Working in I.T. gives me exposure to lots of different software. Some are free. Some are useful. Some are both.
People ask me all the time what software I use, and what Free alternatives are out there that actually work. So with a little help from my fellow I.T. guru Saveau,
This year, I’ve looked back at what free and helpful programs I’ve been using and updated the list for Christmas 2010. Everything referenced here has been IT tested and approved by me and/or Saveau. The programs are divided into Software (that you download and install on your computer) and Services (that you log into on the internet to use). These programs are not in any particular order.
The Christmas 2010 list of Awesome, Free, Online Services:
These items are not truly “software” in the traditional sense, because you don’t download them onto your computer (The one exception being Evernote, which is an online service, but you can also download and install the local client if you like.) You access most of these services by logging into a website with a username and password. They should work for any computer that can access the internet with a web browser.
Evernote Personal Information Database
More than just a picture/text/file storage site, Evernote is a hard drive upgrade for your brain. Here are just a few uses:
- Home Organization – Go paperless at home and move all your receipts and monthly statements up to the cloud.
- Engineers and Project Managers – Store and organize project data, task lists, website contents, pdfs and more.
- Writers – Save story ideas, plot outlines, characters, locations and more.
- Students – Store and organize class notes, lecture audio files and more.
- Save all your paid software install codes, CD keys, website passwords, etc.
Lots of cool apps and plugins make Evernote readily available, so you can add info wherever you are with just a click or two. The paid version lets you upload up to 1GB per month, but most people will be just fine with the free version which caps uploads at 60Mb per month.
Delicious Website Bookmarking
Website bookmarks shouldn’t be a pain in the ass. I can’t tell you how many times I went to the Bookmarks on my work computer and couldn’t find what I was looking for because the Bookmark I wanted was on my home computer, or vice-versa. Same thing if you bounce between different browsers on the same computer… and exporting/importing bookmarks from your old computer to your new one… and you can’t access your bookmarks on public computers or at your friend’s house…
All these annoyances are solved by Delicious.com‘s lovely online bookmarking service. Add the delicious plugin to all your browsers and your bookmarks are a click away, saved to the cloud, and auto-synced across all computers, all operating systems.
Shields Up at GRC.com Internet Security Testing
For techies only. Shields UP! is the mantra of Steve Gibson’s website at grc.com. Shields Up tests your computer, router and firewall for vulnerabilities. No login necessary. Very useful when setting up your new router/internet service.
WordPress.org Free Website/Blog Development
The backend of this website, Conradzero.com, is run on WordPress software. WordPress is a godsend for people who don’t have the time or patience for acronyms like HTML, CSS and PHP. WordPress lets users setup and customize a website without touching a single nybble of code. Setup is the hardest part, but the beauty of the plugins, themes, posting, widgets and website components makes WordPress worth paying for, but you don’t have to. Really really hard to believe this software is free. Add in the free website hosting on WordPress.com and there’s no reason someone with something to say or something to sell can’t have their own blog.
I’ve said it before, but I would gladly pay for G-mail’s service over any other free e-mail client. Best e-mail ever.
Google Docs Office Application Suite
Yeah, Google is evil, but so is Flo the Insurance Girl, and I love her anyway. I guess my intolerance for evil slips in relation to coolness, and Google Docs is cool as hell. If you’re looking for a FREE alternative to Microsoft Office, you could go with OpenOffice or IBM’s Symphony, but I don’t know why you would when you could go with Free/Evil Google Docs.
These are becoming less relevant as more people move to the social media sites like Facebook for their filesharing, but Google’s Picassa and Yahoo’s Flickr websites still get the job done. They offer lots of free space, and make photo and graphics sharing a snap. If you already have a Google or Yahoo account, I’d recommend you stick with them just to reduce the number of username/passwords you have to remember. Otherwise, picking between them is a matter of taste. Try them both and see which seems more user-friendly to you.
Wanna know how fast/slow your internet connection really is? Go to speedtest.com and click the nearest test site. In a few seconds you’ll have your real upload/download speed. Make sure to turn off the streaming porn on the other computer first.
The Christmas 2010 list of Awesome Free Software Downloads:
These programs are software you download and install on your computer. Make sure you are downloading from a valid source and I recommend virus/spyware scanning any installers before running them on your system.
Steam Gaming Software
I can’t believe Saveau had to point this one out to me. Software that I’ve taken for granted since 4 Jan 2009, Steam has changed the way I play and purchase video games. Originally created by Valve as an online security/license checking software for use with the Half Life 2 series of games, Steam has quickly evolved into an indispensable gamer utility.
