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Free, that’s the magic number. At least, it is when it comes to PC software. Why break the bank populating your PC with applications when enterprising individuals and organizations have created a raft of software that does the job adequately completely gratis?
Now, we’re well aware that there are several different categories of free software. There’s the stuff that comes from the open source community, which is usually a little rough around the edges owing to its many-cooks approach to development.
But open source software has its own advantages: sometimes it’s home to experimental features that those in the commercial market might hold back on; or perhaps it’s designed for a niche that commercial developers can’t profit from. There’s also that guarantee that your software is going to stay free – while it might take an age to update and basically come with no warranty, open source software suddenly attempting to dig around in your wallet is a rare occurrence.
The other side of the coin is ‘free’ software, in quotation marks. There’s a swathe of it in this list, but we’ve done our best to dodge anything too feature-light. Essentially, as has been the case for decades, software publishers will often offer a taste of the goods in an effort to get you hooked enough to buy the real thing.
Often, that taste is adequate on its own. And sometimes, it’s not really a taste for you as much as it is for the business market, where expensive per-seat licences can be a real money-spinner. You can have the software for free if for personal use, but these guys in their office need to pay.
1. Photo Editing: Polarr
Polarr has crept up on us over the past few years, but since it made the jump from mobile to PC app, it’s proved to be one of the coolest and most capable photo-tweaking tools available, paid or not.
Alternatively: Adobe Photoshop Express
2. Music making: Cakewalk
Originally a DOS sequencer launched in 1987 and coming to Windows in 1991, Cakewalk recently came under new ownership and is back from the dead – those new owners decided the app was best given to the world for free.
Pro-level recording, all the tools you need to mix and master tracks, not to mention a host of software instruments and effects.
3. Audio editing: Audacity
Audacity almost annoys us: we’re absolutely desperate to recommend something different in this slot, but there’s still nothing else that can hold a candle to it for audio cutting or tweaking. It’s a tool that everyone should have installed at all times.
4. Video editing: Shotcut
Shotcut has been carving out its own niche in the video-editing world, and while it’s still catching up to the big boys, it’s also entirely free – no surprises, no restrictions.
Unless you look on the Microsoft Store, where it’s inexplicably paid-for. Don’t do that.
5. Notes: Notepad++
There’s a whole lot of contextual formatting in Notepad++ (it is, after all, made for sketching code in all manner of languages), but it’s just as much a straightforward and capable alternative to Microsoft’s Notepad. And that’s a good thing.
6. Office: LibreOffice
Pretty much a free equivalent to Microsoft Office, and compatible with the same file formats, LibreOffice is a non-paid essential. It even does more: There’s a full database and a complex formula editor included.
Alternatively: Apache OpenOffice
7. Disk rescue: TestDisk
Whole drive letting you down? Mechanical disk giving you the click of death? TestDisk can ignore all the usual safeguards and filesystems in order to wade through the raw data, sector by sector, giving you one last chance to rescue your files.
Alternatively: Paragon Rescue Kit
8. File manager: Tablacus
Quite why Windows Explorer doesn’t have tabs in 2019 we don’t know, but Tablacus solves that problem: It’s a file manager that, yes, includes tabs. It also lets you tile folders in panes, and disable any components you don’t need.
9. Backup: Cobian Backup
Cobian Backup is one of the most capable free backup packages there is. Send your files off to an external drive, send them to a network location, send them to an FTP server: whatever works.
Alternatively: EaseUS Todo Backup
10. System cleaner: CCleaner
CCleaner does all those long, laborious clean-up tasks in one place. You can either run a selective scrubbing job, or set up a batch job to deal with everything at once. Just be wary of the pop-ups.
Alternatively: Advanced System Optimizer