Tired of expensive, slow, bloated word processors? Download this surprisingly powerful freebie, which includes sophisticated features such as mail merge and advanced layouts. The program handles a wide variety of document formats, including those of Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, OpenOffice.org, and other programs.
If you place orders often via the Web or phone, here's a site for you. When you get a shipping notification, forward the e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The service reads through your message for the tracking information and keeps it in one place for all of your orders. Log in to the site to see the progress of your shipments, including a map showing their progress.
You have plenty of free Web-based word processors to choose from, but most aren't as slick as this one. The design is tasteful and elegant, menu items slide in and out of place, and it's incredibly simple to use. But don't let the pretty face fool you, because Buzzword is feature-packed as well. Inserting tables and graphics is a breeze, you can easily select background colors, and the document manager is a standout too.
ThinkFree Online (service)
Don't want to fork over several hundred dollars for Microsoft Office? Try this Web-based productivity suite, which covers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The service can create files compatible with Microsoft Office, so you can download files to your own PC where you can work on them offline using Office applications, if you wish. You can also edit your Office-created documents in ThinkFree, though you have to be connected to the Internet to do that. But if you're always connected, you can't beat free.
If you prefer offline apps that reside on your PC, download the free StarOffice suite, which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet app, and a presentation program, among other goodies. It's part of the free Google Pack, which also contains a bunch of other programs you might not want. During the Google Pack download, simply check the box next to StarOffice and uncheck all the others.
Foxit Reader for Windows (download)
High on our list of the most annoying applications of all time is Adobe Acrobat Reader. It's slow, bloated, and buggy, and it often crashes some systems--all of which can drive you insane. Foxit lets you read and even fill out PDF files, without touching Reader. This small and compact tool loads fast, won't hog RAM or system resources, and won't crash your PC.
Microsoft Office Live Small Business (service)
With this service, you can share documents and collaborate with coworkers and customers, build a Web site, and manage your contacts. A variety of for-pay options are available as well, but you don't have to pay for the basics.
If you own a small business, you need a database to create and track customer records, among other details. At home, you may want to organize information related to hobbies, such as your fantasy football stats. With Blist, you can do all of that online for free. You just drag and drop column types, such as numbers, dates, names, and money amounts, onto a grid. Then type in your data, and voila--instant database.
Moffsoft FreeCalc (download)
For simple, basic operations, the calculator that ships with Windows is fine. But if you need more, get this great free download. It has a variety of new keys, such as memory subtract, and its nifty "tap" feature keeps a running history of all your calculations.
File sharing and storage
This clever site combines personal, online storage with file sharing. You get 5GB of free space to store your files. You can either keep the files private or share them with other users, on a folder-by-folder basis. The service imposes just one limitation: No file can be larger than 100MB.
Torrent Swapper (download)
Though BitTorrent has become the de facto protocol for sharing files, the BitTorrent client leaves a lot to be desired. Get this far superior, and faster, open source client instead. It's easy to use, and it lets you get recommendations from others about files to download; it also allows you to stop, pause, resume, and queue downloads.
Want to share files, but don't want to be tied exclusively to the BitTorrent protocol? This simple-to-use free download allows you to share files on multiple networks and protocols, including BitTorrent, Gnutella, Gnutella2, and eDonkey. It offers fast search and chat capabilities, and you can skin it to your taste as well.
Microsoft Office Live Workspace (service)
This is, by far, the most powerful free file-sharing site you can find. It's closer to a full-blown collaboration tool, and it links directly to Microsoft Office so that you can edit your online files using Office applications. The service is ideal for small businesses looking for a way to collaborate on common documents.
Don't expect sophistication or any bells and whistles here. This service is a simple, straightforward way to store up to 1GB of files online for free.
This simple, no-frills storage site also lets you share files with other people. You get 1GB of free storage, and you can send colleagues links to your files so they can download them. It has as basic an interface as you will find. One important note: Make sure to create "tags" (the equivalents of folders) and then upload files to your tags; otherwise, you may never unearth the files again.
MP3 Rocket (download)
You can do more with this Gnutella client than just share and download files. You can also listen to Internet radio stations, watch online video channels, and burn your own CDs.
