Our Cheapskate’s Guide has become an annual installment in the magazine, because for most of us working stiffs, the ability to stretch a dollar and get more for less is always relevant. For some of us, it means that our love of technology and all its amazing uses won’t get in the way of us paying the rent or putting new Crocs on our kids’ feet. For others, saving money is more a matter of personal pride—the result of knowing the ins and outs of getting a good deal. Only suckers pay the sticker price! Whatever motivates your cheapskate tendencies, we say embrace them, and this year we offer our support in the form of tips for savvy shopping, guidance on making wise hardware purchases, pointers to killer deals in digital entertainment, and a whole lot more. Just don’t spend your savings foolishly!
Before you spend money on an upgrade, make sure you’ve milked your hardware for all it’s worth
Overclocking your CPU can be as easy as ticking a box in your BIOS, and it can open up decent performance gains that are achievable with a relatively inexpensive aftermarket cooler such as the $35 Hyper 212 Evo from Cooler Master. Most Intel boards are multiplier locked, but you can still adjust the Turbo clock and/or the base clock quite easily in the BIOS. Be careful though, as most modern CPUs will top out at just a bit above 4GHz due to cooling and voltage constraints. We’ve gone up to 4.2GHz or so on air and a bit higher on water, but that’s the ceiling these days unless you’re willing to shell out a mint for an Extreme processor from Intel or a 5GHz part from AMD, and a custom water loop to cool either. Keep in mind, however, that it’s doubtful you’re being held back by your CPU unless you are doing intense multithreaded video encoding.
Overclocking your GPU will provide some benefits, but keep in mind we’re talking about a 5–10 percent improvement, typically, which might not be enough to overcome your particular frame-rate deficiency. In some cases you will see a 20 percent boost, but that’s not guaranteed. The cheapest way to get an FPS boost is always to just buy a second GPU for CrossFire or SLI, because, though scaling isn’t perfect, you should be able to see performance improve by 75–80 percent. Also, by the time you add a second card, whatever card you already own is typically much cheaper, making this the best-bang-for-your-buck upgrade you can perform.
EVGA PrecisionX makes it easy to overclock your GPU, examine temps and voltages, and more.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again with no hyperbole. Moving to an SSD is one of the best PC upgrades in the history of mankind. Whereas upgrading other subsystems like RAM, CPU, and motherboard oftentimes leads to small and imperceptible performance gains, an SSD upgrade is like hitting your PC with nitrous, and its effects are immediate, system-wide, and like night-and-day compared to a spinning hard drive. Your PC will boot in half the time, programs will launch instantly, and there’s no more waiting for the platters to spin up or for the drive’s read heads to find your data. SSDs also emit no heat or noise, and with no moving parts they are just as awesome in a laptop as they are in a desktop. Get one today and your life will change.
The Trim command for Windows is sent to your SSD when it’s idle, telling the drive that it’s OK to permanently delete files marked as garbage, so that the next time data needs to be written to a block it can take place without the aforementioned deletion delaying the process. Imagine if every time you had to write to a block, the controller had to perform a delete operation first! Performance would suck, which is why Trim exists. But here’s the problem: If your SSD holds your OS, it may rarely be in “idle” mode, and nobody knows when the Trim command actually runs. So, do your drive a favor and manually Trim it. In Windows 8 it can be done via the Tools menu (under the drive’s Properties) by punching the Optimize button. Older OSes don’t offer this feature, though, so you’ll need a third-party tool provided by your drive manufacturer. We know that the software available for Intel and Samsung drives supports this, but we’re not aware of any other free tool that lets you do it on drives of other brands.
Some SSDs include software that lets you manually Trim your drive—a handy feature for those on older OSes.
Nothing runs faster, not even a Kenyan, than a fresh install of Windows. It’s true that the arrival of SSDs has negated this effect somewhat, but in our experience, a squeaky-clean install is noticeably perkier than a thrashed and litter-strewn 2-year-old installation. We know most of you pride yourselves on your years of uptime, but there comes a time when too many weird and unexplainable phenomena (updates not working, general slowness, etc.) will require you to throw up your hands and start over. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and your new OS’s snappy performance will make you feel better in the end.
