The Best Free Software94 tools and sites that help you work smarter, communicate better, and have more fun--all great, and all gratis.
In the world of Windows software, free has almost become a bad word. Most programs offered as a free download bring along unwelcome companions for the ride: intrusive spyware, embedded advertising, and frustrating restrictions. With most (or virtually all) functionality disabled, some of these programs are so hamstrung, they can hardly do anything. Such programs aren't really free; they're glorified advertisements for commercial applications. It's enough to drive an otherwise confirmed cheapskate to shell out hard-earned cash.
Don't despair: Though it may seem like their numbers are dwindling, Windows software developers who know the true meaning of free still exist. They produce a wide range of full-featured products--system utilities, office applications, image editors, security and privacy tools, and many other programs--that cost you no money, save you time, and in many cases perform their tasks more simply and efficiently than some bloated, commercial counterparts. These 70 tools represent some of the finest truly free, truly useful applications on the planet. And if that isn't enough, we've listed 24 Web sites where you can find more free stuff.
Windows Care Essentials
If you don't have the time or inclination to dig through Windows menus yourself, Winuscon puts several important Windows tools (such as a file manager, an SMS message sender, and access to all of Windows' control panels and management settings applets) at the ready, all in one place.
X-Setup Pro gives you control over dozens of settings that affect Windows' look and feel.
Gearheads can use X-Setup Pro to adjust and restore the minutiae of Windows display, theme, sound, and other settings on their PCs--nearly 1700 different elements of the user interface. You can even create special files that let you transfer your customizations to other computers (or you can use it just to back them up).
Windows guru and PC World columnist Lincoln Spector likes the utilitarian KillWin program, which lets you shut down, restart, or log off Windows at specified times and dates. He uses it to close all his apps before running a backup.
JetToolBar's tabbed interface lets you quickly find and launch programs, and open files.
For a quicker and more organized way to launch your favorite programs, turn to the JetToolBar utility, which displays a floating or docked toolbar. Think of it as a clever alternative to the Windows Start menu.
You want drivers? DriverFiles.net has more drivers than NASCAR. This easily searched, no-frills site can bring you up to speed with a wide range of device drivers (including unofficial and beta versions) for most peripherals and components. If you're looking for Windows-certified drivers, check the Windows Update Driver Catalog to search for the most stable device drivers for your hardware components.
Tweak Windows to Your Heart's Content
If you can't get enough of Windows XP tweaks, check out the Windows XP Power Toys--a set of Windows utilities for power users. Following are five of the best:
If your Windows XP-based computer didn't come with repair tools on a bootable CD, or if your PC can't boot from a CD, you'll want to download the Windows XP Home Edition Setup Disks for Floppy Boot Install and create a set of bootable floppies--in case you hit trouble down the road.
Get back to where you once belonged: The PC Inspector File Recovery utility finds work you deleted by accident, or lost when your PC flaked out on you.
A companion product, PC Inspector Smart Recovery, helps retrieve accidentally deleted image files from virtually any kind of removable media for digital cameras.
Anyone who has used CD-R/RW media knows it's not foolproof. CDCheck identifies any files that are damaged or corrupted, and retrieves them for safekeeping. This helpful utility will also let you check the continued health of other PC files viewable through Windows Explorer.
The Recycle Bin is not all-powerful. If you want a good undelete program, give Restoration a try. The utility will even run from a floppy so that you don't accidentally overwrite a "deleted" file that's still lying dormant somewhere on your hard drive.
Communicate and Browse Smarter
A multitalented IM client, Gaim runs under both Linux and Windows. The app supports several IM services, including AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, and IRC. Gaim lets you log on to several services at one time, and it mimics many of the features of each while adding unique customization options, such as alerts for when specific people come online. It can live in your system tray, so you don't need a contact list window open constantly.
Make MSN Messenger more flexible with the Messenger Plus add-on. For instance, you can personalize your status message, organize your contacts better, and spiff up the look of your text.
A favorite of many PC World editors, Trillian lets you use one program to send instant messages to people using IRC, AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo. You can customize the look of this clever little app with some nifty skins, too.
