The Best Free Software

The current issue (March 2008) of PC Magazine features an article, The Best Free Software: 157 Apps for Work and Play (p.78). This got my attention not only due to the attractive price, but more since its getting close to the time where we determine what software we want installed on our computers for next year. If we offer some of these tools on our school computers, the transition to their use at home is much more seamless (from a cost and functional standpoint). I’m going to focus on the apps with classroom and educational focus, as opposed to utility/security tools.

A few of the top picks mentioned are things we already use – Adobe Reader, Firefox, and iTunes. Reader and iTunes are proprietary, and there are alternatives (see Songbird, below), but these two have weaved their way into the “fabric” of everyday computing life. Firefox is a delightful, customizable, web browser. A perfect example of an extension of Firefox is how I’m composing this post – using the Scribefire extension, which allows me to blog directly from any web page.

My top picks from the article’s list:

  • Audacity – we already use this to some extent – a great audio editor – just need to roll it out for everyone.
  • GIMP – open source Photoshop-like program – I’ve never used it, but hear great things about it.
  • OpenOffice – perfect for the students who do not have access to a commercial office suite at home.
  • Skype – computer-to-computer (or landline) voice/video calling – not sure how this would be (mis)used in a school setting, but the possibilities are endless. It’s desktop videoconferencing – we have had requests in the past for out-of-town parents to Skype in to their child’s presentation.
  • Songbird – I’m not familiar with this one, but is dubbed an open source answer to iTunes – sounds intriguing. **Update – Songbird is still in the developer stage, not rollout stage. Looking at it a bit more, it definitely sounds intriguing. Worth a read at the site about what they are up to.
  • Googlepedia – A Firefox extension that puts Wikipedia results along side Google search results (if/when Wikipedia is not blocked…)
  • Google Earth – The neat applications being built around Goolge Earth are growing – a fabulous tool.
  • Second Life – There is a lot of buzz about the educational appliations of Second Life. I have an avatar, and have flown around a bit. I’m not sold by any means on this one. If I’m going to spend that much time creating a virutal world, there are already many options of online conferencing, streaming, etc. where kids could interact with experts and communities, and not worry about what their avatar is wearing or how to build an island. That being said, maybe having it and trying it would be useful.

2 apps that come to mind that were not mentioned in the article:

  • Sketchup – Googles 3D modeling program – very versatile, very good – I know an architect who has stopped using commercial CAD programs altogether, and now uses Sketchup.
  • Scratch – The MIT graphics program – I have no personal experience or opinion on it, but I read positive reviews on it, and MIT knows a thing or two about educational computing!

Note that at least half of the apps mentioned in the article are web-based, and so there is nothing to install. That is a dream for any IT department, and the way many software tools are going. The Web 2.0 world is online, and so is the software to do it. I won’t go into those titles right now since there is enough here to chew on.

I wonder if there are any other installation-based software apps that we should be sure are in the hands of students and teachers?





8 responses to “The Best Free Software”

  1. ada Avatar

    Great post, Michael. Wanted to say that re. Second Life, it’s hard to get a sense of how it can really be used to benefit education by just flying around. I’ve found that the sl-education list is full of people who can help teachers get started. The info is on SL’s “grid” website:

  2. Michael Avatar

    Fair enough, Ada – thanks. I’ve subscribed to the educators listserv to help get a better handle on the possibilities. My initial reactions are based on the time its taken for me to get my head around SL so far – time (as always) is the issue. Value for the investment is critical.

  3. C Poole Avatar

    These are what comes to mind immediately – a version of open office with some improvements built in Paint.NET free photo editor that is a step in-between MSPaint and Photoshop/GIMP a very simplified paint program for elementary age users (be sure to download the stamps too)

    and I second GIMP (or maybe just veto paying for ImageBlender…)

    a quick google search brings up this site that looks like it might be a good resource

  4. Nancy Cook Avatar
    Nancy Cook

    I think that we should definitely look into these and talk about what to add to our images.

    There are some things that have been added that I have not played with yet, so I don’t know how to help others when they ask about it. (i.e. Picasa)

    Let’s definitely consider these.


  5. Michael Avatar

    We have been using the snapshot tool in notebook software. This is a quick and easy way for both staff and students to capture a portion of a screen.
    —–Original Message—–
    From: COOK NANCY A
    Sent: Tuesday, March 04, 2008 3:14 PM
    Subject: RE: Software for next year’s images

    Let’s look at SnagIt too!
    —–Original Message—–
    Sent: Tuesday, March 04, 2008 9:37 AM
    Subject: RE: Software for next year’s images

    Great idea(s). Is our next meeting 3/12? Did we agree/decide to go with the elementary schedule?
    Regarding Picasa2-this is great photo-management software that deserves to be looked at.
    Also, we are on SnagIt 5.0, the newest version is 8.2 and is loaded with new features… do many teachers know how to use it? I find that I am doing a lot of mini-lessons and my teachers have never heard of it.
    —–Original Message—–
    Sent: Monday, March 03, 2008 6:07 PM
    Subject: RE: Software for next year’s images

    Let’s get it on our Tech Facilitators meeting agenda coming up next week! We could spend some time looking at them, maybe, as well, or at least share what we might know.

  6. C Poole Avatar
    C Poole

    My wife sent me this video

    of this software

    I haven’t gotten a chance to install it and try it out at home, but might be nice for some of the science classes:

    from website: “Welcome to the new homepage of Phun – the 2D physics sandbox!”