If you want to share media and other kinds of files, the task doesn't get much easier than on this site. Upload your files to the service, and you'll have access to them online whenever you want. You can then share them with others in various ways, including sending an e-mail link to the storage site. It's also a good way to publish photos and media to a Web site or blog, since you can put a link in your page to the file being hosted on Bluestring.
VirusTotal Uploader (download)
Great for checking potentially dangerous downloads and e-mail attachments, this uploader gives you a right-click option to send any file under 10MB to VirusTotal's exceptional site, where you'll receive antivirus scan results from 32 different program engines.
Avira AntiVir PersonalEdition (download)
Avira typically does a great job of detecting malware on a PC; the paid version of the program posted a 99.6 percent catch rate in the latest tests from AV-Test.org. The free version employs the same engine, but you'll have to tolerate the occasional pop-up urging you to upgrade to the paid application.
Spyware Doctor Starter Edition (download)
This edition of the popular PC Tools antispyware application is part of the Google Pack. The free version can run full spyware scans but doesn't have many of the real-time protection features of the paid version.
Comodo Firewall Pro (download)
Comodo's extensive firewall can block unauthorized attempts to send information from your PC to the Internet, which surpasses the protection that the built-in XP firewall offers. But as with any advanced firewall, be sure you know what you're doing before monkeying with the more in-depth security settings.
Create an encrypted virtual drive with its own drive letter that automatically protects any file you add to it with your choice of encryption. If you try this program, be sure to go through the helpful first-time-use tutorial.
Secunia Personal Software Inspector (download)
Secunia's useful program makes keeping your software applications up-to-date much easier. It even covers apps that you might rarely use but that can leave Internet Explorer (and your PC) wide open because of an unsafe ActiveX control. PSI provides details on the security holes in old software and tells you where to obtain updates.
Spamfighter Pro (download)
Spamfighter harnesses the collective intelligence of 4.5 million e-mailers around the world to block spam with a toolbar in Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail. The free version shows a text ad in the toolbar and adds a footer to your e-mail messages.
BitDefender Online Scanner (service)
If you suspect that your regular anti-virus app missed a malware infection, head to BitDefender's online scanner (requires Internet Explorer) for a second opinion. The Web app scans your system's memory and all files, detecting and removing infections.
ThreatFire Free (download)
ThreatFire supplements (but doesn't replace) your regular antivirus program. It adds behavioral-analysis protection that attempts to identify Trojan horses and other malware based on how they act on your PC.
McAfee Rootkit Detective (download)
The information you receive from Rootkit Detective's pursuit of malware-hiding rootkits might be too technical to use yourself. The handy Submit button, however, will produce free advice on dealing with the suspicious files it finds.
Video and photo
Here's an offbeat Web site for folks who would like to create online photo-collage postcards and share them. When you type in a phrase, the site grabs photos from the Flickr photo-sharing site that it believes match each word, and then builds a Web page/photo gallery based on it. You can click each photo to view the original at Flickr, and send the URL to a friend.
With this site (as well as its associated software) you can create Flash-based "stories," in the form of slide shows or multimedia presentations, about anything you want. You can create a resume, a presentation for your company or a trade group, training material, or anything else that comes to mind. Prebuilt templates will help you get started.
This open-source video tool will play every video format under the sun, show HD content, tune in to video blogs, save YouTube videos, and even download and show video files via BitTorrent.
This do-it-all tool, a must-have application for digital photographers, offers a file viewer, an image editor, a slide-show creator, a batch editor, and a screen-capture program. It can even convert photos in the RAW format used by many digital cameras to the more useful JPEG format.
URL Snooper (download)
Are you frustrated that YouTube and similar sites allow you to view videos online, but not download and save them to your PC? With this free program, you can grab them. Head to a Web page, and the program lists all of the videos on it. You just double-click one to view it or save it.
Throw away your print TV listings--this site is approximately 10,000 times better. In addition to the standard listings, Meevee lets you create your own personal channel listings by combining your favorite TV programs and online video. It has a wealth of detail about each show, and the online-video listings contain links to the actual video content. Try that with your TV Guide.