Trillian, like a United Nations of IM clients, can talk to many services at once.
Trim and slim Mozilla Firefox, the latest browser from Mozilla, packs in more than enough elegance and functionality to help you kick an Internet Explorer addiction. You get a download manager and bookmark-organization tools, and you can grab any of several small add-in tools from the Mozilla Web site that will do jobs like spelling checking, Web searching, and ad blocking. Firefox is one cool ticket out of Microsoftville.
If you like the experience of tabbed browsing, you could become a big fan of MyIE2 Lite. This Internet Explorer add-on shell lets you more easily navigate multiple browser windows, autocompletes URLs, and scrubs your cache, cookies, viewing history, and related info clean when you close the app. It's worth a peek, particularly if you're born to tweak.
Somewhat like My IE2 Lite but with a different look, IE shell AvantBrowser lets you use a tab-style interface to keep track of several open browser windows. It also allows you to block Flash animation downloads, customize your toolbars, do shortcuts with your mouse, and clean out your history with a single, convenient mouse click.
Can't help fiddling with that IE Toolbar? You'll like Toolbar Chest; this utility preserves your IE toolbar settings as you wish, and permits you to restore them easily if you inadvertently mess them up. If only fixing a ruined dinner were this easy.
If you shop online regularly, you might end up filling out virtually identical order forms on Web sites all the time. AI Roboform will save you from having to fill out the same fields over and over again; it stores and supplies vital data like your name, e-mail address, and home address. You can right-click to fill in a form completely, or instruct it to enter data only in certain fields.
How do we love thee, Google Deskbar? Quietly sitting astride the system tray, you search without changing the current browser page. One needs only to select text in any application, then type Ctrl-Alt-G, to search for those highlighted words.
Mozilla browser users can share the love with the Googlebar plug-in for Mozilla. This plug-in emulates the Internet Explorer Google Toolbar, so you can search any of Google's archives from any browser window without having to load Google first.
The Googlebar for Mozilla puts Google at your beck and call.
Google certainly isn't the only search engine to deliver a free toolbar that travels with you wherever you roam online. The AltaVista Toolbar, which sports several Google Toolbar-like features (such as a weather search and a dictionary lookup), also includes AltaVista's Babelfish translator button, which can translate words or pages from any of ten non-English languages.
Mozilla's latest version of its Outlook Express killer Thunderbird 0.6, an e-mail and newsgroup client, has an improved installer for Windows users and better junk mail filtering. You'll find all the functionality you need and a customizable interface.
For those curious to try Internet phones for long distance phone calls, Free World Dialup's program runs on your PC and uses a broadband Internet connection to make calls. Caveat freeloader: Quality is far from guaranteed--some calls can sound like bad cell phone connections.
A good wireless hotspot is hard to find, unless you're using the JiWire service, a Web application that can locate Wi-Fi hotspots around the country (JiWire is a PCWorld.com partner). For example, you can use it to find fee-based or free hotspots within 10 miles of a certain address or airport.
Want to use JiWire to find hotspots with your PDA? To find and save lists of Wi-Fi hotspot locations, use the AvantGo Hotspot Locator tool (in concert with AvantGo, a free utility for Palm OS and Pocket PC devices and some smart phones that lets you upload up-to-the-minute data when you hot sync).
The extremely useful Netstumbler is well worth the download for any Wi-Fi user. The app can troubleshoot wireless woes (and shore up Wi-Fi security). By scanning for nearby gateways and revealing the strength of the signal you get in various locations, it can help you find a free, open-access wireless network. The Netstumbler site provides support forums and links.
Netstumbler delivers a list of every wireless network within antenna range.
The small (less than 1.3MB) open-source FeedReader program works with all major RSS formats to aggregate and organize the online news you can use. This app will please the "less is more" crowd.
Adobe Reader, the ubiquitous free utility for viewing files in Adobe's PDF format, can also display (on your PC or PDA) electronic books published in the EBook standard.
