The open source movement means there's now more top quality, legit free software floating around the web than ever.
We've cherrypicked some of the best downloads for PCs and Macs (and a few for Linux), to help you completely kit out your computer for nowt.
In this guide
Always check any software you put on your computer's suitable and compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any problems caused from acting upon the info given.
Free software falls into two categories; promotional freebies, and software developed to help people fight back against big software providers. The latter category has grown hugely as more people have embraced open source projects, where the building blocks - big chunks of code - are free for everybody to adapt and improve.
Click the categories below to read more about the types of free software available.
Free software as a commercial giveaway
Many commercial publishers offer free versions of their software, hoping it'll become the industry standard in its category. After all, having a product sitting on millions of PCs is a fantastic marketing tool. They then try to persuade you to upgrade to "advanced" or "corporate" versions.
Open source software
As well as being free, here the code used to write the program (effectively the program itself) is available too, so anybody that wants to can work on improving it. This has pros and cons. The bonus is it's constantly being honed and updated, but the problem is tech support is often limited as there are no big bucks backing it up.
The open source model has come a long way since it began, and the growing popularity of Linux-based operating systems and programs such as Mozilla Firefox suggest it'll continue to grow.
Freeware and shareware
As the name suggests, freeware costs nothing, though some developers request a donation if you like it. The difference is here you can't access the source code, so development is centralised in one location.
Shareware is similar, except here the software's only free for a limited period, after which you have to either pay to register it, or lose some of the functionality (or have an annoying reminder message pop up every time you use it).
Generally there's less shareware and freeware available as more software goes open source, which is a good thing for people that are easily irritated by 'nag screens' asking you to buy a full version of the product (ie, just about everyone, ever).
Here's a list of all the top free software for PCs, Macs and Linux, sorted by category.
Microsoft's Office 2010 office suite is a costly proposition, with the Pro version retailing at around £390. Yet you can furnish your machine with equivalents to most of its applications for nothing, thanks to open source alternatives.
Updated. Created by the developers of Open Office, LibreOffice is an open source project which includes six programs, and is compatible with many Microsoft documents.
The newest version, 4.1.0 is now available and has had a facelift, making it look and feel much more like its Microsoft counterparts. The programs included in LibreOffice are:
Writer: A word processor, its equivalent of Microsoft Word.
Calc: A spreadsheet program, its equivalent of Excel.
Impress: Presentation software, its equivalent of Microsoft PowerPoint.
Base: A database, its equivalent of Microsoft Access.
Draw: A design program, especially useful for flowcharts.
Math: A simple equation tool.
Combined, they make for a powerful suite of programs. As an added extra, it includes support for Microsoft's "docx" standard, which most free office software isn't compatible with.
Based on OpenOffice's source code and similar to LibreOffice, OxygenOffice adds a wealth of templates, clip art and photos. In fact, over 3,400 graphics are included, and you also get 90 new fonts and a more detailed help guide. For some people, these extra features will seem like unnecessary bloat, but if you'll use them, it's well worth considering.
Be aware though that, unless you have a decent broadband connection, it's a big file (355MB) and could take a long time to download, and eat heavily into your download allowance.
Office suite ALTERNATIVEs - online
The alternative to downloading an office suite is to use one of the many online options. With these, there's no installation to worry about, you can store your work online, and easily collaborate with others. The obvious flipside is you must be online for them to work.
Here are the best:
Microsoft Office Web Apps: Online MS programs
In 2010 Microsoft launched some stripped down online versions of its usual office apps. Its selection of Office Web Apps includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and is available to anyone with a free Windows Live account. The account also gets you 7GB of storage on the SkyDrive back-up service, which you can use to store documents.
If you're used to the Microsoft packages this is worth a try, but bear in mind these are hobbled versions of the software; Microsoft doesn't want to cannibalise its profitable business of selling the full versions of Office.
ThinkFree: 100% compatible with MS Office
Almost 100% compatible with Office, ThinkFree is a free online suite which bears a striking resemblance to the official Microsoft software.
It has received glowing reviews all round. It includes the equivalents of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, looks pretty, and most importantly for an online suite, is responsive and simple to navigate.
It also holds a trump card in the way it hides your web browser window when in use, so you can use regular keyboard shortcuts to control it without upsetting your browser. Neat.