Yahoo Live (service)
This is a video site with a difference--it broadcasts live video, rather than prerecorded clips. You can broadcast yourself live, too, as long as you have a Webcam. When we checked in on a Sunday afternoon, it didn't have a whole lot of live content, but you can expect that to change as interest in real-time services grows.
Everyone wants to create great-looking videos to post on the Web, but few people have professional-quality video cameras. That's where this site comes in. It takes the grainy, dark video you've captured with your cell phone, Webcam, or digital camera, and helps you clean it up for posting online by adjusting the contrast and bringing out the details hidden in dark areas.
Who needs software to edit photos or add special effects? Instead, head to this site and use its full complement of powerful editing tools, including all kinds of special effects such as stretching, adding a tint, and drawing a cartoon based on the photo.
System utilities and backup
Need to convert files from one format to another? With Zamzar you can convert files to countless types of formats. The site works with all Microsoft Office document file types, as well as a large number of video, audio, and graphics files, and even file-compression archives.
If you encounter an undecipherable error message and want to find a solution to the problem, head to this Web site and type in the error message. If any of the site's previous users have found the answer to your problem, it will be listed there. It's about 100 times better than waiting on hold to talk to a support rep.
Here's a clever tool for people who want to take screen captures and use them on the Web. After you download free software from this site and use it to capture a screen, the software uploads the capture. Clip2Net then sends you the URL to the hosting location, so you can link directly to the images from your blog or Web site.
You can back up 2GB of data for free to this Web site, using associated software that sets up a virtual drive. When you copy files to that virtual drive, you're actually storing your stuff at a secure iDrive server on the Internet.
This utility offers the best way to clean the gunk out of your PC, including waste from Windows, the Internet, Microsoft applications, and plenty of third-party applications.
Want to make sure all of the freeware on your PC is current? This program scans your system, locates freeware that's out of date, and then upgrades the applications that you tell it to.
Eusing Free Registry Cleaner (download)
Your Registry is filled with outdated and bad entries. Clean it with this free utility, and keep your system in tip-top shape.
CO2 Saver (download)
This free program puts your PC into sleep or hibernation mode at appropriate times, which conserves energy and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. You'll save money and help the environment.
Maps and directions
With WeFi, you can connect with the world in more ways than one. It not only finds Wi-Fi hotspots but also maps other Wi-Fi users' locations by triangulating among hotspots. It then displays them on a map, so you can see who's near you.
What is your home worth? How about the home of your neighbor down the street--or a house in Tuscon, Ariz.? At this real estate site you can find out the worth of almost any home in your neighborhood, as well as buy or sell a home, scope out new neighborhoods, and chat with people who already live there.
This Microsoft-run site gives aerial views of any location in the United States, and displays topographical maps too. You can print any of the maps yourself or order a high-resolution copy.
Finding maps of the world is easy -- how would you like to make a map of your ideas? That's exactly what this software promises to do. With it, you connect your ideas, works, and projects; its visual representation can help you devise new ideas and keep track of old ones.
Discovery Earth Live (service)
Interested in the current state of the planet? This Web site from the Discovery Channel shows a globe that presents multiple layers of information, including clouds, water vapor, and rainfall.
There's no delicate way to describe this site, so we won't try. You use it when you are in a public place and need to find a clean toilet--something that's not so easy in most metropolitan areas. You can either check the service on your PC before you travel somewhere or use your cell phone's browser.
This open source astronomy app displays all the celestial objects you could ever want to see, including stars, planets, nebulae, and constellations. It displays the night sky in various grids and from different points of view, and can show the movement of heavenly bodies in slow- or fast-motion.
Want to check for delays, learn the current status of flights at airports, and track planes as they fly to their destination? This site offers an exceptional amount of detail, such as whether certain airports are de-icing aircraft.
On this social networking site you can send items to friends and receive items from them, including messages, links, files, and event notices. Pownce is also a kind of meta-networking service, since it imports all your friends from other social networking sites and e-mail programs, such as Facebook, Hotmail, and Twitter.
