So you’re headed off to college…or maybe you’re taking an online degree program from your desk at home. Either way, you’re about to be asked to create lots of different types of reports and research projects in different formats. You’re gonna need some help. Fortunately, a good deal of help is out there in the form of the many free software apps now available online.
Here are our favorites. We’ve ranked them by simply taking them for a test drive and seeing ourselves how well they perform. Our editors’s choices for 2021:
GIMP for Image Editing
GIMP is our number one ranked free software tool. Photoshop costs anywhere from $100 – $200 plus for an annual subscription. GIMP is a picture editing app we love that you can download for free here. It’s a super-powerful software that works well whether you’re doing quick edits or professional level work. There’s a bit of a learning curve with it – some would say it’s a little less user-friendly than Photoshop. But it won’t take you long to be doing rapid edits. The fact that GIMP is a downloaded app that resides on your computer is good if you are using any kind of good quality digital camera. Good cameras create images that are such large files that it’s often hard or even impossible to edit then with an online photo editing software. You won’t have that problem editing gif, JPEG, TIFF or PNG with GIMP, which is compatible with Mac, Windows or Linux.
An alternative photo editing software is PIXLR. This is an internet based app that’s great if you want to quickly resize, crop or improve the color saturation on a picture. You do, however, need to have Flash Player on your machine to use it. TIP: When you go to https://pixlr.com/editor/, you’ll get a choice of PIXLR X, the simple version, or PIXLR E, a more professional version that is no longer free after a 30 day trial. For most college students, the X version will do the job.
Zotero for Research Organization
You’ll have a hard time finding another tool that can simplify a complicated job as effectively as Zotero. Are you doing complicated research papers that require lots of references? Zotero is designed to help you keep your sanity by organizing them in one place and linking them effectively to your document.
There’s a cool tool included called Zotero Connector that allows you to save content directly from your browser window, with tags and notes that allow you to retrieve and write from it more quickly. Zotero also hosts a pretty robust forum where you’ll be able to find help with any tech problems you have and a “groups” application that’s useful if you’re working on a project with other students. It’s compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux.
Download Zotero here.
SoftMaker Free Office Tools
SoftMaker is a free alternative to Microsoft Office that’s well worth a try, particularly if you’ve found, like us, that Microsoft Word is one of the most glitch-laden pieces of software on earth. SoftMaker mimics Microsoft Office with word processing and a presentation program that’s an alternative to PowerPoint. It’s a free download, though a subscription fee is required if you want to work with the very useful Thesaurus app and certain other features. It’s compatible with Mac, Linux, Android and Windows. PCMag has called it “the best desktop-based alternative to Microsoft 365.”
Download SoftMaker here.
Audacity for Sound Recording
When it comes to sound and music editing, its tough to beat GarageBand for ease of use. But many of the free sound editing apps available online are super geeky and tough to learn. The most user-friendly one, we think, is Audacity. With it, you can do basics of music recording like overdubs, editing, splicing, mixing and converting to just about any format you want for export. There’s a really nifty “noise reduction” feature that allows you to quickly remove background room noise from an entire track, which is great if you’re working in a less than professional studio. If you want to double track by playing a second track acoustically with something you’ve already recorded, you’ll have to do through a slightly complicated procedure in order to get rid of the delay that’s known as redundancy. Certain other features can be a bit glitchy as well. But it’s nowhere near as complicated as ProTools which means that it can actually be fun to work with rather than a major technological challenge. For free, this is a nice application. Get Audacity free here.
We’re cheating a bit putting Copyscape in the article, because it’s no longer absolutely free. Each search costs three cents. But that’s a pretty tolerable price to find out if a paper you’ve written has too much content copied out of other sources. Everybody cuts and pastes info from sources into their term papers, but this is a nice little app to tell you if you’ve re-written things adequately, or if you’re likely to be accused of plagiarism. It’s good to do a check, because there’s no reason your professor can’t use this app to check on you. Get Copyscape here.
Google Docs is so popular that it’s practically guaranteed that someone will ask you to use it to work with them on a project. The good thing about Google Docs is that it’s functions – changing fonts, tracking changes, downloading docs in various formats – will all seem familiar to you because they closely mimic Microsoft Word. We love the fact that Google Docs autosaves your work as you write, so you won’t lose anything if you forget to save or have an internet outage. The one pain about this application is that setting people up with permission to collaborate isn’t always simple. Sometimes people forget what email they used to sign up for Google or Google Docs, and it can take a bunch of emails among collaborators requesting and granting permission to get everyone on the app. Google Docs is free. Sign up for it here.
AVG Antivirus – Free
The free version of AVG is a favorite recommendation of IT folks. It gives protection against malware and other bad actors online, and scans your incoming emails for viruses. One downside is that the application can eat up a lot of disc space when it’s fully installed. Another is that once you’ve got the free version on your machine, you will be bombarded with messages trying to get you to upgrade to the paid version and you’ll have to do lots of updates manually. However, that’s pretty much the same story as with other “freemium” type applications online. Compatible with Mac, ,IOS, Android and Windows. Get AVG here.
Ccleaner For A Faster Laptop
Here’s a decent little app designed to speed up your computer. If you download a ton of software apps, which most of us do, your machine is going to slow down as memory gets used up. Ccleaner gets rid of unnecessary temp and other files that clog up your hard drive. The truth is you can do this all manually if you want to learn how, but if you want to get it done with the single click of a button, Ccleaner is nice to have. It works on PC or Mac. Get Ccleaner here.