As inhabitants of the Internet, we’ve become so inured to the hyperbolic advertising and questionable offers that we miss the incredible values that are ripe for the taking. If you know where to look, you can find all sorts of awesome stuff available for the low, low cost of $0. Whether you’re looking for a great image management app, free AAA games, or the proverbial free lunch, we can tell you where to find it. But wait, there’s more! We’ll also show you three things that seem free, but really aren’t .
We know how it is. You want to get your finances in order but don’t know where to start. Well, try starting at
, a free, easy-to-use, and secure financial-planning website.
Mint.com offers all kinds of useful tools to help you track your spending, create a budget, pay down your debt, and save for your golden years. By analyzing all your banking, credit card, and investment account information, as well as your spending habits, Mint.com makes informed suggestions about how you can get more from your moolah.
Need to access files on your home computer while you’re at the office? A virtual private network will give you a direct link to your desktop over the Internet, and the easiest way to set one up is with Hamachi ( https://secure.logmein.com/products/hamachi2/ ). With almost no configuration required, Hamachi will connect two computers as if they were on the same local network, even if they are behind NAT firewalls. Use Hamachi to facilitate secure remote desktop sessions or even host LAN multiplayer games over the Internet.
We’ve touted this web storage service before, but Dropbox ( www.getdropbox.com ) deserves another mention. Its seamless synchronization and file-history tracking features raise it above other free cloud storage services. A Dropbox account entitles you to 2GB of free cloud storage for your files, which can be accessed on a web browser or with the cross-platform Dropbox client (now available as an iPhone app). Tip: Expand your free account’s capacity to up to 3GB by referring the service to new users.
Microblogging has become all the rage these days, making our lives accessible to anyone who cares. But Twitter’s 140 character limit leaves us desiring far more room to rant. Fortunately, full-fledged blogging services like Tumblr ( www.tumblr.com ), Blogger ( www.blogger.com ), TypePad ( www.typepad.com ), and WordPress ( www.wordpress.org ) are free and easy to set up, so you can share your photos and daily goings on with the rest of the world, gratis.
Remember when calling 411 for directory lookups was actually free? We do, and we want those halcyon days back. Both Google and Microsoft have set up toll-free numbers that provide directory assistance, each with unique features. 1-800-GOOG-411 will let you look up the address and phone number for businesses as well as nearby intersections (it can also text you a link to an online map). Microsoft’s 1-800-BING-411 offers similar directory information, but will also dictate turn-by-turn directions from wherever you are and provide local weather condition updates.
Under federal law, you can claim one free credit report per year, but many people have been scammed into paying for credit reports under this entitlement. The only website that actually provides your one free report is Annualcreditreport.com . You’ll get a report from three nationwide agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Alternatively, you can call 1-977-322-8228 to request the service.
We know you’ve been ogling the newest generation of ebook readers, what with each new model more capable and cheaper than the last. But if you need yet another compelling reason to take the plunge, consider all the free ebooks available to you through Project Gutenberg ( www.gutenberg.org ). The site’s nearly 30,000 public domain ebooks provide a great opportunity to brush up on the classics—think Mark Twain, James Joyce, Emily Bronte, and Charles Dickens.
OK, so you’re not all that into reading… Let someone else do the work for you, while you sit back and enjoy many of those same works of classic literature on audiobook. LibriVox.org is committed to creating audio recordings of all the books available in the public domain. To this end, the site organizes volunteers to record and post the books’ chapters as audio files (available in both MP3 and OGG formats) for easy searching and download.
Working document scanners overtime (at a rate of more than 1,000 pages per hour), Google has compiled a massive database of books, magazines, and newspapers that can be browsed and searched online ( http://books.google.com ). Many of these texts are in public domain so you can download a PDF copy, and the comprehensive periodical section (yes, Maximum PC is on there, as well) is great for browsing the vintage collections of publications like Life and Popular Science .