Why can't instant messenger programs get along? With the open-source IM client Pidgin, they can. Within this single application, you can chat with people on all of the big instant messaging networks--including AIM, Google, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger--plus many others you may not heard of, such as QQ and SILC.
Creating and maintaining a wiki is a great way for people to collaborate. With Pbwiki, you'll find it a breeze to set up a wiki of your own, for free. Whether you use it for a workgroup, for an entire business, or for a nonprofit or social group, it's ideal.
Make Me Sustainable (service)
Want to do good for the planet while connecting with like-minded others? Specify an activity at this site, and it calculates the amount of greenhouse gases the activity produces, in units of carbon dioxide. It then suggests how you can reduce your impact and shows you how much less carbon dioxide you'll generate as a result. You can also see what other people in your geographic area have done, or create sustainability discussion groups.
Tired of paying massive phone bills? Cut them down to size with this free Skype-like software, which allows you to talk for free with other Gizmo users through your computer. You can make inexpensive calls from your PC to landlines and cell phones, too.
If you travel a lot and want to share your travel plans with family, coworkers, and friends, try this site. You can put in your itinerary and have your friends enter theirs, and the site will create a map showing where everybody will be. If you discover that you and a friend will happen to be in the same city, for example, you can make arrangements for dinner, even if it's in the airport.
Here's a free way to participate in group voice chats with people who share your interests. Head to the site and click a chat to join, and you'll be able to talk using the Web-based app. You can create your own chats, as well. Talkshoe integrates directly into other social networking sites, such as Facebook, so you can converse with your friends from those sites too.
Tired of social networking sites aimed at people whose idea of ancient history is the Clinton administration? This service caters to folks 40 and above. Whether you're interested in work, play, relationships, or just about anything else, TeeBeeDee can help you find others who share your passions.
Much more than a to-do list, this project management site helps you track how much time you spend on tasks grouped into different projects. You can share tasks and projects, and create new tasks by sending the site an e-mail.
Need to schedule meetings with scattered colleagues on assorted e-mail and calendaring networks? Head over to TimeBridge, which can pull in your Outlook or Google calendar availability and allow participants (who don't have to be TimeBridge members) to choose from up to five proposed meeting times.
The interface of this calendar site lets you quickly create events with tags, invites, Google map links, and more. You can also import up to 100 contacts from Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, Plaxo, or Yahoo to take advantage of all the sharing that the site emphasizes.
This app can synchronize your Google, Pocket Microsoft Outlook, or 30Boxes calendar with your Outlook XP, 2003, or 2007 calendar. The free versions can handle multiple online calendars but they won't automatically sync (you'll need to click a button in an installed Outlook toolbar).
This program adds a great-looking, full-featured calendar and task list to Thunderbird, Mozilla's excellent free E-mail application. You can create multiple color-coded calendars and pull in events from other online calendars such as Google Calendar.
If you want to see just how much an online application can feel like a desktop program, sign up for the ongoing beta of Scrybe's calendar and note-taking app. Its slick display, with zoom effects when you drill down from month to week to day, will make you quickly forget you're in a browser window. It also has an offline mode, an Outlook-like reminder pop-up, and lots of other nice features.
Ta-da List (service)
If you just want a simple and easy list for tracking tasks, check out Ta-da List. It has few features, but you can get it up and running in no time.
The latest version of the venerable free music player can sync with iPods and fixes a serious security bug in earlier versions of the software. Its new companion download, Winamp Remote, allows you to listen to non-DRM-protected music on your PC from anywhere through a Web browser.
This capable open source download can edit and record .mp3, .wav, and other digital audio files. You can use the program to convert file types, record podcasts, and mix special effects into your favorite songs, as well.
iTunes Library Updater (download)
If moving or deleting songs has thrown your iTunes library into disarray, grab this handy tool. It can easily clean up duplicates and orphaned entries, as well as add new music from specified directories that iTunes doesn't yet know about.
Find almost any type of royalty-free sound sample at this well-designed site, whether you're looking for trumpeting elephants, synthesized drum loops, or the perfect "boing" sound effect.