You also get 1GB of cloud space free per account (if you need more, see our Free Online Storage Services guide).
Zoho Office Suite: Ideal for simple tasks
This basic-but-super-fast package is fine for simple tasks, but if you're going to need advanced features it's best to look elsewhere.
While it offers a wider range of applications than ThinkFree, they aren't as detailed. Zoho stores all your documents in its free online storage space, and allows you to share them with (member) friends via email invitations.
Google Docs: Good for file collaboration
This service has more of an emphasis on collaboration than the other two. The idea here is you can select a few people to work with you on the same document, and they can all see it and make changes in real-time.
It includes plenty of useful document, spreadsheet, and presentation templates which you can use to get going. And you can even set-up offline access when using Chrome.
It's also the most web-oriented, since if you publish one of your Google Docs, you can use all manner of Google's whizzy analytics tools to track its progress too. Google Docs also works in conjunction with Google Drive, so you'll have 15GB of free storage (if you need more, see our Free Online Storage Services guide).
The longer you use any computer for, the slower it'll get, since operating systems leave a trail of hard drive-clogging mess behind. Thankfully, there are plenty of freeware to help you spring clean your PC, keeping it powerful.
Double-check it's suitable for your system before downloading.
CCleaner: Dump the junk
This super-fast program cleans up unused files in around a second, getting rid of all the crap (that's what the first "c" stands for - honest) as it goes. CCleaner doesn't run all the time; just have it give your machine a quick spruce-up each week to keep it shipshape.
Ultimate Windows Tweaker: Vista & 7 only
Allows you to control all your Windows settings in one place, letting you customise your computer's interface as much or little as you want.
Great for those that like modifying their software, but aren't into coding.
Defraggler: Speed up your hard disk
From Piriform, the same stable as CCleaner, Defraggler is a "defragmenting" tool. Fragments are made when your computer splits up files because there's not enough space in the place they were originally saved. It has a significant effect on performance, since when re-opening these files, your PC has to find two (or more) pieces instead of one. Defragmenters join the pieces together again, thus speeding up the computer.
Windows has its own Disk Defragmenter, which can be found in the System Tools menu, but it takes ages, as it'll only go through your entire hard disk at one go. Defraggler can be used to do the job on a smaller scale: just choose files and it'll process them in a few seconds.
StuffIt Expander: Compression tool for Macs
While OSX is perfectly capable of packing/unpacking .zip files, if you want to open or use the wealth of other compressed file types out there, you'll need a third-party expander.
Smith Micro's free version of StuffIt fills this void perfectly, and offers a simple drag-and-drop interface which works just as well as any paid-for version, so you can focus on more exciting things, like, erm, anything.
Quicksilver: Speed up your Mac's productivity
If you've got the time to learn it, Quicksilver is a clever productivity tool which'll allow you to launch applications, files and folders without taking your hands off the keyboard.
Many more advanced features mean it can totally change the way you use your computer for the better (and faster), and plug-ins extend its capability yet further. Read Lifehacker's Beginners' Guide to see if it's for you.
SuperCal: Improve your Mac's display for free
It's worth trying out SuperCal even if you think your display looks fine. It's a display calibrator which can clean up the image you see on screen by tailoring your computer's output to the characteristics of the monitor you're using.
The results should be better tonal colour gradients, clearer text, and better long-term eyesight for you.
Utilities - ONLINE
Zamzar: Free file converter
This is a nifty, user-friendly site which can convert over 100 types of media file formats between each other. So, if you've a CV document from Word, and you'd like to make it a PDF instead, you simply put in your email address, upload the file to convert, and choose ".PDF" in the drop-down box.
Zamzar will do the hard work, and then email you a link to download the new file. One thing though, since it stores your files online before conversion, it's not advisable to use it to convert sensitive documents.
For non-paying users, you can upload a maximum of 100MB of data split between up to five different files. But if you sign up for an account you can upload files up to 1GB in size.
Go top end on graphics software and you can easily spend £1,000s, so it's good to see that capable freebie programs exist. As the majority of photos are now digital, there are some great free photo editing programs emerging too, both to download or use online.
