We’ve all heard the expressions “you get what you pay for” and “nothing in this world is free” before, but in the crazy world of cyberspace, those adages couldn’t be less true. There are literally thousands of free software programs available online (either as downloadable software or web-only applications) that are guaranteed to increase fun and productivity but won’t cost you a dime. And while these offerings might not be as feature-rich as their paid counterparts, you might just be surprised at the scope and quality of the selection that’s out there today.
Ready to enjoy the best for less? Put away your wallet and take heed to the following freebies. We’ve broken them up into three categories: Mac apps, Windows apps, and Web apps that will work on any operating system. Enjoy!
Caffeine: This handy little utility always makes these kind of lists because it’s just so darn useful. Caffeine turns off your Mac’s auto-dim function so that you can read articles or watch videos without worrying about the screen darkening on you. You might not use it all the time, but it’s definitely worth a download.
Afloat: There are tons of window management tools out there, and depending on your screen size, you might prefer a different one. iMac users with hulking 27-inch displays won’t have trouble finding desktop real estate, but Apple’s most popular computer is the 13-inch Macbook Pro – so for most of us, a good window management tool is a must. Rather than simply resizing windows, Afloat lets you ‘float’ a window and keep in on top, and also allows you to adjust the transparency of your windows. It’s unbelievably useful, and we highly recommend it for users with smaller screens.
Alfred: Alfred is an application launcher (and much more) that has won the hearts of Mac users everywhere for its simple interface and powerful functions. Think of Alfred as your personal digital assistant – he’ll fetch anything you tell him to.
The app allows you to set custom shortcuts to launch programs, browse and play music from iTunes in a snap and perform a wide range of other functions. If you’re not already using it, definitely give it a try – it’ll probably improve your workflow.
TextWrangler: If you use a computer, chances are high that you’ll encounter a situation that requires the use of a word processor, and while MS Word is still the king of the text editor jungle, there’s no reason you should pay upwards of $100 for a good piece of software. There are loads of free alternatives that offer just as many features and of all the great options out there, TextWrangler is one of the best. Other good options: Bean, TextMate.
GIMP: Short for GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP is a free and open-source image editor that works similarly to Adobe Photoshop. The interface is a bit different, and it lacks some of the more specialized features that AP has, but most users will find its features more than adequate. It supports layered editing, and it’s regularly updated to provide users with the most cutting edge tools.
Inkscape: GIMP is to Photoshop as Inkscape is to Illustrator. It’s a free and open source vector graphics program that’s extremely powerful. It’s built on the same engine as GIMP, and has an incredibly active user community. If you ever run into problems or can’t figure something out, just head on over to the forums for quick help.
GeekTool: GeekTool is a free desktop customization tool for your Mac. It allows you to use shell scripts to add things like date/time indicators, weather info, or even RSS feeds to your desktop. Even if you’re not a code guru, Tynsoe (the guys who make GeekTool) has a long list of user scripts that you can snag and install with ease.
Anxiety: This is a simple, minimalist to-do-list application that easily ranks among the best of to-do list apps.
NetNewsWire: There are a lot of free RSS readers out there, but NNW is probably the only one that can hold it’s own when pitted against some of it’s paid counterparts. It’s unquestionably one of the most powerful and versatile RSS aggregators our there and it’s completely free.
Screenshot Captor: Whereas Mac users can just hit command+shift+4 to take a screenshot of their desired dimensions, Windows user are stuck with the clunky PrintScreen function, which can be a pain in the ass at times. Screenshot Captor is a feature-rich screengrab app that makes the process far more simple. Not only can you take a simple snapshot, but you can also perform more complicated actions like grabbing images with jagged borders. Another good option: Greenshot.
Foobar2000: Foobar2000 is an awesome music manager for windows. In addition to looking rather nice, it’s got a simple UI, a small footprint, and a host of advanced features. If you’re not a fan of Windows Media Player, but not so fond of iTunes for Windows either, definitely check this program out. Another good one is VLC Media Player.
WriteMonkey: If you do a lot of writing on your PC, WriteMonkey is a great minimalist word processing program that helps you focus on putting words on the page. It lacks some of the advanced editing features that come with more full-featured word processors, but it retains most essential formatting capabilities.
Dexpot: Virtual desktops come stock on Mac computers, but Windows users will generally need to install third-party apps to get these kinds of functions. Virtual desktops are great for maintaining an uncluttered digital workspace, managing windows, optimizing your workflow, and keeping yourself focused. Dexpot is easily the best free virtual desktop out there.
Rainmeter: Rainmeter is without a doubt the best desktop cusotmization tool available for Windows. It allows you to tweak just about every part of your desktop, and when used creatively (and sometimes in conjunction with other tools) you can create some absolutely gorgeous desktops. Lifehacker does a “featured desktops” post every so often where they round up the most awesome desktops that people submit, and in the explanations of how they were made, Rainmeter is almost always mentioned.
RocketDock: Don’t like your taskbar and the way you applications clutter your desktop? Check out RocketDock — a fully-customizable dock for your icons and documents. It looks somewhat similar to OSX’s dock, but it can be placed anywhere on your desktop.
Launchy: A dead-simple application launcher. ‘Nuff said.
Defraggler: for those of us who haven’t jumped on the solid-state bandwagon, every so often we’ve got to go through the tedious process of defragging to keep our machines running smoothly. Defraggler makes this process about as painless as possible, and has a great visual map of your disks.
AVG Antivirus: Good antivirus software is essential for Windows users, but that doesn’t mean that you have to shell out a monthly fee to McAfee or Norton — AVG offers a comparable level of protection completely free of charge.
Next Page: Best free web apps and free apps for any operating system.