. If you Run this acronym a box will pop up saying “Remote Desktop Connection” and prompting you for a computer name to connect with. (Note: Remote Desktop must be enabled on the target PC.) This little tool is indispensable for accessing computers with video/keyboard problems or accessing virtual machines running somewhere on your network. Once you start using this handy built-in windows utility, you won’t soon forget how to spell it.
Clonezilla and MiniTool Disk Partition/Cloning Utilities
Clonezilla is a Linux-based Live CD that implements a command line interface for backing up and restoring a full image of your hard drive. If you didn’t understand that last sentence, you shouldn’t be using it. Clonezilla is not terribly user-friendly, but a workable free alternative to Symantec’s Ghost or Acronis Backup and Recovery software. Full Disclosure – I actually quit using Clonezilla once I purchased Acronis Backup and Recovery. Acronis is weapons-grade backup software, but it is not free, not even cheap. For those with more time and techieness than budget, Clonezilla works well.
Saveau recommends Minitool Partition Wizard and after a quick look, I will have to give it a try. Minitool Disk imaging is a marvelous suite of disk partition/backup/recovery tools that is fully compatible with 64-bit versions of Windows even in the free version. MiniTool also offers a free hard drive cloning utility that Saveau reports is a breeze to use.
SpaceMonger Hard Drive Graphical Representation
SpaceMonger shows you a visual representation of the files on your hard drive. File sizes are represented graphically instead of numerically. Larger files take up more space on the screen. This top-down view of your hard drive is far more intuitive than a listing of programs. Right away you can see where space is being wasted. SpaceMonger is a must for network admins running file servers.
Note that SpaceMonger was updated to a new version 2.1 that only works for a 30-day trial period, then you have to pay to continue using the software. You want the old-and-still-free version 1 which works just fine.
XBox Media Center Media PC Operating System
No, really. A fully free operating system for media PCs. Referred to me years ago on lifehacker.com, Saveau tells me the latest build of Xbox Media Center is absolutely phenomenal. If you have a spare box laying around, install XBox Media Center and throw it behind the TV in the living room, and enjoy photos, music and movies via a slick interface. Run it off the Live CD for a painless test-drive.
Virtual Box Virtualization Software
Saveau recommends Virtual Box software from Oracle that allows you to create virtual machines in your computer onto which you can install any compatible operating system you wish (provided you have the install disks for that OS). Why would you want to do this? Well, first of all it’s just plain cool :-) Secondly, Virtual Box differs from other similar packages in that it is much easier to install and configure, and it also gives your virtual machine low-level hardware access – meaning that you can install drivers for your graphics card and actually use them at a decent level of performance, something most virtualization software doesn’t even attempt. Older programs which simply won’t run on Windows 7 can be installed on a virtual instance of Windows XP on your same machine and still use your existing hardware. Virtual Box is free, well documented, runs on Windows, OS X, Linux and Solaris, and loves multiple processor cores.
Happy Holidays! Enjoy your Free Apps, Software, and Services!
My thanks to Saveau for his help in building this list. If you have any comments or suggestions, add them to the comments section below.
I hope you enjoy this list of free, IT-approved software. Please spread the word. Link back to this post, and check back next year for the latest free goodness!