If you’re using less than 8GB of RAM there’s a very real chance your system is using almost all of it from time to time, if you’re like us: a gnarly multitasker. Your OS will take a few gigs right off the bat, and browser tabs can eat another gig; open Photoshop and it’s all over but the crying. We don’t say this often, but if you only have 4GB of RAM, double it pronto. If you have some leftover Christmas money, treat yourself to 16GB just to be safe.
Don’t buy more performance than you need
We’ll admit we’re guilty of pushing a Maximum PC worldview, but we also advocate upgrades that will actually make a difference in your day-to-day computing rather than just looking good in a forum signature. Here are the most often abused upgrade paths—be sure to steer clear of them.
You can run dual GTX 680s and nine hard drives off a 600W PSU, and we know because we’ve done it. When buying a PSU, use an online calculator to tabulate how much power your system will actually need instead of just buying an 850-or-higher wattage PSU. That said, don’t buy a no-name unit. Quality and reputation are important here.
Everyone loves the idea of an eight- or 12-core CPU, but the reality is, unless you’re rendering 3D models or doing hardcore video work, most of the applications you use will never touch those extra cores, so don’t waste your money on them. The same goes for Hyper-Threading, which is virtual CPU cores—most apps don’t even know they exist. In our testing, gaming performance actually dropped with Hyper-Threading enabled, and the only apps that improved by adding cores were Adobe Premiere, HandBrake, and other apps of that nature.
A badass PSU can be overkill, even for a high-end build.
A full-tower looks good IRL and in a forum signature, but can be a massive waste of money and space unless you’re water-cooling. Otherwise you get a whole lot of real estate that goes unused. If that’s your bag, we get it; we like a roomy interior, too. But these cases cost more than twice what a generous mid-tower will set you back, and we’d prefer to put that cash into a GPU or SSD.
Most home users will get by just fine with 8GB, and extreme photo and video editors might need 16GB or 32GB in really extreme situations. Among the Maximum PC staffers, 8GB or 16GB is the norm, and we have never had a need for more than that. Even amateur photographers and videographers will be fine with 16GB. Overclocked RAM is only beneficial in certain applications and can help with CPU overclocking, but for average use and a regular diet of gaming, stick with DDR3/1600 and you’ll be just fine.
Your name is Mark and the store knows it
These kits typically include a generic, low-output car charger, generic screen protector, mediocre headset, and a screen protector. The only thing we’d really even consider buying at the store with a new phone purchase is the case. That’s because new phones, tablets, and other mobile items are scientifically proven to be subject to additional gravitational pull the first month you own them (in other words, you’re sure to drop it the day before your case arrives from Amazon).
Most wireless companies’ “kit” chargers are generic junk.
You need the braided HDMI cables with your HDTV, receiver, or what not, right? No, you don’t. The braids do look beautiful, but nine out of 10 times, it’s just a way to charge you $35 for a cable that would otherwise be $10 or less. Shoot, some big box stores probably make more money on store-branded cables than they do on their other merchandise. As much as we all wish the braided Super Cable did something special, it doesn’t.
Most folks know this, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it: Extended warranties are like gambling and the house always wins. Those extended warranties are pure gravy to the store, which knows that your hardware is 97 percent unlikely to ever fail within the warranty period. That’s why the stores all push them. For most of us, it’s better to just roll the dice.
Saving your pennies when purchasing online is easier than you might think
A little bit of time and effort can save you a not-so-insignificant amount of cash when you’re shopping online. Trust us. The last time we went shopping for pants, for example, a quick online scan for promo codes helped us to double-stack savings—turning a measly 20 percent discount into a much more pleasing 65 percent discount (and allowing us to buy two pairs instead of one!). We’re not talking rocket science here, just perseverance. And of course, it pays to know all the most effective techniques.
The web is full of “deal sites”—as in, giant listings of items that have either been found by the site itself or posted by its visitors. These items are typically discounted from their regular retail price any number of different ways, from standard sales that sleuths have stumbled across, to creative uses of promotional codes and other offers, to the leaking of special URLs reserved for a vendor’s “elite” shoppers.
