Everyone loves a bargain, but some don’t offer the value they suggest. If you’re starting up a business or heading off to university, you’ll want to minimise your initial expenditure.

Shopping online and shaving a few pounds off the purchase price of a printer or computer isn’t the only way to keep down costs. You’re as likely to spend as much on other equipment – especially software – as you are on office overheads, accommodation and stationery.

On the face of it, students and entrepreneurs have little in common. The first is often regarded as a work-shy freeloader who’ll take any handout going while their NUS card says they can get away with it – and they’ll always try and haggle. The wannabe businessperson, on the other hand, knows all too well the value of hard work and putting in the hours. While they also appreciate the need to negotiate the best possible deal, they’ll be burning the midnight oil applying their business brain while the student eases themself out of bed only to party the night away.

The truth is somewhat different. The days of the care-free student living off a grant or never-to-be-repaid student loan are a thing of the past, while startups are faced with an uphill struggle in attracting investors or agreeing a bank loan.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and people are embracing alternative ways of working and creating wealth.

With a second global economic downturn, the rising cost of living and a dearth of jobs, every penny counts if you are to set up a successful business venture.
Here, we look at a range of cost-cutting measures and assess whether each is a savvy cost-saver or a shortcut too far.

Microsoft Office alternatives

If you own a PC or laptop, or even a tablet, you’ll probably want a decent word processor and either a spreadsheet program or accounts software to help you keep on top of your expenses.

Free online app WaveAccounting.com offers powerful features and is tailored for UK use. If its accessibility via your Google
or Yahoo account is off-putting, however, a good standalone alternative is Accountz.


Microsoft Office is often preinstalled on new PCs as a 60-day trial (you can also download this from our DVD). A full version of Office Professional 2010 costs more than £330, while the Home and Business Edition costs £189. Students have things a bit easier, with a single-user licence costing £75 – or £79 for three users, which is ideal if you’re able to split the costs with housemates.

Even at its cheapest, Office demands a relatively large chunk of cash. Thankfully, plenty of free and low-cost alternatives can also meet your productivity needs.

Google Docs

Google Docs (free from docs.google.com) lets you import and create documents, spreadsheets and presentations, then edit them in a web browser. It’s also compatible with mobile devices running Android 2.2 and iOS 3.0 or later. Google Docs allows you to access your files from any web-connected computer, and it makes document sharing and collaborative editing easy. Docs is also part of Google’s paid-for Apps for Business.

Finding and opening files created elsewhere is a hassle, though. Performance lags are a regular occurrence too. Documents must first be converted into a compatible format, and file manipulation is more difficult than it should be. The interface also feels like a minimalist throwback. But Google Docs is very useful as a collaboration tool, provided that you don’t mind it mangling complex formatting in Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents – exporting Google Docs files into their corresponding Office formats usually produces unreadable results, too.

Google is expected to add offline capabilities to the software in the future.

LibreOffice 3.3

The free, open-source LibreOffice comes in versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux; a portable edition is also available. It offers a word processor, spreadsheet utility, presentation program and database, plus tools for sketching diagrams and editing equations.

LibreOffice 3.3’s interface will be familiar to anyone used to Microsoft Office, but it’s also easy to personalise. In our tests, document, spreadsheet and presentation files created in Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org posed no problem for LibreOffice, nor did a LibreOffice document encounter difficulties in Word.

SoftMaker Office

SoftMaker Office 2010 isn’t free, but it’s cheaper than Microsoft’s suite at €69 (£60). It’s available for Windows, Linux, Windows Mobile and Windows CE. It has word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation modules, and offers a script that lets you automate recurring tasks.

SoftMaker closely mimics the interface of Microsoft’s suite, and each module is packed with features. The TextMaker word processor, for example, incorporates substantial desktop-publishing functions. Graphics features are particularly good.

We imported Word, Excel and PowerPoint files with no problems; each module remains separate from the others, however, requiring some toggling if you’re working in more than one file type at once. Files we created in SoftMaker opened just fine in Office too.

Zoho Office

Like Google Docs, Zoho is a cloud-based suite that’s accessible via a browser. It incorporates a word processor, a spreadsheet tool and presentation apps. Zoho lets you securely store files in a central location, then share or access them from afar. Individual use is free; business pricing ranges from free for up to 1GB of storage and one workspace to $5 (£3.05) per user, per month for 20 workspaces.

A plug-in lets you create, edit and save documents and spreadsheets to Zoho from within Microsoft Word or Excel. Zoho also supports an offline mode in its word processor. Mobile access covers iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Nokia (S60) devices.

