Why waste money? Free software just as wonderful

January 2, 2011 

  • Morgan Bonner answers your computer questions and offers technology tips and suggestions.

    Send your questions to: theitguy@island packet.com

    Follow him on Twitter: @packetITguy

I've shelled out a lot of money over the years on software -- Windows and Mac OS upgrades, Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office -- the list goes on and on. Some of it was necessary, but more often than not there are free alternatives out there that do the job just as well or better than the paid software -- someone just has to point you in the right direction.

That's what I'll attempt to do here today. Behold, some of my favorite free programs and utilities that I guarantee will make your life easier:

  • DropBox (www.dropbox.com): Straight from the "how-did-I-live-30-years-without-this" file is DropBox, an online file-syncing utility. Simply download the software for your PC, Mac, iOS, Android, etc., sign up for a free 2GB account then stare in amazement as files you place in your DropBox folder "automagically" show up in the same place on every device you've installed the software on. I use it for everything from making defacto backups to syncing movies of my son doing something cute between my home and work computers -- or something as simple as typing up the grocery store list on the computer and having it appear on my phone instantly. How great is that?

  • Google Chrome Web Browser (www.google.com/chrome): Speaking of syncing, there are bookmark-syncing solutions for every Web browser, but Google's Chrome browser takes it a step further by also syncing Web apps you've downloaded or purchased from its new Chrome Web Store. In addition to being the fastest browser out there, it also has other goodies such as built-in Flash support and the Omnibox, a combination search/address bar.

  • OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org): A completely full-featured open source Office software suite, OpenOffice can handle the needs of 99 percent of Microsoft Office users. In the nearly six years I've been supporting it, I've only had one person run into something they couldn't do with OpenOffice and needed Excel for. Not too shabby for saving several hundred dollars. One caveat: If you will be sharing documents created in OpenOffice with MS Office users, be sure to change the default file formats to .doc, .xls, etc., in the OpenOffice preferences.

  • Virtual Box (www.virtualbox.org): For the most part, any computer made in the last two years has more power under the hood than most users need. Put some of that power to use and run another OS on top of your current one with the open source Virtual Box. Running Windows 7 but still need to use XP? Want to try out Ubuntu Linux to see if that's all you need in an OS? Are you a Mac user who needs to run the occasional Windows app? Virtual Box has you covered.

  • SuperDuper! (www.shirt-pocket.com/SuperDuper): This one is just for the Mac users out there. SuperDuper! creates a fully bootable clone of your hard drive. There are many ways to back up your files, but if your hard drive fails or you suffer some other terrible fate, only a clone will have you back up and running just the way your system was so you won't have to reconfigure settings and preferences in the event of a crash. Like most IT folks, I'm a little obsessive about my backups, but I sleep better knowing I have a complete clone of my work Mac at home (and one in the trunk of my car for good measure).

  • Google Earth (www.google.com/earth): At first, Google Earth seems like a fun time-waster -- Hey, I can see the roof of my house! -- but stick with it a little longer and its utility becomes clear. Scope out the location and landmarks of every point of interest during your next vacation, discover back roads and shortcuts you never knew existed, and, of course, show your kids every detail of their planet of origin.

    This list just scratches the surface of all the useful free applications that are out there. Do a little research and you might just save some time and, more importantly, money.

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