How To Get All The Software You Need For Free

For a new small business, loading up a number of computers with software all at once can be a serious setback.

Why not get all that software for free?

No, we aren’t suggesting you steal — or even “share”, if you prefer — applications for your business. Nowadays, you can find free software to perform all of the most common computing tasks.

But you want to do your job well — maybe you are worried you get what you pay for when it comes to free software.

Relax! For the most part, the software we’ve dug up here is competitive with anything you can pay for.

(There isn’t a single piece of commercial software on our computer, by the way, and we’re getting by just fine.)

Here are some of the great free products that make this possible, and how they stack up to the pricey competition.

Check out the best free programs >>

Word Processing

What you're paying for: Microsoft Word
How much you pay: it varies based on the package, but at the low end $149.95 (with Powerpoint and Excel)
What you can get for free: OpenOffice.org's (OOo) Writer.

Pros: OOo is a free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office. Its word processor, Writer, is just as good as Word for basic text editing and most advanced applications. Unlike word, it runs on just about any operating system you can think of, and you'll never have to pay for an upgrade.

Cons: You are most likely using Word already. Writer is just as straight forward and easy to use, but it will be new to you, so it can take some getting used to. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is using Word too, and it helps to be on the same page. Writer can open Word documents and save into Word formats, but by default your files won't be readable by most people. Plus, each new version of Word will likely come with a new proprietary file format, and it will take time before Writer catches up. Open-sourcers hate this about Microsoft, but you probably care more about making things work.

The Verdict

Use Microsoft Word If:

  • $150 (or somewhat less per machine if your business is buying licenses for a number of computers at once) doesn't sound like a lot of money to you. AND
  • You or your employees are uncomfortable worrying about file formats when sharing documents with other people. OR
  • You decide you need PowerPoint or Excel and prefer Word for whatever reason. Since you should always be buying Microsoft Office apps in a suite, you'll end up with Word for free.

Use Writer If:

  • Word's price tag gives you pause, even for a second. Even if your employees are complete technophobes, getting them used to a new word processor simply isn't that difficult. If you have a lot of computers to maintain and not a lot of capital to throw around, there is absolutely no reason to pay for Word.

Spreadsheets

What you're paying for: Microsoft Excel
How much you pay: it varies based on the package, but at the low end $149.95 (with Powerpoint and Word)
What you can get for free: OpenOffice.org's (OOo) Calc.

Pros: Aside from the obvious fact of its being free, there isn't a lot to recommend Calc over Excel. Many reviewers find the process of entering formulas to be easier and more intuitive in Calc.

Cons: Advanced Excel users will find Calc doesn't have all the high-level features of Microsoft's offering, but the biggest difference between the two has to do with performance. OOo consistently does worse than Microsoft Office in tests of speed and CPU usage. As a practical matter, you aren't likely to notice when you're word processing or using a simple one-page spread sheet, but if you're used to working with massive, complex files in Excel, switching to Calc will slow you down.

The Verdict

Use Microsoft Excel If:

  • You tend to work with very large spreadsheet files
  • You collaborate with Excel users and need your spreadsheets to be compatible with theirs
  • You decide you need PowerPoint or Excel and prefer Word for whatever reason. Since you should always be buying Microsoft Office apps in a suite, you'll end up with Word for free.

Use Calc If:

  • Your spreadsheets are fairly small, straight forward tables OR
  • You need to save money more desperately than you need to save time.

Photo Editing

What you're paying for: Adobe Photoshop
How much you pay: $649
What you can get for free: GIMP or Picasa.

Pros: The great thing about free image editors is how many of them there are. Adobe does offer some stripped down versions of its software, but there are dozens of great free products tailored to varying needs and levels of expertise. Picasa is extremely primative compared to Photoshop, but it's much easier to use, and can do everything that your average Photoshop user wants. GIMP is a powerful free tool that can compete with all but the fanciest of Photoshop's features, while taking up much less space and memory.

Cons: If you're a professional photographer, or just someone who is seriously invested in image editing, there is no substitute for paying up. Advanced features for manipulating layers are beyond most of us, but for the advanced user, they are crucial. The semi-pro should be able to do everything he wants with GIMP, but everyone agrees it's not as user-friendly.

The Verdict

Use Photoshop If:

  • You are a professional photographer, or anyone who intends to do very serious image editing OR
  • You do moderately advanced photo editing and would rather spend a few dollars than deal with an awkward user interface.

Use GIMP If:

  • You want to do more serious work with photos than a simple program like Picasa allows AND
  • You don't mind a somewhat steep learning curve

Use Picasa If:

  • All you need is a program to crop your images, get rid of the redeye, and save them for the Web. The overwhelming majority of users fit into this category; they are being tricked into buying a more powerful tool than they need.

Anti-Virus Software

What you're paying for: Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky
How much you pay: $40-$60 (more when bundled with other security programs)
What you can get for free: Avira AntiVir

Pros: Comparison testing of antivirus programs is contentious business, and we wouldn't point to any one result as definitive, but the best free programs often perform as well as the best commercial ones, and we've seen studies that showed Avira doing a better job than anything else out there.

Cons: Some people clearly just feel safer paying for something that is protecting their data. Perhaps the conspiracy-minded worry about entrusting their digital well-being to unheard of shareware distributors. There isn't much here.

The Verdict

Use Commercial Antivirus Software If:
Actually, don't. This one is pretty clear cut. Commercial antivirus programs are cheap for a reason--there's no reason to pay for one in the first place.

Slide Shows

What you're paying for: Microsoft PowerPoint
How much you pay: it varies based on the package, but at the low end $149.95 (with Word and Excel)
What you can get for free: OpenOffice.org's (OOo) Impress

Pros: The user interface for Impress is about as similar to PowerPoint as they could get away with. For simple tasks, many users find it easier to understand.

Cons: Impress simply isn't as powerful a tool. It's fine for simple, static slide shows, but if you are looking to integrate music or videos with your presentation, PowerPoint is miles ahead. There are plenty of other free options--Zoho and Google Docs, for instance--but as far as we know, none of them are any better.

The Verdict

Use PowerPoint If:

  • You want to produce slick, multimedia presentations

Use Impress If:

  • You only need to make very basic slideshows

So far, we've had mostly good things to say about free software. Sure, Open Office isn't for Microsoft diehards who fear change, and GIMP won't cut it for professional photographers, but most of us never need to worry about these things. But as far as we know, for anyone giving a talk or presentation that involves multimedia, there is no good free alternative. Can it really be true that vital software still costs money? Or is there a program we don't know about? Let us know in the comments.

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