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Student? Get MS Office 2010 super cheap
If you're a student, you can get the top-end versions of Office for under 40. Microsoft hopes that by selling you it cheap now, you'll pay more in future. To get a discount copy, it's worth trying websites Software4Students and RM Software; you'll need some evidence that you're currently studying (at least part-time) to get the cheap prices. Handily, both of these sites also sell Mac versions at similarly low prices.

If you don't mind grabbing a download version rather than a a physical CD package, you can either take advantage of Microsoft's direct Ultimate Steal offer for 49.99, or buy via Viglen starting at 46.99.

Microsoft Office Web Apps.
This year Microsoft launched some stripped down online versions of its usual office apps. Its selection of Office Web Apps includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and is available to anyone with a free Windows Live account. The account also gets you a huge 25GB of storage on the Live SkyDrive backup service, which you can use to store documents.

If you're used to the Microsoft packages this is worth a try, but bear in mind these are hobbled versions of the software; Microsoft doesn't want to cannibalise its profitable business of selling the full versions of Office. Try Office Web Apps

Almost 100% compatible with Office, ThinkFree is a free online suite which bears a striking resemblance to the latter, and has received glowing reviews all round. It includes the equivalents of Word, Excel & Powerpoint, looks pretty, and most importantly for an online suite, is responsive and simple to navigate.

It also holds a trump card in the way it hides your web browser window when in use, so you can use regular keyboard shortcuts to control it without upsetting your browser. Neat. Try it: ThinkFree

Zoho Office Suite.
This basic-but-superfast package is fine for simple tasks, but if you're going to need advanced features it's best to look elsewhere. Whilst it offers a wider range of applications than ThinkFree, they aren't as detailed. Zoho stores all your documents in its 1GB free storage space, and allows you to share them with (member) friends via email invitation. Try it: Zoho

Google Docs.
This service has more of an emphasis on collaboration than the other two. The idea here is you can select a few people to work with you on the same document, and they can all see it and make changes in real-time. I've included it since it now includes plenty of useful document, spreadsheet, and presentation templates which you can use to get going.

It's also the most web-oriented, since if you publish one of your Google Docs, you can use all manner of Google's whizzy analytics tools to track its progress too. Try it: Google Docs

CCleaner: Dump the junk
This superfast program cleans up unused files in around a second, getting rid of all the crap (that's what the first 'c' stands for - honest) as it goes. CCleaner doesn't run all the time; just have it give your machine a quick spruce up every week to keep it ship shape.

Dropbox: Share files between devices
Dropbox has become more and more central to many web users' lives since its launch a couple of years back. Sign up and you get 2GB free storage in the cloud - your dropbox - which you can access from any web connected computer (plus some Mobiles).

It might not sound like much, but its intuitive interface, efficiency and sheer usefulness means it easily rivals carrying data from a to b on USB sticks.

Ultimate Windows Tweaker (Vista & 7 only)
Gives you control over around 130 Windows settings in one place, allowing you to customise your computer's interface as much or little as you want. Great for those that like modding, but aren't into coding. Download: Windows

Defraggler: Speed up your hard disk
From Piriform, the same stable as CCleaner, Defraggler is a 'defragmenting' tool. Fragments are made when your computer splits up files because there's not enough space in the place they were originally saved. It has a significant effect on performance, since when re-opening these files, your PC has to find two (or more) pieces instead of one. Defragmenters join the pieces together again, thus speeding up the computer.

Windows has its own Disk Defragmenter, which can be found in the System Tools menu, but it takes ages, as it'll only go through your entire hard disk at once. Defraggler can be used to do the job on a smaller scale; you just choose files and it'll process them in a few seconds.

If you need to burn disk images on DVDs, Blu-Rays and the like but don't want to be besieged by millions of options, IMGBurn's a good bet. Skip its advanced mode and you've a fairly foolproof tool which seldom wastes your CD's.

StuffIt Expander: For all your compression needs
MAC ONLY: Whilst OSX is perfectly capable of packing/unpacking .zip files, if you want to open or use the wealth of other compressed file types out there, you'll need a third-party expander.

Smith-Micro's free version of StuffIt fills this void perfectly, and offers a simple drag-and-drop interface which in my experience just works, so you can focus on more exciting things, like, erm, anything. Download: OSX

Speed up your productivity: Quicksilver.
MAC ONLY: If you've got the time to learn it, Quicksilver's a clever productivity tool which'll allow you to launch applications, files & folders without taking your hands of the keyboard. Many more advanced features mean it can totally change the way you use your computer for the better (and faster), and plug-ins extend its capability yet further. Read Lifehacker's Beginners' Guide to see if it's for you if you're not sure. Download: Quicksilver

Improve your display for free: SuperCal.
MAC ONLY: It's worth trying out SuperCal even if you think your display looks fine. It's a display calibrator which can clean up the image you see on screen by tailoring your computer's output to the characteristics of the monitor you're using. The net result of which should be better tonal colour gradients, clearer text, and better long-term eyesight for you.

