As the holiday shopping season ramps up sometimes it's nice to remember that the best things in life are still free. That goes for software as well.
It's become an annual tradition for Lifehacker.com (www.lifehacker.com) to run a list of the best free software out there, as well as a tradition for me to crib that list with a few additions of my own.
Firefox (www.firefox.com) - This browser topped the list, although it's on thin ice with me because it seems to crash a lot since recent updates and there are a lot of weird things going on when Firefox windows overlap with other programs. Still, the add-ons are the best and any technical issues I've had seem to be resolved little by little with additional updates. Still. Thin ice.
VLC (www.videolan.org/vlc/) - This video player can handle pretty much any format or codec and it also has tools that let you convert videos into other formats so you can take them with you on your phone or gadget. The best friend of every torrent downloader out there.
Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr) - This is a multiplatform video transcoder which does the conversion thing a lot better than VLC and also coverts the DVD-Video format into the more manageable MPEG-4.
CCleaner (www.ccleaner.com) - This PC utility cleans up your files, defrags your disk and goes through your folders to delete all of those cached and temporary files that can bog a system down over months and years. Plus a lot of other useful things.
Dropbox (www.getdropbox.com) - If your files are divided between computers at work and home and a bunch of devices then you need this.
Open Office (www.openoffice.org) - While I'm partial to Google Docs for word processing between platforms, Open Office is actually pretty awesome and for most people on par with Microsoft Office for functionality.
Microsoft Security Essentials (www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/) - Microsoft's free anti-virus solution is actually quite good and is no memory hog like some other free programs out there. If you have a PC then you'll want to download this right away.
Evernote (www.evernote.com) - This is a web-based reminder system that will collect and organize every note, every voice memo, every picture, every to-do list, every web link or clipping, and save them in one place that you can access through the web from anywhere. It's for the idea person, the business person who has to keep records of everything, the very busy and the very forgetful.
Digsby (www.digsby.com) - So far this is still PC-only, but basically Digsby collects updates from Twitter, Facebook, Instant Messaging programs, e-mail inboxes, etc. and bundles them into a single window that makes it easy to stay up-to-date.
XBMC (www.xbmc.org) - The original Xbox came third in the previous console generation wars but their home media centre still has lots of fans, and users are now installing the Xbox Media Centre on cheap PCs to organize movie and music collections. Third party plug-ins let you use a computer as a PVR, play torrent downloads, stream from YouTube, Hulu and others, and generally keep XBMC current. Also see Boxee (www.boxee.tv)
Blender (www.blender.org) - This isn't particularly useful to most people but it's a free 3D modeling program, shader, animator and more. It's actually quite fun to play around with whether you have a valid reason to use it or not.
MediaMonkey (www.mediamonkey.com) - Chances are you're using iTunes, like 90 per cent of the known universe, but MediaMonkey is actually better in a lot of ways. For one thing, unlike iTunes, it doesn't save all your songs into two different folders so you have a pile of duplicates hogging hard drive space. For another it's better at consolidating and organizing your music library, and it has an auto-level feature to ensure that every song you play sounds as loud or quiet as the last one. It also syncs with iPhones, iPods and other MP3 players, and has modes to easily create playlists.
There were some obvious entries on the Lifehacker list like Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Voice, Google Chrome and a few omissions:
SplashUp (www.splashup.com) is a free web-based image editor that is surprisingly powerful and intuitive. Then there's Gimp (www.gimp.com), which is a free, open source image editor that's similar to Adobe Photoshop. Other graphic-oriented sites to look at include www.aviary.com and www.inkscape.org.
It hasn't been released yet but no doubt the new Google Chrome OS will be on the Lifehacker list next year. Although it's geared for netbooks and portable gadgets, this operating system is a simple and free solution for a home PC or laptop that presumably will work seamlessly with the Android platform.
Something else missing from the list is gaming. There are a lot of free video games out there, including a downloadable trial of Warhammer Online that lets you get all the way to Level 10 without paying a dime. You can keep playing after that but can't level up any more until you buy in.
Earlier this year Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was released for free by Bethesda Software at www.elderscrolls.com. This is an older game but it's still incredibly good.