Placeshift your media content from your desktop to a variety of mobile devices with the freeware Orb application ( www.orb.com ). Like the Slingbox service, Orb uses your Internet connection to broadcast videos and music to any broadband-enabled laptop or phone. Media files are transcoded on the fly, including online content from YouTube or even live TV if your host machine is equipped with a TV tuner. Orb even supports webcam streaming, so you can use it as a home-monitoring service.
Sometimes you just have a hankering for a good old-fashioned schlocky B-movie, or a poorly dubbed martial arts flick, or a lighthearted Buster Keaton romp or old-timey Popeye cartoon. All such possibilities, and more, await you at Public Domain Torrents ( www.publicdomaintorrents.com ). This free, legal torrent site is nicely organized by genre, offers user comments and a forum, and often features multiple versions of a title suitable for various portable devices.
Not only does Archive.org host the Wayback Machine, which contains archives of more than 150 billion web pages from 1996 to the present, but the site is also home to more than 200,000 films, from classic Charlie Chaplin to modern CC releases like Sita Sings the Blues . Oh, and its Live Music Archive has thousands of live recordings from artists like the Grateful Dead, Camper Van Beethoven, and Spoon. The text archive contains more than a million public-domain and Creative Commons works.
Music blogs all over the Internet transformed the tedious chore of finding and discovering music into an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. Sites like Hype Machine (
) aggregate music of all genres from various blogs, and a majority of these downloads come from independent labels that don’t mind if you share the music, since they’re either mixes of other songs or promotional tracks.
You can also find free tracks at Amazon’s MP3 store ( www.amazon.com/mp3 ). Simply type “Free mp3 downloads” into Amazon’s search query and it will return a list of the week’s featured music artists.
We discovered that without our media players on hand, our productivity levels can be quite low. Thankfully, sites like Last.fm , Slacker.com , Pandora.com , and Grooveshark.com offer free music streaming to help pass the time when you’ve got a bad case of the Mondays. Or, if your personal music collection isn’t up to your guests’ tastes, let the Internet be your party’s playlist for the night—no download required.
All nerds know that virtual machines make great testing environments, but not everyone has a spare Windows XP or Vista key on hand to legally create a Microsoft-based sandbox. Fortunately, Microsoft makes virtual hard drives available for testing Internet Explorer compatibility. Just search Microsoft.com for "Internet Explorer Application Compatibility VPC Image" and you can access full builds of Vista or XP to build your sandbox. The catch is that they’re time-limited to a few months—but hey, considering the price, that ain’t bad.
In days of yore, font-recognition software was expensive and didn’t work particularly well. Lucky for us, what once cost a lot of money is now available free on the web. Point your browser to WhatTheFont ( http://new.myfonts.com/WhatTheFont/ ), upload an image featuring the font in question, and the service will give you a list of matching fonts, usually including some free options. For bonus points, font nerds can test their knowledge by trying to identify the difference between Arial and Helvetica in common logos ( http://www.ironicsans.com/helvarialquiz/index.php ).
Your noggin is never too full for more knowledge, and iTunes U—an education-oriented subset of Apple’s iTunes Store—makes it free, easy, and convenient for you to continually learn more stuff. With a vast offering of digital lessons, lectures, and events from premiere universities and institutions such as MIT, Oxford, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others, iTunes U is a valuable resource for any hungry mind.
Your shaky cell-phone video of your best friend getting Tasered by mall cops has a good chance of going viral, but you can give it an extra push with some skillful editing. Fortunately, Pinnacle’s VideoSpin ( www.videospin.com ) gets your YouTube career on track without digging into your wallet. You can even use advanced codecs for 14 days for free on your video edits. Once the codec trial is over, you can still work in other formats, like AVI, and then use HandBrake (see below) to create an MP4.