Ninite: Quickly install a raft of freebies
Designed for when you reinstall your operating system and want to get up to speed quickly, Ninite installs a whole range of top free software in one package - you just go to its site and tick the boxes for the software you want, and it'll install as many or as few as you choose. Everything is neatly categorised, so it's a good place to get the basics together quickly.

Zamzar: Free file converter
This is a nifty, user-friendly site which can convert over 100 types of media file formats between each other. So, if you've a CV document from Word, and you'd like to make it a PDF instead, you simply put in your email address, upload the file to convert, and choose '.PDF' in the drop-down box below.

Zamzar will do the hard work, and then email you a link to download the new file. One thing though, since it stores your files online before conversion, it's not advisable to use it to convert sensitive documents. Try Zamzar

Paint.NET: Probably all you'll need
The beauty of basic-yet-surprisingly powerful photo & image-editing tool Paint.NET is if you've used the ultra-basic paint program that comes with Windows then you'll be able to navigate it with no problems.

It's the most straightforward program to use for basic image cropping and editing, and will optimize images for quick loading on the web too. In short, if you only need the basics, Paint.NET should be your first port of call. Download: Paint.NET

The Gimp: Advanced image editing
If you're looking for more of a full-blown photoshop equivalent, oddly-named The Gimp is probably the closest you'll get. Now in version 2.6, it offers powerful editing and filtering tools for photos and graphics, and is further boosted by a range of free add-ons.

For an insight into its capabilities and how it works, check out the screenshots hosted on its site. Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

Inkscape: fun with vectors
Inkscape is a free program similar in operation to Adobe Illustrator or Corel Xara. It's made for building 'scalable vector graphics' - the ones which remain perfectly sharp no matter how much you zoom in or out, making them ideal for serious design work.

Google Sketchup: Simple 3D modelling
If you're planning to build an extension to your house, or simply redecorate, Google's free Sketchup tool makes it relatively easy to build an accurate 3D model to work from. There are plenty of video tutorials to set you on the right track, and once you've used it a few times, you'll be impressing everybody with your designs. Download:   Windows   OSX

Truespace: Complex 3D modelling
Caligari's excellent 3D modeling & animation software, Truespace 7.6, is available to download free from its site for registered users. It can be a little complicated to get started if you've never tried anything like this, but the site includes detailed (and free!) video tutorials to get you going. It also includes various collaborative projects to get involved in, so you could become part of the digital art/film fraternity in no time.

Free 1,000 Computer Aided Design software for students.

Students can get Autodesk's Computer aided design software free for three years simply by registering.

The package includes over 25 Autodesk products, including AutoCAD which retails at over 1,000. These are the most common computer aided design packages in almost all design, mechanical and engineering industries and are used in everything from mechanical engineering design to urban planning.

You get full functionality for three years provided it's not used for commercial purposes.

Any student or teacher with an email address can sign up to the Autodesk Education Community where you download the software, access forums, support and content sharing. It doesn't matter if you are part time or about to graduate.

Please note, some of this software will come with built in features to prevent it's use commercially, such as a stamp on any print outs. Download:   Windows   OSX

Free for students: Pro AutoDesk software
Students can get Autodesk's Computer aided design software free for three years simply by registering.

The package includes over 25 Autodesk products, including AutoCAD which retails at over 1,000. These are the most common computer aided design packages in almost all design, mechanical and engineering industries and are used in everything from mechanical engineering design to urban planning.

You get full functionality for three years provided it's not used for commercial purposes.

Any student or teacher with an email address can sign up to the Autodesk Education Community where you download the software, access forums, support and content sharing. It doesn't matter if you are part time or about to graduate.

Please note, some of this software will come with built in features to prevent it's use commercially, such as a stamp on any print outs.

PagePlus: Easy to use DTP
Part of the whole free suite of Serif programs, PagePlus is the most user-friendly free program for desktop publishing we've come across, and can yield some fairly professional results.

The company hopes that after using it, or the other free applications, you'll spend 10 on the full versions, which have extra features. Download: Windows

Scribus: More complex & powerful
Scribus offers features usually only found on more expensive suites like MS Publisher or InDesign, such as CYMK colour and ICC colour management. If that means nothing to you, but you want to make a professional magazine, then download this and read some of the detailed free tutorials.

Live photo gallery: Photo organiser
Photo Gallery, part of Microsoft's 'Live' suite, is an application for photo storage and online editing. It's very similar in use to Google's Picasa below, but seems notably faster and adds a couple of extra features. Which you choose is likely to depend mostly on whether you've a Hotmail or Gmail account, and which behemoth's products you like most. Download: Windows

Picasa: The Google equivalent
Google's photo organiser Picasa also offers a wealth of photo editing, storage and back-up options, and makes navigating ill-organised photos scattered around your computer more straightforward than the Live offering above.   Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

Picnik: speedy online editing
The beauty of this speedy online tool is you needn't register to use it. Picnik also sports some decent effects.

