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 free downloads for PCs and Macs (and a few for Linux), to help you completely kit out your computer for nowt. To make sure your computer's well protected online, see the Free Antivirus Software guide.
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.
If you've ever typed "Microsoft Word, free download" or "Microsoft Powerpoint, free download" into Google and been baffled by the results, then this guide shows clearly where you'll get equivalents of both for zilch.
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. It's constantly being honed and updated, but tech support is often limited as there are no big bucks backing it up.
The open source model has come a long way, 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).
If you've Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 you can now register to reserve a free upgrade to Windows 10 ahead of its release on 29 July. If you do that, it will automatically download when it becomes available.
Windows 10 will be the latest version - currently the most up-to-date is Windows 8.1. The firm skipped version 9 - perhaps 7 8 (ate, sorry) 9? It won't work if you've Windows 8, though upgrading from Windows 8 to 8.1 is free - see these instructions.
Of course, there are often teething problems with new software so you may want to wait before jumping in. If you're worried about what happens after you upgrade, Microsoft's told us it has no plans to charge for a subscription and says it will "continue to keep [Windows 10] current via Windows Update for the supported lifetime of the device – at no cost."
How to register for the free upgrade
You may be prompted to register via a popup on your computer. If you don't get the prompt, there should be a small Windows icon in the system tray (see right). Clicking on it should start the Get Windows 10 app, through which you can register.
If you can't see the icon, Microsoft suggests this could be due to one of four reasons:
- Your device isn’t up-to-date with at least the Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8.1 updates.
- Windows Update is turned off or is not set to received updates automatically.
- You’ve blocked or uninstalled the necessary Windows Update functionality.
- Your device is not running a genuine copy of Windows.
Running the Windows Update program and installing any available updates will fix the first three issues - to find the program, click on the start menu and then type 'Windows Update' in the search bar.
If that still doesn't work, Microsoft recommends looking at the instructions in its Windows Community Forum.
Alternatively the following steps have also been reported as having worked for some people, though they're not officially recommended by Microsoft and when we tried they didn't work for us. Additional Windows 10 reservation help steps
- Make sure you're on Windows 7 or 8.1 and your software is up-to-date. You can check for updates via the Windows Update program, which you can find in your start menu, then type 'Windows Update' in the search bar.
- Then open the Control Panel from the Start Menu, click on Administrative Tools (this may be inside the 'System and Security' section for some) and then open Task Scheduler.
- Once done, click Task Scheduler Library on the left-hand pane to expand the folder, then expand the Microsoft folder, the Windows folder, and lastly the Setup folder.
- Click the folder GWXTriggers, and hit Run on the far right of the window. (Got it? It sounds complicated but follow these steps and it should work.)
Will my existing programs still work if I upgrade?
Microsoft has told us that desktop versions of Microsoft Office 2007, 2010 and 2013, plus the forthcoming package Office 2016, are all compatible with Windows 10. So as long as you've got a legitimate copy of one of these versions, the upgrade shouldn't affect your access.
If you've got other software installed on your computer, you can check its compatibility with the Get Windows 10 app. Click the menu in the upper left of the app, and select “Check your PC” or “Your PC is good to go.” This displays any compatibility issues Microsoft finds and recommends a resolution.
While it doesn’t cover all software or devices, it gives a comprehensive list of all known potential compatibility issues.
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Here's a list of all the top free software for PCs, Macs and Linux, sorted by category.
- Microsoft Office alternatives
- Improve computer performance
- Image & photo editing
- Desktop publishing
- Audio & video
- Communication tools
Microsoft's Office 2013 office suite is a costly proposition, with the Pro version costing £100s even where you can get it cheaply. Yet you can furnish your machine with equivalents to most of its applications for nothing, thanks to open source alternatives.
LibreOffice Just like MS Office
LibreOffice is an open source project which includes six word-processing programs. It's compatible with many Microsoft documents.
The newest version, 4.4.3 is now out, and it looks and feels much more like its Microsoft counterparts. The programs included in LibreOffice are:
Writer: A word processor, it's the equivalent of Microsoft Word. Calc: A spreadsheet program, its equivalent of Excel. Impress: Presentation software, it's the equivalent of Microsoft PowerPoint. Base: A database, it's the equivalent of Microsoft Access. Draw: A design program, especially useful for flowcharts. Math: A simple tool for equations. Charts: A program for creating and embedding charts and graphs.