One of the fastest and best ways to convert your video files for consumption on more-portable MPEG-4-friendly devices is HandBrake ( http://handbrake.fr/ ). Originally started as a BeOS project, this encoder has jumped to the front of the line when it comes to ease of use and output quality. Heck, you can even use it to convert your Pinnacle VideoSpin projects from AVI to MPEG-4.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of you don’t need Photoshop. Sure, Adobe’s image-editing program is the de facto standard among graphic designers, but for basic image manipulation—cropping, resizing, and even minor touch-ups—freeware tools do the job just fine. Over the past 10 years, GIMP ( www.gimp.org ) has emerged as the most worthy alternative to Photoshop. The latest version, 2.6, is packed with features for most of your digital retouching needs, and the program doesn’t have a steep learning curve.
Photoshop Lightroom costs $300 and Photoshop Elements costs $100, but you don’t need to spend big bucks to handle basic photo-management tasks—Google’s Picasa ( http://picasa.google.com ) is free! Not only does Picasa index your photos, allowing you to tag and organize your snaps, it now also includes facial recognition, to make tagging all those pics of your Auntie Mabel a little less painful. But wait, there’s more! Also included is free online photo storage for 1GB of your pics!
The reign of Microsoft Office may soon be over, with more productivity suites moving to the cloud. Both Google and Zoho ( www.zoho.com ) offer a wide range of editing services that’ll let you draft documents, create spreadsheets, and even make presentations on the web. Zoho’s Writer service is a powerful word processor that supports a wide range of document formats. And with Google Gears ( http://gears.google.com ) installed, you don’t even have to be connected to the Internet to use it.
Need to send a text in a pinch, but don’t have the 20 cents? Luckily for you, there are plenty of sites offering to send SMS messages, free of charge, from your web browser. For instance, from the aptly named Free SMS ( http://sms.dynadel.com ), you can send free texts to any cell phone, as long as you know the number and carrier. As an added bonus, the site is formatted to be easily viewable on a mobile browser, so you can use it from anywhere.
For techies, Wi-Fi access isn’t just a privilege, it’s a right. Too bad not everyone agrees. But you can still find plenty of coffee shops and stores that offer free wireless Internet access. Check the Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory ( www.wififreespot.com ) for a listing of verified public hotspots all over the United States, so you’ll never have to walk into an Apple store for your Wi-Fi fix.
The dime lady must be pulling her hair out. Skype ( www.skype.com ) lets you make free VoIP calls to anyone else in the world using the program; Google Voice ( http://voice.google.com ) is a free service that will let you make calls and send texts to any number in the United States or Canada (as long as you have an existing telephone number).
The Library of Congress is the steward of millions of historically and culturally significant public domain images, and thanks to the LoC’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog ( http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html ), you can peruse about 75 percent of the Library’s holdings, many of which are available for download. Not all the images are available in high res, and it can take a little time to get a feel for finding things, but it’s a treasure trove for photography buffs.
Need an image you can legally use for an art or commercial project but don’t want to pay for stock photos? Flickr ( www.flickr.com ) lets you filter search results for photos with permissive Creative Commons licensing, so you can reuse images for your projects, guilt-free. Yahoo (which owns Flickr) has even more expansive search options in its primary image search site ( http://images.search.yahoo.com ) if you want to fish for just high-resolution or black-and-white pictures.
Learn how to play the music of the classical masters by downloading sheet music from the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, Handel, and Liszt at Freesheetmusic.net . The site also offers sheet music for numerous folk songs, tablature for various instruments, Midi files so you can hear many of the compositions performed, and articles geared toward the budding musician.
You have a stack of old Bee Gees records you don’t want, but nobody will buy. You really need an IDE hard drive (for some reason). Solve both of your problems without spending cash: Sign up for your local Freecycle group (find yours at www.freecycle.org ) and you’ll be put on an email list you can use to give away things you don’t need, request stuff you do need, and see what other people are getting rid of. The only catch is that everything has to be free—no buying, selling, or trading.