Since people who post large files to Usenet typically break them into segments, you need a tool that will join the pieces into one downloadable file--otherwise, it can be hard to grab multimedia content. The Xnews Usenet newsreader for Windows stands out from the pack because it "threads" or "compiles" such large image, music, and video file segments into a single link for easy downloading.
Find and Fix PC Problems
Death to Viruses
Antivirus software is like car insurance: Gotta have it, hate to pay for it. But there's little you can find for free with no strings. AVG Anti-Virus System Free Edition is as close as it gets--AVG requires Web site registration in exchange for its antivirus app.
Free for one year, the EZArmor suite puts Computer Associates' antivirus program and a version of the ZoneAlarm firewall into an 18MB package. Automatic virus updates are included, but be aware of one catch: You will see some dialog boxes nagging you about renewing the service.
Tech Support Utilities
Knowledge is power--particularly when it comes to knowing what hardware is installed in your PC. Lavalys Everest Home Edition, a system diagnostic and benchmark tool, delivers details about your hardware, down to the component level.
Everest provides technical data about almost every aspect of your PC's hardware.
Belarc Advisor delivers a thorough inventory of all the bits and pieces of software and Windows components installed on your PC, as well as some key hardware details. It's a handy tool to have if you ever need to call technical support about a malfunctioning software or hardware product.
If you're willing to take pains to keep e-mail confidential, consider PGP Freeware's ability to encrypt messages and more. PGP is a little geeky, but it's the gold standard for free personal encryption software.
Want more information about a Web domain, an e-mail address, or an IP address? Sam Spade can sleuth it out. You can find similar tools elsewhere on the Web, but this program is especially easy to use.
Sam Spade capably ferrets out information about domain names and networks.
Pop-up blockers are almost everywhere, including right in the Google or AltaVista search toolbars. But Panicware's Popup Stopper Free Edition gives you a "privacy report" on the contents of the browser history files, cache, and cookies stored on your hard drive.
WebWasher Classic controls Web advertising content; manages cookies; and, maybe most notably, blocks access to specific Web sites (or makes only certain Web sites accessible)--functionality parents or small businesses will likely find useful.
Losing a download oh-so-close to completion is like having dessert snatched away before you've finished dinner. If you don't use Mozilla, which has a download manager built in, try Internet Download Manager, which can pause a download midstream or pick up a partial file where it left off.
When you want to go browsing without dragging along extra baggage, CachePal offers a way to dump your IE cache files, browser history, and cookies quickly. A single click on the toolbar icon dumps any trace of where you've been in seconds.
ScrubXP cleans out temp files and Internet Explorer cookies and history, and also flushes Windows XP's list of files you opened or searched for either on your hard drive or online.
Keep your browsing history and habits to yourself. Spybot Search & Destroy 1.3 and Ad-aware 6.181 can get rid of spyware that tracks your surfing behavior and adware that pops up ads (sometimes even when you are offline).
Still the top choice among free firewall utilities, ZoneAlarm blocks unwanted Internet intruders while at the same time keeping close tabs on applications--a good way to prevent spyware from phoning home.
Devious Web sites will be unable to pull a switcheroo on your home page once you've installed Browser Hijack Blaster, a utility that prevents other applications (mainly spyware) from making changes to your Internet Explorer settings.
With its mascot Scotty the Windows Watchdog on guard, WinPatrol 7 can alert you when a spyware program tries to set itself to start up alongside Windows (or when other apps, like QuickTime or RealPlayer, try to do the same), giving you another weapon in the war against annoyances.
Light-on-the-Wallet Office Apps
Microsoft Office sure ain't cheap these days. But an open-source alternative, OpenOffice, may surprise you with its remarkably full lineup of features. Take a look at OpenOffice, especially if you don't use every last feature in Excel and you aren't intimidated by a new interface.
If you like Notepad as an alternative to Microsoft Word but find yourself wishing for a bit more, consider Notetab Light, a free text editor that handles basic documents and HTML editing tasks with aplomb.
Do you constantly copy text from Web pages? PureText 2 handily gets rid of formatting, HTML code, and any other stuff you don't need as you copy text to the Clipboard and paste it into other documents.