Compared with Google Docs, Zoho’s interface is a pleasure to behold; it’s elegant and intuitive. Importing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files posed no problem. Documents we created in Zoho worked in Microsoft Office without issues. Sharing and collaboration tasks are easy, and we like the fact that Zoho lets you view and edit the latest 25 documents offline, with automatic synching with the online version once you’ve reconnected. Occasional lags cropped up in use, but it gives a good overall impression.

The extras impressed us too. Zoho provides means of hosting a meeting, a calendar tracker, a presentation program and accounting tools.

Google Docs

Storage options

Whether or not you decide to play it safe and use Microsoft Office for your everyday document-creation needs, you can make use of the company’s online storage repository, Windows Live SkyDrive (skydrive.live.com). If you also use Office Web Apps (integrated into Microsoft Office 2010), you have both a ready-made cloud-computing suite and plenty of space to store everything. A 25GB allowance is provided.

Office Web Apps includes online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. All replicate the look and feel of their desktop counterparts, with simplified versions of the menus. Web Apps saves files to SkyDrive, where you can set sharing permissions, invite people to view and edit documents, and collaborate on documents simultaneously.

As well as considering whether the cloud is really the best place to keep all your important files, you’ll want to work out whether it’s a cost-effective option. This depends on the amount of data involved.

If you want to make 2GB of data accessible on all your computers and devices simultaneously, Dropbox.com is ideal. Put a file in the Dropbox folder (or create a subfolder within it), and that item will instantly appear in the Dropbox folder on any PC or device using the same account.

If you need more storage than the 2GB that Dropbox offers, and you don’t require mobile access, the 5GB of free cloud storage available with LaCie Wuala may be just the ticket. The service lets you sync files between multiple computers and share folders with friends, and it adds a welcome touch of security by encrypting all files before they leave your hard drive.

Dropbox hard drive

If you move between two or three computers on a regular basis, automatically synching user folders between them can be helpful. Services such as SugarSync and Windows Live SkyDrive can sync any folders you designate, no matter where they are on your system.

SugarSync offers up to 5GB of synched storage for free, which is plenty for storing Word documents and spreadsheets. If you want to include all your photos and videos, however, you’ll probably need more capacity. Pricing starts at $50 (£30).

If you prefer, you can transfer large files using a free tool such as FileZilla or YouSendIt.com. The latter is really intended only for occasional use; you’ll need to buy a subscription for more regular use.

Bigger files

Moving files from one drive to another can eat up system resources, cause your PC to slow down, and take longer than it should. TeraCopy reduces transfer times by optimising file data operations and permitting asynchronous transfers. It also lets you pause and resume large file transfers.

Don’t discount what came with your PC. Windows 7 is able to burn CDs and DVDs within Windows Explorer. For XP or Vista, try CDBurnerXP.

The cloud won’t necessarily be for you but, even if you store data locally, backing up a whole hard drive can take weeks. Once the initial backup is done, incremental backups take almost no time and run in the background. Restoring data is usually quick and painless if you want to recover a recent version of a specific file, but could take days if you need to run a total system recovery.

Plenty of online and offsite backup options are available that make use of a web connection to transfer files, but many people will prefer more than a simple password and username login to an online holding site.

If it’s your precious dissertation research or plans for expanding your business empire, you’ll want more reassurance that those documents are going to be accessible even if you temporarily lose web access. The obvious choice is a NAS drive or a protected external hard drive. The best of these feature in our Top 5 charts (page 141). Note, though, that the promised encryption and hardware locks do not always work outside Windows.

Business services

If you need to back up entire hard drives of data every week, look to a web-hosting company such as 1&1 Internet or Strato. As well as added security and guaranteed access to any backup you require, you’ll get your own domain for a small-business website. Such sites come with templates to help you set up an online shop (for advice on how to set up a shop using 1&1 MyBusiness Site, see here.

Tin Robot Records

You may find a modicum of web space and, potentially, your own IP address when you sign up to a broadband package. To ensure that you and your customers are able to access your site at all times, it’s far better to stump up for a basic business-broadband package than to try to get by on a potentially flaky home-broadband solution. Should your business connection go down, you’ll not only get priority service in getting it back up and running, but you’ll be covered by a service level agreement (SLA), offering compensation for any lost earnings.

It’s also worth checking out independent reviews of ISPs. For flexibility, a business package from an established, highly rated ISP such as Nildram or Zen Internet is a smart move. Home broadband with solid customer service doesn’t come much better than that offered by O2 and Plusnet. These two rated the highest in PC Advisor’s most recent annual home broadband survey.

Strategists could do worse than plan their business using AceProject (see our workshop) or Mindjet MindManager, a free mind-mapping program available from here.

