Nick | Edited by Steve N
Updated 25 Jul 2016
The open source movement means there's now more top quality, legit free software than ever floating around the web to kit out your computer with.
We've explained how to get Microsoft Office free if you're eligible, and – for those who aren't – cherry-picked some of the best free alternatives, along with plenty of other software for PCs and Macs (and a few for Linux). To make sure your computer's well protected online, see the Free Antivirus Software guide.
Office software & alternatives
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, usually hoped to serve form of commercial again, and software developed to help people fight back against big software providers.
The latter 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.
Targeting certain demographics is another long-term tactic – eg, drawing in 'poor' students with free offers, and hoping they'll be willing to pay for the software once graduated.
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).
Windows 7 and 8.1 users were able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free if they did so by 29 July. Since this deadline has passed, if you want to upgrade now you'll need to pay for it (currently it's priced at £99.99 for the Home edition).
If you're a student or working in education and have an academic email address that can receive external email, you may be able to get a couple of decent freebies from Microsoft.
Free Microsoft Office
- What do you get? The ability to download the entire Office software suite – including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher and Access – on up to five PCs or Macs (the last two are on PC-only).
- Who can get it? Students and staff at universities, colleges and schools which have licensed Office institution-wide through the Microsoft Volume Licensing programme. Microsoft says 99.9% of universities, 87% of colleges and a "large number" of schools in the UK are eligible.
- How do I get it? Enter your academic email address on the Office website. You'll be asked to log in through your institution's online portal and if you're eligible, you'll be redirected to a page where you can download the software.
1TB free online storage
- What do you get? A whopping 1TB of free online storage through OneDrive (others now only get 5GB free) and use of collaborative platforms like Yammer and SharePoint.
- Who can get it? Again, this is aimed at students and staff with an academic email address, though the university, college or school doesn't have to have licensed Office as above.
- How do I get it? Enter your uni, college or school email address on the Office website. You'll be asked to log in through your institution's online portal, then follow the instructions.
How long can I get these for?
You can use the free Microsoft Office and/or the free online storage for as long as you're enrolled at or employed by the academic institution. Microsoft says student eligibility may need to be be reverified at any time.
If you graduate or leave, the Office applications enter a 'reduced-functionality' mode (meaning documents can be viewed but you can't edit them or create new ones). OneDrive and other online services accessed through your academic address will also stop working.
What if I'm not eligible?
If your school doesn't qualify, Microsoft suggests asking your IT department to consider licensing Office through Microsoft's Volume Licensing program. Alternatively, if you really must have Microsoft Office and the alternatives below won't do, full and part-time students at academic institutions can get a four-year subscription to Office 365 University for £59.99.
For those who aren't able to get Microsoft's Office suite for free, the package is a costly proposition with the single-user subscription costing £59.99/year (or £37.50 on Amazon at the time of writing).
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
The newest version, 5.1.4 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
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.
To get it, click the link above, scroll down and look for 'see your downloads'.
Online office alternatives
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 5GB 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 online is a free 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 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, Sheets, Slides & Forms Good for file collaboration
Google's suite of online tools places more of an emphasis on collaboration than others. You can select a few people to work with you on the same document, spreadsheet, presentation or form, 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. 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 guide).
Try it:Google Docs/Sheets/Slides/Forms
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Here's a list of all the top free software for PCs, Macs and Linux, sorted by category.
- Improve computer performance
- Image & photo editing/storage
- Desktop publishing
- Audio & video
- Communication tools
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 4 Windows 7, 8, 8.1 & 10
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.
The free version doesn't come with product support, or the paid-for version for £19.95 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 dropdown 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 a paid 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 2.8.16, 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 £1,575 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 storage/editing – online
There are a few free options out there for photo storage and basic 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.
Google Photos Feature-rich photo manager
Replacing its now-retired photo organiser Picasa, Google Photos offers basic photo editing, though its strengths lie in storing and sorting your collection. It makes navigating ill-organised photos scattered around your computer more straightforward than the Live offering above.
It also offers unlimited photo storage for free (with a few limitations). See the Free Online Storage guide for more info on Google Photos.
Try it:Google Photos
OneDrive photo organiser
Microsoft's OneDrive suite includes a function for photo storage and organisation. It's very similar to Google Photos above, though without the editing features.
One thing it does have over its Google counterpart is the ability to group screenshots of Pokémon, snapped by players of the recently released Pokémon Go game, by name – undoubtedly a dealbreaker for many.
Which you choose is likely to depend mostly on whether you've a Hotmail or Gmail account, and which of the tech behemoths you like most.
See the Free Online Storage guide for more info on OneDrive's file storage capabilities and limitations.
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
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
Audacity Pro wave editing
The Levelator Podcast powerhouse
Designed for podcasters, the sole purpose of The 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.
As of the end of 2012, The Levelator is no longer supported or being updated, though you can still download and use the most-recent versions.
Download:Windows Mac OSX Linux
MusicBrainz Picard Organise pesky "unknown" MP3s
MediaMonkey 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.
MediaMonkey 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 Player Upgrade Quicktime on your Mac
Like it or not, if you watch video content online, you may come across 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 Converter 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 from iTunes after all.
Several versions are available, so make sure you find the right one for your player.
Download:Windows Mac OSX
HandBrake DVD to MP4 converter
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 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.
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.