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10 low-cost alternatives to Word, Photoshop and other software juggernauts

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UPDATED: 28th March 2012

A computer is only as useful as the software you run on it, so you should keep your PC's software current - and not necessarily with the latest version of a program that's getting long in the tooth. Sometimes, switching to a new application can help you speed up your work or make your system more efficient.

Here, we'll look at software tools for handling 10 categories of essential PC tasks: presentations,  note taking, file management, photo editing, email, word processing, music organizing, remote access, clean up/optimization, and backup. For each type we'll compare the dominant program with a promising challenger and - where applicable - an online alternative.

Presentations

• Incumbent: Microsoft PowerPoint

It practically goes without saying that the king of presentation software is Microsoft's PowerPoint (available as a component of various Microsoft Office bundles or separately for around £75). The application is so dominant that the phrase “send me the PowerPoint” has become ubiquitous in business circles.

• Up-and-comer: Prezi.

Easily the most interesting alternative to PowerPoint, Prezi has both local and online components. The free, public (and web-only) version lets you create arguably better presentations than PowerPoint can deliver. Instead of being slide-based, Prezi uses a single-pane approach. The process may seem strange at first, but Prezi's tutorials and inline help will get you up to speed in a hurry. Prezi is collaborative, so multiple users can work on the same presentation simultaneously via Prezi Meeting. When it's time to give the presentation, you can play the show online (it's Flash-based) or download a .zip file, extract it, and play it locally using the included prezi.exe file. Signing up for the pro version of Prezi (approx. £37 per year) entitles you to download Prezi Desktop, and you work on presentations locally.

Prezi

• Web app: TransMedia Glide Presenter.

Part of the browser-based Glide desktop operating system (free with 30GB of storage, or approx. £31 per year with 250GB), Glide Presenter works in a slide-by-slide format. It's easy to use, and you can export creations as PowerPoint files or PDF files. You can stream audio and video in presentations, and create presentations collaboratively.

Note Taking

• Incumbent: Evernote.

Evernote is a multipurpose tool for note taking, note syncing, offline bookmark creation, and information organizing. The makers of this free tool keeps coming up with ways to make the data you need easier to keep track of. Its latest iOS apps, Evernote Hello and Evernote Food, are designed to keep records on all of the people you meet and all of the food you eat.

• Up-and-comer: Microsoft OneNote.

Microsoft's note-taking program comes bundled with the most basic version of Microsoft Office (it costs around £45 when purchased by itself), and it's easily the most overlooked program in the 2010 Office Suite. That's a shame, because this little notepad makes capturing your thoughts incredibly easy. Press Windows-S to capture any portion of your computer screen and automatically drop the image into your notebook. It's a great way to generate Web clippings if you're shopping around for something. Also, you can click anywhere in the notebook and start typing, so your notes have more visual appeal than a simple list might have. There are also free iOS and Android OneNote apps, too.

Microsoft OneNote

• Web app: Springpad.

Some people believe that note taking works better online, because syncing is faster, notes don't take up local storage space, and sharing is easier. To exploit these advantages, Springpad's free Web service and mobile apps let you add not just notes but also links, photos, videos, and files to your box of “stuff”- in much the same way as Dropbox, but with a clear notebook and to-do list function. You can also check out files that your Springpad-using friends unlock, making it an easy way to share videos and create collaborative lists.

Next: File management, photo editing, email, and word-processing software.

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