  7. Michael Avatar

    One of my employees uses Inkscape and says it is every bit as good as Illustrator. You can find it at

    Also, a good place to search for open source programs is

    Derek Howard | Information Technology Manager | Utah State Office of Education | Computer Services
    PO Box 144200 | 250 E 500 S | Salt Lake City, 84114-4200 | 801.538.7614 |

    From: Gordon Dahlby []
    Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2008 8:29 AM
    To: ISTE SIGTC Discussion List
    Subject: [sigtc-discussion] Open-source and free “illustrator”

    SIGTC Community members,

    Is anyone aware of and could recommend a high quality free open-source application within the Adobe Illustrator genre?


  8. Michael Avatar

    From Windows Secrets:

    Nine must-have freeware apps rise to the top

    By Scott Dunn

    The “best freeware” lists published by Web sites and magazines frequently trumpet dozens of programs, but the results reflect the subjective opinions of just one or two testers.

    To find the best of the best, I compared roundups of “great” freeware conducted recently by four reputable publications to find the programs that were endorsed by at least three of the reviews.

    Only a few freebies win multiple accolades

    Nearly any free program can impress one or two people, but an application has to be truly worthwhile to pass muster when tested by several different independent organizations.

    To reduce the subjectivity of a single software review, I selected the repeat winners from the most recent (or recently updated) “best freeware” lists posted by these sources:
    “25 Free Downloads You Need Now” from the May 2008 issue of Computer Shopper.
    “101 Fantastic Freebies” from the May 2008 issue of PC World.
    “The Best Free Software” from the March 2008 issue of PC Magazine.
    “46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities,” and “The Extended List — 71 Additional Best-ever Freebies” updated in April and March, respectively, by Gizmo’s Tech Support Alert site. (Note that the extended list is available only to the service’s paid subscribers.)
    Security apps and system tools get multiple nods

    Despite the hundreds of products covered by the four lists, the overlap is surprisingly small. Only nine products were endorsed by at least three of the publications. I haven’t tested these programs, but Windows Secrets editors are very familiar with them and can state without equivocation that they do indeed belong on this list.

    I limited my selection to downloadable software and excluded the best-reviewed online services, which I’ll cover in a future column.

    Here’s the consensus of the freeware reviewers:

    Avira AntiVir Personal
    You’ll probably never see the freeware version of an antivirus program outrank its commercial counterpart in a software roundup, but Avira’s AntiVir gives other fee-based antivirus apps a run for their money. The program receives high marks for its malware detection rates and its ability to take on rootkit viruses. The main disadvantage cited by reviewers is that the free version of AntiVir doesn’t scan incoming e-mail. However, the program does scan e-mail attachments after you’ve saved them, and it detects malware if you open an infected e-mail.

    Comodo Firewall Pro
    More thorough than the firewalls built into Windows XP and Vista, Comodo comes with a long whitelist of safe sites, which you can add to as you surf. Reviewers call it “tough” and “robust” in protecting your system, but they add that the product is a little complicated for novices, so do your homework before you tweak Comodo’s settings. (In his Apr. 17 column, Mark Joseph Edwards describes the high marks Comodo received in independent tests of personal firewalls.)

    When it comes to protecting your data from prying eyes, TrueCrypt gets the nod from multiple reviewers. This open-source program can create encrypted files that appear as disk drives in Windows Explorer and other file managers. TrueCrypt also lets you encrypt an entire drive (such as a USB flash drive), a drive partition, and — for extra safety — hidden drive volumes.

    Figure 1: Keep your files safe by using the free TrueCrypt utility.

    Of the hundreds of products on the lists I examined, only Piriform’s CCleaner was recommended by all four of the freeware roundups. CCleaner scrubs your system by removing temp files, cookies, browsing history, recent-document lists, log files in the Recycle Bin, and a lot of other digital detritus. The utility can also be used to uninstall applications and scan for orphaned and unused Registry entries.

    Lightning for Thunderbird
    The Mozilla Foundation’s free Thunderbird e-mail program is great, but it lacks Microsoft Outlook’s calendar and to-do list. The solution is Lightning, a plug-in from Mozilla that combines the foundation’s Sunbird calendar program with Thunderbird’s e-mail features. (If you don’t use Thunderbird, Sunbird can be downloaded as a free, standalone tool.)

    Foxit Reader
    If you’re one of the many people who consider the Adobe Reader PDF viewer too slow and bloated, consider Foxit Reader. Reviewers found it to be much faster than Reader, and they note that Foxit provides more options for viewing, printing, and annotating PDFs. You can even use Foxit to fill out PDF forms.

    You don’t need to spend your hard-earned money on a commercial audio program to record or edit music or other sounds for use in a presentation or on a Web site. Audacity is an open-source audio editor that supports .mp3, .wav, and other popular audio formats.

    Audacity isn’t the only free sound editor that got the nod from multiple reviewers. Wavosaur also made the cut, and the program has at least one advantage over Audacity: it’s a single executable file, which makes the audio utility easy to run from a USB flash drive. Don’t let Wavosaur’s small size fool you, though; the program has an impressive array of audio-editing features. Note that you may need to download the free Lame Encoder .dll file to allow the program to export to the .mp3 format.

    Figure 2: The free Wavosaur sound-editing utility lets you convert audio files to and from various formats.

    It’s a royal pain to have to open a different chat application every time you want to keep in touch with someone who uses AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, or another messaging network. With Pidgin, you can keep all the other chat apps on the shelf. This open-source IM client (formerly called “Gaim”) lets you communicate with users of all the above and a dozen other chat networks.

    The ‘best’ is what’s best for you

    You may be dismayed that your favorite free program doesn’t appear on this best-of-the-best list. That doesn’t mean it’s not widely valued — some reviewers may simply have wearied of repeatedly mentioning such old freebie standbys as Mozilla’s Firefox browser, the IrfanView graphics viewer, and the WinAmp music player.

    Still, the fact that the nine programs on this list are top-rated by several major publications suggests that one or more of them will be useful to you, too.