Tools: Recommended free productivity software

I'm often asked by friends and family to recommend software applications for personal or small business use. This is a highly fluid area, since new programs are being written and released all the time. I've compiled this list of applications that I have personally used and have found to be very useful.

This is not to say that there are not better programs out there; I'm sure there are, and I'd appreciate hearing your experiences with these. These are simply the applications that I rely on every day, and that others have had good results with as well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I'm simply providing links to the websites of these applications. I cannot vouch for the current condition of these websites, or whether the software you download will be the same as what I have used in the past.  As always, evaluate for yourself, use caution when installing downloaded software. Always set a restore point before installing new software or upgrades (remember Pinkston's Law - most outages begin as upgrades).


The Microsoft Office Suite is widely accepted as the standard set of business applications. But many individuals and small businesses can't afford the price tag, and some folks just don't like the idea of enriching Microsoft. The OpenOffice suite is a robust alternative. It consists of six core applications: Writer (Word Processor, like MS-Word), Calc (spreadsheet, like MS-Excel), Draw (Illustration), Impress (Presentations, like MS-PowerPoint), Base (Database, like MS-Access), and Math (a formula processor).

I use OpenOffice applications on a number of my PCs, particularly on laptops. The files you create can be saved as ODF files (Open Document Format) or -- more important to me -- in Microsoft compatible format.

The applications are well-designed, and I find it easy to adapt to the differences between, say MS-Excel and OpenOffice Calc. I have noticed that some text formatting done in OpenOffice Writer is not picked up accurately if I later open the file in MS-Word. This is a minor complaint, however.


If you frequently need to convert documents of all sorts to Adobe PDF format, give PrimoPDF a try. It installs as a printer, much like Adobe's own program does, and it gives you several options for resolution and document properties. I use it extensively and have seen it make an error yet.

PDF Split and Merge

Have you ever received a large PDF document that you wanted to split up into separate pages? Or, have you ever had a need to combine multiple PDF documents into a single document? PDF Split and Merge handles these tasks easily. It does not have the friendliest user interface, but it is adequate for most split or merge activities.

GFI Backup

We all know how important it is to back up your files regularly. It's a bit of a nuisance, but it only takes one crash to make a believer of you. GFI Backup is a free app that is very easy to use and does the job quite well. It saves your files as a large ZIP file, and can be configured to do incremental backups, i.e. only save the changes each time. Backups can be scheduled to run at a time of your choosing.


This is a bit of a geeky tool, but I've found it very useful -- particularly on older laptops with smaller hard drives. SpaceSniffer reads your entire drive, and produces a graphic display of all files and directories, showing just how much space they are occupying by occupying an analogous amount of screen area. Obviously, it will take a while to read the entire hard drive, but you might be surprised at just what is using up so much of your hard drive!

AVG Free

It is not open to debate whether you need anti-virus software on your PC. You do. The anti-virus software market is crowded with choices, some free, some not. AVG Free works as well as any, imposes little load on your computer, and has a number of useful features.  A good alternative to Norton or Trend.


We all have to deal with graphics at some point, whether it's just to crop a photo for a presentation, or to get a little artsy for the company newsletter or personal website. PhotoFiltre is a free program which I like because it is very simple and easy to learn, and yet has some very sophisticated features. It's a good alternative to PhotoShop for the casual graphics editor, and requires a lot less time to learn.


Once in a while we all find that we need to create or edit an audio file, perhaps as narration for a presentation, or as an announcement for the phone system. I have frequently recorded "all-hands" company meetings and made the recordings available for absent or traveling staffers.

Audacity is a free, easy-to-use audio recording program. It has a surprising range of features, but its most frequently used features will be for recording and editing. As with many free utilities, the user interface is a bit clunky, but it does work very well and produces output as good as many expensive recording packages.


I like to keep my little laptop open on my desk, right next to my main screen, keyboard and mouse. I use it to check email and to do other tasks while not disturbing something on my main PC's screen. But it's a pain to switch over to the laptop's keyboard and touchpad. The keys are a different size and layout, and I have to physically shift my position. What I'd prefer is to just keep using my main PC's keyboard and mouse, but on the laptop.

Synergy+ is a good solution for this. You install the program on both PCs (or even on 3 or more), tell the main PC what the layout is (who's on the left or right), and the programs will communicate with each other over your LAN. I move my cursor to the left and off of my main PC's screen, and it dutifully shows up on the right side of my laptop's screen. Now anything I type on my main keyboard shows up on the laptop. You can copy/paste between systems, too. Your operating systems don't have to be the same, either; You could have a Windows PC in the middle, a Debian Linux PC on your left, and a Mac on your right, and you'll seamlessly move your cursor and keyboard between them.