Dear Geek,

In your article on Windows 7, you mentioned Open Office, which I’ve found to be a terrific free alternative to Microsoft Office. I only have simple word processing needs, so Open Office has saved me hundreds!  I was wondering what other free programs are worth downloading?

Yours freely,

Brian Freeman

Dear Mr. Freeman,

There are literally thousands of free applications that you can find on the Internet. Some, like Open Office, rival expensive commercial applications in function and ease of use. Others are free for a very good reason… they are so buggy no one would ever pay for them!  

The good news is, I’ve compiled a short list of my favorite free applications which I am about to reveal for the first time!  However, before we get to the list, it’s a good idea to get some geek terminology sorted out.  When looking for free software, you will come across some interesting terms:

  • Freeware.  This is software which is completely and utterly free.  You can download it, install it and run it on all your computers.
  • Open source. Open source is software that is not only offered for free, its source code (the raw programming language that is used to make the software) is available for free as well. This means programmers can add new features.  In fact, most open source software is the result of dozens or even hundreds of programmers working together over a long period of time. It’s a perfect example of ‘many hands make light work… as a result, some open source software is very sophisticated indeed!
  • Adware. Adware is free software that, in addition to doing something useful for you, also displays ads, usually as a banner along the top or bottom of the application. Basically, the developers make their money by selling ad space right within their applications.
  • Shareware. This is software that you can download and use freely, but it has some form of limitation – such as only running for 30 days or perhaps having a few advanced features disabled.  Shareware is generally used to encourage people to upgrade to a full version of the product… it’s a way that developers can let you try out their software before you buy it. It’s a bit like test-driving a car.
  • Nagware. Some shareware or adware is also called nagware. This software is generally fully functional, but whenever it starts (or sometimes at random intervals) it pops up a window with a ‘nagging’ message, usually to encourage you to buy the full version of the software.
  • Spyware.  Some software includes a feature that sends information about your usage patterns back to the developers.  Spyware is generally considered as a bad thing, and rightly so. Even if the spyware is not collecting confidential information about you, it still uses up your precious bandwidth.

Best Free Word Processor, Spreadsheet & Database Suite

As Brian mentioned, Open Office is the king of free ‘Office productivity suites.’  It is an open source product and offers a high level of compatibility with Microsoft Office, so documents you create in Open Office can be opened by Microsoft users and vice versa.  Open Office has gained a such a good reputation that fraudsters and spammers are now setting up fake Open Office download pages in an attempt to get people to pass on private information!  You should NEVER need to pass on private information in order to download Open Office. The best place to download Open Office is from

Best Backup Application

The shareware version of Titan is the best backup software I have found for small offices or personal use.   Actually, Titan is a commercial product, but the company has provided a free serial number on the internet for readers of the Gizmo blog.  You can find it at

Best Email Archiving Application

While Titan will certainly back up all the important files on your computer – including email – it is often useful to backup ALL of your email accounts in one place.  For example, I have two personal email addresses that I use regularly, an online gmail address and a work email address.  If you are like me, with multiple email accounts that you need to back up, I would suggest looking at MailStore  It is easy to set up and archives all your emails from different accounts in one safe place.

Best Anti-Virus Software

There are a number of good anti-virus software solutions to choose from, but each has advantages and disadvantages. For most people, I would recommend AVG as the best choice. While this anti-virus software is a bit slow, it is easy to use and is almost an install and forget option. It does its work quietly in the background, updating itself and alerting you to virus threats only when needed. You can get a copy from

Best Photo Editor

I have two front-runners for best free photo editor. I have been using the freeware PhotoFiltre for about 3 years and love its small size, speed and simplicity. You can get it from  It is terrific for resizing and cropping plant photos. It is also very good at enhancing the brightness and contrast of plant photos, which makes a big different when printing labels or signage.  However, LightBox recently came to my attention. It has a cuter interface than PhotoFiltre and supports a few extra features compared to PhotoFiltre. Unfortunately, it is shareware and some of those extra features are switched off unless you upgrade to the commercial version.  Even so, it is still worth downloading  from

Best Synchronisation Tool

Now that many of us have computers in the office, at home and on our notebook computers, we find that we are constantly copying files from one to the other. Often it’s hard to keep track of which computer has the latest copy of what file!  To get around this, you can use a ‘folder synchronisation tool’, which automatically copies the latest files from one computer to the next.  Recently I have fallen in love with a free Microsoft product called LiveMesh.   Once installed, you click on any folder on your computer and turn it into a ‘LiveMesh’ folder. From that point on, every file in that folder is automatically copied to a free online version of your computer (which means they are also backed up on the internet!) and is also copied to any other computers you wish.  You can even allow other people to have access to some of LiveMesh folders, which lets you work together more effectively. Best of all, when you change a file on any one computer, it is automatically synchronised with all the others.  You can download LiveMesh from

These are a just few of the best free applications available for you. I’ve selected software that would  have the widest appeal to horticulturalists. If you have the need for some other sort of software – say a PDF file creator or a file compression utility – then look on the internet for free software. My favourite place to start is Gizmo’s freeware reviews at

Good luck and happy (free) computing!

The Green Geek.