So, which are some of the best resources?
SlickDeals: The alpha and omega of deal sites, this super-popular site is a great, general resource for deals spanning all kinds of categories. You can even have the site email you when new deals pop up for certain products you’re interested in. www.slickdeals.net
CheapAssGamer: If you want to narrow your search to video games, then CAG (as it’s affectionately known) is where you’ll find great gaming deals and a vibrant community. www.cheapassgamer.com
Reddit: Yes, there are Reddits for everything, it seems. Hit up /r/deals, /r/dealsreddit, and /r/gamedeals for your general and gaming-related purchases; /r/coupons if you’re keen on promos; and /r/freebies for, well, just that. And of course, don’t forget /r/buildapcsales. www.reddit.com
The site Deals.woot.com is another great example of a community-driven deal aggregator; we tend to like sites that have a bit of a competitive element, as it usually leads to better deals!
DealNews: Second verse, same as the first. This site, like SlickDeals, dishes out a whole ton of bargains across an equally large number of categories. There’s no forum, just straight-up savings. www.dealnews.com
Signing up for e-newsletters might not seem like a hot tip, but Newegg’s often delivers promos and prices you simply won’t find listed elsewhere.
FatWallet: While we’re a bit more keen on SlickDeals’s listings, we find the FatWallet forums to be irresistible. Promo codes, coupon codes, and helpful advice—especially for travel and finance—make this site’s giant community worth checking out. The bonus cashback you can get for listed deals is the icing on the cake. www.fatwallet.com
Our first stop when shopping is a handy little site called RetailMeNot ( www.retailmenot.com ), a great place to quickly find active promo codes for a variety of online shopping sites. If that doesn’t turn up results, we look to other sites like Coupon Predator ( www.couponpredator.com ), Google, and even a Twitter search to see what’s out there. That might sound primitive, but it works.
Beyond that, browser extensions like Honey or Coupons at Checkout will automatically search for promo codes when you go to make a purchase. Unfortunately, they might also pull in coupons for larger retail sites that have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re buying (a bit of a tease).
And don’t forget newsletters! Newegg is a great example of a site that’ll often stuff interesting deals into the emails it blasts your way, as is TigerDirect (and Mwave, Directron, etc.). All of the various Groupon-like sites—LivingSocial, Amazon Local, Travelzoo, to name a few—are also worth checking out for deals in categories beyond electronics.
No matter what you sign up for, however, we recommend that you fire up a Gmail account and use the ol’ trick of adding a plus symbol and extra characters to your email address for newsletter purposes (so, Tomfirstname.lastname@example.org instead of Tom@maximumpc.com). Your email will still route to the same location, but you’ll have a much stronger ability to filter the bounty of messages you’ll receive.
It’s always great when your web browser itself can do your deal hunting. Of course, you’re going to have to install an extension or two to transform Chrome or Firefox into a shopping machine.
One of our favorites is (oddly) called Camelcamelcamel ; it ties into the website of the same name, and tracks the prices of things you’re looking to purchase on Amazon or Bestbuy.com. (It used to work on Newegg as well, but doesn’t as of this article’s writing). The extensions Priceblink and Invisible Hand are also worth having in your back pocket, as they’ll automatically notify you if they can find a lower price for items you’re looking at on a particular retailer’s website.
If you’re a huge Amazon fan, you can grab the company’s “ Add to Wish List ” extension. When you’re shopping anywhere else, simply click the little button in your browser to automatically add whatever you’re looking at to your Amazon Wish List (presumably, to purchase later with your fancy Amazon Prime account).
While it’s not a browser extension, we just have to mention the web app Slice —sign up for the free service, and you’ll be able to get notifications on your smartphone when your packages have shipped and when they’re delivered!
It’s no secret that you can often score much better deals with a bit of online sleuthing than you can in a brick-and-mortar store. What if you want your brand-new video game today, however, instead of having to wait for it to ship out from some random online retailer?
