Windows and macOS don’t get the attention they used to in today’s mobile world. But we have not fully abandoned the desktop. The real work (and a lot of the play) of computing requires a full personal computer system. To get the most out of that, you need software.
Software can be expensive if you’re not smart about it. Free programs have been a mainstay of the desktop experience for decades, and the offerings only get more powerful and fascinating each year. As PCs compete with smartphones, it gets even better. Software developers can adopt an ad-based model, donation-ware to keep things afloat, or a shareware/freemium model that charges for extra features.
Something to always watch for: crapware installers. To make ends meet, many creators of otherwise great free software, or the services that offer the programs for download, bundle in things you don’t want. Worse, the installation routine obfuscates the steps, so you provide the unwanted program tacit permission to be installed. For more about how to spot and avoid this problem, see How to Clean Crapware From a New PC, and check out the Uninstaller section of this very free software collection.
One tip that helps prevent the extra crapware onslaught: only download desktop software from the maker of the software directly. It’s not foolproof—after all, developers want to eat, too—but it helps. That’s why one of the criteria for inclusion here is that the program has to be available directly from the maker.
The software has to typically have a Windows-based download; we mark it if it has a version for other platforms, even mobile or cloud-based (see the Legend below). In some cases, we’ve included Web-app versions that are as good, or better, than some downloadable programs.
If it’s on a tiered sales model, the free version cannot be trial-ware that doesn’t work after a time.
The program should have little or no advertising to support it. Some freemium software depends on showing ads to exist, however.
Software for productivity is what this list is about; there’s plenty of other places to find free games.
So take a look at the list of 178 programs. Tell us in the comments if we missed your absolute favorite piece of free software.
LEGEND for compatibility:
—Portable (runs on USB flash drives you can take with you)
—Web app (runs in a web browser)
Lesser used smartphones and devices are listed individually