A Huge List of Free Useful Software

6/17/2011:  There have been several hits on this entry recently.  Since the original content was from 2008, I decided to refresh it slightly.  Please let me know if you have any additions.

Commercial software is available for every conceivable use, but many of these applications come with a price tag which is too high for most home users or hobbyists. With this high price, typically come bloated features which will never be used by the average user. So, not only are you wasting money, but you are potentially eating valuable resources on your PC. The good news is that there are typically free alternatives with feature-sets that focus on the most common tasks for everyday users. This list will focus on free alternatives — some of which I have used, some I have not. This list will be updated regularly.

Let’s start with a software category I know very well. As co-owner of Gentry Photography in Tulsa, I spend a lot of time using different photo editing packages. Photoshop is the commercial standard, but is loaded with obscure features that I don’t even use. There are several free alternatives to Photoshop for an average home user:

  • Not my favorite, but one of the most popular is The Gimp. Originally available only on Unix/Linux, and eventually ported to Windows, this open source project started as a student project at Berkley. This is a very popular tool among the open source crowd. It has evolved over the years but takes some time to figure your way around. The interface is a different than what you may be used to. It is worth looking into.
  • Paint.Net started as a student project at Washington State University. It is a Windows only program written on the .Net platform. Paint.Net is extensible (meaning anyone can write plug-ins) and is very easy to use for hobbyist. This program is updated frequently and I recommend it to anyone wanting to get started with photo editing. Here’s a quick article I wrote on the new beta.
  • Windows Live Photo Gallery is an excellent program for managing your massive collection of photos and videos. WLPG is part of Microsoft’s Live suite of software. This software automatically organizes your photos by date and directory, but it also allows you to assign tags to any group of photos. There are some basic photo correction options like auto-correct, red-eye, and cropping.  You can publish photos to Flickr and Facebook. It even has face detection and tries to “guess” at assigning names to faces.  It then keeps these names when you upload photos to Facebook. Perhaps the coolest feature, coming from Microsoft Research, is the ability to stitch multiple photos together to create a panoramic. You simply select the photos you want to stitch and WLPG does the rest. When you take the shots, you need to make sure portions of neighboring photos overlap. Yes, there are other programs, even Photoshop, that create panoramas, but you will not find one easier than this!
  • Windows Media Center Edition is one of my favorite applications of all time. MCE is basically a 10-foot remote controlled interface (opposed to 12-inch mouse controlled) to all of your digital media. The primary feature is a built-in DVR, but it also gives you access to your videos, photos, radio, etc all on your TV. Media Center was introduced in 2004 in XP MCE and updated in core Vista and Win 7 versions. If you don’t have the ‘real’ Media Center, then you should check out Media Portal. This is a free application that runs on any Windows based PC. It offers many of the features that Windows MCE has including the remote controlled access to TV, DVR, Videos, Photos, etc.  To utilize TV and the DVR, you will need a TV Tuner. One cool feature that Media Portal has that the native Windows MCE does not, is the capability to ‘skin’ the look of the software via built-in themes.
  • Windows Power Toys is a collection of free, small utilities from Microsoft which were not included in the XP core code, but there are no equivalents in Vista/Win7/Win8. There are several XP toys available, but these are my favorites:
    • Image Resizer. This is a must have for anyone with a digital camera. This simple utility allows you to resize an image from directly within Windows Explorer by simply right-clicking on the filename or icon. There are three preset sizes (small/medium/large) or you can create a custom size. The resizing is non-destructive, meaning it creates a copy and leaves the original file intact.
    • Alt-tab Replacement. Any proficient Windows user uses the alt-tab key combo to quickly switch among applications. I’ve used this shortcut since 1990 in Windows 3.0 and the functionality hasn’t changed since. As you alt-tab through your open apps, the name of the open program is displayed on-screen. This power toy enhances this function and places a mini screenshot of the running app. Very useful.
      • Win Vista and beyond, there is no need for this XP PowerToy.  Although Alt-Tab still works, newer versions of Windows give you the ‘Windows Key’ – Tab alternative.  This is known as Flip-3D and is very cool!
  • Another product category I know well is email. In my past life I have been an email administrator for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. I know Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino inside and out.  Outlook 2007 is an excellent program, but it is overkill for home use and it is definitely not free. Consider these alternatives:
    • Windows Live Mail. If you’re still using Outlook Express (XP and older) or Windows Mail (Vista) then you should consider replacing those apps with the new Windows Live Mail. It has support for multiple mails accounts, newsgroups, and RSS feeds. The look is fresh and has some great features like Photo Mail. The single feature that impresses me most is the junk mail filter. (I believe this is the same spam engine as the real Outlook.) I have mine set to “high” which means it captures anything that remotely looks like spam. You have the option to remove it instantly or quarantine it for review later. I don’t have actual numbers to back this up, but I would estimate that even on high, the false positive rate is less than 1%.  Live Mail also has white/black lists and anti-phishing technology.
    • Mozilla Thunderbird is the sister project to FireFox. It’s a good email client that I have used in the past, but it is starting to show its age. Thunderbird still has top-notch junk mail filtering. I can longer recommend Thunderbird.  It has become too stagnant and looks very old fashioned.
  • Security software can be free too! If you pay for antivirus, then stop. Norton in particular is a resource hog. Having this on your PC will instantly slow you down. Remove any installations of Norton or McAfee (you’ll need the Norton removal tool) and consider one of these options:
    • My highest recommendation for free or paid anti malware is Microsoft Security Essentials.  This is a highly effective, efficient, free malware engine.  It updates itself daily and has no noticeable impact on performance.
    • AVG comes in free and premium versions. The free version is an excellent anti-virus tool which won’t bog you down . The premium upgrade includes anti-spyware and a firewall.
    • Same goes for AVAST. Both tools are well-written and have daily definition updates.
  • Everyone has their favorite browser and it sometimes turns into a religious war. I’m not going to compare all the free browsers, but I will list some here:
    • Internet Explorer 7  was an OK browser, IE8 got much better, but IE9 is perhaps the best browser I have used. If you are still using anything less than IE9, then visit Windows Update and upgrade.  Pre IE9, I used IE for about 50% of my browsing followed by Firefox and Chrome.  With version 9,  IE now has 80% of my browsing.  There is very little reason not to use it.
    • FireFox is the open source favorite. Prior to IE8 I used FF almost exclusively. FireFox has somewhat of a resource hog, but newer versions have reduced the footprint somewhat. (My name is listed on the FireFox “Thank You” for some testing I did around 1999.)
    • Safari is Apple’s entry to the Windows browser market. Safari takes a minimalist approach and by design doesn’t include too many features. In fact, the look reminds of the old Netscape 3 browsers.
    • Chrome is another minimalist browser with regular updates.  If you like to inspect code, then Chrome has the best built-in inspector.

