Over the past decade, free software has become part of the mainstream computing experience. In part, this is down to the open-source movement, which has moved from the realm of the bedroom hobbyist to the everyday computer user.

Open-source projects have produced several outstanding consumer-oriented programs. The Mozilla Project has spawned a market-leading internet browser in Firefox (Firefox review here - download Firefox here), an email client, an HTML (hypertext markup language) editor and more.

Meanwhile, the OpenOffice suite (OpenOffice review here) has finally matured, with Microsoft Office-compatible programs that are the equal of many commercial competitors. And the list goes on.

In short, these are well-designed, fully fledged software packages that don’t time out after 30 days. And they’re free.

Free advertising-supported software and web services are also growing. Internet advertising is back with a vengeance following the dotcom crash in 2001. Analysts predict revenues from web adverts will reach $31bn (around £15bn) in 2007, compared with just $10bn in 2002. As online advertising gathers momentum, it no longer seems inappropriate to give away bandwidth.

Cover-disc software

Free software is widely available on the internet. Some of it’s good; some of it isn’t worth your time. Some of it is actively bad. As you know, at PC Advisor we have always offered free software on cover discs. While a good piece of software is likely to attract a casual buyer, such discs have other advantages too: the suites that appear on covermounts have been carefully chosen from the applications available.

Get details of the latest PC Advisor cover disc here

"We’re cutting out the legwork for the reader," says PC Advisor's CD editor, Richard Clooke. Such programs are tried, tested and proven. With malware attempting to hide itself on the web in all sorts of guises, this in itself can make such discs invaluable.

Another plus point is the special deals that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. The discerning magazine buyer can hook a good bargain when it comes to cover DVDs.

"Look out for six-month trial versions. These software packages are often about to be retired at retail and offer a genuine saving over the period they're used," Clooke says.

It’s also worth looking out for software packages that turn into ‘lite’ versions after a 30-day period. Instead of timing out altogether, the latest, full version jettisons some features, but it remains a perfectly usable application in its new lite incarnation.

So what do the software publishers get out of the deal? First and foremost they’re looking for people to upgrade to the paid version at the end of the trial period. However, covermounting has also helped a number of foreign software developers to break into the UK market.

Moscow-based security software specialist Kaspersky Lab and software all-rounder Ashampoo have both benefited by using magazine covermounts as an effective method of distributing their software.

Free software links

See also:

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

Security software


If you know your Trojans from your bots and don't mind manually downloading updates, free security software is, in many cases, as good as the software offered by leading commercial brands. The consumer watchdog Which recently concluded that many free programs outperformed rivals costing up to £50. Big-brand security software such as Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan typically cost between £30 and £50.

What's more, there's no one-off payment. The only down side is that in some cases users might have to look further for support than with big-name brands.

Which concluded: "If you're reasonably confident with your computer and are happy to look for support in places such as forums, free security software is a good way to go.
It certainly saves a lot of money."

The firm's Abigail Smith says: "You don't have to be a computer wizard to use this software. There may be a bit of additional 'housekeeping', but many of the websites which offer them have good 'frequently asked questions' sections. There are also forums where you can go to seek advice."

Forums such as PC Advisor's Helproom offer free advice and support on how to update your software.
We've identified some of our personal recommendations towards the end of this feature, all of which we've tried and many of which we regularly use. Only The Gimp was anything other than a breeze to set up.

Free games and music

Recent developments in the games and music industries point to new business models that involve giving away products for free. Electronic Arts, producer of the popular Fifa Soccer series of games, recently announced it is to give its products away. However, users will pay as they play.

According to John Riccitiello, EA's chief executive, an online experiment conducted in South Korea will be given an international roll-out.

"We gave the Fifa disc away for free. Instead of charging people for software, we charged small payments within the game: 5p for injury updates, 10p for a new strip," he explains.

"We found that 10 percent of all Korean households downloaded Fifa online and the consumer paid us more online than they would have done buying the game."

If the online experiment in South Korea is successfully extended to the rest of the world, other games publishers will follow suit. As broadband spawns more and more online gamers, the future lies in pay as you play, downloads and subscriptions rather than upfront payments.

Meanwhile, the writing appears to be on the wall for the music industry, which is looking to benefit from the emerging legitimate digital music market to help offset the financial losses from declining CD sales.

It's estimated that around five billion songs were exchanged via P2P (peer-to-peer) sites in 2007, while CD sales plummeted 20 percent. With recent studies indicating that young people are four times more likely to visit P2P filesharing websites than online music retailers, services are emerging that allow legal free music downloads.

Qtrax.com is one such forthcoming music service. The free music downloads will come with some advertising and the blessings of the artists. According to Allan Klepfisz, chief executive of Qtrax, the exact balance has yet to be worked out and the number of plays is likely to be limited.

"While the industry was embracing these new technologies, the artists were completely losing out on royalties,” he says. "We've already had early indications in the States and other places that artists will come out in true force in support of this.”
As CD sales continue to drop, the idea of giving away free music tracks in their millions, paid for by advertisers, could prove attractive to record companies and consumers alike.

