I consider myself pretty thrifty, and I strive to make my life as simple as possible as cheaply as possible. That said, I invite you to take a gander (if you haven’t already) at 10 awesome free apps and services that I’ve come across. All apps run on Windows, Mac and Linux unless otherwise specified.
#1: Adblock Plus (adblockplus.org)
Simply put, this Firefox add-on (there is a similar one for Chrome, and if you’re still using Internet Explorer, shame, shame) blocks ads on websites – no more seizure-inducing flash banner ads. There really isn’t anything to it, you install the add-on, pick the default subscription list and you’re all set. Someone, somewhere is updating the subscription to keep new ads blocked, and if you come across an ad, you can simply right click it and block it yourself. If you want to support your favorite sites, like this one, Adblock Plus gives you the option to show ads only for certain websites or pages.
#2: Mint.com (mint.com)
This award-winning web service helps you manage your finances by letting you view them all in one place and providing analytical tools. After creating an account (and subsequently fighting your instincts to not give out your personal information on some free website) you can input information for your bank accounts, credit cards, loans, investments, home and other assets. The site will compile and update all of your transactions every time you log in and allows you to view all of your assets and debts in one place. It lets you view all of your credit card transactions, view categorized spending habits and set budgets and goals to keep yourself on a good financial path. In addition, mint.com offers ways to save money and will search for better credit cards, bank accounts, CDs, brokerages, 401k accounts, and insurance. These referrals are how they make the money that allows their great service to be free.
#3: Norton Security Suite (security.comcast.net)
If you’re perfectly content the security software you already use, you can skip this one. If you don’t use Comcast, your internet provider may have a similar software package for free. If you are someone who still pays for McAfee or Norton or worse yet, has let the free trial that came with your computer expire, listen up. Comcast offers the Norton Security Suite free to its customers, simply go to their security site and click through to sign in with your Comcast account and get the download. Once installed you may want to tweak the settings, as I found the default settings to be a little intrusive, and the toolbars annoying. There may be better free and less bloated security programs out there, but I have been happy with Comcast’s Norton Security Suite, once configured to my liking.
#4: Pandora Radio (pandora.com)
A friend introduced me to Pandora many years ago and it has been invaluable in expanding my music library. Once you create an account, you give Pandora an artist or song you like and it creates a “station” that plays songs with similar attributes as determined by the Music Genome Project. It’s pretty much a personal radio station fine-tuned to songs you’ll want to hear. The songs are chosen randomly, but you have the ability to give a song a thumbs up (play more like this), thumbs down (play less like this), skip a song or ban a song or artist from being played again. You can create as many stations as you want and switch between them or combine them to get the exact station you’re in the mood for. The song database is enormous, so sooner or later you’ll come across a song you’ve never heard before, and it rarely repeats songs in the same session. If you find a song you want to buy, Pandora links you directly to it in iTunes or Amazon. Recently, they were awesome enough to add lyrics and band bios. It’s great for listening to at work, but beware of the 40 hour per month limit – I’ve hit it once or twice and it’s saddening.
#5: VLC Media Player (videolan.org/vlc)
This open source media player for has been able to play any format I’ve ever come across, many that I’ve never even heard of, and even some corrupt files that other media players couldn’t play. It can also edit and convert files to many formats, view and record live streams if you have a TV tuner card, and it’ll even make you a sandwich if you ask nicely. So forget Windows Media Player, Quicktime, RealPlayer or whatever else you use, just get the VLC Media Player.
#6: Credit Karma (creditkarma.com)
I recently found this credit check service, and it seemed too good to be true. There are many free credit check websites out there, but they all require you to give your credit card info so they can bill you an absurd amount for their service if you don’t cancel within a certain amount of time. Credit Karma is a completely free service that allows you to check your credit score instantly whenever you want. The site also offers the usual loan calculators, but also has a credit calculator tool that will approximate your score given different situations, such as missing a payment or opening a new line of credit. The site can also be used to find better rates for mortages, credit cards, banking and loans, and through these referals they make the money that allows their service to be free.
#7: KeePass (keepass.info)
A great tool for keeping track of passwords. KeePass is an open source password manager allows you to securely keep all your passwords in one database, locked with one master password. It uses industry standard encryption to keep your database secure, and they put quite a few measures in place to keep them protected while you’re looking through the database. There is no installation required, and the database is portable – I take a copy of mine around on a USB stick. It sure beats the heck out of the post-it password scheme I’ve seen far too many people using.
#8: TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org)
When I first found this open source disk encryption tool, I was intrigued by its ability to create hidden encrypted partitions and even boot from a hidden encrypted operating system. After using those features, they’re clearly overkill for just about everyone except international spies, but they’re still very cool. The standalone app doesn’t need to be installed, and can create a virtual encryped disk as a file and allows you to create and move files on it as if it were a local drive. I use the TrueCrypt for its basic feature, encrypting my USB sticks in case I lose one and I’d recommend everyone do the same. And should you ever foresee yourself having anything valuable enough on your USB stick to warrant someone putting a gun to your head and forcing your to give up your encryption password, thats pretty awesome, and you should definitely go with the hidden partitions.
#9: Open Office (openoffice.org)
As you might guess from the name, it’s an open source Microsoft Windows. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of MS Office, but it can open, create and modify anything that MS Office can, and can create PDF files as well. It’s regularly getting updates as opposed to MS Office who puts their new features out every few years and slaps a hefty price tag to it.
#10: Notepad++ (notepad-plus-plus.org)
The best text editor I’ve ever used – this app is lightyears beyond the notepad that comes with Windows. It has tabbed viewing, macro recording and playback, a few handy plugins, and functions well as a source code editor. I’m currently writing this post with it, and its what I use to edit scripts and webpages. This guy is Windows-only though, sorry Mac and Linux.
So there you have it. Feel free to leave a comment about your favorites, I’m always on the lookout for great free stuff.