Just for fun, I restarted the three browsers listed here and loaded my homepage. This page has a good dose of JavaScript & PHP. IE7 is using 58.2MB of memory, last night’s build of FF3 is occupying 58.6 MB, and Safari 3.1 is the heaviest at nearly 61MB. I figured Safari would be the lightest. (Those are old versions that are now irrelevant)




  • Backup Software
    • SyncBack is a free backup/synchronization tool. I use this utility to schedule backups of my wife’s photo work. This is very easy to use and can handle about any type of backup job you can conceive.
    • There is a class of “cloud” services that host your backups securely on the Internet. There are all kinds of new features and pricing models available. One such serivce is Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Currently, they are giving users 5GB of free online storage. One benefit of hosted services is the ability to access your files from any Internet accessible computer, including your mobile devices.
    • While not free, Mozy and Carbonite should be considered as full backup solutions.  These are agent based, run in the background, and silently backup your data to the cloud.
  • Everyone seems to be looking for good DVD rippers. I’m sure you guys only use this software to make backups of your personal DVDs, right?
    • Although it is old, DVD DeCrypter is the defacto standard. Lots of options, but lots of people have published pages on how to use it.
    • DVDFab is also a nice tool to use when Decrypter won’t rip those dual layer discs. There is a free version and a premium. The premium has presets to rip to IPod, Zune, PSP, etc..
  • My recommendation for free web publishing software is WordPress.  It’s not just for blogs anymore.  WordPress now handles static pages as easily as it does blog posts.  In fact, I am building Gentry’s new website on it.  It’s free. It’s widely used.  And there are tons of plug ins available to practically anything you want.  The biggest drawback is the content editor doesn’t allow for as rich documents as I want.  However, I am willing to live with this considering all its other strengths.

There’s a lot more coming including blog tools, audio/video editing, backup software, etc. If I left off your favorite tool let me know and I’ll add it.