Here’s the catch: While a number of retail chains like Staples, Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart (to name a few) will price-match against online entities like Amazon, their policies can all differ regarding specifics. Best Buy, for example, limits the number of sites it’ll consider for price matching, and any items that are subject to “deal of the day” specials (or the like) don’t apply—thus rendering price matching a bit moot.
Timing varies with the brick-and-mortar stores, as well. Best Buy, for example, needs to know the lower price you’re trying to match when you go to purchase an item. Target, however, gives you a seven-day window from the point of purchase to find a lower price from a slim list of online retailers.
Our advice? Stick to the deal sites we’ve previously listed; trying to play the price-matching game is more trouble than it’s worth.
RefurbMe is a handy site for finding refurbished Apple products for cheap. The tracking element is especially useful, given how products arrive and disappear from Apple’s refurb site.
One great way to save cash on your major PC purchases is to go refurb; specifically, items that the manufacturer has received and fixed up (or has decided are eligible for a discounted sale). Perhaps the exterior of the laptop is a wee bit scuffed—you might decide you can live with that for a $300 discount.
Hate all you want, but Apple does a great job of testing and fixing its refurbished goods, even going so far as to offer a one-year limited warranty and full return support as if the item were purchased brand-new. Dell and HP also offer pretty strong warranty and return policies, as does Newegg, but you’ll definitely want to check that whichever store you’re looking to buy refurb from gives you a plethora of return options, to be safe. Amazon, for example, might offer a ton of options for buying used, but you might be bound by the stricter return policy of an individual seller. Caveat emptor.
We didn’t find any strong, comprehensive sites that track refurb sales across a number of different manufacturers and retailers, other than the Apple-centric RefurbMe ( www.refurb.me ).
If you’re a junkie for a particular retail site—Amazon or Newegg spring to mind—then it might be worth your while to sign up for that site’s shipping service, should it offer one. Amazon Prime gives you “free” two-day shipping for an annual fee; Newegg uses Shoprunner (also $79 a year), which is a similar service that covers a large number of participating stores simultaneously.
If you don’t want to pay the annual fee, but still want to take advantage of the services for a particular large purchase or shopping spree, you can always sign up for each site’s 30-day trial (so long as you remember to cancel it before the month is up!) Or you can always check out FreeShipping.org to see if you can get your purchases sent gratis via a code or deal.
Or how not to get burned
Buying a used smartphone is an easy way to save hundreds of dollars. The two big places to buy phones and tablets today are eBay and Craigslist. eBay is problematic for picky buyers, as you can’t touch before purchasing. You instead have to rely on the descriptions. If we had to buy a phone on eBay and wanted to improve our chances of being satisfied, we’d stick with vendors who sell dozens or hundreds of phones. These vendors are more concerned with maintaining a reputation, so if you have problems with a phone, returning it shouldn’t be a problem. As always though, read the fine print on returns and refunds before you make a bid.
If you prefer the face-to-face interaction of Craigslist, there are a few tips you should follow. First, for security’s sake, meet in a public place such as a café and never go to a second location with the seller because they “forgot the charger.” (Right, follow them outside with $400 cash in your pocket!). If you’re really leery, ask them to meet you in the lobby of a nearby police station. This applies to any face-to-face transaction, of course.
Kick the tires first! On any phone, the common failure points are headphone jack and charger port. Bring your own ear buds, plug them in, and put light pressure on the cord where it plugs in while playing audio to see if it cuts out. If it does, the port may be damaged. Likewise, plug the phone into the wall and see if the phone will show that it’s charging while putting light pressure on the cord from different angles. If it loses connection at a certain angle, the charging port may be damaged.
Check the phone’s moisture indicators—usually on the battery or inside the phone or hidden inside the headphone jack or card slot. You may need a magnifying glass and flashlight. Most turn dark red or purple after they’ve been exposed to moisture.
Some vendors only care if a product is within a warranty period, not who bought it.
