7 Free Apps I Couldn't Live Without

There was a time when all the important apps you would use from day to day were very expensive. Microsoft Office was several hundred dollars. Your antivirus would be up to $100 a year. I even remember selling Netscape at the computer store I worked at for about $40.

Nowadays 2 things have changed. First, most of the apps I need from day to day are either free or very inexpensive. Second, some of them are no longer locally installed apps. Even some of the apps I still pay for have free versions, and are perfectly fine for most people.

1. Insert Google App Here
I probably could have called the post the Google Apps I can’t live without. Yes, I know they’re probably tracking me, and will someday rise up and enslave us all. Unfortunately, they make some really good apps that I can’t live without. On any given day I use the following services;

  • GMail

  • Google Calendar

  • Google Docs

  • Google Reader

  • Google Analytics

  • Feedburner

  • Google Chrome

  • Picasa (both online and locally)

  • Google Alerts

  • Google AdSense

  • and of course search

2. Evernote
It took me a while to “get” Evernote. Pitched as your external brain, it’s a note-taking app that runs locally, in the cloud, and on your mobile devices. I had used Microsoft OneNote before, and Evernote didn’t look anything like OneNote. I wasn’t used to the idea of clipping pages off the internet (that’s what bookmarks were for, right?), and at the time the Windows desktop client was really ugly. I literally forced myself to try it exclusively for notes for a week. After that, I never looked back. I store everything in there, from blog posts I like to gift ideas for my family. Since then, the Windows app has been polished, and is much easier on the eyes. For $5/month, you can get rid of the ads, add support for Office docs, and increase your monthly upload limit to 500MB.

3. Windows Live Writer
Live Writer is one of those rare apps that Microsoft comes out with from time to time. It’s super useful, friendly with non-Microsoft services, and completely free. In my opinion, the people in the Live department over there really deserve a lot of credit. Live Writer is a word processor specifically for blogging. When you start it up for the first time, you setup your blog from Blogger, Wordpress, Live Spaces, wherever really. The UI adjusts itself to have the same formatting as the blog you’re writing on, even changing to include the theme you’re currently using. You can save local drafts, and manage multiple blogs. It’s a great way to write your posts, without the distractions of an open browser.

4. Wordpress
The jump in quality from Blogger to Wordpress is hard to explain. I still stand behind my decision to start out on Blogger, and I think it’s a good idea for newcomers to blogging. However, once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, Wordpress is a no brainer. You can use either the hosted Wordpress.com offering, or host it yourself with a download from Wordpress.org (also free). If you’re planning on making your blog part of your business, you absolutely have to host it on your own domain. You get far more control, and access to features you’d have to pay for on the Wordpress.com offering. If you use a hosting service like GoDaddy, installing Wordpress on your site is usually a couple clicks away.

5. iTunes
I know, the Windows app is a resource hog. Every update is bigger than 10 other music apps combined. However, if you live in a house with multiple iPods and an iPhone, and enjoy podcasts, music, video, and audiobooks, is there a better app? If I just listened to music (even with an iPod), I would choose something simpler like and smaller like Foobar. I’ve tried the alternatives like Songbird, and they just don’t have all the features I need.

6. Freemind
There are a lot of free mind mapping apps in the cloud. Unfortunately, their free versions have too many limitations. Mindmeister only lets you create 3 maps for free, which really defeats the point. Freemind is a free app for Windows, Linux, or Mac. It’s not as pretty as the online offerings, but it has tons of features, and makes it really easy to get your brainstorms out of your head, and into a clear map. You can even export these maps to one of the paid apps if you decide to upgrade later.

7. Freecalc
Most people won’t need anything better than the calculator that comes with Windows. However, if you grew up using a printing calculator like I did, having a “till tape” is really helpful. Some banks prefer to have a till tape of the cheques when you drop off a deposit. I use this, hit print, and then wait for the teller to ask me how I did it. If you frequently add long strings of numbers, and want visual proof of what you’ve added, this is a great free app.

Honourable Mentions

There are a few apps that I use just as often as those listed above. Although I pay for my versions, there are free versions available, which may be just fine for your needs.

1. QuickBooks
Love it or hate it, I spend a large portion of my day inside this app from Intuit. I don’t think there will ever be a “perfect” bookkeeping app. Every business has unique needs, and buying an industry-specific app can be financially crippling. I’ve used Simply Accounting, MYOB, and even Freshbooks. At the end of the day, QuickBooks is the best one for me. The version I use costs up to $500, but they do offer a free version that helps you track sales and expenses if you currently have fewer than 20 customers.

2. Dropbox
This is by far the most useful utility I’ve got. I share files with clients, back up my important docs, I’ve synced iTunes libraries between home and office, the list just goes on and on. For absolutely free, you can get 2GB of file storage to sync your important files to the cloud, to your other computers, and to your phone. I pay $9.99/month for 50GB, and you can also get 100GB for $19.99/month. Either option is well worth the money.

3. Mozy
If you’re more concerned about backup than about sync, Mozy is a great backup service. Schedule regular backups of all your important files, and then stop worrying. For free, you get 2GB or free space. However, for $4.95/month, you get unlimited backups. I don’t know if there’s an invisible cap to this “unlimited”, but I currently back up over 200GB of music, video, and documents, and I haven’t had a problem yet. It’s great that you bought that external drive to backup your files, but as Alex Lindsay says “If it’s not backed up in 3 places, it’s not backed up”. It just makes sense to have an off-site copy of all your critical documents, in case of hardware failure, fire, or theft.