Paint.net: Probably all you'll need
The beauty of basic-yet-surprisingly-powerful Paint.net is if you've used the simple Paint program that comes with Windows, then you'll be able to navigate it with no problems.
It's the most straightforward program to use for basic image cropping and editing, and will optimise images for quick loading on the web too. In short, if you only need the basics, Paint.net should be your first port of call.
The Gimp: Advanced image editing
If you're looking for a PhotoShop equivalent, oddly-named The Gimp is probably the closest you'll get.
Now in version 2.8.6, it offers powerful editing and filtering tools for photos and graphics, and is further boosted by a range of free add-ons.
For an insight into its capabilities and how it works, check out the screenshots hosted on its site.
Inkscape: Fun with vectors
Inkscape is a free program similar in operation to Adobe Illustrator or Corel Xara.
It's made for building "scalable vector graphics" - the ones which remain perfectly sharp no matter how much you zoom in or out, making them ideal for serious design work.
Google Sketchup: Simple 3D modelling
If you're planning an extension to your house, or are simply redecorating, Google's free Sketchup tool makes it relatively easy to build an accurate 3D model to work from.
There are plenty of video tutorials to set you on the right track. Once you've used it a few times, you'll be impressing everybody with your designs.
Pro AutoDesk software: Free for students
Students can get AutoDesk's computer-aided design software free for three years simply by registering.
The package includes over 40 AutoDesk products, including AutoCAD which retails at over £5,000! These are the most common computer aided design packages in almost all design, mechanical and engineering industries and are used in everything from mechanical engineering design to urban planning.
You get full functionality for three years, provided it's not used for commercial purposes.
Any student or teacher with an ac.uk email address can sign up to the AutoDesk Education Community where you download the software, as well as access forums, support and content sharing. It doesn't matter if you are part-time or about to graduate.
Please note, some of this software will come with built-in features to prevent its use commercially, such as a stamp on any print-outs.
Image & Photo editing - online
Live photo gallery: Photo organiser
Photo Gallery, part of Microsoft's SkyDrive suite, is an application for photo storage and online editing. It's very similar in use to Google's Picasa below, but seems notably faster and adds a couple of extra features.
Which you choose is likely to depend mostly on whether you've a Hotmail or Gmail account, and which behemoth's products you like most.
See the Free Online Storage Services guide for more info on SkyDrive.
Picasa: The Google equivalent
Google's photo organiser, Picasa, also offers a wealth of photo editing, storage and back-up options, and makes navigating ill-organised photos scattered around your computer more straightforward than the Live offering above.
It can be used in conjunction with Google Drive. See the Free Online Storage Services guide for more info on Google Drive.
PagePlus: Easy to use DTP
Part of the free suite of Serif programs, PagePlus is the most user-friendly desktop publishing program we've come across, and can yield some fairly professional results.
The company hopes that after using it, or the other free applications, you'll spend £20 on the full version, which has extra features.
Scribus: More complex and powerful
An acclaimed open source desktop publishing program, Scribus offers features usually only found on more expensive suites like MS Publisher or InDesign, such as CYMK colour and ICC colour management.
If that means nothing to you, but you want to make a professional magazine, then download this and read some of the detailed free tutorials. Also available for Linux.
As well as a free sound recording program to banish Windows' Sound Recorder forever, there are ways to organise your MP3 collection, an alternative media player which'll play almost any format, and a clever converter which lets you play any video you like on your iPod.
IMGBurn: Perfect for making DVDs, CDs, etc
If you need to burn disk images on DVDs, Blu-rays and the like but don't want to be besieged by millions of options, IMGBurn is a good bet. Skip its advanced mode and you've a fairly foolproof tool which seldom wastes your CDs.
Warning. Avoid the "express install" option, as users have reported this to also install malware and a toolbar which takes over your browser's default settings.
Audacity: Pro wave editing
Audacity is a proper wave editing and recording program (open source). It lets you record audio, add effects, and even create your own soundscapes from scratch.
It's not the most user-friendly tool, but its power more than makes up for this.
Levelator: Podcast powerhouse
Designed for podcasters, the sole purpose of Levelator is to normalise audio files and make them sound crisper. There's no way to change its settings, you just drag audio files into the program and it does its thing, making all but the most appalling recordings listenable.
