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Software on the Cheap

Free Software Saves You Money

Why pay top dollar when these programs cost nothing?

feet up on a desk with coffee cup and laptop

— Peter Scholey/Getty Images

Whoever said nothing in this world is free obviously hasn't spent much time on the Web.

Thousands of downloadable programs and online services exist in cyberspace — if you know where to look, that is.

From powerful photo editors to no-cost alternatives for storing important files, there's no shortage of quality programs you can take advantage of.

The catch? Some of these apps may be advertising-supported and don't offer extensive tech support, if any. In some cases, you might also see a "nag screen" to upgrade to a pro version of the software.

If you can live with these minor inconveniences, the following is a look at five recommended freebies.

Stay productive

While Microsoft Office is the granddaddy of office productivity software, you could spend up to $500 for the suite of programs. Instead, the completely free OpenOffice.org from Sun Microsystems includes a number of powerful applications that include word processing, spreadsheets, presentation creation, databases and graphics. OpenOffice.org is also available in multiple languages and runs on many operating systems, plus the suite supports a wide range of file types created by other programs (yes, you can even import your Microsoft Office files such as .doc, .xls, .ppt, and others). Because this is "open-source software," you can install it on as many computers as you like and make copies for your friends.

Let the music play

It's a common misperception that Apple's iTunes is only for users who own an iPod. Unlike the costlier iPod devices, iTunes is completely free and hosts a ton of functionality, including (big breath here): organizing your songs and other media into folders and playlists; playing music and movies; recording music from store-bought CDs to your computer; streaming audio from hundreds of radio stations around the world; subscribing to and listening to podcasts and lectures; and much, much more.

iTunes is also an online store to acquire new music, audiobooks, electronic books, TV shows, movies and applications (such as games or productivity tools for iPod devices). The media software is available for both Windows and Macintosh.

To serve and protect

A small handful of anti-virus programs are available to download, but one of the highest-rated is Avast! Free Antivirus, which has received an average user score of 4.5 stars out of 5 at CNET.com. This program protects your computer in real time from viruses and spyware, the latter of which can be Trojan horse files buried in another download and secretly spying on your Web surfing activity. Spyware can also slow down your PC, cause inappropriate pop-up windows or even add a toolbar to your Web browser without your permission. Avast! isn't just for web protection, but also filters your e-mails, instant messaging programs, and more. A simple-to-use interface also makes it a great pick for computer users on a tight budget.

The sky's the limit

Computer users know it's important to back up important files to protect them from theft, fire, flood, nasty viruses and power surges. Instead of buying an external hard drive or USB thumb drive, however, you can take advantage of free online storage with services such as Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive. Consider it a password-protected virtual drive that resides on the Web, with up to 25 gigabytes (GB) of free storage offered per account (you can have multiple accounts).

Not only is Windows Live SkyDrive easy to use, but you can also access your files from any Internet-connected computer in the world, and, if you like, even section off part of your storage folders for friends and family to access with a different password — ideal for sharing photos and camcorder footage.

Picture perfect

Chances are you have hundreds (or even thousands) of photos stored on your hard drive. How do you organize, edit and share them all? One of the most intuitive and powerful photo management programs is Google's Picasa — and it's free! The 12-megabyte download is a breeze to use, offers many editing tools (including exceptional one-click red-eye fix) and has a clever "tagging" feature that scans all the photos in your collection, identifies the ones with faces, and groups photos with similar faces together; then you can add name tags to dozens of photos at once by clicking "Add a name" below a photo and typing in the person's name. Picasa currently works on Windows, Macintosh and even Linux operating systems.

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