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Best free alternatives to top-selling software

Save money by choosing freeware that compares in features and performance to the most popular productivity applications, security programs, and system utilities.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

Later this month I'll be canceling my subscription to a leading security suite that runs on two of my home-office PCs. I'll replace it with Microsoft's free Security Essentials, which I've been using on my notebook since I bought it two years ago. I realized several months ago that I simply no longer needed to spend money for the convenience of an all-in-one security app.

That got me thinking: Is there any software that the average PC user needs to pay for? Most of us bought our current operating system--usually Windows or Mac OS X--as part of the purchase of the computer itself. Do-it-yourselfers have Linux as a free-OS alternative.

The programs we use for work, such as Microsoft Office and specialty apps like Adobe Photoshop or Intuit's Quicken/QuickBooks accounting software, are likely provided by our employer. (People who work from home and/or for themselves have to buy their own software, but they can at least write off the cost of the programs they use in their work.)

What about all those commercial security suites and system utilities? I ran down Amazon's list of the 20 best-selling software titles to find those for which no viable free alternative is available. Granted, my criteria are pretty broad: the freebie has to offer only the basic functionality of the fee-based product and an interface that won't stymie the average user.

Excluding Mac OS X Snow Leopard (number 8 on the list) and two Windows 7 Home Premium upgrades (standard and three-user family pack at 10 and 11, respectively), only two titles on Amazon's top 20 have no free equivalent that I'm aware of: Honest Technology's VHS to DVD Deluxe, which tops the Amazon list, and Nuance Communications' Dragon Naturally Speaking, which comes in at number 18.

Here's a rundown of Amazon's top-selling programs and their free counterparts.

Keep Office on the shelf
It's no surprise that Microsoft Office 2010 takes four of the top 20 spots on software-sales list: Office 2010 Home & Student is number 2, Office 2010 Home & Business is 12th, Office for Mac 2011 Home & Student Family Pack is 13th, and Office for Mac 2011 Home & Student 1 Pack comes in 17th.

In September 2009, I described several free alternatives to the Office suite and to the individual apps bundled in Office. My favorites remain OpenOffice.org--despite its bulk--and the Jarte word processor, which is based on the WordPad app that's bundled in Windows.

OpenOffice.org and other alternative suites support the standard Office file formats, although not Office 2007/2010 XML file types (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx). An advantage for many people is the programs' use of the old-style menus rather than the Office ribbons. Personally, I'm accustomed to the ribbon look and have no problem switching between the new and old interfaces.

Since the introduction of the free Google Cloud Connect add-on for Office earlier this year, I've come to depend on the ability to sync Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations with Google Docs automatically. There's no version of Cloud Connect for OpenOffice.org, but a rough equivalent is to use the free DropBox service, which lets you save up to 2GB of data online (pay versions support up to 100GB for $20 a month of $200 a year).

The service adds a DropBox folder to your PC that you access in Windows Explorer just like any other folder. It's easy to share whole folders or individual files by sending people links via e-mail. The files are accessible from any Internet-connected device, including iPads and smart phones, using an Explorer-like directory.

DropBox file list
The free DropBox service lets you access and share files easily from any Web-enabled device (the PC interface is shown). screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Using the default OpenOffice.org file formats can cause problems when you share files with people who don't use the suite, so it's safest to stick with the more-universal .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats when creating files in OpenOffice.org or other Office alternatives. Documents, spreadsheets, and presentations created in OpenOffice.org that you save as Office files work without a hitch in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Only your accountant will know the difference.

Take the freeware approach to security
Security programs take 6 of the top 20 spots on Amazon's software-sales list: Norton 360 (No. 3), Kaspersky Internet Security (No. 6), Norton Internet Security 1 user-3 PCs (No. 9), Norton AntiVirus (No. 14), McAfee Total Protection (No. 15), and Norton Internet Security for a singe PC (No. 19).

As I mentioned above, I will soon replace the commercial security suite I've been using on the PCs in my home office with Microsoft's free alternative, Security Essentials. Vendors of commercial security apps are quick to point out the many other benefits their products provide, including backups and other system-maintenance tools. There may be a convenience benefit in taking the all-in-one approach, but the fact is, you can keep your PC safe and running smoothly without spending a penny for extra software.

Getting by with free maintenance tools
Last fall I wrote about a commercial utility program I thought was worth its $40 price. Several readers commented that the software caused them more problems than it solved, and since then I've heard from one reader who blames the program for wiping out her laptop PC entirely.

That experience helped convince me that most PC users have no need to pay for any application or online service that promises to fix their machine or improve its performance. It was heartening to see that no special-purpose system utility made Amazon's list of the 20 best-selling titles. That's not to say the tools that come with Windows are necessarily best of breed.

In particular, I prefer the free Easeus Todo Backup to the backup utility built into Windows, as I explained in March 2010. Back in February 2009 I compared several free Windows system tools, including the popular CCleaner. And in April 2010, I compared CCleaner with the free version of IObit's Advanced SystemCare.

Other free alternatives to popular commercial apps
You can't expect a free program to provide the range of features and functionality offered by such programs as Adobe Photoshop and QuickBooks Pro. But if you can get by with less, you may find freeware that meets your needs--with the two noteworthy exceptions I mentioned above (VHS TO DVD Deluxe and Dragon Naturally Speaking).

For example, No. 4 on Amazon's software-sales list is Adobe'sPhotoshop Elements image-processing application. Yet the free, open-source GIMP image editor provides all the photo-editing and touch-up tools many amateur photographers require.

The same may not be true for the $299 Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is No. 7 on the Amazon software-sales list. Professional photographers and graphic artists use Lightroom to finish, organize, and manage their images. Many of Lightroom's most powerful and useful tools simply aren't available in GIMP or any other freebie.

Similarly, people who keep a business' books may require the professional accounting tools in QuickBooks Pro (No. 5 on the Amazon sales list) and Quicken Deluxe (No. 20).

If your accounting needs are simpler, Express Accounts Free Accounting Software from NCH Software may accommodate your bookkeeping requirements. Note that I haven't tried the program, and the vendor offers the free version to entice you into upgrading to the Pro version as well as to the company's other commercial apps. As many users of "free" software have found, you often pay a price for using the programs that isn't obvious from the outset.

I was surprised to see Parallels Software's Parallels Desktop for Mac at No. 16 on the list. I always assumed most Mac users who want to run Windows or Linux on their systems would use Apple's free Boot Camp utility. But Parallels Desktop lets you switch between OSes without having to reboot, according to CNET editor Jason Parker's review.

Jason points out several other useful Parallels features: the program automatically recognizes file types associated with a particular OS and switches to that system when you open the file. And gamers will appreciate the enhanced video playback of Windows games run on Macs under Parallels. The program also lets you manage Windows apps via Mac OS's Spaces, Expose, and other features, according to Jason.

Sometimes, there's just no substitute for the convenience and functionality of commercial software. But more and more frequently PC users can find a free alternative to programs they once paid for. The next time you go shopping for software, consider whether you can save some dough by going the freeware route.