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The best free stuff while you're stuck at home

Here are the free games, movies, ebooks, video tools and more to help you cope with self-quarantine.

Dave Johnson
6 min read

With schools, stores, restaurants and theaters closed -- and "social distancing" a top contender for Merriam-Webster's word of the year -- we all need lots of ways to entertain ourselves. Since most of us still have a lot of time at home ahead of us, and money is already growing tight for millions, the less our entertainment costs, the better. Thankfully, there's a plethora of free content available online. We've rounded up everything we can find below, from video streaming to distance learning to gaming . And we'll be expanding this list as we find more options.

If you're wondering what "the catch" is, well, there are a few. Firstly, many of these services are ad-supported -- just like good old-fashioned commercial TV. Secondly, like everything else online, they're undoubtedly harvesting data from you. So before you sign up and dive in, just keep those two things in mind. And thirdly, some of these are limited-time deals. If it's a subscription service that's giving you a taste for free and you decide you don't want to stay with it, remember to cancel before the regular billing kicks in. 

Finally, here's some much-needed joy in a bag. Wendy's is now giving away one free Jr. Frosty with every drive-thru order. Just tell them whether you want vanilla or chocolate, and you'll get something delicious for free. 

Free video 

There's nothing like streaming video to help you weather the storm. And while Netflix, HBO, Hulu and all the rest cost a pretty penny, these free video streaming services are absolutely gratis. Just bring a working broadband plan and a tolerance for commercials -- and you should be golden.

In addition, Amazon has made a library of kids' TV shows free for all users. These shows are usually reserved for Amazon Prime customers, but now anyone can watch for free.

Comcast update: If you're a Comcast Xfinity X1 or Flex customer, you have a slew of new free programming options. Comcast is making on-demand programming from more than two dozen entertainment networks and subscription services available for free. To see your options, you can say "free" into your Xfinity Voice remote. The new content -- much of it drawing on diverse channels like Afro, Aspire TV, Black News Channel, Filipino On Demand, CBeebies and Cinelatino -- joins channels like Showtime, Epix, CuriosityStream, History and Dog TV, which are already free during the pandemic. 

Read more: Netflix alternatives: The 10 best free movie streaming services

Free ebooks and magazines

Why spend cold, hard cash buying books and magazines -- especially if you only read them once and then don't need to see them ever again -- when there's a really good chance you could borrow them from the library instead, without actually having to go to the library? It might sound weird to check out digital media from the library, but many local libraries have modernized a lot since the days of card catalogs and microfiche readers. Some libraries offer TV shows and movies as well as books, magazines and comics in digital formats. It all depends on what your local library offers, so check it out. Here's how to get started:

And once you've explored what your library has to offer, there's no need to stop there: You can find a wealth of resources on how to (legally) get your hands on free ebooks online. For the whole scoop, check out 10 ways to download and read books online for free.

Read more: How to get free ebooks, magazines, movies and TV shows from your library

Free games

Now that many of us are spending a lot more time at home, some of us have a lot more time to play video games . One big problem? Games can be expensive. Rather than empty your wallet on new video games at retail prices, you might want to grab some free games -- there are always a few around. These games are all available for PC, and some are also available on PS4, Xbox and even the Switch and mobile platforms.

Read more: Free entertainment to help you cope with coronavirus social distancing

Update: And there are more -- 7,000 more, in fact. Head to the Internet Archive to play thousands of MS-DOS games that have been saved from oblivion. Getting started is pretty simple, but for the full rundown, check out the Internet Archive games how-to that CNET's Clifford Colby wrote when the archive was first released. 

Free videoconferencing

Perhaps the worst part of the pandemic for many of us is the isolation that comes from social distancing. We're working from home, not seeing friends in the evening and generally trying to "air gap" ourselves to stay healthy. One way to stay connected despite the quarantines is using these free videoconferencing and video chat tools that have been around for years, but you might have had little reason to try them. (Some have paid versions for business and corporate accounts.)

Read more: 7 free video chat apps to use if you're social distancing

Free music and audio

One of the first signs that businesses were starting to take the coronavirus seriously was when public events started getting postponed and canceled. Sporting events, music concerts, stage shows and live podcast tapings were just some of the entertainment options that disappeared overnight. That was a bummer, but you can stock up on free audio to fill that hole in your soul.

Audiobooks aren't just for long commutes. Audible has made a selection of Audible Originals free for the listening:

And there's free content specifically for your kids, too. Audible has a large collection of free streaming audiobooks the younglings can enjoy. 

Free distance-learning services and educational resources

Thanks to the pandemic, schools across the US are closing, sending students home for an uncertain future -- and in most cases, it's unclear if studies will resume at all this academic year. Of course, most institutions are falling back to some form of online instruction, but if you're a parent looking for a way to keep your kids engaged academically during this very challenging time, there are many tools you can try. 

If you want to add some virtual field trips to the at-home curriculum, you can take tours of hundreds of museums around the world via Google's Arts & Culture Collections. In addition, the New York Metropolitan Opera will stream a different encore Live in HD performance every day. For details, see the "Free night at the opera" section of Free entertainment to help you survive coronavirus social distancing.

One more thing: SoftMaker Office is a productivity suite that's often eclipsed by Microsoft Office -- to the point you might not even know it exists. But not only is SoftMaker an Office alternative, it's Office-compatible; TextMaker uses Office's DOCX file format, while PlanMaker can read and write Excel's XLSX format. Right now, SoftMaker is offering six-month licenses for the full SoftMaker Office suite free to students

Read more: Coronavirus closed schools. Here are online education classes for every age and grade

Originally published two months ago. Updated with new information and removed expired deals.

Watch this: 3 video calling alternatives to Zoom

Streaming services, ranked: May 2020

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