Also function-check all of the phone’s physical buttons and switches to make sure they engage and disengage, and check that there are no issues with the touchscreen’s digitizer by testing the corners in particular, since they’re prone to stress. Check the phone’s electronic serial number, or ESN, and make sure it’s not on your carrier’s blocked list. Carefully examine the chassis and screen alignment too, as well as the screws that hold the phone together. If the parts seem out of alignment, or the tamper seal is simply gone, there’s a good chance the “new” phone has been opened up.
These are identical batteries but the one with the red moisture indicator has gone through the washer.
These same rules apply to tablets. The only other test we’d do with a tablet is to try to twist the tablet by the corners very gently. This should exert pressure on the panel and digitizer, and could reveal whether there’s a loose connection from being dropped one time too many. We’d also be a bit more careful about checking the tablet’s screen, so pull up a paint program and view pages of different solid colors to look for dead pixels.
Buying used PC parts can be a bit trickier. If you’re buying a used GeForce Titan for $500, you certainly can’t test it in Starbucks. The good news is that most PC parts tend to be pretty resilient. Dead CPUs and GPUs are rare. Some PC parts vendors are very good about honoring warranties regardless of who originally bought the parts, but you’ll want to verify this beforehand. Hard-drive vendors, for example, typically don’t care who bought the drive, as warranties typically start from date of manufacture.
Frankly, buying PC parts face-to-face, where you can’t power them up and test them is almost sketchier than buying from a person on eBay, where the seller is likely to want to protect their reputation, or in a worse-case scenario, eBay itself can intercede in a purchasing dispute.
Cutting the cable has never been easier
Is there anything worse than paying big bucks for a monthly cable subscription and an assortment of Blu-rays? If you have a high-speed Internet connection, you don’t need to anymore. There’s never been a better time to consider cutting the cable, with streaming websites galore and services available for pretty much everything.
It’s a great time to be a movie lover. Between Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, and Hulu, there are loads of options to choose from. Netflix is still the frontrunner, with its $7.99-per-month streaming plan, huge library with 720p and 1080p “Super HD” video, 5.1 surround sound, and support for nearly every modern device—Roku, Chromecast, mobile phones, and more. Compare that to Amazon Prime Instant Video, which gives Amazon Prime members access to a library of some 40,000 movies and TV episodes as well as some à la carte offerings.
If you need the latest TV episodes, Hulu’s your best bet. Recent episodes from most networks are available for free on your PC and upgrading to the $7.99/month Hulu Plus subscription gives you HD streams, expanded device support, and access to Hulu’s backlog.
Netflix and Amazon Instant Video both also include a pretty large selection of TV shows. Recent episodes aren’t always available, but it’s hard to beat paying $7.99 a month for both TV and movies.
Our top pick is still Spotify . With its massive library of ad-supported music, it’s the best option for on-demand music streaming. Pay $4.99/month and all the ads are stripped away. Pay $9.99/month and you get mobile access with offline listening and “Extreme” audio quality (320Kb/s).
Live radio and jukebox fans will love iHeartRadio. It’s a service that gives you access to more than 1,500 live radio stations across the country. It also lets you create customized radio stations that pull from iHeartRadio’s music library of over 15 million songs. iTunes Radio is a newer alternative, but the lack of Android support is pretty unforgivable.
Looking to actually purchase songs? Check the prices on Amazon MP3—chances are good that they’re cheaper than iTunes if not the exact same price (but unencumbered by DRM). If music exploration’s your thing, both NoiseTrade ( www.noisetrade.com ) and the Free Music Archive ( www.freemusicarchive.org ) offer free songs from smaller artists.
Netflix remains the force to be reckoned with when it comes to streaming commercial content.
If you don’t want to make regular trips to your local library, there are some cheapskate alternatives. Most public libraries offer online checkout of e-books and audio books. How it works largely depends on your local library, but it’s a great option if you’re looking for recent books. If you don’t have a problem reading classics, Project Gutenberg ( www.gutenberg.org ) has been around for a long time, collecting public domain books and making them available for free. There’s also the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which gives Amazon Prime subscribers the chance to borrow one e-book per month from a growing selection of books.
Anyone who’s ever tried to cut the cord knows that sports has always been the sticking point. Unfortunately, not much has changed, and the easiest way to get your sports fix is to stick with cable or hook up a TV tuner for local broadcasts.