Design mavens like 1st Page 2000 because it's an HTML editor that anyone from beginners to experts can pick up and use almost immediately. If you liked the no-longer-available Allaire Homesite software, give this cool site-building tool a shot.
AceMoney Lite 3.4.4 can manage your finances without lowering your net worth. It tracks spending, investments, and bills, and it provides various reporting options.
Manage Personal Information
Don't want to use a full-blown personal information management program? KeyNote is designed to organize freeflowing information, such as to-do items, diary entries, recipes, or project notes.
Visual types will like ATnotes, a utility that lets you drag and drop reminders that resemble sticky notes around your screen. The program also allows you to set reminder alarms and search the text of your notes.
Perfect Your Photos, Then Pack 'em In
Let's say you're not terribly artsy, you don't want to drop a bundle on Adobe Photoshop--and you don't need all its options, anyway. You're not alone. IrfanView, a compact but powerful image editor, lets you examine and modify pictures and other graphics, and play around with creative effects. The program supports all of the major image file formats.
Otherwise known as "The GIMP," the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a veteran open-source software application. Use it to do simple paintbrush jobs, create and work with complex images, or fix photos. The latest version has an elegant interface and an array of available plug-ins for creating animation and performing other tricks.
ZipCentral, a smart compression program, could be your one-stop shop for dealing with.zip files. It interacts well with files from other zipping utilities and provides plenty of management options; the interface and options are easy to understand, too.
Handy Audio/Video Tools
Rock on! AnalogX's 30 different Audio Plug-ins and utilities can enhance and organize your audio files. The offerings include one that adds DJ-style scratch effects and another that helps you fix ID3 tags on your MP3 files. Go here to uncover many more such tools.
The Quintessential Player, which requires registration to download, plays virtually any kind of audio or video media file. To expand its abilities, you will need to download one or more free plug-ins (for example, to create a media library); fortunately, the site makes these plug-ins easy to locate.
Other companies should take a music lesson from Apple. The ITunes media player's terrific interface makes it a joy to use even if you never buy a 99-cent song. The newest software can convert WMA files and includes MP3 ripping capability.
When it comes to MP3 file size, less is indeed more. Mp3Trim 1.90a can eliminate long gaps in MP3 files, reducing file size, and can handle some editing tricks like adding fade-ins and fade-outs to the beginnings and ends of songs.
DVD Shrink isn't the same kind of shrink Tony Soprano visits. This DVD utility (registration required) lets you make a backup of a disc onto your PC's hard drive.
Personalized photo gifts (T-shirts, calendars, and the like) don't have to be pricey. With HP photo tools and templates, you can print such items (even if your printer is not a Hewlett-Packard model).
As those of us from Boston will tell you, there is no such thing as too much baseball. Keep up with the latest in any sport through ESPN BottomLine, a toolbar that displays live scores and breaking news on the Windows desktop. Drag it anywhere you want on your screen, and customize your preferences to get only the sports you want.
When 'Free' Software Isn't Really Free
Giving out info in exchange for a freebie isn't always a bad idea. But some sites go too far, asking you to register just to spam you, or loading spyware on your PC. Bottom Line: With free software downloads, you can't always be sure of what you're getting.
"You could be paying hidden taxes on freeware," says Jason Catlett, president of consumer advocacy organization Junkbusters, which fights against the rising tide of unwanted junk on PCs. "There's been a boom in spyware over the past year or two. Any computer may have [more than one] spyware product on it."
Even the federal government is eyeing the trend: The FTC held a spyware workshop in April, and some anti-spyware legislation has been introduced. (Click here for more details on pending state and national legislation.)
Downloading any free software means taking a managed risk, Catlett says. He recommends that you follow these guidelines on choosing wisely and dodging trouble.
Research first, download second: Before you download or install a free application, hit your favorite search site and look up the product and vendor names. If there's no mention (other than at the publisher's own site), the program might not be widely used, and that could be a red flag. Trust your gut instinct if the software developer's site makes you leery; skip the download if you think there's a chance it's questionable.