First off, the library function of Steam is genius. Steam saves your game install software and license keys in the cloud. No need for the install media anymore. If you replace your computer, or you’re visiting a friend’s house and feel like playing, just install the steam client, login, and download your game installer software. Not all games can be registered through Steam, but after using it, you’ll wish they could be. Game patches and updates are delivered seamlessly in the background.
The community features let you friend up your posse and see when/what they are playing online. Voice chat or message your buddies through Steam and set up teams to play Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2, then voice chat in-game with Steam running in the background.
The online store is evil genius. I’ve bought and downloaded more games through the Steam client in 2010 than I bought off the shelf. If you keep even half an eye on the sales, you’ll be astonished by the prices. Right now, I could buy every game Valve has ever released (all 22 of them) for $49.99. There are many free games and demos that you can get through Steam, including Alien Swarm. And purchasing games as gifts for friends is slick and easy.
Steam works on Windows or Mac. Make sure to friend me up on Steam, my user name is Conrad Zero.
Free Antivirus Software from your Internet Service Provider
Many people are missing out on a free antivirus option. Comcast, Qwest, and other internet service providers (ISPs) offer you free antivirus software along with your internet service. Your ISP knows that if you get a virus, you’ll have a bad internet experience and you’ll choke their bandwidth with a bunch of bad traffic. Check your ISP’s website and see if they have a free antivirus program available. Usually, you will have to log in to the ISP website with your account info (username and password) and look in the support section, or search the site for antivirus download.
Avast FREE Antivirus Virus Protection
When AVG updated to a new version it bogged my computer down notably, and it had constant status popups, so I dropped AVG for Avast, and I can now tell you I agree with Saveau. Avast works great, it’s low profile and QUIET, something I cannot say for other antivirus programs, even ones you have to pay for.
Avira Antivir Rescue System and Trinity Repair Kit System Recovery
Saveau reports that Avira Antivir, one of the well-regarded free antivirus suites, offers a free standalone rescue system that can be downloaded as an .ISO image for CD or for a USB stick to create a bootable device for cleaning up a system that either won’t boot into Windows or is unusable once you’re there. It’s updated several times a day.
I’ve used Trinity Repair Kit to bring more than one computer back from the grave. Useful for sweeping viruses out of an unbootable drive and accessing windows machines when the Administrator’s password is not available. I recommend both of these programs should be a part of every IT hacker/fixer’s bag of tricks.
CCleaner Hard Drive Cleaner
CCleaner stands for “Crap Cleaner” but they had to change the name to something more politically correct when the program got popular. CCleaner does exactly what you think it does: it cleans crap off your hard drive. Temp files, browsing history, cookies, recycle bin… It’s a great way to tune up your slow computer and recover some hard drive space. I always run CCleaner before scanning for viruses/spyware and defragmenting hard disks.
Malwarebytes AntiMalware and Spybot Search and Destroy Malware Removal
Nowadays, antivirus software is not enough. Malware is not the same as a virus, and virus scanners won’t find it. The horribly named programs Malwarebytes AntiMalware and Spybot Search and Destroy will. Malwarebytes has a paid version that runs in the background and provides continuous updated protection like your antivirus program, but most people can get by with the free version that must be updated and run manually. Update and run a scan with both these programs and your antivirus software anytime you have odd or slow computer problems. Do this BEFORE you call your techie friend for help. Please.
Ashampoo Burning Studio Free CD/DVD/Blu-Ray Burning
Ashampoo is easy to use, burns anything to anything, and it isn’t a background hog or notice whore like Nero and Roxio. Don’t upgrade this program. The updated version only works for a limited time unless you pay. The free version is what you want.
K-Lite Codec Mega-Pack Audio/Video Codecs
K-Lite allows your computer to play back every form of non-mechanical media known to have been in use in this sector of the galaxy. Ever. It will integrate with Windows Media Player, or use the included Media Player Classic, or both, and runs without issue on XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It can even allow older, slower computers to play back some modern HD content. If you run into a media file that Windows won’t play or you get a missing codec error, you need this program.
Virtual Clone Drive Virtual Drive Utility
Ever since discovering Virtual Clone Drive, I use it all the time instead of CD/DVD media. From the website:
Virtual CloneDrive works and behaves just like a physical CD/DVD drive, however it exists only virtually. Image files generated with CloneDVD or CloneCD can be mounted onto a virtual drive from your hard-disk or from a network drive and used in the same manner as inserting them into a normal CD/DVD drive.
The upshot is you can right-click ISO images and ‘mount’ them, then they become a drive in your computer just like you had put the CD/DVD in a drive. With Virtual Clone Drive you can move your entire catalog of games, movies and other optical media onto your hard drive! And accessing the virtual drives makes games load faster than from the CD/DVD drive.
