With worse economic news darkening the tickers on CNN every day and companies collapsing like cardboard boxes in the icy December wind, you might be inclined to shorten wish lists a bit this year to make for a lean Christmas. But while a little fiscal responsibility never hurt, it doesn’t mean you have to come up short on gifts either. Believe it or not, volumes worth of books, games, TV shows, movies and software are all waiting to be harvested for free on the Web, if you have the patience and good sense to find them. Here are a few of our favorite – and legal – ways uncover these gems on the Web.
TV and Movies
Ever since big companies wised up to the rampant piracy of their content on the Web, many have begun to offer free, ad-supported alternatives as a way to keep consumers from straying to the dark side. These sites are easier to use, offer better video quality, and won’t weigh your conscience down, either. For instance, both NBC and News Corp. (the company that owns Fox) offer many of their latest shows on Hulu. That means entire seasons of The Office, The Simpsons and 30 Rock are all there for the watching – no TV needed. Fans of somewhat raunchier humor will find every single South Park episode ever made online, including episodes that just aired, at South Park Studios. And for those who prefer feature films to 30-minute TV shows, Fancast even offers an impressive collection of full-length movies, from Dude, Where’s My Car to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, for free.
Let’s be honest – nothing will ever replace the feel of reading a hardbound book with real paper pages next to the fire. And if you’re looking for free books, nothing beats your local library. But if you’re the proud new owner of an Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, or just want some virtual pages to turn on your laptop for the plane, there’s a plethora of free reading out there for. One of the very best must be Project Gutenberg, which takes advantage of the copyright expiration that pushes books into the public domain to offer classic titles legally, and for free. You won’t find any Steven King on here, but if Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Machiavelli are more your style, you’ll find years worth of reading here. Other free eBooks are usually of a little less literary merit – after all, they’re being hawked for nothing – but that doesn’t make them worthless. Free-eBooks, for example, offers down-to-earth eBook guides on everything from selling on eBay to Scottish-style pipe band drumming. For more specialists, sites such as FreeBooks4Doctors and FreeTechBooks offer invaluable technical manuals in their respective fields for absolutely nothing.
If you’re getting a little tired of reading Tuberculosis 2007 and need to kick back for a bit, the Web offers absolutely no shortage of free gaming opportunities. The first, and probably the most familiar to people, comes in the form of demos. These are short versions of games that developers produce to give you a taste of what they’re offering, and hopefully get you to buy more. In itself it’s a valuable marketing tool, but if you’re up for anything, you can easily play a new game every day with the volume of game demos released all the time. We recommend gaming news sites like BluesNews, and Gamespot to find out what’s new and hot, then going to file repositories like Fileshack, FilePlanet, and Filefront to snag the files. For download speeds, Nvidia’s ever-expanding library of game demos is one of the quickest we’ve used, although it doesn’t always have the hottest titles.
Open source games are another great way to go if you’re disappointed with how limited many game demos are. These are full-featured, ready-to-play games that programmers work on in their free time as a hobby – leaving them completely free for other people to enjoy. For instance, despite the ultra-simple graphics, we’ve downed countless hours on Soldat, a 2D side-scrolling shooter. Other open-source developers focus on remaking commercial titles, like FreeCiv (similar to Civilization), UFO: Alien Invasion (similar to X-COM: UFO Defense) and Secret Maryo Chronicles (similar to Super Mario Bros.) In some cases, generous developers even release the source code to older titles completely for free, as id Software did with Quake III Arena, which helped produced the look-alike OpenArena, along with distinctly modified versions of the game like Urban Terror and Tremulous. Wikipedia maintains an excellent list of open source games.
Looking to do something a little more productive with your PC? Fear not, we have you covered on that, too. Many of the most popular PC applications and utilities have free equivalents that work just as well, if not better than the commercial versions. One of the most helpful and commonly used is OpenOffice, which looks and works a lot like Microsoft’s pricy Office suite, but costs absolutely nothing. For those struggling photographers and designers who don’t have $700 to lay out for Adobe Photoshop, GIMP makes a great free equivalent for a vast majority of its features. You can also find any number of free programs to replace smaller utilities, like ImgBurn in place of disc burning software like Nero, or DaemonTools in place of Alcohol 120 for making disc images. In some cases, we also prefer some free programs over more popular ones, like Firefox over Internet Explorer, Pidgin over AOL Instant Messenger, and Foxit Reader over Adobe Reader. While advertisements boasting of free iPods, notebook computers and HDTVs are almost entirely bogus, the Web remains a treasure trove of freebies if you can remain realistic. And if you’re willing to scratch the $75-a-month cable subscription in favor of Internet TV, opt for classic games instead of the cutting edge titles that go for $60 on store shelves, and learn Open Office instead of a $500 copy of Microsoft Office Professional, you might just have a lot more pocket money when it comes time to buy the real toys this holiday season.