Like just about everything else, being a cheapskate has become a community activity, thanks to the Internet. Sites like FatWallet.com and SlickDeals.net are best known for highlighting steep savings with online promotions, but both also have forums where penny-pinchers share their finds as well as boards dedicated to the pursuit of zero-dollar bargains ( http://www.fatwallet.com/forums/free-stuff/ and http://slickdeals.net/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=4 , respectively), so hit them up and see what you can snag.
When it comes to free goods of questionable cleanliness, it’s pretty much impossible to beat Craigslist. Though famous for apartment-hunting, selling stuff locally, and prostitution, Craigslist also maintains a “free stuff” board, where people give away everything from books to hot tubs to landscaping materials. Sure, a lot of it’s junk, but if you keep an eye out, you might find something good. Speaking of which, if you want to be the first to swoop in on the best deals, try adding the “free stuff” board to your RSS reader.
Twitter feeds like @freestuffus post links daily offering free samples, money-saving coupons, and trade magazine subscriptions. An alternative is Freezly.com , which actually aggregates tweets from public feeds that broadcast contests and free giveaways.
Sure, it’s not the most glamorous pastime out there, but there are a lot of goodies to be found in the world’s garbage cans. Grocery stores and bakeries frequently throw out still-good food, and book stores discard old magazines (the trick is just figuring out where). For links to blogs about dumpster diving, hit up Freegan.info .
Listen up, pirates. There’s no need to download movies when you can legally watch them in the theater for free. Studios often offer free movie screenings to help promote upcoming films, and you can reserve your seat at these sneak peeks online at Film Metro ( www.filmmetro.com ) and Gofobo ( www.gofobo.com ). Marketers also often leave screening passes at local record shops and university campuses. You can have your cinema cake and eat it, too.
Unless you plan on hitchhiking your way through the Sahara Desert, traveling to far-off places can cost more than you’d bargained for. And for last-minute trips, a room at a hostel or hotel can be hard to come by. Why not meet new people and see the world by couch surfing?
At Couchsurfing.com you can make connections with other travelers as well as folks willing to let travelers crash on their couch. Additionally, there’s a vouching system that lets members declare their trust for other members, thus taking some of the worry out of sleeping on a stranger's sofa.
A Slurpee costs around a buck, but it’s even sweeter when you can get it for free. 7-Eleven runs a promotion to give away its sugary beverage every July 11, and other franchises have similar free days, as well. Ben & Jerry’s has its Free Cone Day every April, and Krispy Kreme has been known to hand out free doughnuts on National Doughnut Day—the first Friday of June.
The advent of digital distribution has let independent game developers compete with AAA studios for audience attention. Indiegames.com is one of the best ways to keep tabs on upcoming indie games and their developers, plus find scads of freeware, demos, and fun browser games.
Though they might not have had great retail success, some high-profile games have been reborn as free-to-play online games. Two of our favorites are Battleforge ( www.battleforge.com ), a real-time strategizer with a collectible card game twist, and D&D Online ( www.ddo.com ), the MMO reimagining of the tabletop classic. Both are free to play, although the publishers will happily take your cash in exchange for more features or upgrades.
Whether you’re looking for a little lunchtime zombie-killing or just a good game of rummy, you can find it at Kongregate.com. Unlike other web-game portals that are simply frames around the same Flash games you see everywhere, Kongregate adds modern features like game-specific chat and achievements to keep you coming back for more. Our favorites at Kongregate? Fantastic Contraption , Multitask , and Shopping Cart Hero .
A free Flash version of Plants vs. Zombies ( www.popcap.com/games/free/pvz ) will certainly ensure that you never get any work done. The web version isn’t as fully equipped as the paid version, but it does include three kinds of gameplay, 14 different levels to conquer, and 12 types of plants to defend with, as well as the engaging soundtrack that’s sure to be ingrained in your memory for months.