If you’re not a regular ESPN or ESPN 2 watcher, you might be able to get by with paid subscriptions to the leagues that you care about most. All of the major sports leagues offer some sort of subscription—with prices as high as $200. The passes usually last for the entire season, but are sometimes gimped by restrictions that might make local games or even playoff games unavailable.
The Chromecast is Google’s $35 Roku and Apple TV competitor. Plug the 3-inch device into an HDMI port on your TV—plus a USB port for power—and you can stream content from Chromecast-enabled apps on your PC, phone, or tablet, and through Chrome itself. Since it launched last year, Google’s been pushing for further Chromecast development. Some of that has finally paid off with more than a few services now touting official support. Hulu, Pandora, HBO Go, Plex, and more have joined Netflix and Google Play with compatible apps. It’s still got a ways to go before it can really compete with the ease-of-use and accessibility of either the Roku or the Apple TV, but at only $35 it’s hard to argue with super-simple streaming.
Since the Chromecast can only be used as a secondary device, it’s safe to say that it’s not a real threat to dedicated digital media receivers. Having to reach for your phone or laptop to peruse your Netflix queue isn’t nearly as convenient as pressing play on a Roku remote. Google’s continued focus on Chromecast is a good sign and the future of the Chromecast isn’t as bleak as it once was.
Open-source media-center goodness for free
If you’re looking for a front end for your media center, look no further than XBMC. It’s completely free, installing it is a cinch, and a massive library of user-created add-ons means that plenty of your favorite services are probably supported.
Download XBMC ( www.xbmc.org ) for the operating system you’re running (image A) and install it. You’ve also got the option of installing XBMCbuntu—a stand-alone OS running on Linux.
Chances are good that XBMC will pick the right resolution for your setup, but make sure by going to System > Settings > Video output and checking the Resolution option. While you’re in the settings menu, check the Audio output tab to fine-tune your audio settings ( image B ).
A media center is pretty worthless without any media. Fortunately, importing content into XBMC is ridiculously easy. Select the Video or Music tab and click Add Source. Browse to where you keep your content, click the folder, and give it a name ( image C ).
Add-ons are the lifeblood of XBMC. Most of them are easy installs—go to System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > All Add-ons and select from any of the available categories to search through the official XBMC repository. Pick an add-on and click Install.
Some beta add-ons aren’t available without a bit of tinkering. We recommend NetfliXBMC, Spotimc, and the unofficial Hulu add-on to start with.
Installing NetfliXBMC is a bit of a chore. First, download AddOnScripterDE’s repository ( http://bit.ly/NetfliXBMC ). Then go to Settings > Add-ons > Install from zip file and select the zip file you downloaded. Now when you click Get Add-ons, you should see AddOnScripterDE’s Beta Repo as an option. Select it, head into Video Add-ons, and install NetfliXBMC. Once it’s installed, right-click NetfliXBMC, go to Add-on settings ( image D ), and enter in your Netflix account information. While you’re in the settings menu, click the Advanced tab and select IExplorer under Win Browser. If you’ve done everything right, you should be able to access Netflix and watch videos.
The process is a bit simpler for BlueCop’s Hulu add-on and Spotimc. To get access to Hulu, download BlueCop’s repository ( http://bit.ly/HuluXBMC ) and install it by selecting the repo. Spotimc (http://bit.ly/Spotimc), the unofficial Spotify add-on, is even easier to install. All you have to do is download and directly install the zip file.
XBMC looks fine the first time you start it up, but there’s more than a few alternate skins available. Go to System > Settings > Appearance > Skin > Get More to get access to them. We recommend Aeon Nox, Aeon MQ 5 ( image E ), and re-Touched if you’re running XBMC on a device with a touchscreen.
Get cheap or free software without losing out
Computer security is not an area where you want to cut corners, but these days you can get all of your antivirus needs covered without spending much at all. For many users, the days of shelling out big bucks for a yearly subscription AV suite are over—Microsoft provides formidable built-in protection in the form of Windows Defender, a powerful free antivirus program included in Windows 8.