Combined, they make for a powerful suite of programs. It also works with Microsoft's "docx" standard, which most free office software isn't compatible with.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
OxygenOffice OpenOffice with extras
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 more than 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 (356MB) and could take a long time to download, and eat heavily into your download allowance if you've got one.
To get it, click the link above, scroll down and look for 'see your downloads'.
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 Online Online MS programs
Microsoft's stripped-down Office Online includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. They operate through your browser, and work on Macs too. Anyone with a free Microsoft account can use them, along with 15GB of storage on the OneDrive back-up service, which you can use to store documents.
If you're used to the Microsoft packages, they're worth a try, but bear in mind these are hobbled versions of the software. After all, Microsoft doesn't want to cannibalise its profitable business of selling the full versions of Office.
Try 'em:Office Online
ThinkFree 100% compatible with MS Office
ThinkFree is a free online suite which bears a striking resemblance to the official Microsoft software.
It's 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 Ideal for simple tasks
This basic-but-superfast package is fine for simple tasks, but if you're going to need advanced features it's best to look elsewhere. It's largely aimed to help directors of small businesses who need to use various applications.
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. 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. You'll need to create a free account to use it.
It includes plenty of useful document, spreadsheet, and presentation templates which you can use to get going. 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 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).
Try it:Google Docs
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 options to help you spring clean your PC, keeping it powerful.
Double-check it's suitable for your system before downloading.
CCleaner Dump the junk
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 drive
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 the files and it'll process them in a few seconds.
There's a free version that doesn't come with product support, or a paid-for version for £19.95 that does.
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.
It can be a nightmare when you're having trouble opening certain file types or trying to get them to work on the right device. Solutions for those fiddly little tasks can be a life saver, and fortunately more often than not it's possible to find free tools online to get the job done.
Zamzar Free file converter
This is a nifty, user-friendly site which can convert over 1,200 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 2GB 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.
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.
Gimp Advanced image editing
If you're looking for a Photoshop equivalent, oddly-named Gimp is probably the closest you'll get.
Now in version 2.8.14, 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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
Inkscape Fun with vectors
Sketchup 3D modelling
If you're planning an extension to your house, or are simply redecorating, the 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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX
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 £1,776 for a year's subscription! These are the most common computer-aided design packages used for everything from mechanical engineering design to urban planning.
You get full functionality for three years, provided you're not using the software 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 it being used commercially, such as a stamp on any printouts.
Download:Windows Mac OSX
Image & photo editing - online
There are also a few free options out there for photo and video editing online. Although you must be connected to use them, operating via the web means you can store your work online and easily collaborate with others - plus there's no need to install anything.
Photo Gallery Photo organiser
Photo Gallery, part of Microsoft's OneDrive suite, is an application for photo storage and online editing. It's very similar 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 OneDrive.
Try it:Live Photo Gallery
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.
Desktop publishing software is often pricey, but there are some free programs you can download that can provide a professional touch without having to shell out a fortune.
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, with professional-looking results.
The company hopes that after using it, or the other free applications, you'll spend £90 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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX 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 may also install malware and a toolbar which takes over your browser's default settings.
Audacity Pro wave editing
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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
MusicBrainz Picard Organise pesky "unknown" MP3s
Media Monkey Sidestep iTunesMP3s
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 Media Player Plays everything
Another of the free software greats, VLC Media Player is the most widely compatible 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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
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. It's free to try, although you'll need to pay $5.95 (£4) if you want to buy it.
Videora Converter For video iPodders
Handbrake DVD to MP4 converter
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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
Audio & video - online
There are also free audio tools available to use online, if you prefer not have to download and install programs - ideal if you only need something for occasional use.
AudioTag Identifies songs
Upload a sample or link to a web-hosted snippet of a 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.
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.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
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 Twitter users.
Download:Windows Mac OSX
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 listings 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. It reviews bigger programs and charts the most popular, 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.
What is open source?
As well as being free, open source means the code used to write the program (effectively the program itself) is available too, so anyone who wants to can work on improving it. This has pros and cons. The bonus is that the program is constantly being honed and updated; but the problem's that 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, as shown by the growing popularity of Linux operating systems, and Mozilla Firefox web browsers.