In the last year, two very different but nonetheless compelling shooters have been released as free-to-play web games. Battlefield Heroes ( www.battlefieldheroes.com ) strips out everything but the core gameplay mechanic from Battlefield: 1942 and packages the whole game in a browser-based third-person shooter. At the same time, Quake Live ( www.quakelive.com ) packs much of the original Quake 3 Arena experience into an ad-supported, web-based version of the game. Getting online in either game is as easy as downloading a plugin for your browser and clicking Play Now.
The world of free and open-source software is massive. There are open-source and freeware apps for every task you can imagine. And one of the best places to get open-source software is SourceForge ( www.sourceforge.net ). Chances are your favorite open-source project is already hosted there. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Audacity: Record and edit multitrack audio. We use it to create custom ringtones and record our musical side-projects, but the possibilities are limitless.
7-Zip: All-in-one file archiver/unzipper. Archive and unpack in multiple formats; even create encrypted archives. One of our essential apps.
XBMC: Lightweight home theater PC interface. Plays virtually every format, and supports streaming over your home network.
KeePass: Secure password management. Create strong unique passwords for all your web logins and access them via a master key.
Notepad++: One of our favorite text editors. If you hand-code, you'll find its support for syntax highlighting, auto-indenting, and regexp invaluable.
Launchy: Launch your programs with just a few keystrokes.
Pidgin: Free lightweight multiprotocol IM client.
FileZilla: Sometimes you just need a fast, lightweight FTP client.
ffdshow-Tryout: The ultimate codec pack. Encode and decode practically any video or audio file. Accept no imitators.
Synergy: Control multiple computers with the same keyboard and mouse.
Like many companies, Microsoft frequently runs programs to collect marketing data about how consumers use its products. Unlike many companies, Microsoft rewards participants in these programs with free copies of its most popular software—Office and Windows. There are programs running all the time, and they’re usually announced at either the Windows blog ( http://windowsteamblog.com ) or at Microsoft Connect ( http://connect.microsoft.com ).
Windows doesn’t come with antivirus software, a point Apple ads endlessly harp on. But you don’t need to pony up for a $70 antivirus suite to keep yourself secure. Microsoft has just released (finally!) Windows Security Essentials (
Security_essentials ), its free antivirus/antimalware app. It offers decent protection, and it’s not bloated like some other free anti-virus programs, nor will it nag you to death. The catch? You need
a legit copy of Windows. Which you have, of course.
If you’re still using XP but want some of the features of Vista and 7 (like Desktop Search), you need to check out all the OS enhancements Microsoft offers for free—we’re talking more than 150 free programs, including Power Toy tools, tweaking utilities, and other goodies that aren’t just intended for IT professionals. Find a complete list of these downloads here .
Cell phone carriers like Verizon are offering "discounted" netbooks when you sign up for a data plan. OK, $150 for a netbook that’s listed at $600? That’s damned-near free, right? Frankly, no. The first catch is obvious: The list price is wildly inflated. Based on specs, the majority of these netbooks would sell for $400 at best—some would even fall into the $350 range. Now consider that to get the netbook you have to sign a two-year contract, committing to a monthly charge of either $40 for a pathetic 250MB or $60 for 5GB of data. That’s either $960 or $1,440 over the life of the contract. For the vast majority of us who already pay for broadband at home, it just doesn’t make a lick of sense to shell out for another data plan to save $200 on a netbook.
Another bogus offer on the Internet is the “free” business card. Sure the cards are free, but you’ll have to pay $10 to get those 250 business cards delivered to you. Even if you’re willing to pay for the shipping and handling, you still have to run a gauntlet of other impulse items before you can check out.
The final gotcha that most folks know to avoid is the rebate. Why do stores even offer rebates when they seem to provoke so much animosity from consumers? Statistics show the vast majority of us are too lazy to fill out and mail the rebate forms. And when we do, we have a better chance of winning the Lotto then ever actually receiving the rebate check.