Don't Buy Software: Do Everything for Free

By Rick Broida

Don't spend money on software if you don't have to. There are surprisingly good free alternatives to most commercial apps.

Buying software is a sucker bet.

It's the old adage: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? When it comes to software, there's almost always a free alternative to, er, whatever is the app equivalent of a cow.

Take image editing. If you want to fine-tune your photos, the go-to option has long been Photoshop -- or at the very least, Adobe Photoshop Elements. But those programs cost money, which is okay if you want bleeding-edge features and the benefits of technical support.

But Photoshop is also overkill for many of us, especially when there are so many free alternatives. Let's take a look at some of the no-price options for some common software needs.

Anti-virus

Everyone knows it's reckless to run a computer -- especially a Windows PC -- without anti-virus software. That's especially true now that ransomware is on the rise, because if hackers are able to corrupt your data and hold it hostage, you won't be able to get it back without paying hundreds of dollars--and even then there are no guarantees.

So perhaps it makes sense to pay for anti-virus software, right? Not necessarily: There are a number of completely free anti-virus utilities that can protect you against all manner of threats, ransomware included.

Avast download page

Indeed, if you look around, you'll see that Avast Free Antivirus 2016, AVG AntiVirus Free, and Panda Free Antivirus have all earned top marks from leading publications that review security software. And as you've no doubt noted, all three have "free" right in their names. Whatever tool you choose, make sure it offers real-time protection against malware attacks, not just scanning and removal after the fact.

Image editing

As noted above, Photoshop is far from your only choice when it comes to image editing. If you're looking for that level of photo-manipulation power, with filters and special effects and the like, you have two pretty impressive options: GIMP and Paint.net. The former comes closest to matching Photoshop's capabilities, while the latter feels closer to Microsoft's own Paint program -- on steroids and wearing a fancy new suit.

If you'd rather not monkey around with software at all, there are several good image-editing tools that reside right in your Web browser -- no installation required. Autodesk Pixlr, for example, lets you create images from scratch or upload them from your PC, then crop, rotate, smudge, and so on. PicMonkey also supplies a broad range of editing tools, though the basic (read: free) version is somewhat limited. If you want advanced touch-tools, more fonts and effects, and other extras, there's a nominal monthly fee ($2.75).

A screenshot of Paint.Net

Finally, don't overlook the place where you most likely snapped your snapshots: your smartphone. Android and iOS both offer basic image-editing capabilities (cropping, rotating, etc.), but you can accomplish a lot more by way of third-party image-editing apps. Android users should check out Cyberlink PhotoDirector, while iOS users will find plenty of great features in Snapseed. They're both free, but if you really want to feel like you're getting something for nothing, try Photoshop Express -- available for Android, iOS, and even Windows Phone.

Office suite

There's something to be said for the familiarity of Microsoft Office, which integrates very nicely with Windows and OneDrive, Microsoft's cloud-storage service. But the less said about its annual subscription fee, the better.

Don't bother. If all you need is word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations (the "big three" of any office suite), there are countless free alternatives. In fact, if you stick to the confines of your Web browser, Microsoft's own Office Online offers basic versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel at no charge. And don't forget Google Docs (which now resides under the Google Drive umbrella), a competent if unattractive set of productivity tools.

A screenshot of the free Office Online

If you prefer something that looks and feels more like a traditional software suite, look no further than LibreOffice 5 and SoftMaker FreeOffice 2016. They give you the aforementioned Big Three applications, all of them file-compatible with Microsoft's versions. Both look a little old-fashioned, but they give you the tools you need to do the work you want -- all for a price of $0.

Video editing

Free video editors aren't nearly as abundant as, say, free office suites. That's in part because video editing can be very complex, involving advanced features as well as compatibility with lots of file formats and standards. Many, if not most, of the freebie editors out there are just stripped-down versions of their commercial counterparts, and not very useful overall.

Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker is free but limited, while Apple's iMovie delivers a somewhat more robust set of tools to Mac users. But if the video you shot is located on your phone or tablet, why not edit it right there? Why go to all the hassle of transferring it to a desktop, especially if it's just going to end up back online (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) anyway?

A screenshot of PowerDirector

In other words, unless you need to perform Hollywood-level edits, look to app-based video editors. Android users should try Adobe Premiere Clip and Cyberlink PowerDirector, while the iOS crowd can produce movie magic with GoPro Splice or Magisto. (The latter is free, but with premium options available by subscription.)

All these apps can handle things like trimming and assembling clips, adding effects and text overlays, inserting transitions, choosing a soundtrack, and so on. In the end, you'll be able to save your movie or, even better, upload it directly to your social-media or video-sharing service of choice.

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