Winimage Floppy Disk Imaging
In case you didn’t know, floppy disk technology is pretty much obsolete. But you still have a drawerful of recovery boot floppies, diagnostic programs and archaic hardware install floppies that are only useful in floppy format.
You need winimage. Winimage creates an executable image of many disk formats, including floppy disks. Running the executable file will ask for a target blank disk, which will be written with an exact duplicate of the original. This means you can now e-mail a bootable floppy disk, archive bootable floppy disks on your hard drive, and upload bootable floppy disks to the internet. Convert all those floppies to .exe files and store them on a USB drive or upload them to the cloud. Then, simply run the .exe and create clones as you need them.
Winimage is trialware, meaning it is free for 30 days of use, but generally that’s all the time you need to archive that drawer full of floppy disks.
7Zip File Compression Utility
Saveau sez: Windows handles .zip files natively and WinZip and WinRAR can be used free with nag screens, but 7zip has the advantage of not merely being freeware, it is also a better program than either of those venerable commercial stalwarts. It is heavily multi-threaded to take advantage of multiple processor cores and can handle just about every compression scheme in existence. I can’t imagine a computer without it as part of a standard build.
TeamViewer Remote Control
Teamviewer lets you remote control a computer with ease, even through firewalled network connections. This is a blessing for end users and a mixed blessing for the tech-savvy. The target user runs a small app which generates a session ID and password. The remote support types in the ID/Password and whammo, you’re connected, controlling and viewing the target user’s computer, and showing grandma how to attach her cellphone camera pix to an e-mail. Again.
Unfortunately, this means that end users have even less need to know what the hell they’re doing. Don’t know how to search for your missing documents? Just call up someone who knows how and have them do it for you by remote! I’ve joked for years that some users couldn’t do things if I held their hand on the mouse and pushed on their index finger to click on things. Now with teamviewer this is entirely possible. Sure it’s cool, but I would rather have had flying cars.
Clonezilla and MiniTool Disk Partition/Cloning Utilities
Clonezilla is a Linux-based Live CD that implements a command line interface for backing up and restoring a full image of your hard drive. If you didn’t understand that last sentence, you shouldn’t be using it. Clonezilla is not terribly user-friendly, but a workable free alternative to Symantec’s Ghost or Acronis Backup and Recovery software. Full Disclosure – I actually quit using Clonezilla once I purchased Acronis Backup and Recovery. Acronis is weapons-grade backup software, but it is not free, not even cheap. For those with more techieness than budget, Clonezilla works well.
Saveau recommends Minitool Partition Wizard and after a quick look, I will have to give it a try. Minitool Disk imaging is a marvelous suite of disk partition/backup/recovery tools that is fully compatible with 64-bit versions of Windows even in the free version. MiniTool also offers a free hard drive cloning utility that Saveau reports is a breeze to use.
SpaceMonger Hard Drive Graphical Representation
SpaceMonger shows you a visual representation of the files on your hard drive. File sizes are represented graphically instead of numerically. Larger files take up more space on the screen. This top-down view of your hard drive is far more intuitive than a listing of programs. Right away you can see where space is being wasted. SpaceMonger is a must for network admins running file servers.
Note that SpaceMonger was updated to a new version 2.1 that only works for a 30-day trial period, then you have to pay to continue using the software. You want the old-and-still-free version 1 which works just fine.
XBox Media Center Media PC Operating System
No, really. A fully free operating system for media PCs. Referred to me years ago on lifehacker.com, Saveau tells me the latest build of Xbox Media Center is absolutely phenomenal. If you have a spare box laying around, install XBox Media Center and throw it behind the TV in the living room, and enjoy photos, music and movies via a slick interface.
Virtual Box Virtualization Software
Saveau recommends Virtual Box software from Oracle that allows you to create virtual machines in your computer onto which you can install any compatible operating system you wish (provided you have the install disks for that OS). Why would you want to do this? Well, first of all it’s just plain cool 🙂 Secondly, Virtual Box differs from other similar packages in that it is much easier to install and configure, and it also gives your virtual machine low-level hardware access – meaning that you can install drivers for your graphics card and actually use them at a decent level of performance, something most virtualization software doesn’t even attempt. Older programs which simply won’t run on Windows 7 can be installed on a virtual instance of Windows XP on your same machine and still use your existing hardware. Virtual Box is free, well documented, runs on Windows, OS X, Linux and Solaris, and loves multiple processor cores.
Happy Holidays! Enjoy your Free Software!
My thanks to Saveau for his help in building this list.
I hope you enjoy this list of free, IT-approved software. Please spread the word. Link back to this post, and check back next year for the latest free software goodness!