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Product review – Free Stuff
July 4, 2012
I've got a lot of software on my computers which I paid money for. Sometimes it was a lot of money (Adobe Master Collection, Microsoft Office, ...) and sometimes it was a little bit of money (WinZip, Forte Agent, Mailwasher Pro, ...). As well as those I also have a lot of software that came free with no strings attached (although sometimes a donation to the maker is requested). Here are ten products that I use all the time and which cost nothing. I have deliberately chosen ones where the free version is not crippled if a paid version is also available. Where there is a paid version I will say what it offers over the free one.
Oh, and these are not all the free programs I use, so don't complain if I've left your favourite freebie out.
As you use your computer files on the hard disk gradually get broken into multiple pieces. This causes operations to slow down and also increases mechanical activity on your disk drives. Drives are very reliable these days but the less work they have to do the longer they will last. Also, as nobody has a computer that runs as fast as they would like, anything you can do to optimise performance is a good thing. This program runs in the background when the computer is otherwise idle, but can be run manually to do more comprehensive tasks.
Yes, Windows has its own defragmenter but it's slow, tedious and does less than Smart Defrag.
There is no paid version of Smart Defrag. It is subsidised by sales of other Windows enhancement and performance tools, and small advertisements for these appear at the bottom of the screen when the program is run manually. I found a bug in it once and the suppliers worked with me to test fixes which were incorporated in the next upgrade. I've had worse support from people whom I've paid money to.
[Update 2019 – There is now a paid version of Smart Defrag. It does a few more things than the free version, but nothing vital. The free version is still very useful.]
Spybot – Search & Destroy
Everyone likes to keep their computers free of viruses and programs and settings that can harm your system, reveal your data to others or just tell people what you are doing. I run Norton AntiVirus and Norton Utilities to protect me against these things, but I also run Spybot – Search & Destroy on a regular basis to clean up the things that the others fail to catch, and there are always a few. I should point out that this is not a criticism of the Norton products – everyone has a different schedule for updating and reporting threats, and they also all have different emphases for what they look for. Just as all antivirus programs won't detect exactly the same threats at exactly the same time, malware detectors will also always be slightly out of phase with each other. S-S&D updates its list of threats every time it's run. I ran it a few minutes ago and it's checking for 825,134 possible threats or problems, so it certainly covers a wide area.
Spybot – Search & Destroy is free for private users (businesses have a range of paid options), but you are encouraged to make a donation to keep it going. It doesn't nag, and as far as I can tell you only get asked for a donation when you download it or if you click on the "Info & License" button.
Microsoft Security Essentials
You must have antivirus software. I will say that again – you must have antivirus software. The products from the major suppliers (Norton, Kaspersky, McAfee, Trend Micro, AVG, …) all do an excellent job but they all cost money. This free program from Microsoft does a lot of what the paid ones do and the price is right. I have a site licence for Norton AntiVirus but it doesn't cover all the machines in my home and office. I could buy more subscriptions to Norton, but why spend money when you don't have to? (I use Norton for historical reasons – I used to have a very close relationship with Symantec when they owned ACT!, and while ever I'm happy with the product I apply the clichéd rule of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".)
Available for Windows only (obviously), and the installation checks that you have a legitimate copy of Windows.
[Update 2021 – Support for Security Essentials has been replaced by Microsoft Defender which comes bundled with the operating system. Still good. Still free.]
Xenu's Link Sleuth
If you have a web site with links to other places you need to know if all those links work, particularly if you link to places that like to reorganise occasionally. (Sage changed the links for downloading ACT! recently, so I had to adapt.) Xenu searches through your site and checks all links (including internal ones, and I'm sure that sometimes we've all clicked on links to other parts of web sites and been taken nowhere) and produces a report of all broken or unreachable web pages.
Warning – don't bother with this if you are friendly with the Church of Scientology!
The program is free, but the author suggests that you donate to his favourite charity or buy some books from him.
Available for Windows only (but has been tested with Wine on various versions of Linux and also Mac OSX)
VLC Media Player
You want to play music and videos? Doesn't everyone? This program works with a very wide range of media file formats and runs on everything you own. It's free but you are encouraged to support it with a donation of $5. I did.
You need a browser to see pages on the world wide web. You have a choice on most operating systems and the choice generally comes down to picking one of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari or Opera. I have all of these on my computer, and I use them to check that web pages I make work everywhere. I sometimes have more than one open at a time (such as when I want to be logged into a web site with more than one identity simultaneously). I will not get into a browser war with anyone about this – all of them work, all of them have deficiencies, all of them do some things better than others do, none of them completely complies with standards. Pages will look different in different browsers, but not different enough to make an issue about it, and if they do it's the fault of the web designer, not the people who made the browser.
Choose whichever one you feel most comfortable with that runs on your computer, and if you have to fight with people do it over something important.
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Portable Document Format (PDF) files are everywhere, and have become sort of an industry standard. Acrobat Reader comes from Adobe, who invented the format, so you would expect that they know how to read the files. I've seen web sites offering such reviews as "Five free PDF readers", but I wonder why anyone would bother to write one. Yes, Adobe, like Microsoft, is one of those companies we all love to hate, but this is a case where they probably do something better than everybody else.
Note: Acrobat Reader is not Adobe Acrobat. That is the expensive program from Adobe used to make PDF files. There are free (and possibly legal and non-copyright-infringing) alternatives to that but I don't use any of them because Acrobat came in my copy of Adobe Master Collection.
This is software from Amazon which allows you to read Kindle formatted electronic books. It is free because Amazon want you to buy electronic books from them. As far as I can tell you can read books on your PC, Mac or tablet that you have bought for your hardware Kindle device and vice versa.
If you have several devices or computers, Dropbox allows you to share files between them. It also allows you access to files stored in Dropbox from any web browser. The free version gives you 2 gigabytes of space on Dropbox's servers, but you can increase this by getting other people to sign up. If you want more than 2 gigabytes you have to pay, but apart from storage space there is no difference between the free and paid offerings. I'm happy with the free version, but I would probably pay if I felt the need to use it more.
I also have Microsoft SkyDrive, and because I've been a user for some time Microsoft have given me 25 gigabytes of storage (new users get 7Gb). The only problem I have with it is that it's a bit clumsy to use it with my Android tablet. I've been told that this is being fixed.
Both programs work in basically the same way. You have a folder on your desktop and you copy files to it. Those files are then automatically uploaded to the supplier's servers and downloaded to any of your computers that happen to be turned on. Recognising that for many people the data allowance on their phone plans is either too little or too expensive you have to explicitly ask to download files to your phone or tablet.
[Update 2019 – The Microsoft product is now called OneDrive. I have a terabyte of cloud space as part of my Microsoft Office subscription. It seamlessly manages my off-site backups and I don't know how I ever did without it.
This is a note-taking program, but you can also upload pictures and other files. It's not meant to compete with file-sharing systems like Dropbox or SkyDrive, but as the name suggests is something to make it easy to remember things. I've sat in conferences taking notes on my Samsung tablet knowing that everything I've recorded will be on my computer when I get back to the office or on my laptop back at the hotel five minutes after I connect to the Internet. There is a paid Premium version, but this would mainly be useful for people who spend all their time travelling and need to collaborate with someone else. You don't need to be connected to the Internet to use it and it will synchronise as soon as it detects a connection.
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