Ask your neighbor (or an expert): On sites like www.download.com and www.nonags.com, you can consult editorial or user ratings and look at the number of downloads to determine whether the product has negative reports and whether it is popular. There are plenty of well-known, good programs, so don't take a risk, Catlett advises.
Watch the generics: Some scam artists choose product names (or register Web domains) similar to those of reputable applications to confuse downloaders. Make sure you're getting the product you want. Lesser-known programs that promise the world may be the handiwork of spammers and/or spyware makers. If you're not sure about a tool, search on Google to read what others have written about it before you download.
Registering sometimes makes sense--but not always: Carefully consider exactly with whom you're registering. Small commercial software sites run by individuals deserve extra scrutiny. Remember, Catlett says, you could get spammed and telemarketed to death in return for a lousy piece of software. When in doubt, if you need to give a Web site an e-mail address before you can download something, put a free Web e-mail address in the form.
Some places to find free software you can depend on are www.pricelessware.org, www.nonags.com, www.onlythebestfreeware.com, www.freebyte.com/freeware, www.majorgeeks.com--and www.pcworld.com/downloads.
Freest of the free: Pricelessware lists programs selected by freeware fanatics.
Where to Find...
Movies for Nothin' and Your Tunes for Free
Lawsuits over file sharing didn't kill free music downloads. Several perfectly legal repositories let you grab digital tunes and movies that are completely free. These are a few of the best.
Buying into propaganda never sounded so good.
BetterPropaganda: This music news and reviews site also hosts free preview MP3s from up-and-coming bands like Modest Mouse, Interpol, and Guided by Voices. You'll find a bunch of sites, such as Pitchfork Media, that offer preview tracks, but BetterPropaganda organizes them more effectively than most. Each band gets its own page on the site, with links to reviews, articles, and hosted MP3s.
Etree: The Net revolutionized the old tape-trading market, in which super-dedicated fans swapped bootleg recordings of live concerts. Many groups support taping--jam bands like the Grateful Dead are famous for it--as long as fans agree not to sell the recordings. Etree is the place to find them. The site focuses on lossless-compression recordings of live shows (not MP3s), and it's hooked into BitTorrent, which helps you download faster.
Garageband: Independent and unsigned artists frequently make their work freely available on sites like Garageband, which houses many of the files from these almost-big-time acts that used to live on MP3.com.
AtomFilms: Free registration gets you access to one of the largest, most vital collections of short films on the Net. AtomFilms has original comedy, drama, action, and music videos from artists like Polyphonic Spree and Pete Yorn.
WMV HD: Want a stunning demonstration of the future of video clarity? If you have a beefy system (you need a PC with a minimum processor speed of 2.4 GHz and 384MB of memory to watch the low-resolution videos), head over to Microsoft's Windows Media High-Definition Video site for high-def video samples that will blow your mind.
Great Free Game Downloads
Most gaming download sites break this story's prime directive: They don't offer full-featured games, without restrictions, completely free. You're more likely to find game demos (limited versions of commercial games), and often you have to be a registered user to download anything. Five of the sites listed below have this condition, but despite that, you can still get some good free stuff.
Take on chickens and other invaders at Download Free Games.
Download Free Games: With more than 140 ad-free, spyware-free games to download (and no registration requirement), this is a great first stop to make on a downloading frenzy. Most of the items you'll find here tend to fall at the low-action end of the gaming spectrum (card, board, and puzzle games), but a few are fast-paced arcade-style games. Make sure you read the restrictions for each download carefully, as some of the "free version" downloads are just time-limited demos.
FileShack: The fastest-loading game site we've found on the Net, FileShack runs a streamlined download library that hosts some of the largest downloads--meaning 500MB and larger files--of demos and patches. You won't find reviews or previews here, just the downloads your gamer's heart craves.
Happy Puppy: With a slick interface that puts the game downloads right up front, Happy Puppy provides the latest demos and patches, along with a tabbed interface that lets you easily switch between the downloads for PC games and the tips, news, and enhancement codes for console titles.
