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23 April 2021
The open source movement means there's more top quality, legit free software than ever floating around the web to kit out your computer with.
We explain how to get Microsoft Office free if you're eligible, and – for those who aren't – have 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 our Free Antivirus Software 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, 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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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, you can get a one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal for £59.99 (or £48ish on Amazon*) or for a one-off £119.99, Office Home & Student (Word, Excel and PowerPoint only).
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 £48ish on Amazon* at the time of writing).
The newest version, 6.3.2, 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.
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.
iWork is Apple's answer to the Microsoft Office suite of programs, only for Mac computers and iOS devices. It consists of Pages (like Word), Numbers (like Excel) and Keynote (like Powerpoint). Handily, iWork programs can access files created in Office programs, and you can save iWork files to work vice versa.
Some prefer the look and feel of the iWork programs, especially if they work across multiple Apple devices. If you've a newer Mac, iPhone or iPad you might find the programs are already installed. If not you can download them for free via the links below or by searching the App Store.
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.
Microsoft's stripped-down Office for the web includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which operate through your browser. Anyone with a free Microsoft account can use them, along with 5GB of online storage with OneDrive, 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.
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).
Anyone can use the online version of Apple's iWork suite of programs via their browser, so even Windows users can benefit from Pages, Numbers and Keynote, if they've a preference for Apple's software.
The online versions aren't as feature-rich as the full downloads and will probably appeal more to Mac users carrying out collaborative work and sharing documents, but anyone with Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer can access them.
Here's a list of all the top free software for PCs, Macs and Linux, sorted by category.
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.
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.
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.
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 Mac.AppStorm's Beginner's Guide to see if it's for you.
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.
This is a nifty, user-friendly site which can convert over 1,100 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 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.
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.
If you're looking for a free 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.
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.
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 £1,506 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.
There are a few free options out there for photo storage and basic editing online. Although you must be internet-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.
Replacing the photo organiser Picasa, which was retired in 2016, 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.
It also offers unlimited photo storage for free (with a some limitations). See the Free Online Storage guide for more info on Google Photos.
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.
PagePlus is no longer being supported by its developer Serif (meaning no future updates or tech support for it). But you can still download the 'Starter Edition' for free.
That's good news, because it's one of the most user-friendly desktop-publishing programs we've come across, with professional-looking results.
You can spend £20 on the full version, which has extra features, though as we've said, it's no longer being updated or supported.
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 iPhone (or iPod, if you've still got one of those...).
GarageBand for Macs and iOS devices is a great introduction to the world of music production, with a sound library of software instruments and the ability to record real instruments and assemble tracks.
It's free via the links below, or you can search the Mac or iOS App Store. You'll need a Mac running OS X 10.12 or later and/or iOS 12.1 or later to install it (if it isn't already on your device).
If you've got hundreds of untitled MP3 tracks on your machine, MusicBrainz Picard will analyse them and add all the relevant artist/title info for those that match tracks in its database.
It also offers a wealth of other options for keeping your collection organised.
The sheer number of features iTunes now offers means there are more streamlined music library options available, especially for Windows machines, on which iTunes is especially slow.
MediaMonkey offers the ability to manage your music without iTunes, and some find it far more useful (and less salesy) than Apple's offering.
You can use iMovie to create trailers and short films from your own video clips, on your Mac, iPhone or iPad. It's filled with all sorts of fun things like filters, sound effects and voice-overs, and special effects such as green-screen backdrops and split screen.
You can get it via the links below, or by searching the Mac or iOS App Store. You'll need a Mac running macOS 10.13.6 or later and/or an iPhone or iPad running iOS 13.0 or later to install it (if it isn't already on your machine).
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.
Like it or not, if you watch video content online, you may come across Windows Media .wmv files, which Quicktime doesn't 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 converts a range of formats, including the ever-popular DivX, into files playable by iPhones, iPads and other devices, such as iPods, PSPs and even Zunes - remember them?.
Several versions are available, so make sure you find the right one for your player.
Like the Videora converter for Windows, in essence HandBrake DVD to MP4 converter which makes files playable on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
It's better than Videora in its support for the likes of Dolby Digital and multi-track audio, and also runs really rather fast.
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.
Skype barely needs inclusion here as you probably already have it installed.
There are other voice over internet protocol (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 Twitter users.
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 forum 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.
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