It is often said that there is no such thing as a free lunch and, when it comes to software, this is often (sadly) true. Many "free" software programs have limited functionality, come with annoying adware or keep pestering users to upgrade to the full version. Nevertheless, if you are willing to put some time in, there are a few genuinely free programs that are as good as or even better than their commercial counterparts. So, as 2005 draws to a close, I decided to offer up a selection of my favourite free packages.
Internet tools: Microsoft's Internet Explorer is a good (and free) web browser, but it is beginning to show its age and has become a magnet for security attacks. Like a growing number of internet users, I have switched my allegiance to Mozilla Firefox (wuw.mozilia.org/products/ firefox) in my view the best of the bunch that feature "tabbed" views. Newly released Version 1.5 includes a number of significant improvements. It is faster and safer than IE and has an estimated 600-plus free "extensions" that allow the browser to be customised. They can add anything from advertblockers to weather alerts.
RSS readers: Really Simple Syndication provides a simple way to have customised news, blogs and other web content delivered. My favourite RSS service is RssReader Wuw.rssreader.com), which collects RSS feeds and alerts users with a pop-up in the system tray.
E-mail: Thunderbird (www.mozilla.org/products//thunderbird) is a free, open-source POP and IMAP e-mail client developed by Mozilla.org. It provides a number of unique features, including built-in spam filtering and an RSS reader.
Google's Gmail (wunv. gmafl.goog1e.com) set a new benchmark for free web mail services. Now Google has added Gmail Mobile, enabling users to access their account from any mobile device with a web browser.
Yahoo Mail offers arguably the most sophisticated security features. It was also the first web-based mail service to include a detailed address book, calendar and notepad, all of which can be synched with mobile devices. Another free program called YPOPs! (http://yahoopops. sourceforge.net) allows Yahoo users to collect their e-mail from any "POP" e-mail client such as Outlook or Thunderbird.
MrPostman (http://mrpostman. sourceforge.net) can download Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail and several other web mail services into your POP e-mail client and gives you access to corporate e-mail accounts running Outlook and Microsoft Exchange.
Web and desktop search: Despite growing competition Google is still my favourite search engine. Its search toolbar provides easy access to the search engine and now includes pop-up blocking and a useful web form spell-checker. The latest version of Google's desktop search (http://desktop.google.com) is also impressive. It includes an integrated Gmail search, a Microsoft Outlook toolbar and a sidebar that allows users to pull personalised information together in one place.
However, I prefer Yahoo's free Desktop Search (http://desktop.yahoo.com), which features Xl's excellent, super-fast local search engine that works with e-mail and attachments from Outlook, Outlook Express and Thunderbird and can index the contents of 300 different file types. Interestingly, it also indexes Yahoo Messenger archives.
Instant messaging: All the leading IM clients offer extensive real-time communications features and which one you choose probably depends on which IM service your family and friends use. There are, however, several packages including Cerulean Studio's Trillian (wuw.trillian.cc), that enable users to send and receive instant messages with people using IRC, AIM, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo. Similarly Meebo (www.meebo.com) allows users to sign into AIM, Google's Gtalk, MSN and Yahoo simultaneously.
Office productivity suites: OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) may not be as slick as Microsoft's Office suite or Corel's WordPerfect Suite, but for most day-to-day office needs it works just fine. The latest version (OpenOffice 2.0.1) includes a full suite of applications including word processor, spreadsheet program and presentation manager. It works transparently with a variety of file formats.
Security software: The best place to start when considering personal computer security is probably with a firewall program such as ZoneLab's ZoneAlarm V6 (www.zonelabs.com), the basic free version of the commercial ZoneAlarm Pro package, which is easy to use and effective.
For anti-virus protection, my favourite free package is Grisoft's venerable AVG Antivirus Free Edition (http://free.grisoft.com). The latest version (v7.0) includes real-time protection and the AVG e-mail scanner, which protects your e-mail and has a "virus vault" for safe handling of infected files. Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Personal (www.lavasoftusa. com/software/ adawarel) and SpyBot's Search and Destroy V1.4 (www.safernetworking.org/en/index. html) both provide good protection against spyware and work well together. However, Microsoft's Windows AntiSpyware (www.microsoft.com /athome/ security/spyware/softwarel/default.mspx), still officially a "beta" or trial product, is easy to configure and use. Most e-mail services now come with built-in spam blockers, but if you are looking for a standalone spam buster, MailWasher (www.mailwasher.net) is a good option that works by letting users preview e-mail on the host server before it is downloaded to an inbox.
Other free software: Although desktop mapping software is nothing new, Google Earth (http:/earth.google.com) adds another dimension to the genre combining satellite imagery, maps and the power of Google Search "to put the world's geographic information at your fingertips".
FT Syndication Service