With a plug-in for Windows Media Player or iTunes, iLike installs a sidebar displaying artist news (recent albums, local concerts, and so on) based on music already residing in your library. It also recommends new music that you might like, offering song samples. You can share playlists and preferences with other iTunes-using friends, too.
Start with your pick of Internet radio stations in Slacker's in-browser player--from 90s Alternative to Outlaw Country to Big Band/Swing--or type in the name of a band to get a station covering that sort of music. Afterward, you can customize the station with your choice of artists, and fine-tune options such as song popularity and age. You can also download a stand-alone software player.
If you take the time to upload all or part of your MP3 collection to Lala.com, you can then play those songs anywhere through a Web browser. Though you can't download the songs to another PC, you can use a downloadable applet to sync your Lala music (both uploads and music purchased from Lala) to your iPod.
When you need to edit short audio programs, sound effects, or loops, give the free Wavosaur audio editor a try. It has all the basic audio editing functions (cut, copy, paste, crop, fade in, fade out, and so on), and some audio analysis features, as well. You can use it to record sound and do batch-processing on a folder full of files.
This customization clearinghouse serves up a dizzying array of guides, links, and posts for the serious tweaker who wants to change the look and feel of Windows XP or Vista. If you're new to the XP customization game, start with the site's excellent beginner's guide.
For "skinning" the various Windows interfaces, Stardock's WindowBlinds theme manager is the tool to use. After you pick up the program, head to Wincustomize.com for a kid-in-the-candy-shop feeling as you browse through 522 pages of free and for-pay skins that beautify the taskbar, window borders, Start menu, and other elements. The free trial won't skin Internet Explorer and has a few other limitations; the full version runs $20.
Here you'll find a wealth of free wallpaper and screen savers, as well as themes and packages, for Stardock's excellent Windows customization programs. You can nab 50MB of downloads right away, or register (at no cost) and bump that up to 500MB.
If you're a Windows power user who constantly heads to the Run command in the Start menu, SlickRun can save you some time with its floating on-screen command window. You can also create "MagicWords," one-word aliases that quickly launch programs when you type them into the command window.
Vista Start Menu (download)
Despite the name, this beefed-up Start menu runs on Windows XP as well as on Microsoft's newer OS. The much-larger menu can make getting to programs easier if you have a bunch installed, and it also provides quick access to autorun programs that are set to start with Windows.
RealWorld Cursor Editor (download)
Replace any of the 15 Windows pointers with this do-it-all app. You can download ready-made pointers or use the built-in editing tool to create new ones, from scratch or based on existing images.
This launchpad for files and programs brings some Mac OS flavor to Windows, introducing a bit of the Apple operating system's signature great looks and ease of use.
Windows' taskbar clock is boring and limited. Replace it with this highly customizable display, which shows (or even speaks) the date and the day of the week along with the time.
The dual-pane folder viewer and display filters provided in this Windows Explorer competitor can help speed up major file management tasks, and you can still use Explorer whenever you want.
It's hard to beat the polished and newly free FeedDemon when it comes to desktop news-reader features. And you can sync it with the Newsgator site to stay on top of news even when you're out and about.
RSS Bandit (download)
Some nice interface touches, such as attractive colored tabs and panels that keep their names when they collapse, make RSS Bandit a useful tool for keeping up with the news.
In Feedreader you can create custom Smartfeeds that pull together news posts from all of your subscribed feeds matching one or more e-mail-like filtering rules. For instance, you can capture all posts that contain "Apple" or "MacOS" in the title or body.
Awasu Personal Edition (download)
This program offers you several nice features, such as a quick full-screen switch for easy news reading on your desktop. The free personal edition, however, updates the content only once an hour.
Six different feed presentation styles, including Essay, Newspaper, and Firefox Sage, make this news reader (in beta) worth checking out.
FreeRange FreeReader (download)
Bring the RSS love to your BlackBerry, J2ME, Nokia, Palm OS, or Windows Mobile smart phone with this mobile news reader. The free version is limited to ten news feeds and relies on your phone's data connection.
A simple and straightforward desktop-app-like reader in a Web browser, Feedshow can switch between resizable two- and three-panel layouts and accepts keyboard shortcuts. And you don't have to download anything to your computer.
