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

Save money with cheaper up-and-coming packages

Music Organizing

• Incumbent: Apple iTunes.

The heavyweight music organizer is free and capable, and it makes syncing tunes to iOS and Windows Phone 7 devices a breeze. But its interface can drive non-Apple users crazy, and it has no easy way to sync to Android devices.

• Up-and-comer: Songbird.

If you don't use an iOS device, consider moving to Songbird. This attractive organizer's navigation largely mimics that of iTunes. The free program can sync with Android and other devices without proprietary operating systems. Songbird lets you edit track information and use various add-ons written by independent developers for such things as social media communication, lyrics and guitar tab music for your songs, and access to Last.fm and the 7digital music store.

Songbird

• Web app: Google Music.

Currently only available in the US, Google Music is slated to be opened up to the UK very soon. You can transfer up to 20,000 of your songs to the free service, from which you can access and stream them over any Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The online interface permits you to categorise tracks by title, artist, album, and genre, and create your own playlists. Google Music even lets you divide your music between tunes that you've uploaded and tunes that you've purchased from Google Play (formerly the Android Market).

Remote Access

• Incumbent: Citrix GoToMyPC.

This program sits quietly in the background of a computer, waiting for you to log on from another device via the company's online portal. You can then access files remotely and control the remote computer as if you were sitting in front of it. GoToMyPC works well and costs £6 per month, or £60 per year.

• Up-and-comer: TeamViewer.

Very fast, and free for personal use, TeamViewer can be configured to sit ready in the background for an always-available connection to your desktop; or you can simply run it as needed. The program uses a simple connection ID and password for security. You can provide those credentials to a colleague if you want to allow that person to view or take over your screen. TeamViewer also has a feature for moving files onto and off the host machine, and it supports multiple connections and users. For high-volume professional use, prices start at £12 per month. Considering the quality of the service, that's a bargain.

• Web app: Join.me.

For occasional use within a browser, Join.me is an even simpler option than TeamViewer, since using it doesn't even involve signing up for an account. Simply browse to join.me, click share, send the generated code to the person that you want to share your screen with, and have that person enter it at join.me after clicking join. You can also invite multiple users to attend ad-hoc Web presentations. Performance isn't great, but viewers can request control of your computer and have remote access similar to GoToMyPC.

Cleanup / Optimisation

• Incumbent: Piriform CCleaner.

CCleaner has long been the standard for optimising PCs. It helps you remove unnecessary programs, clear cookies from your browsers, tidy your system's Windows Registry, and perform similar tasks. This utility is free, stable and proven.

• Up-and-comer: SlimWare SlimCleaner.

SlimCleaner is now on its second version, and is looking better than ever. The free utility provides color-coded and graphic descriptions of what's on your computer, all the way down to CPU and RAM dials that tell you how much of each you're using. Tabs on the left side toggle between different SlimCleaner functions: the desktop cleaner, the optimisation tool, the uninstaller, and so forth.

SlimCleaner also assigns ratings (ranging from Unnecessary to Good) to most of the programs, apps, and files on your computer. It draws these ratings from reviews that other users have posted, and from SlimCleaner's own proprietary antivirus scanner. In our tests, the ratings were fairly accurate, and they certainly simplified decisions about which files to keep and which ones to delete - no Google searches necessary. If you want to delete files permanently, SlimCleaner offers the same levels of overwriting or 'shredding' that CCleaner does, though in slightly snazzier fashion.

SlimCleaner

Backup

• Incumbent: Acronis True Image.

Al­­though this £30 mainstay among consumer PC backup programs has many worthy competitors, it combines drive imaging, file and folder backup, and disaster recovery in a very professional package.

• Up-and-comer: Easeus Todo Backup Free.

These days, you don't need to pay a penny to get a capable backup program. Easeus Todo Backup Free is a sterling backup suite that provides 90 percent of what you'd get with paid-for software: drive imaging, file and folder backup, mounting of backup images as virtual drives, scheduling, and a lot more. Todo Backup's interface is obtuse at times, but even the least technical user should be able to set up a backup without much fuss. The software provides full disaster-recovery features, including a Windows PE-based recovery boot disc. And unlike many paid-for competitors, it also supports Windows Dynamic disks and RAID.

• Web app: CrashPlan.

Graced with an elegant interface, this program backs up to a local destination as well as online, and it carries an extremely competitive price: approximately £31 per year for unlimited backup. You can even let friends back up to your account. Combine that flexibility with clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, and even iOS and Android mobile devices, and you have a winning service. You'll like its style.

Five Reasons Why Desktop Software Is Still Vital

Working with online applications makes a lot of sense for a lot of computer users these days, especially when travel may take people far from their primary work PC. Nevertheless, in some situations the ability to work with software that's installed locally on a desktop system can be indispensable. Here are five advantages that come with having apps loaded and ready to run on your own PC.

Security: Companies evolve, and though storing your information on someone else’s servers is usually safe, even a seemingly stable company may fold or change its privacy standards. When handling important documents, family photos, and business presentations, you might want to use desktop software just to ensure that the preservation and confidentiality of that information don't depend on the good behaviour of some potentially capricious company.

Guaranteed connection: Web apps are great when you can access the Web. But if your Internet connection goes down, or if you can’t pick up a wireless signal while you're on the go, you need on-board software to stay productive. Conveniently, many tools have a 'sync' button to enable your online database to catch up with your offline database when you regain your connection.

Speed: Even when you do have an Internet connection, web services can be agonizingly slow at times. Their servers can even go down. Though offline programs can feel sluggish, too, you can clean unnecessary files from your hard drive to make the software run faster, or you can upgrade your RAM. The point is that you aren't at the mercy of external conditions.

In-box utilities: Cleanup and file management utilities aren’t the most exciting applications in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Web services can’t keep your computer up and running the way local tools can.

Raw power: Web-based photo editors are getting better and better, but it’s still next to impossible to edit video from a browser. To do that job, you must draw on the resources of your own machine.

The de facto standard for photo editing, Photoshop (which costs around £600 on its own) remains in a class by itself, with a vast array of tools and plug-ins, plus an unparalleled ability to automate repetitive tasks. The free, almost-as-powerful alternative (if you can live with a slightly clunky interface) is GIMP: the GNU Image Manipulation Program.
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