Free: It's the magic word for an ever-expanding wealth of downloadable software and online services. Free doesn't necessarily mean good, however, and hunting for freebies can mean sifting through a lot of junk.
That's where we come in. We surfed, clicked, and installed to find sparkling free gems capable of planning your time, keeping you in touch, and tuning and securing your PC, not to mention glitzing up your desktop, helping you stay productive, and entertaining you with music, videos, photos, and games. We paid special attention to programs and services you may not have heard of before.
We also singled out two free offerings--one download and one online service --as the best of the bunch. We want to hear your picks for the best freebies, too, whether they appear in this article or not. Please let us know by joining our forum discussion.
Tired of expensive, slow, bloated word processors? Download this surprisingly powerful freebie, which includes sophisticated features such as mail merge and advanced layouts. The program handles a wide variety of document formats, including those of Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, OpenOffice.org, and other programs.
If you place orders often via the Web or phone, here's a site for you. When you get a shipping notification, forward the e-mail to email@example.com. The service reads through your message for the tracking information and keeps it in one place for all of your orders. Log in to the site to see the progress of your shipments, including a map showing their progress.
You have plenty of free Web-based word processors to choose from, but most aren't as slick as this one. The design is tasteful and elegant, menu items slide in and out of place, and it's incredibly simple to use. But don't let the pretty face fool you, because Buzzword is feature-packed as well. Inserting tables and graphics is a breeze, you can easily select background colors, and the document manager is a standout too.
ThinkFree Online (service)
Don't want to fork over several hundred dollars for Microsoft Office? Try this Web-based productivity suite, which covers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The service can create files compatible with Microsoft Office, so you can download files to your own PC where you can work on them offline using Office applications, if you wish. You can also edit your Office-created documents in ThinkFree, though you have to be connected to the Internet to do that. But if you're always connected, you can't beat free.
If you prefer offline apps that reside on your PC, download the free StarOffice suite, which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet app, and a presentation program, among other goodies. It's part of the free Google Pack, which also contains a bunch of other programs you might not want. During the Google Pack download, simply check the box next to StarOffice and uncheck all the others.
Foxit Reader for Windows (download)
High on our list of the most annoying applications of all time is Adobe Acrobat Reader. It's slow, bloated, and buggy, and it often crashes some systems--all of which can drive you insane. Foxit lets you read and even fill out PDF files, without touching Reader. This small and compact tool loads fast, won't hog RAM or system resources, and won't crash your PC.
Microsoft Office Live Small Business (service)
With this service, you can share documents and collaborate with coworkers and customers, build a Web site, and manage your contacts. A variety of for-pay options are available as well, but you don't have to pay for the basics.
If you own a small business, you need a database to create and track customer records, among other details. At home, you may want to organize information related to hobbies, such as your fantasy football stats. With Blist, you can do all of that online for free. You just drag and drop column types, such as numbers, dates, names, and money amounts, onto a grid. Then type in your data, and voilá--instant database.
Moffsoft FreeCalc (download)
For simple, basic operations, the calculator that ships with Windows is fine. But if you need more, get this great free download. It has a variety of new keys, such as memory subtract, and its nifty "tap" feature keeps a running history of all your calculations.
File sharing and storage
This clever site combines personal, online storage with file sharing. You get 5GB of free space to store your files. You can either keep the files private or share them with other users, on a folder-by-folder basis. The service imposes just one limitation: No file can be larger than 100MB.
Torrent Swapper (download)
Though BitTorrent has become the de facto protocol for sharing files, the BitTorrent client leaves a lot to be desired. Get this far superior, and faster, open source client instead. It's easy to use, and it lets you get recommendations from others about files to download; it also allows you to stop, pause, resume, and queue downloads.
Want to share files, but don't want to be tied exclusively to the BitTorrent protocol? This simple-to-use free download allows you to share files on multiple networks and protocols, including BitTorrent, Gnutella, Gnutella2, and eDonkey. It offers fast search and chat capabilities, and you can skin it to your taste as well.
Microsoft Office Live Workspace (service)
This is, by far, the most powerful free file-sharing site you can find. It's closer to a full-blown collaboration tool, and it links directly to Microsoft Office so that you can edit your online files using Office applications. The service is ideal for small businesses looking for a way to collaborate on common documents.
Don't expect sophistication or any bells and whistles here. This service is a simple, straightforward way to store up to 1GB of files online for free.
This simple, no-frills storage site also lets you share files with other people. You get 1GB of free storage, and you can send colleagues links to your files so they can download them. It has as basic an interface as you will find. One important note: Make sure to create "tags" (the equivalents of folders) and then upload files to your tags; otherwise, you may never unearth the files again.
MP3 Rocket (download)
You can do more with this Gnutella client than just share and download files. You can also listen to Internet radio stations, watch online video channels, and burn your own CDs.
