We rely on expensive computer programs to edit photos and video, deal with office work, and protect our computers from malware. But they're not our only options. Often, commercial studios will offer the most basic versions of their products free of charge. In other cases, volunteers who believe that software should be free will develop open-source alternatives. Between them, you can find free programs to cover just about any computing task.
However, not all free apps are created equal. We've narrowed down the plethora of options to highlight 10 of the finest free alternatives to pricey computer programs.
1. Office suite: LibreOffice
If you need a comprehensive office suite that can do just about everything Microsoft Office can, then LibreOffice is one of the best options out there. Although it lacks the visual polish of the more expensive product, it can perform the same functions, and it works seamlessly with files created in Office and other formats.
Available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, this suite includes six main programs: Writer for word processing, Calc for spreadsheets, Impress for presentations, Base for databases, Draw for building diagrams, and Math for writing formulas. These cover the basic functions you need to stay productive at work, and each one includes a selection of templates to help you get started.
Individual apps also include their own specialized features, from sophisticated chart-building options in Calc spreadsheets to watermarks for documents you create in Writer.
2. Untethered office suite: Google Drive
If you often work on more than one device or frequently collaborate with colleagues, you might prefer a cloud-based alternative to Microsoft Office: the suite for Google Drive.
Because this group of apps lives online, you can access them from any browser on any computer and easily share files to collaborate with other people. Plus, Drive offers tight integration with Google's other web services, such as Gmail.
On the downside, Drive doesn't offer the same bells and whistles than Microsoft Office does. For example, you'll get fewer page layout options in the word processor and fewer transition effects in the presentation program. However, these apps are still professional-quality.
The package includes Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, and Slides for presentations. Because they all live in your browser, any edits instantly save online, so you don't have to worry about making backups. And if you need to work offline, you can also access these apps—in a limited fashion—without an internet connection.
3. Photo editor: GIMP
For an advanced image-editing program with many of the same abilities at Adobe Photoshop, try GIMP, short for GNU (a free-software collaboration whose acronym stands for "GNU's not Unix") Image Manipulation Program. This free app, available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, lets you create digital artwork from scratch or tweak photos you've already taken with color adjustments and filters.
Unless you need the very newest or most advanced Photoshop features, GIMP will have all the tools you need, including sophisticated support for layers and selections, along with drawing tools such as a clone tool and a healing brush. The interface can take some getting used to, but the program lets you customize the layout, so you can adjust it to suit your own style, and if you run into trouble, you can consult an online GIMP tutorial.
In addition, you can extend the application with plug-ins and scripts created by the GIMP community. These work a bit like extensions for your browser—they add extra functions and automating repetitive tasks.
4. Untethered photo editor: Pixlr
If you work on a Chromebook or need to access your photo editor from multiple machines, swap GIMP for the cloud-based PIxlr. Accessible from any browser, this web app comes in two versions: an advanced full editor and a streamlined express one.
When you first open the full editor in your browser, you might think you've launched Photoshop instead. It comes with a plethora of image editing and filtering tools, so you can do everything from fixing skin blemishes on a portrait to filtering an image until it looks like a classic painting. It also provides a wide variety of brushes, as well as advanced selection tools, including a magic wand. In addition to layers, the app supports the most common image-adjustment options, such as color, brightness, hue, and saturation.
The express version of the app uses a more straightforward, step-by-step approach. You can quickly add premade adjustments and filters to your images, and slap fun effects such as stickers and borders on top. This version works best if you're trying to transform a dull-looking image into something more eye-catching, rather than than finessing the fine details of a photo.
5. Illustration: Inkscape
If you think of GIMP as a decent substitute for Adobe Photoshop, then consider Inkscape the counterpart to Adobe Illustrator. The powerful vector-based drawing app lets you create artwork like the images in this gallery on a Windows, macOS, or Linux machine.
A vector graphics program, such as Inkscape or Illustrator, differs from a raster graphics one like GIMP or Photoshop because it saves your images as a collection of points and lines, almost like a CAD drawing, so you can easily resize and adjust them without losing quality. Another way of thinking about it: You might edit a company logo in the former and a digital photo in the latter.
