When software is available for free you have to wonder why. It takes time and energy to develop software and to make it compatible with all the different operating systems out there.
So you wonder - is the free software some kind of Trojan Horse sent your way by advertisers in order to get a little more of your face time? Is it like those free Vegas show tickets that you were offered as an incentive in order to sit through a two-hour timeshare presentation? Or are you merely getting a "taste" - a scaled down version of something much more awesome that you will have to purchase to fully enjoy?
More and more the answer is none of the above. A lot of programmers are developing software to meet a need, and they share that software because they're true believers in the open platform concept (or because they want to build a huge customer base and sell out to a major investor). Some developers might try to charge for enhanced versions, or will ask for donations to keep the developments coming, but the free versions of the software always do what they promised without charging you a cent.
Here are a few free software titles that everyone should have (with some assistance by P.C. Magazine at www.pcmag.com).
Launchy (www.launchy.net) - I spend most of my time online typing, and generally only use the mouse for navigating websites. What Launchy does is allow me to create more keyboard shortcuts to launch applications, navigate software, and take over routine functions where you might rely on your mouse. Keyboard shortcuts save time, providing you can remember to use them.
EphPod (www.ephpod.com) - This is basically iTunes for Windows, with all the same functionality Mac users enjoy. You can also download music from your iPod to your PC, which is usually a no-no.
DriveImage XML (www.runtime.org) - If you have a PC and are concerned about losing all your data, software, settings, etc. then download this program to make a replica image of your entire hard drive. Back it all up, and restore your computer at any time you choose.
Chandler (www.chandlerproject.org) - Chandler is basically a to do list/calendar application, but it takes things to another level when it comes to organizing your lists. It looks kind of like an e-mail client, and you can use it to manage literally millions of tasks for yourself, or share lists with others.
Digsby (www.digsby.com) - So far it's only available to PC users, but Digsby is basically a one stop shop where you can access all your instant messaging clients, get e-mail notifications from online and regular e-mail programs, and keep up with popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
VLC Player (www.videolan.org/vlc) - Where you get your video is your business, but only VLC Player will guarantee that you can play it on your computers. Seriously, VLC plays basically any kind of video format with great quality images and sound. You can also convert your video files using VLC.
Wesabe (www.wesabe.com) - I've plugged this site a few million times before, but I really can't say enough about this free tool that tracks all your purchases and helps you stick to a budget. The new layout is not as good as the original, but it still works better than most of the budgeting tools out there.
GIMP (www.gimp.org) - The GNU Image Manipulation Program is a surprisingly powerful open source graphics program that can handle a lot of the same tasks as Photoshop. Because it's open source, there are also thousands of unique brushes and plug-ins developed by others to create all kinds of interesting effects.
SketchUp (sketchup.google.com) - If you've ever wanted to try drawing in 3D this online tool created by Google Labs walks you through the creation of 3D models. It's also intuitive, and will save you a lot of drag and drop work.
Splashup (www.splash.com) - If you're looking for a quick and easy way to retouch, resize or otherwise manipulate your photos then Splashup is a great option. Everything's online, you just have to navigate to your photo to upload it and you'll be editing in no time.
Open Office (www.openoffice.org) - This free program mimics Microsoft Office when it comes to world processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, as well as improvising with a few of its own neat features. One feature I particularly like is the ability to open the same document in several different windows so you can refer to one section while typing in another.
SlideRocket (www.sliderocket.com) - This is basically an online presentation tool in the spirit of PowerPoint and Keynote. Presentations are incredibly detailed, there's great support for video and music, and you can access your presentations through the web.