If you’d like even more full-featured AV, or you want to stick with the antivirus suite you already know, the best way to save money is to buy through a reseller. A simple Amazon search for Kaspersky or Norton returns dozens of reputable sellers offering the latest versions of these suites for 50 percent off retail price.
Even if you don’t consider photography a hobby, you should know a little bit about photo editing. A quick pass through the right software can take even the most amateurish photos and give them a little extra pop. There’s plenty of ways to do this without spending money, depending on your needs.
If you just want to occasionally spruce up pictures with features like contrast and color adjustment, red-eye reduction, and cropping, you may not need to download anything at all. Popular photo organization tools Flickr ( www.flickr.com ) and Picasa (h ttp://picasa.google.com ) both come with built-in tools that let you do all that for free.
For cheapskates that want the power of a full photo-editing suite for free, the answer is (as always) Gimp (www.gimp.org). The formidable open-source editor can do almost everything Photoshop can, including automatic image adjustments, batch processing, and manual photo correction. Finally, consider that Photoshop itself isn’t as expensive as it once was. Photoshop Elements ( www.adobe.com ) offers all the photo correction options a non-expert photographer needs with a very user-friendly interface for $60. Alternatively, Adobe’s new subscription options allow you to “rent” Photoshop by the month for $30.
Windows Defender: The best thing to happen to security-minded cheapskates.
Microsoft Office has a death grip on the commercial office apps market on Windows, but there are plenty of alternatives if you look around. If you’re able, the best solution for most folks is to simply move your documents cloud-side, with Google Apps ( https://drive.google.com ). The browser-based word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software are all powerful and user-friendly, and you can access your files from any computer or smartphone.
If you prefer a more traditional software suite, the open-source alternative is Libre Office ( www.libreoffice.org ), a descendant of the popular Open Office. It’s a big download, but Libre Office has all the features of Microsoft Office, and can open and save files with the widely used Office file extensions.
When it’s time to really make the switch to free software, you’ve got to start from the ground up—you’ve got to switch to a free operating system. The subject of making the switch to Linux is too broad to fit into a paragraph or two, but we’ll tell you how to get started. We recommend Mint, a very beginner-friendly Linux distro that’s based on Ubuntu. Ubuntu ( www.ubuntu.com ) is also a great choice, but the Mint GUI will be slightly more intuitive for people used to Windows. Head to www.linuxmint.com to download the latest version of the OS, and then click over to the Documentation tab. The guide is pretty long, but doesn’t involve anything that will be difficult for a moderately experienced computer user.
When it comes to playing video content, the best free option is also the best option, period. Download VLC ( www.videolan.org ), a free media player that offers playback for just about any file type or codec under the sun. If you want to go a step further and transcode videos from one format to another, the software you’re looking for is HandBrake ( http://handbrake.fr ), a free utility that makes it easy to create video files perfectly suited for any device.
One thing to keep in mind when hunting for cheap software is that you might be able to get deeper discounts through your employer or school. If you work for the government or military, for instance, you could be eligible for a program that allows you to download Microsoft Office for just $10. If you work for a big company, you might be able to get bulk-priced software for home use, as well. We can’t say what any particular employer offers, of course, so your best bet is to get in contact with your IT department, and ask if they offer any discount programs for at-home use.
What’s the one group that companies love the most? Students. College students and kids are broke now, but could someday be valuable customers, so companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Apple try to earn their favor with discounts on just about everything. All versions of Windows and Office are 10 percent off for students, for instance, and Adobe offers a huge 40 percent educational discount on its pricey software. Hardware is also cheaper if you have an educational email address, with Apple and Dell offering substantial savings on laptops for students. The main takeaway here is that if you’re a student, never buy anything online without first searching to see if a discount is available.
Note that most educational discounts are also available to school faculty, so if you or someone in your family is a teacher you can cash in on these deals. Finally, college students should remember that universities are big organizations, too, and may have their own bulk-rate deals on software. Talk to your campus technology department for more info.
