10 Free Programs I Can’t Live Without, Part 1

free2 It really is amazing how much free tech is out there.  Scanning over my desktop, I realized just how many of the programs that I use on a regular basis don’t cost me a dime.  Some of them, I couldn’t live without. That means it is time for a list of the free applications that I find to be essential. To qualify for my top ten list, a program has to be installed on my machine, regardless of whether its functionality uses the internet or not.  I’m leaving Evernote off of the list, because I’ve upgraded to the paid version.  At some point in the future, I’ll take a look at cloud applications.  Without further adieu, I present the first five.  In a later post, I posted the next five.     Photo by Robert S. Donovan.

1. Filezilla

filezilla Anyone with website needs a method of sending and retrieving files to the host server via FTP.  My needs aren’t too complicated, so Filezilla fits the bill.  It is simple, fast, and intuitive.  The fact that is looks similar to Windows Explorer makes it very easy to learn.  I did try a couple of other FTP programs, but eventually settled on this one.  One feature I haven’t found in Filezilla is an ability to mirror a site.  That would make it perfect for my needs.

2. Windows Live Writer

livewriterLet’s face it- it is trendy to bash Microsoft, and for good reason.  But this is one program they got right.  When I was researching tools for blog writing, many bloggers sang the praises of Windows Live Writer.  I now see why.  When I write, I want to focus on the content, and not mess around with HTML and formatting.  Windows Live Writer makes that easy.  It gives you the option to view source code, but it defaults to an easy wysiwyg format that makes blog writing a breeze.  My favorite feature is how it handles images. You can insert an image into a post, or even drag one from your browser right into your content.   You can then set the margins and borders, and determine how text will wrap around the image.  There are also some built-in image editing features, but I don’t use those.  Once you finish with your post, you can send it directly to your blog.

3. iTunes

itunes iTunes is the software I love to hate.  I find it to be bloated, slow, and unintuitive, and I cringe whenever I need to fire it up.  But my life is on my iPhone, and I therefore need iTunes in order to function.  I use iTunes for syncing free podcasts more than anything else.  I listen to five podcasts regularly, and several others on an occasional basis.  If you want to purchase an application, and haven’t jailbroken your iPhone, then you’re left with either iTunes on your desktop, or the App Store on your iPhone.  I previously got my downloaded music from Amazon.com, but now that the iTunes Store carries DRM free music, I bought my first track there last week.

4. Firefox

firefox For a tech geek, a web browser is like a favorite pair of jeans.  A typical geek will have his or her browser customized to the point that it is painful to use another browser, and uncomfortable to use the same browser without the customization.  I use Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari on occasion, mostly for site testing purposes, but Firefox is my web browser of choice.  I have a suite of extensions that makes my Firefox installation an essential tool for me.  In the future, I’ll discuss some of those extensions.  I’ve even installed Firefox on a portable flash drive, so that I have my customized version with me when I’m away from one of my computers.

5. Skype

skype For the uninitiated, Skype is an application that allows users to make free calls over the internet.  This winter, I frequently used Skype to call home from the ski cabin, using the DSL connection there.  Computer to computer calls are free, as is Skype video chat from one computer to another.  I’ve used the video chat to talk to my cousin and his newborn across the country.  Skype can also be used as a text chat client, although I don’t use instant messaging much.  Skype also has some paid options if you want to get telephones into the equation.  When my wife and I were in Mexico, we were able to call our families’ home telephones at our leisure, all for just the few dollars it cost to sign up for a Skype Out account.  Granted, we had to be sitting at my laptop to do so, and we had to wear a microphone headset, but the sound quality was excellent, and it was nice not to worry about cell charges in a foreign country.  With Google Voice coming for the masses (it is only open to former Grandcentral subscribers right now EDIT: Google just announced on Twitter today that invitations are going out today to people on the reservaton list), it will be interesting to see how Skype survives, since Google Voice has free U.S. calling to telephones.  I have a Google Voice account, but haven’t played with it much.

There are five of the ten programs I can’t live without.  What programs do you find to be essential?

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. I use all of those except itunes (and only a fledgling with live writer as my blog, http://www.holycrapimpregnant.com, has been on hold since my baby was born. Those things keep you busy! :D I jumped off of firefox for a while and went to Google Chrome as I was incredibly annoyed with the oading speed of Firefox, but the new 3.5 has improved that to a bearable degree and I am attempting to move back — although I have employed addons that make Firefox look and act somewhat like Chrome to attempt to maximize my workflow. The most important piece of free software to me, I think, is Evernote. I am sure that you will be covering that in your next post though, judging by the amount you have already written about it here.

  2. I hear you about not having time, Bobby. I can only imagine what it would be like with a child in the picture. I thought in advance that a post would be quick and easy to write, but I find that even a simple post can take a couple of hours by the time even basic research is done, images are found, and the post is written, rewritten, and edited.

    I'll have to give FF 3.5 a spin, although I hear that the release version will be out soon, so I may just wait now for that. Have you heard whether extensions will work with 3.5, or will it be like the 2.0 to 3.0 transition, where you had to wake for extensions to be updated?

    Regarding Evernote, I haven't decided yet whether to include it in my “free apps I need” list. It too is my most important piece of software, period, but I use the premium version now so I guess technically it isn't a free app that I use. I upgraded to premium so that my data would be transmitted via SSL, which made me more comfortable with sensitive stuff. For a while I did use the free version, though. I think my wife is amused at how much I can love a piece of software.

  3. Yeah, kids are a blast — but they require, what is it again… attention? :P Firefox 3.5 is currently in RC2 and the final should be out this week or next. I find it perfectly stable (for me) already — and you will have to watch your apps, but many of them are working fine. Some are not there yet, though — Prism's addon for example. I find that I have now switched to Chrome for my webapps and Firefox for day to day usage.

    I see your point on Evernote, as you are talking about apps you, personally can't live without and are free for you. Besides — they have just received 3 plus here in the comments. :P

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