A lot of free programs are waiting for you out there on the Internet. Some of them are of questionable quality or dubious purpose and should generally be avoided altogether. However, because of the open source movement and the generosity of thousands of programmers around the world, you can find some outstanding free (and legal) software out there.
If you want full-featured software, you're better off putting out the money to get a full edition. But if you're just dabbling in certain aspects of the digital life, or if you want to get a feel for using a program before you decide to empty your wallet for it, these free, complete applications (not trial versions) can quickly and safely get you where you need to go.
Before you start downloading any software from the Internet, it pays to have some protection against what might be out there. Your computer probably has some anti-virus and anti-spyware softare built in; if it does, make sure you're updating it regularly. If you don't have anti-virus software — or if you simply don't like the idea of putting all your eggs in one Microsoft basket — there is a free alternative.
AVG Technologies (formerly Grisoft) offers good malware protection at no cost with AVG Anti-Virus Free. This is basic protection available only for single-computer, non-commercial home use on Windows computers. To get fuller coverage, including spam blockers, a firewall, and free technical support, you must upgrade to a paid version — but even that isn't horribly expensive.
Office productivity software
Microsoft's Office Suite has grown over the years to include between four and ten different applications, depending on which version you get. Most people, however, only regularly need a handful of these programs, or even just a single one.
OpenOffice.org offers open source versions of applications that mirror the most popular Microsoft Office applications — for free! It includes a word processing program (Writer), a presentation program (Impress), a spreadsheet program (Calc), a database program (Base), and a basic drawing program (Draw).
Although none of these programs are as full-featured as their expensive Microsoft analogues, they're great for people who don't need so much power. What's more, the OpenOffice.org applications can save files in formats that the Microsoft Office applications can read, so you can share these files with others.
Fixing your photos
Adobe Photoshop has become so synonymous with digital imaging that "to photoshop" has become its own verb. Unfortunately, Photoshop is very expensive; too expensive (and too powerful) for the average weekend shutterbug.
Free software to the rescue! GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a surprisingly well-documented and surprisingly powerful digital imaging program. There is more of a learning curve than for other paid imaging programs, but once you get the hang of it, it can take a commanding role in your free software arsenal.
Tweaking your tunes
The most popular free audio editing software is Audacity, and it isn't difficult to see why. Audacity is a powerful sound program that lets you record up to 16 channels simultaneously, imports and exports audio files in the most popular file types, and gives you a large array of editing tools to cut, paste, blend, and add special effects to multiple tracks. Whether you're cutting your first album or just creating a new ring tone, Audacity has you covered.