If you want to share media and other kinds of files, the task doesn't get much easier than on this site. Upload your files to the service, and you'll have access to them online whenever you want. You can then share them with others in various ways, including sending an e-mail link to the storage site. It's also a good way to publish photos and media to a Web site or blog, since you can put a link in your page to the file being hosted on Bluestring.
VirusTotal Uploader (download)
Great for checking potentially dangerous downloads and e-mail attachments, this uploader gives you a right-click option to send any file under 10MB to VirusTotal's exceptional site, where you'll receive antivirus scan results from 32 different program engines.
Avira AntiVir PersonalEdition (download)
Avira typically does a great job of detecting malware on a PC; the paid version of the program posted a 99.6 percent catch rate in the latest tests from AV-Test.org. The free version employs the same engine, but you'll have to tolerate the occasional pop-up urging you to upgrade to the paid application.
Spyware Doctor Starter Edition (download)
This edition of the popular PC Tools antispyware application is part of the Google Pack. The free version can run full spyware scans but doesn't have many of the real-time protection features of the paid version.
Comodo Firewall Pro (download)
Comodo's extensive firewall can block unauthorized attempts to send information from your PC to the Internet, which surpasses the protection that the built-in XP firewall offers. But as with any advanced firewall, be sure you know what you're doing before monkeying with the more in-depth security settings.
Create an encrypted virtual drive with its own drive letter that automatically protects any file you add to it with your choice of encryption. If you try this program, be sure to go through the helpful first-time-use tutorial.
Secunia Personal Software Inspector (download)
Secunia's useful program makes keeping your software applications up-to-date much easier. It even covers apps that you might rarely use but that can leave Internet Explorer (and your PC) wide open because of an unsafe ActiveX control. PSI provides details on the security holes in old software and tells you where to obtain updates.
Spamfighter Pro (download)
Spamfighter harnesses the collective intelligence of 4.5 million e-mailers around the world to block spam with a toolbar in Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail. The free version shows a text ad in the toolbar and adds a footer to your e-mail messages.
BitDefender Online Scanner (service)
If you suspect that your regular anti-virus app missed a malware infection, head to BitDefender's online scanner (requires Internet Explorer) for a second opinion. The Web app scans your system's memory and all files, detecting and removing infections.
ThreatFire Free (download)
ThreatFire supplements (but doesn't replace) your regular antivirus program. It adds behavioral-analysis protection that attempts to identify Trojan horses and other malware based on how they act on your PC.
McAfee Rootkit Detective (download)
The information you receive from Rootkit Detective's pursuit of malware-hiding rootkits might be too technical to use yourself. The handy Submit button, however, will produce free advice on dealing with the suspicious files it finds.
Video and photo
Here's an offbeat Web site for folks who would like to create online photo-collage postcards and share them. When you type in a phrase, the site grabs photos from the Flickr photo-sharing site that it believes match each word, and then builds a Web page/photo gallery based on it. You can click each photo to view the original at Flickr, and send the URL to a friend.
With this site (as well as its associated software) you can create Flash-based "stories," in the form of slide shows or multimedia presentations, about anything you want. You can create a résumé, a presentation for your company or a trade group, training material, or anything else that comes to mind. Prebuilt templates will help you get started.
This open-source video tool will play every video format under the sun, show HD content, tune in to video blogs, save YouTube videos, and even download and show video files via BitTorrent.
This do-it-all tool, a must-have application for digital photographers, offers a file viewer, an image editor, a slide-show creator, a batch editor, and a screen-capture program. It can even convert photos in the RAW format used by many digital cameras to the more useful JPEG format.
URL Snooper (download)
Are you frustrated that YouTube and similar sites allow you to view videos online, but not download and save them to your PC? With this free program, you can grab them. Head to a Web page, and the program lists all of the videos on it. You just double-click one to view it or save it.
Throw away your print TV listings--this site is approximately 10,000 times better. In addition to the standard listings, Meevee lets you create your own personal channel listings by combining your favorite TV programs and online video. It has a wealth of detail about each show, and the online-video listings contain links to the actual video content. Try that with your TV Guide.
Yahoo Live (service)
This is a video site with a difference--it broadcasts live video, rather than prerecorded clips. You can broadcast yourself live, too, as long as you have a Webcam. When we checked in on a Sunday afternoon, it didn't have a whole lot of live content, but you can expect that to change as interest in real-time services grows.
Everyone wants to create great-looking videos to post on the Web, but few people have professional-quality video cameras. That's where this site comes in. It takes the grainy, dark video you've captured with your cell phone, Webcam, or digital camera, and helps you clean it up for posting online by adjusting the contrast and bringing out the details hidden in dark areas.
Who needs software to edit photos or add special effects? Instead, head to this site and use its full complement of powerful editing tools, including all kinds of special effects such as stretching, adding a tint, and drawing a cartoon based on the photo.
System utilities and backup
Need to convert files from one format to another? With Zamzar you can convert files to countless types of formats. The site works with all Microsoft Office document file types, as well as a large number of video, audio, and graphics files, and even file-compression archives.