Picard: Organise pesky "unknown" MP3s
If you've got hundreds of untitled MP3 tracks on your machine, Picard will analyse them and add all the relevant artist/title info for those that match tracks in its database, saving you the hassle.
It also offers a wealth of other options for keeping your collection organised.
Media Monkey: Sidestep iTunes
While iTunes is a necessity for most of us, the sheer number of features it now offers means there are far more streamlined music library options available, especially on Windows machines, where iTunes is especially slow.
Media Monkey offers the ability to manage iDevices without iTunes, and some find it far more useful (and less salesy) than Apple's offering.
VLC: Plays EVERYTHING
Another of the free software greats, VLC Player is the most widely compatible media player available.
It seems no matter how esoteric a music or video format you throw at it is, it's got it covered. Plus, nowadays it's using more and more hardware acceleration to make proceedings more snappy too.
Flip4Mac: Upgrade Quicktime on your Mac
Like it or not, if you watch video content online, you'll come across plenty of Windows Media .wmv files, which Quicktime doesn't natively support.
The previous solution was to download Microsoft's basic Windows Media Player for Mac, but thankfully you can now just get Flip4Mac, a plug-in for Quicktime which allows it to play these files.
Videora Converter: For video iPodders
Videora converts a range of formats, including the ever-popular DivX, into files playable by iPods and other Apple products, meaning you needn't buy all your video content direct from iTunes after all.
Several versions are available, so make sure you find the right one for your player.
Handbrake: As above
Like the Videora converter for Windows, in essence Handbrake's a DVD to MP4 converter which makes files playable on a portable media player.
It's better than Videora in its support for the likes of Dolby Digital and multi-track audio, and also runs really rather fast.
Audio & Video - Online
AudioTag: Identifies songs
Upload a sample or link to a web-hosted snippet of the song (15 seconds will do), and AudioTag will identify it.
As well as those you'd expect, like Skype, there are a number of communication tools which bring all your disparate instant messaging accounts together, and some sharing apps too.
Skype barely needs inclusion here as you probably already have it installed (or it's pre-installed on your device).
There are other VoIP services available which are dedicated to internet calling, and there are certainly cheaper ones for calling landlines and mobiles. But for straight PC-to-PC calls, Skype's still the leader, simply because it's the most popular.
Clever tool Trillian allows you to keep track of all your instant messaging and social networking conversations from one centralised location.
It looks like any number of the IM clients you're probably familiar with, and has a straightforward interface, plus all manner of handy features, like instant URL-shortening for tweeters.
If you're a Mac user and your online social life includes more than one instant messaging program, Adium X's a neat way of combining them all in one easy-to-use window.
It supports AIM, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and MSN among others. It's also highly customisable with add-ons aplenty.
This list covers the best all-rounders, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of sites out there with vast databases of free programs.
If you're looking for free antivirus software, read our dedicated Free Antivirus Software guide.
Or, if you're looking for a storage solution, take a read of the Free Online Storage Services guide. Beware though, there are a lot of fakes out there which can download malware and viruses onto your device. Always triple check before downloading.
Also check out the Techie Stuff board, where regulars are keen to help (though remember there are no guarantees they're right). These sites may help too:
Designed for when you reinstall your operating system and want to get up to speed quickly, Ninite installs a whole range of top free software in one package.
Just go to its site and tick the boxes for the software you want, and it'll install as many or as few as you choose. Everything is neatly categorised, so it's a good place to get the basics together quickly.
Osalt is a software database with a difference, as it only lists open source equivalents to commercial programs. You just tell it which commercial program you want, and it'll list free programs which are most similar to it.
Sourceforge is another open source software database - search and it'll hunt through thousands of titles.
Cnet's Download.com hosts practically all the programs listed in this guide, and is certified virus-free. It also reviews the bigger programs and charts the most popular ones, so it's well worth a browse.
A user-friendly and well-organised site, FileHippo catalogues browsers, firewalls, audio tools, DVD tools and more. It also promises no pop-ups when you visit the site.
A bit slicker than FileHippo, SnapFiles has the added bonus of user reviews and feedback, though it can be hard to find what you're looking for.
Like Snapfiles, Tucows includes its own and users' ratings and also has sections for Linux and Mac users.