Pheonix: feature-rich online editing
If you need a more professional suite, but haven't time to download and install software, this tool from brilliant online software makers Aviary could be just the ticket. Anyone with Photoshop experience will be instantly familiar with its interface, and the amount that can be achieved without installing a thing is pretty awe-inspiring. Try Phoenix

Audacity: Pro wave editing
Audacity is a proper wave editing & recording program. With it, you can record audio, add effects, and even create your own soundscapes from scratch. It's not the most user-friendly tool, but its power more than makes up for this. Also available for Mac OSX & Linux.   Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

Levelator: Podcast powerhouse
Designed for podcasters, the sole purpose of Levelator is to normalise audio files and make them sound crisper. There's no way to change its settings, you just drag audio files onto the program and it does its stuff to them. It's good stuff though; managing to make all but the most appalling recordings listenable.

Picard: Organise pesky 'unknown' mp3s
If you've got hundreds of untitled MP3 tracks on your machine, Picard will analyse them, and add all the relevant artist/title info for those that match tracks in its database, saving you the hassle. It also offers a wealth of other options for keeping your collection organised.

Media Monkey: Sidestep iTunes
While iTunes is a necessary evil for most of us, the sheer number of features it now offers means there are far more streamlined music library options available, especially on Windows machines (where iTunes is especially slow). Media Monkey offers the ability to manage iDevices without iTunes, and some find it far more useful (and less salesy) than Apple's offering. Download: Windows

It's also worth checking out FooBar2000 and (the beautiful) Songbird if you'd rather a lightweight music library solution.

Another of the free software greats, VLC Player is the most widely compatible media player available. It seems that no matter how esoteric a music or video format you throw at it is, it's got it covered. Plus, nowadays its using more and more hardware acceleration to make proceedings more snappy too.

Flip4Mac: Upgrade Quicktime
MAC ONLY: Like it or not, if you watch video content online, you'll come across plenty of Windows Media .wmv files, which Quicktime doesn't natively support.

The previous solution was to download Microsoft's crummy Windows Media Player for Mac, but thankfully you can now just get Flip4Mac, a plug-in for Quicktime which allows it to play the offending files, and even comes recommended by Microsoft. Download: OSX

Videora Converter. For Video iPodders:
Videora converts a range of formats, including the ever-popular DivX, into files playable by iPods and other Apple products, meaning you needn't buy all your video content direct from iTunes after all. Several versions are available, so make sure you find the right one for your player.

Handbrake: As above
Like the Videora converter for Windows, in essence Handbrake's a DVD to MP4 converter which makes files playable on a portable media player.

It's better than Videora in its support for the likes of Dolby Digital and multi-track audio, and also runs really rather fast.   Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

AudioTag: Identifies songs
Upload a sample or link to a web-hosted snippet of the song (15 seconds will do), and AudioTag will identify it for you. Try AudioTag

Myna: Multitrack online sequencer/editor
Aviary software's beautiful Myna suite allows you to create music from the comfort of your web browser. It's well worth a look if you've a speedy web connection and a bit of DAW experience, and if it's unlikely to take on the likes of GarageBand or Ableton just yet, it's still an impressive showcase of what can be achieved in a web interface. Try Myna

It barely needs inclusion here as you probably already have it installed. There are undoubtedly more fully featured Voip services available, and there are certainly cheaper ones for calling landlines & mobiles. Yet for straight PC to PC calls Skype's still the leader, simply because it's the most popular bit of software.   Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

Trillian Astra
Clever windows tool Trillian allows you to keep track of all your instant messaging and social networking conversations from one centralised location. It looks like any number of the IM clients you're probably familiar with, and has a straightforward interface, plus all manner of handy feautures, like instant url-shortening for twitterers.

MAC ONLY: If your online social life includes more than one instant messaging program, Adium X's a neat way of combining them all in one easy-to-use window. It supports AIM, Yahoo & MSN amongst many others, and it's highly customisable with add-ons aplenty, so you can make the cute duck do everything your way. Download: OSX

Over the last few years uTorrent's risen above the competition and gained a reputation for being the most reliable and secure Windows BitTorrent client available.

It's easy to use and well designed, but most importantly, seems to just work.  Download:   Windows   OSX   Linux

Transmission's the favoured Mac torrent client, offering all the options you need to get going, without getting too technical. It's lightweight, and regularly updated by the makers, who request a small donation if you use it often.  Download:  OSX   Linux
Osalt is a software database with a difference, as it only lists open source equivalents to commercial programs. You just tell it which commercial program you want, and it'll list the free programs that are most similar to it.

Sourceforge is another open source software database, this time in regular search-to-find style. You do, however, have to sign up for a free account to get in.
Cnet's hosts practically all the programs listed in this guide, and is certified virus-free. It also reviews the bigger programs and charts the most popular ones, so it's well worth a browse.

A user friendly and well organised site, FileHippo catalogues browsers, firewalls, audio tools and DVD tools. It also promises no pop-ups when you visit the site.

More slick than FileHippo SnapFiles has the added bonus of user reviews and feedback, though it can be hard to find what you're looking for.

Like Snapfiles, Tucows includes its own and users' ratings and also has sections for Linux and Mac users.

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