IGN/GameSpy FilePlanet: The makers of GameSpy software, which helps PC gamers find servers for online play, also operate FilePlanet, one of the largest download archives of patches and demos. In addition, gamers can sort through downloadable videos of games in action, and read reviews and previews of current and upcoming games.
WorthPlaying Files: Providing an interface that's almost Google-like in its simplicity, WorthPlaying enables you to search for games by keyword; alternatively, you can drill down through categories such as Action, Adventure, Racing, Simulation, and RPG (role-playing games).
FileFront Latest Files: Simple and intuitive, FileFront's collection of the 50 newest downloads, listed in reverse-chronological order, are a quick way to find something new. Each download is tagged with an icon that identifies the type of file (for example, a demo, a map or mod of an existing game, a screen saver, or a utility). Click the name for any of the icons in the key that explains them, and the chronological list switches into a list of just that type of file.
Freeware to Fill Up Your PDA
PDA software sites offer a mix of freeware, shareware, and commercial software in their lineups. To unearth the free stuff, typically you can browse categories of software and sort the list by price; on some sites, you'll find a navigation link that whisks you straight to the freeware.
PalmGear.com: This is by far the most comprehensive software download site for handhelds that run the PalmOS. Its StreamLync2 freeware tool lets you click a special link that automatically downloads the file and then installs it onto your Palm (when the PDA is connected, of course).
Window shopping for freeware is a breeze at FreewarePalm.
FreewarePalm and FreewarePPC: These related sites offer 24 categories of PalmOS and Pocket PC/Windows Mobile PDA freeware. You won't find a tremendous variety of software here, but the stripped-down interface will appeal to the utilitarian downloader.
Tucows: This PC-ware download site has a library for handhelds, including PDAs based on the PalmOS, Pocket PC/Windows Mobile (sometimes referred to on the site by its original name, Windows CE), EPOC 32, and the RIM BlackBerry OS. Sort on the License column to find the freeware.
PDA Archives: Have an older PalmPilot, a Windows CE handheld, a Psion, or even an Apple Newton PDA? If you do, you probably have trouble locating software that will run on these bygone platforms. PDA Archives still has software that runs on older PDAs--cool stuff you can no longer dig up anywhere else.
Handango: There's no easy way to find all the freeware on this site (and some categories don't list any freeware), but an advanced search will bring up a category of downloads for a particular operating system: Besides Palm and Pocket PC/Windows Mobile, Handango offers downloads for handhelds running the BlackBerry, Symbian, Java, and Windows Mobile Smartphone operating systems. You can then sort the downloads by price to find the free stuff.
The Best Linux Software
Got meat? You can find virtually any Linux application you might need or want at the freshmeat.net download site.
Windows users know you can find plenty of free software--often scattered around the Web. But if you're just getting started using Linux (or considering it), you might not realize how easy it is to find software applications that you can freely copy, share, and even modify. In fact, for Linux users the concept of freeware is (usually) irrelevant--virtually everything you might want is free.
Linux users don't often need to hunt for downloads on the Web. Many distributions sold in stores include multiple CDs or DVDs packed with thousands of free applications: image editors, word processors, Web site builders, sound editors, silly desktop games--you name it. Each distribution has its own package management tools, which act as a sort of supercharged version of Windows' Add/Remove Programs control panel applet: The tools can copy the files from the right installation CD (or from the Web), and install the application so that it's customized to work with your flavor of Linux. And of course the package management tools are free.
Where on the Web can you find the very latest version of your favorite Linux app? It's pretty much one-stop shopping: Freshmeat.net contains a page for just about every free and open-source project that exists. And if you're into eye candy, the Themes section of the site gives you plenty of options for giving your desktop a makeover. You might run across other Linux download sites, but none as up-to-date as freshmeat.net.
Laurianne McLaughlin is a freelance writer who lives in Boston. PC World Senior Associate Editors Andrew Brandt and Eric Dahl, and Editorial Applications Development Manager Matthew Newton, also contributed to this article.