And when it comes to vector graphics, Inkscape offers flexible tools for creating lines, shapes, and text. It also provides grouping and layering options that let you manage objects on the canvas. If you need to edit files created in a raster graphics program, you can import and manipulate them. Like GIMP, Inkheart has free tutorials online to help you get the software up and running.
6. Audio editing: Audacity
One of the finest freeware applications, Audacity handles audio editing and manipulation, whether you want to reduce the hiss in a song ripped from a vinyl record, edit an audio interview for your podcast, or normalize two audio files to the same volume level.
Audacity works on Windows, macOS, and Linux and supports all of the most commonly used audio formats, either natively or through the use of plug-ins. The software also lets you add effects and filters to adjust volume, pitch, tempo, fades, and more. Plus, its simple interface makes audio editing as simple as cutting and pasting blocks of sound waves. You can even use Audacity to record audio from a microphone or a live stream, making various tweaks and refinements along the way.
That said, Audacity doesn't provide the same quality or finesse that a more advanced audio editor, such as Adobe Audition or Hindenburg, does. However, this free program is a good way to dip your toe into audio editing before you start paying for a more expensive application.
7. Antivirus protection: Bitdefender Free
While it's important to protect your computer from malware, the sheer variety of available antivirus programs, both free and paid-for, can feel overwhelming. Still, one group of applications consistently receives good reviews from users and professionals: the Bitdefender range. You have to pay for some of this security software, but you can get a free version of the antivirus tool, called Bitdefender Free, for Windows and macOS machines.
As well as achieving high scores for threat detection across the board, Bitdefender Free doesn't eat up many system resources, so it won't reduce your computer speed too much. During a full scans, it may reduce your performance a bit more than usual, but not to an unacceptable crawl. What's more, you can easily navigate through the simple interface.
Bitdefender does aim to make money as well as to protect users, so you'll find more advanced features—like protection against spam emails and data encryption tools—in its paid-for products. Bitdefender Free offers only the basics, but you can't beat the price.
8. Video editor: OpenShot
If you're looking for a free video editing application, you can't do better than OpenShot. Available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, it's simple to use but still includes lots of useful features.
OpenShot covers all the basics of clip editing and resizing and supports all of the popular audio, video, and image formats, so you should have any trouble modifying media files from different sources. As soon as you launch the app for the first time, it runs a tutorial to teach you the ropes. If you prefer to skip it, get started by simply dragging and dropping clips into place.
The free app lets you stack an unlimited number of video and audio tracks on top of each other. And you can take your video creations further with titles, image overlays, watermarks, previews between scenes, subtitles, and even a few 3D animation effects. In addition, you can tweak video frames just as you would in an image editor, adjusting brightness and contrast.
9. Apple-only video editor: iMovie
Apple fans can try the free iMovie—available only on macOS—as an alternative to OpenShot. With support for 4K resolutions and instant sharing options, iMovie is a great video editing choice, as long as you've got a Mac. Install the version for iOS as well, and you can edit your projects on the go.
The video editor should come with your system, but if it's not there, you can download it through the Mac Store. The iMovie interface is wonderfully straightforward: Drag in content from a local library, arrange it on the timeline, preview the results inside the player, and then export.
The program helps you quickly combine clips, audio, and images, and gives you quick filters to apply to your content. It also includes some fun features like an automatic video shake-fixing tool and simple green screen effects, which let you swap backdrops.
10. Remote access: TeamViewer
Remotely accessing another computer lets you help a friend troubleshoot a technical problem or work on a project. But many applications will charge you a small fortune for this type of access. That's why you need the TeamViewer app, which is free as long as you don't use it for commercial purposes.
Once you launch TeamViewer on the device you want to access, you'll get a computer ID and a passcode. Pass these details on to someone else, and they can use them, in conjunction with their own copy of TeamViewer, to control the original computer from afar. TeamViewer also works in unattended mode, so you can leave your home computer running and connect to it from the office, even if nobody's sitting at the other end to confirm the connection. This helps you access your home or office computer from anywhere else in the world.
TeamViewer also offers a paid version, which adds support for more devices and multiple users. But for most people, the free edition will do just fine, and it gives you the chance to try out a remote access program before you spend any cash.