For art students or those keen to show off the fruits of their learning, displaying their work online makes a lot of sense. Both Wix.com and Vimeo can help here. Wix is a photo gallery for products you sell or photos and objects in your portfolio, while Vimeo is an ideal showcase for digital animations and video show reels. As with the Tin Robot Records site, you can easily link your Wix site to a Blogger or WordPress blog.

Rather than direct clients or potential sponsors to your site, you can share a screen with them using the free LogMeIn Join.me service and talk them through the merits of what’s on offer. Join.me can also be used for collaborating on projects. Alternatively, if you’re a Microsoft Office user, you can work together via SharePoint or OneNote, using the Windows Live elements to store, share, message and blog.

Email is likely to be your primary communication method. Outlook offers plenty of features, but the software has more than a few foibles and it probably isn’t worth shelling out for the standalone product. We like Outlook’s ability to deliver RSS feeds and its solid search credentials, but the likes of Mozilla Thunderbird and Zimbra Desktop have served us just as well.

Zimbra Desktop is a free open-source email client that comes in versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. It has contacts, calendaring and a social networks feed, and is geared up for online file storage and synching. It doesn’t support SMTP servers, however, so Zimbra won’t work with an existing corporate email account.
Thunderbird also offers a strong feature set, including support for split panes, in-depth email previews and tabbed messaging.

More communication tools

When you get an email message that you need to act on but don’t have to deal with immediately, Nudgemail serves as a smart snooze button. Forward the message to, say, [email protected] or [email protected], and the email will reappear in your inbox when you need it.


Social networks and the multiple means of communication with which we are expected to keep pace are the enemy of productivity. If you refuse to lose that Twitter habit and are a constant email checker, one of the following free aggregators will help tame your twitchiness.

If you can’t remember the social networks you’ve joined, Nomee integrates up to 120 of them into one manageable interface.

For one-stop tracking of your email and your social stream, sign up for a Nimble account (nimble.com). This powerful free tool assembles your email, Twitter and Facebook accounts in one place, so you can stop switching between windows to keep in touch with the outside world.

Security software

Microsoft’s free Security Essentials is ideal for personal users, combining antivirus, antispyware and firewall protection. It provides a solid layer of protection against the most common threats, without hobbling your PC or nagging you with annoying update reminders. Free versions of other security programs exist – Avira and AVG are two of the best-known examples. However, what impresses us about Microsoft’s offering is that it just works and, since it’s not affiliated for a more feature-laden paid-for version, there’s no tiresome nagging about upgrading.

You also need to consider what happens to the sensitive data you delete. When you delete files from your PC via the Recycle Bin, Windows marks them as erased and hides them from view; eventually, it fills the drive space they occupied with new content. To get rid of data right away, use Eraser, a free utility that repeatedly overwrites data until it’s unrecoverable.

Other useful sites and services

Going back to basics usually involves fewer distractions, allowing you to get more done. The following apps and add-ons appeal for just this reason.

Simpler web viewing: The Readability add-on takes you back to a time when the web was ad- and clutter-free, stripping everything but the main article from a web page. It has few navigation menus and is great for creating printer-friendly pages.

Mind mapper: Few methods are as effective as a mind-map for visualising the related parts of a complex project. Xmind is a simple, powerful mind-mapping tool.

List manager: To-do lists don’t have to be complicated. For simple, effective lists that you can share with friends and access from any mobile browser, try 37Signals’ Ta-da List.

Easy presentations: If you need to whip up a snazzy presentation fast, log into Sliderocket via your Google account and use its slick templates to embed images, Flash objects, videos and audio. Export your presentation as a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow or PDF.

Fast flowcharts: Dia lets you generate quick flowcharts. This open source Visio clone gives you ample tools for creating a host of visual diagrams.

File converter: If you want to convert a MOV video file to WMV format, or a Word document into ePub for your e-book reader, try Online-Convert.com. It transforms a wide selection of formats, and it doesn’t require you to download or install any software.

Streamlined PDF viewer: Adobe’s Acrobat Reader has evolved dramatically over the years, and it’s grown a little bloated along the way. For quicker PDF viewing that won’t hog system resources, try Sumatra PDF.

All-in-one uncompressor: The free 7-Zip utility supports all the essential file-compression formats – and more than a few obscure ones – so it can unpack anything you download. 7-Zip also adds file-management tools to Windows’ context menus, enabling you to zip, unzip and convert files on the fly.

FTP essential: People who transfer lots of files still rely on the old FTP to move their data around. FileZilla is one of the best FTP clients on the market, and it’s still free. Get it here.

Hiding distractions: For distraction-free writing in Windows, WriteMonkey is top banana. While you write, it hides all the formatting menus and just about everything else by expanding to full-screen mode and filling your screen with the soothing background colour of your choice.

Evernote is another useful tool that lets you capture web clippings and later access them from your PC, tablet or smartphone.