RSS Ticker (download)
This Firefox add-on for serious news junkies scrolls updates for your Live Bookmark feed subscriptions across the top or bottom of the browser window. Mouse over a headline for a summary, and click it to bring up the whole article in the browser.
When you launch a green ball across the screen onto a red or blue ball in this instantly likable online game, the incompatible balls give each other the stink eye. Attach a green to another green, however, and the balls share a gaze of adoration. Add in imaginative level designs and splooshy sound effects, and you have an engaging time sink.
A fun spreadsheet. No, really. In this online game you lead a sprightly cross-hair cursor to the exit--without hurtling it off the edge of the spreadsheet game board--in order to advance to the next, progressively harder level. And each level of success you achieve provides a password you can use later to restart where you left off.
Command & Conquer Gold (download)
Electronic Arts released the classic Command & Conquer Tiberian Dawn real-time strategy hit as a free download for the game's twelfth anniversary. To install the game, first burn the downloadable .iso files to a CD or access them with a free utility such as Virtual CloneDrive. Then follow the instructions .
Airport Security (service)
Pull an ever-changing list of prohibited items -- canned cheese, a worn shirt, candy bars--from passengers' bodies and luggage quickly enough to keep the line moving in this online Shockwave game.
Dungeon Runners (download)
Free players in this tongue-in-cheek, Diablo-esque MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) can't use the full range of items available to paid-subscription players, but they can still have a great time romping through the dungeons and building their own characters. Five dollars a month gets you the whole shebang.
Little Fighter 2 (download)
Up to four people on the same computer, or up to eight in a network, can battle it out with fists, flung items and fireballs, and other flashy special moves in this anime-like, manic fighting game.
This satirical "anti-advergame," in which players help customers in a dysfunctional FedEx Kinko's, takes a swipe at the genre of games meant to market a company or product.
If talk of Sid Meier's classic game Civilization II evokes fond memories of hours lost to "Just one more turn," try this excellent free clone, which supports up to 30 network players and a host of optional mods for new sounds, rules, and nations.
Everyone wants to be an aquatic worm-creature, lazily chewing on microorganisms and evolving into something completely different, don't they? Grab a copy and get transformed.
FreeReader Brings the News to Your Mobile Device
With scores of free programs now available on the Web, an application has to have more than just good looks to get the nod for our favorite shareware product. Our winner brings your news to places other free news readers can't.
FreeRange FreeReader brings the speed and convenience of RSS feeds to a wide array of mobile phones. Install this clean and fast feed reader, and the fun little games on your phone will soon suffer from neglect as you instead go straight for all the latest news reports from your favorite sources.
You can set up everything through your phone, but the better bet is to create your account and feed subscriptions through the Web site on a PC. As with any good news reader, you can import or export OPML lists from other readers, though you're limited to ten subscriptions in the free version. You can also create custom feeds that track news on particular topics or that watch market activity for one or more stock symbols.
After a quick download to your phone, you'll be reading your news in no time in a customizable and well laid-out display. FreeReader starts with article headlines and summaries and downloads the full articles only when you choose, and a typical update for ten feeds is small (around 80KB). But remember to watch your data usage if you don't have an unlimited data plan for your phone.
Best Web app
Slacker Works Hard to Find Music
Over the past year, music "taste sharing" sites have increased in visibility and popularity. They're not only a good way to get hip to new music, but they're good places to meet new people, too.
Despite its name, is no slouch. Rivals such as Last.fm and Pandora garner well-deserved praise, but don't compare to Slacker in ease of use. No matter what your music tastes may be, within about 30 seconds of first arriving at this Internet radio site you can be listening to your pick of a huge number of potential stations.
It gets even better. Slacker helpfully displays the full list of artists that play on any given station, but you don't have to stick with the list. If you start with one of the premade genre stations, you can toss bands you don't like from the lineup. Pick an artist station, which adds similar bands to an artist you search for, and you can also mix in your choice of crooners. You can choose favorite songs to hear them more often, and skip those you don't like (up to six songs per hour for the free level of use).