Top 10 Free Tools

by Pat Hammond on Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I admit it, I used to be a shareware junkie. There's something about finding all the features I love about those uber expensive programs in a free alternative. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but if you're persistent you might just find an awesome open source program that meets or even exceeds your needs.

Here are my Top 10 Favorite Free Tools:

  1. Inkscape
  2. Google Drive (formerly Google Docs)
  3. Skype/Google Hangouts
  4. Trello
  5. Zim Wiki
  6. Dropbox
  7. Open Office/LibreOffice
  8. Evernote
  9. Chrome
  10. Linux

Inkscape: After 10 years of using Adobe Illustrator I was doubtful that an open source program would be able to replace it, but I not only found it very user friendly, but the onboard tools and third party add-ons more than met my needs.

Don't get me wrong, Adobe is the industry standard and if I worked in an agency setting I would happily go back to Illustrator, but as a freelancer on a budget Inkscape is more than able to meet my needs.

Surprise use → Slideshows/Presentations

Using the Sozi add-on I can use Inkscape to do Power Point and Prezi type presentations including embedding links and videos!

Google Drive (formerly Google Docs): One of my biggest challenges is working on projects with people using different versions of MS Office. Invariably someone has the latest version and insists on using some new feature that isn't compatible with older versions.

Not only does Google Docs eliminate this problem, but it gives me a cloud location so I can share files and access them no matter what device I am using.

Skype/Google Hangouts: I love video calls. Not only is there the convenience of not having to leave my office, but video conferencing allows me to easily share a desktop and present mockups. While I find Skype's interface a little more user friendly, I also like the feature rich functionality of Google Hangouts and use both interchangeably.

Trello: Sometimes it seems like I've used almost every productivity tool on the market only to find that it didn't meet all of my needs or worse, was so complicated that I spent all of my time managing the system instead of completing tasks. Then I found Trello.

On the surface Trello looks like a white board covered with digital sticky notes, but once you dig a little deeper you find that those simple notes can contain checklists, due dates, attachments and graphics as well as the ability to collaborate and assign tasks. The bottom line is that Trello lets me customize it's tools to fit my process.

Zim Wiki: Moving back and forth between devices and operating systems I need a note taking program that will work no matter how I am accessing it.

Unlike proprietary programs that need paid upgrades every time your operating systems changes, Zim Wiki notes are written in Python and will always be available. You can even export them as HTML pages!

The interface is not as pretty as most of the paid note taking programs, but it does everything I need to organize my notes. As someone with 20+, now useless, Rightnote notebooks, I find Zim to be a life saver.

Dropbox: Say what you want about using a cloud service, but when you move back and forth between devices as much as I do, you need a central place to keep everything organized and available.

I used to split my time between Box and Dropbox, but have had problems with Box stripping links and corrupting files so Dropbox has become my cloud service of choice.

Open Office/LibreOffice: Even if I didn't spend half my time in Linux, MS Office has let me down too many times. Not only are Open Office and Libre excellent alternatives, but they work no matter which computer I'm using.

Both of these open source suites include word processing and spreadsheet options as well as presentation, database and drawing programs. On top of all that Open Office and LibreOffice give the option to save documents as pdfs. And it's all free!

Note: While both of these office suites meet or exceed Microsoft Office for general usage, MS Excel is still better than any other spreadsheet I've found.

Evernote: You might wonder why I need Evernote when I use Zim, but that would be like asking why we need apples when we have oranges. While Zim is my go-to program for detailed notes and planning, Evernote is my absolute favorite online tool for collecting information. With apps for most browsers and devices I can add pics and clip screenshots whenever I want. How sweet is that?

Chrome: One of the reasons I can move seamlessly between devices is because I make an effort to duplicate the desktop, or at least the tools I use every day, on every computer and Chrome is the reason this is possible. Setting aside an awesome set of developer tools, Chrome has thousands of productivity tools that link to your Google id which makes them available to you no matter which device you use.

Linux: Photoshop keeps me tied to Windows, but after buying a new computer and finding that most of my programs required a paid upgrade to work with Windows 7 I decided that it was time to move to Linux. The transition was shockingly easy. Not only is the interface user friendly, but there is a Linux version of almost every program I use and it's all free!

Note: There is no Linux version of Evernote

So there you have it, my top ten favorite free programs and tools. What do you think? Are you ready to step away from some of those expensive programs to dip a toe in the open source waters?