There might be no such thing as truly free beer, but in the world of computers and software, you can often brew your own substitutes to premium paid software and service with just a few double-clicks and some know-how. Aside from the dough you shell out for a computer and net connection, you can get a lot of neat stuff done without spending another cent, and we've highlighted a few of our favourite no-cost solutions and work-arounds to tools that normally go for a good bit of cash. Check them out, and chip in with your own cheapskate solutions, after the jump. Photo by Daquella Manera.
Mail2Web instead of MobileMe ($100/year) or Exchange
"Push" email, calendar updates, and contact syncing are pretty nice services that save you a fair amount of tap-wait-check time. Bigger offices provide the service through Exchange servers, Apple offers iPhone users push services through MobileMe, but mobile data-hounds can easily set up push email, contacts, and calendars for free with Mail2Web. While Adam highlighted the glories of free iPhone service, we've seen posts of Mail2Web working for BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and other smart phones. If you're just a standard mobile phone owner who'd like to get uber-important messages delivered quickly, you can use Gmail to push selected emails to your phone.
Gallery2 in place of Flickr Pro ($25/year)
If you crave anonymous approval and compliments on your scads of super-high-resolution photos—and not that that's such a bad thing—then there aren't many replacements for a Flickr Pro account. But if you really just want to share your vacation pics or artistic side with online friends and distant relatives, the free Gallery2 tool offers attractive presentation, slideshows, and serious customisation. And you can run this bad boy from web space you already rent for your personal site, a dedicated home server, or just a computer you've installed the WAMP package on. Check out our step-by-step guide to installing Gallery2 if you're looking for full-size photo hosting without the price.
Free VPN/VNC in place of GoToMyPC ($20/month)
Services like GoToMyPC and those of its ilk do offer an easy-to-grasp setup and interface, but for the most part, they put a fancy face on free software and protocols, like VNC and VPN. If you're tech-savvy, you can help mum set up her home PC or Mac for those oops-I-forgot-that-file moments with Hamachi VPN (the Mac client is recently introduced, but works). If you or anyone you're helping are strictly Windows/IE users, Microsoft's Live Mesh service is a great file-syncing/retrieval tool, as we saw when it debuted (added bonus: it now supports Windows Mobile devices). If those solutions don't work, check out our guide to remote screen access and file-grabbing from any system.
VirtualBox for Windows-on-Mac instead of Parallels ($80)
Our staff's Mac OS X contingent don't have anything bad to say about Parallels— but it isn't free, in the price or code sense. Sun Microsystems' VirtualBox, on the other hand, is open-source, free for individual use, and runs just about anywhere there's an Intel or AMD processor. The MakeUseOf blog has a guide to getting started with Windows on Mac, and Tux fans can follow our guide to running Windows apps seamlessly in Linux. No matter what the platform, VirtualBox might not offer as many value-added features, but it's surprisingly easy to get started with.
As noted before, we've detailed far more free alternatives to paid software 'round these parts than we can add up, but we'll throw out a few more can-work replacements for paid goods:
- OpenOffice.org or Zoho (with Gears) instead of Microsoft Office: Let's just get it out there—if you're not the type who uses formulas or has half the menus memorized in Word, either of these suites work just fine for the average student, occasional letter printer, or pedestrian spreadsheet duty.
- AVG and Avast instead of Any Subscription Virus Software: Because free trials lead to annoying nag screens, they run a bit lighter than paid versions, and you might not need one anyway.
- Mozy free account vs. paid off-site backup: Because 2GB can fit your desktop contents and most of your actual documents, and you'd probably rather have your music, pictures, and videos on DVD.
- GParted instead of PartitionMagic: Because GParted is free, works anywhere you can boot from a CD, handles most any format, and plays well in a system recovery CD.
That's just a primer to get anyone thinking about making the switch to free started. But we really want to hear what you use—either single, free applications, or in combinations—that makes you feel great about not paying for something. Tell us all about it in the comments!