Test Drive: Our Favorite Free Software

There's no better value than products that cost nothing -- especially when they work well.


Throughout the 2011 holiday season, The Root will be recommending our favorite tech products. If you try one, let us know what you think at readerfeedback@theroot.com.

The concept of free software is an old one. Many companies started out in the 1980s with what was called shareware: If you liked the product, after using it for a while you were asked to mail in a small voluntary payment. In some cases, making a payment unlocked special features not available in the free version.

Now, with online advertising a reality, free more often really means free -- although you may still be subject to annoying ads. And sometimes pricier versions of products still exist with bells and whistles that require you to shell out a few bucks, but I thought I'd share three essentially free products that I use all the time.

We all work with multiple devices, and if you struggle to remember whether an important piece of information is stored on your desktop, laptop, iPad or cellphone, Evernote makes worrying about it irrelevant. Evernote is an application that stores just about anything that you want to keep -- documents, notes, Web pages, audio clips, photos, etc. You can select a section of a Web page, clip it into a folder with a keystroke, and the program will also store the URL so you can go back to the full page if necessary.

Evernote also makes it easy for you to record an audio or video memo by just clicking a button. You can also email a file or selection to Evernote by creating a contact that contains the rather elaborate email address attached to each Evernote account.

Think of Evernote as a magic file cabinet. Every entry is stored as a "note." Evernote's power comes from tags -- keywords you create to organize your stuff. You can create multiple "notebooks" with their own set of tags. Notes that you send to Evernote are filed automatically in one or more notebooks, according to the tags. You can attach a file to a note, edit it later and keep it updated on all your devices.

This would already be useful if Evernote stopped here. But the creators decided to include synchronization. This means that you can automatically move your precious content via "the cloud" to other devices: other PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads and Android mobile devices. The result is that whatever device you log into, the same information is available in Evernote. I can take a picture with my iPhone, send it to Evernote and later view it on my iPad or edit it on my PC.

Evernote has a Mac version for those who are so inclined. And if you're using someone else's computer, you can log into a Web version of Evernote.