Free software links

See also:

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

PC Advisor's favourite free software<.h2>

As PC Advisor's CD editor explained on page 1, we test the software we recommend – and we are highly selective about the programs that make it on to our cover discs. You can grab many items from the internet for free, but they won't come with the sort of assurances you get by loading up the vetted items we give you.

We're not allowed to feature software from some companies – the likes of Microsoft and Google have strict licensing rules. But there are plenty of great programs we can include. Here are some of our favourites:

Productivity

You shouldn't have too many problems with OpenOffice (OpenOffice review here). This is an alternative to Microsoft Office that doesn't cost a bean. Its components cover the same sort of things you get in a standard version of MS Office, but in less depth.

The OpenOffice community actively encourages user feedback – a willing band of enthusiasts on the associated forums will be only too happy to help with any problems. OpenOffice is less resource-hungry than Office – and less buggy too.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is useful if you need to work on Office-type documents but haven't got access to a full copy of Office or the like.

The web-based Zoho is less well known, but it's probably the most capable of the free office productivity programs. However, we've yet to see whether web apps will continue to thrive and whether their feature sets will expand to truly take on the desktop-based programs they emulate.

Portable Apps specialises in programs lean enough to fit on and run directly from a USB thumb drive. The advantage here is that you can take your apps with you, along with your settings and preferences, and work on them from any PC.

Office Live is a Microsoft offering worth investigating. It allows you to design and customise your own website, and offers good real-time support. Click here for info on using Microsoft Office Live.

Security

Security software is something you simply can't afford to be without. If you don't want to shell out for commercial programs, there are many freebies to be had. Among these are the respected AVG Antivirus and Avast.

It's vital to keep antivirus and antispyware programs up to date. In the case of the freebies, this often means being proactive and getting the updates yourself.
Zone Alarm is a software firewall that helps prevent web-borne nasties insinuating themselves on your PC. Firewalls look at the traffic coming in to your PC and, crucially, prevent anything that shouldn't be shared from leaving it.

Many experts recommend ZoneAlarm above the Windows Firewall in Windows Vista, especially for blocking outbound traffic. Disable Vista's firewall if using ZoneLabs' product to prevent a conflict.

Check for existing nasties by scanning your PC with Spybot Search & Destroy. As last issue's antispyware round-up discovered, this freebie hasn't kept up with the very latest web threats. In fact, it's a fine illustration of why it's often worth shelling out for commercial programs. Software developers need income in order to offer a good service.

Free software links

See also:

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

As PC Advisor's CD editor explained on page 1, we test the software we recommend – and we are highly selective about the programs that make it on to our cover discs. You can grab many items from the internet for free, but they won't come with the sort of assurances you get by loading up the vetted items we give you.

We're not allowed to feature software from some companies – the likes of Microsoft and Google have strict licensing rules. But there are plenty of great programs we can include. Here are some of our favourites:

Photo editing

Adobe hasn't got the photo-editing market totally sewn up, but it's fair to say that Adobe Photoshop is the best-known program of its kind. ButThe Gimp is an open-source freebie with some powerful tools and powerful coders behind it.

Google Picasa 2 is a good choice for basic but effective photo fixes – indeed, Vista now sports some editing tools that work on similar principles. You don't get plug-ins or additional tools, nor regular updates, so if a new file format comes out you're out of luck.

The paid version of Corel SnapFire has just been renamed, but we like the simplicity of SnapFire itself. You can use it to organise and roughly edit photos, then show them off by creating slideshows, greetings cards and more.

As with other companies that have a good pedigree in commercial programs, Corel is aiming to attract a new, less technical customer base. And who are we to argue with that, given that the supporting tutorials and other support is second to none?

Web browsers and email clients

Mozilla Firefox (Firefox review here - download Firefox here) is the much-lauded alternative to IE (Internet Explorer) that really took off when IE was subjected to so many security attacks it became all but unusable.

The Mozilla Project runs on similar open-source principles to the Linux community, so it's worth reporting any problems. Mozilla has an excellent track record of quickly fixing issues.

Any plug-ins you find yourself in need of are almost certain to be available. An alert pops up when you visit a site that needs a particular BHO (browser helper object) or plug-in that you haven't yet acquired, along with an offer to install it on the spot. Agree and Firefox does everything for you.

Mozilla Thunderbird is another superb and cleanly written piece of software that we thoroughly recommend. It's an email client that sits on your desktop. You can set up a separate inbox for webmail if you wish.

Gmail, also known as Google Mail, is a great webmail program. You can view the on- or offline status of friends and contacts, search messages, view threaded, colour-coded email conversations and get instant messaging chat and RSS feeds via the same login details. The storage limit now exceeds 2.5GB so you may never need delete messages again.

The down side is that fixes for glitches don't always turn up as quickly as with, say, Mozilla applications – and it's far from uncommon for the Gmail server to be a little busy and delay access to your inbox for a few minutes.

Windows Mail almost seems like a comeback on Microsoft's part to the excellence of Thunderbird and Eudora. It's actually a redesigned and renamed version of the free Microsoft Outlook Express. As you'd expect, integration with Microsoft Outlook and other Office programs is strong.

Also, see our recent feature on 10 great free online apps that aren't Google!

Free software links

See also:

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.