These deals are so good it’s almost a crime to pass them up
CS:GO takes the challenge and balance of the original game and gives it a big face-lift and the most accessibility the franchise has ever seen. You can play it at a variety of skill levels and still have fun—even against some decent bots. The game will also randomly reward you with crates that contain cosmetic upgrades for your weapons and clothing. $15, www.counter-strike.net
This sci-fi stealth-action-RPG hybrid maintains the cynical tone, grand scale, and moral quandaries of the original game, while pushing forward with triple-A production values, including an excellent soundtrack by composer Michael McCann. With latitude for stealthy, guns-blazing, and completely non-lethal approaches, the game rewards multiple playthroughs. $20, www.deusex.com
Developed by some of the people who made the original Fallout games, FNV brings a meatier story and lighter tone than Fallout 3, and it moves us from the DC wasteland to the Southwestern desert. Combined with mods and story DLCs, you could easily lose a hundred hours to this game. $20, fallout.bethsoft.com
This top-down sci-fi rogue-like has you hurtling through dangerous stretches of unknown space as you evade a fleet of ships bent on eliminating the last remnants of a failed rebellion. Highly tactical and random, you increase your odds of survival through unlocking different ship types and gathering the right collection of crew and weaponry. A big free update may be out by the time you read this, too. $10, www.ftlgame.com
This sandbox village-management game is kinder, gentler Dwarf Fortress. Build your town into a city and defend it from enemies, craft a slew of items, explore your randomly generated surroundings, and be charmed by the 16-bit art style. This was still in “Early Access” mode at press time, so gameplay was still evolving. Your mileage may vary. $8, www.gnomoria.com
This first-person dungeon crawler hearkens back to old-school titles like Eye of the Beholder, but with updated graphics and sound. Lots of puzzles and secrets lay before you as you attempt to escape the prison that you have been unjustly thrown into. Steam provides Workshop support, and the community has put together hours of additional levels, enemies, and items. $15, www.grimrock.net
This top-down, team-based game is about breaking into banks, museums, and mansions. You can play alone or online and choose from a variety of character classes, like hacker, locksmith, or pickpocket. It’s received a couple of large, free updates and has Workshop support to greatly increase the amount of content. $15, www.monacoismine.com
In this charming, side-scrolling indie platformer, death is permanent but usually educational and entertaining. Randomly generated levels, full destructibility, content unlocks, local co-op, and daily challenges await the patient and adventurous. It also has full gamepad support and performs well on older PCs. $15, www.spelunkyworld.com
Humble Store In addition to weekly and semi-monthly bundle sales, the Humble Bundle guys now have a 24/7 storefront with daily deals. They reportedly take a smaller cut than Steam, and they frequently match Steam’s sale price, so it’s a good place to check before making your purchase. They still sell Steam keys, along with DRM-free downloads and sometimes Android versions. Ten percent of all proceeds go to charity. www.humblebundle.com/store
Cheapshark This is one of the better sale aggregators on the web, pulling prices from a dozen different reputable online stores. You can specify a price range and sort by multiple criteria, like release date, Metacritic score, and title, and you can sign up for price alerts, too. www.cheapshark.com
GOG.com If you don’t want to deal with DRM, GOG.com is your new best friend. Its library of games also stretches back to the DOS days (Wing Commander, Master of Orion, Ultima Underworld), but they’re tuned to be playable out-of-the-box on a modern OS. GOG frequently bundles soundtracks, wallpaper, and artwork with each game. It is owned by CD Projekt Red, the makers of the Witcher games. www.gog.com
Amazon Amazon is another good place to check, because it frequently offer credits towards future game purchases, and you can get credit cards that award bonus points for shopping there (such as Amazon’s owned branded Visa card, which currently gives you a $30 credit if you’re approved). And with its buying power, you’ll sometimes find better sale prices than anywhere else. www.amazon.com
Vendor Bundles Nvidia and AMD have been bundling a lot of games with their cards lately, but sometimes the buyer already owns them or just isn’t interested. This is where eBay comes in. Since the games came free of charge, resell prices are customarily lower than retail. www.ebay.com