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 email@example.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.
Yes, there is a more expensive version of Evernote -- the free account limits your uploads to 60MB per month; a paid account ($5 a month or $45 a year) increases your upload limit to 1GB a month and adds other features, like tracking previous versions of notes and text recognition. If you're organizationally challenged, as I am, Evernote is indispensable.
Did you ever buy a really cheap laptop, only to discover that you had to spend several hundred more dollars for Microsoft Office? Or are you on a budget and can't afford multiple versions of Word and Excel for several computers? One great option is Open Office.org 3, an open-source office suite that offers many of the functions of Microsoft's flagship product -- free. As an open-source application, the OOo (yes, that's what they call it) code base is available for users to fix or improve; this means several major updates a year, but also lots of add-ons to access or import from other programs, foreign-language dictionaries, flashcard and document templates, screenplay formatters, etc.
OpenOffice is not MS Office, but it's close. It looks and feels like an older version of Office and comes in several operating-system flavors: Windows, Macintosh, Linux and Solaris. The package includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation application like PowerPoint, a drawing program and a database.
Typical users will find that they can do most of what the Microsoft product does. And most important, OpenOffice.org is fully compatible with Office. You can open Office files or save new files as Word, Excel or PowerPoint files; as PDFs; or in the Open Document format that is gaining ground.
Drawbacks? OOo is not as slick or good-looking as Office. And there can be incompatibilities with complex files and Office macros. But for the average user, OpenOffice is good enough -- and the price is right.
Skype has been around for years, but it keeps getting better. Yes, Skype is the software that lets you make free voice and video calls over the Internet. This remains the essential function of Skype, but the application has been expanded over time. Many people don't know, for example, that Skype isn't limited to one computer calling another. Skype can make calls to telephones, and you can even acquire a telephone number that will ring on your computer when people call you.
Both Skype Out (the outgoing calls to phones) and Skype In (the assigned phone number) will cost you money. You have to buy preset amounts of Skype credit in advance. But the costs are generally a lot cheaper than standard telephone service, especially to parts of the world where telecoms gouge you for calls from overseas. I've made calls to Haiti on Skype at a fraction of the charges by Teleco, the landline monopoly.
Video calls from Skype used to be laughably bad, but as you've probably seen on news programs, calls from remote parts of the world can be of surprisingly good quality. As bandwidth and technology continue to improve, Skype video calls (and regular audio calls) have become better and more acceptable in business.
Skype recently added a group-video feature; this enables up to 10 people to participate in a video conference call, a feature that requires a premium account ($4.49 a month), but for that you also get unlimited free calls to phones in the United States and Canada. As I said before, for all of these products, the price is right.
Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, has edited several technology publications, including PC Magazine, Information Week and Silicon Valley-based Red Herring, which covered venture capital and startups.