Here's the best free software to keep everybody occupied
From video, audio and photography to leisure, we’ve found something for everyone
Duolingo offers language courses in an easy to learn way, with prompts to remind you to practice every day.
Starting from scratch with your laptop or mobile device, but don’t have a big budget? Whether it is iOS or Android, Windows or Mac, there is plenty of software out there that is free of charge. Here are some of the must haves.
Let’s start with the more serious tasks. If you have plans to use your device for work, education or just for keeping on top of the day to day tasks, you’ll need some sort of productivity software to help ease your path. That includes everything from word processing and spreadsheets to transcribing your notes and signing documents electronically.
Otter.aiIf you have a lot of meetings or interviews that need to be transcribed, Otter.ai is the service you need. The cloud-based transcription service takes your audio clips and recordings, transcribes them and sends them back to your device. The transcripts are editable, searchable and audio is linked to each word so you can click on a section and hear the source audio behind it.
Available for Android and iOS, you can also access the platform online
If you aren’t a fan of Google service, best to skip to the next one. But Google Account holders can access word processing, presentations and spreadsheets all through Google Drive. You don’t need to be constantly connected to the internet either – although on the desktop version of the software you need to enable offline access rather than it being the default – which is handy if you need to work somewhere away from consistent internet. All your changes will be saved to the cloud as soon as your internet connection is back online, making your documents available across all your devices.
You also get 15GB of storage to hold all your email and files. Which, for most people, will suit just fine.
Available for: Mac, PC, Android, iOS, web browser.
Evernote is a useful tool to have. You can take notes, upload photographs, clip sections from web pages and store them in notebooks, and your notebooks are searchable. You can also share your notebooks with others, allowing them to collaborate with you.
There is a paid level of membership that adds more useful features, but the basic Evernote plan is more than enough for the average user.
Available for iOS, Android, Windows, Mac
The idea of having a separate scanner seems almost quaint these days. Adobe Scan is just one of the free, powerful scanning tools you can use to digitise your documents and drawings, without having to haul out the dusty printer. Office Lens is another free option.
Available for : iOS, Android
Audio, video, photograph
Photo editing is something we all do from time to time, whether it’s applying the auto settings to brighten up a photograph or getting into the nitty gritty and adjusting the white balance and exposure manually. But what apps are out there?
There once was a time when you could spend a lot of money and buy Adobe PhotoShop outright, getting a perpetual licence with your box of discs. But in 2017, Adobe changed all that and moved to a monthly subscription through its Creative Cloud service. On one hand, you get the latest and greatest software; on the other, you never really own it as you did in the past. There are plenty of image-editing apps and software programs out there if you want to do some basic photo editing. However, what if you want the power of Adobe Photoshop but don’t want to pay out for the monthly subscription? GIMPShop is the answer. The GNU Image Manipulation Program is free and includes plenty of advanced editing features, from cloning and healing tools to filters and settings such as exposure and colour. You can alter colour and shadows, work with layers, turn your images into t cartoon or touch-up portraits.
Because it’s open source, people can work with the code, so there are plenty of third-party plugins that act as extra features to the program. Or, if you are so inclined, you can come up with your own.
If you are already experienced with photo editing software, GIMPShop won’t have too much of a learning curve even the interface looks familiar.
Available for: Linux/GNU system, Windows, Mac.
Editing on your tablet or smartphone is simple. Select, drag, save and you are done. The touch screen is just more intuitive than your standard laptop set-up of old. There are plenty of free photo-editing apps out there, including Adobe, which has broken its apps into several pieces. But the enduring favourite around these parts is Snapseed. The app allows you to mess with exposure and white balance, brings out surface details, retouches blemishes and applies filters. It’s now owned by Google but was originally developed independently.
Whether it’s editing your audio clips or recording new ones, Audacity has you covered.The open-source software can record live audio through a microphone or mixer, or digitise recordings from other media. It offers multitrack editing too, so you can layer tracks, creating your masterpiece bit by bit. You can edit audio down to a fraction of a second and add effects. Audio can then be exported to whatever format you need. It just turned 20 also, so has longevity.
Available for: Mac, Windows, Linux and other Unix based systems.
Apple owners have access to iMovie, a simple to use video editor that will allow you to create short movies, movie trailers and even 4K resolution films. You can edit across multiple devices too, picking up where you left off. Plus you can tie the whole thing together with some effects or music.
Available for: Mac, iOS
The cross-platform alternative to iMovie is LightWorks, which is as close as you are going to get to a premium video editor without putting your hand in your pocket. The software has a bit of a learning curve, but if you persevere it’s worth it. You can preview effects, edit multitrack video and render it all in the background. One tip: watch the quick-start video on the LightWorks website if you don’t want to end up confused at the beginning.
Available: Windows, Mac, Linux
Should you still have video on DVDs lying around, there is a simple way to digitise them using Handbrake. That isn’t its sole function; it will also convert video on your machine to work with different mobile platforms, for example. The free video transcoder will convert any your DVDs and turn them into digital files you can share across your devices, in a matter of minutes
Out of the box it works with non-copyright protected DVDs, but most commercial DVDs will have some form of protection to prevent copyright infringement. A few tweaks and some add-ons – instructions for which can easily be found online – will give Handbrake the ability to get around a lot of that.
The only difficulty you might have? Finding a machine with a DVD drive. They are an increasingly rare sight these days.
Available for Windows, Mac, Linux
Downtime is important and although we shouldn’t be tethered to our mobile devices, they can play a part with helping us unwind – within reason.
If you are a member of your local library, Borrowbox is a must have. As long as your library has signed up for the service – and many in Ireland have – you can sift through the catalogues of ebooks, magazines and audio books available to borrow and read from the comfort of your sofa. If a book is “out” already, you can reserve it for the date after it is due to be returned. It automatically appears in your Borrowbox app. One issue you may come across at the moment is that everyone has discovered Borrowbox, so finding something you want to read that hasn’t been reserved is tough.
Available for: iOS, Android.
If you want an easy to use podcast app, Pocket Cast should be high on that list. You can access podcasts from all over the world, on almost every topic you can think of. Sign up for a free account and you can sync your listening across multiple devices, picking up where you left off.
The service is largely free; signing up for 99 cent a month gets you 10GB of cloud storage, extra themes and apps, and access to the web player. Entirely optional and falls under the nice to have category.
Available on: iOS, Android.
When we can finally travel again, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to speak a bit of the local language? Duolingo offers language courses in an easy to learn way, with prompts to remind you to practice every day. There are plenty of languages with which to get going, including Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.
Available for iOS, Android, web
If you don’t manage to get that second (or third, as the case may be) language to a fluent level, you can always rely on Google Translate. Some of the translations may be a little stilted, few may not make much sense, but the overall concept is sound. There are a few options: text translate from one language to another, which you type into the phone; text recognition through the phone’s camera; handwriting recognition from the phone’s screen; and voice translations, which can also accommodate conversations from two people.
Available for: iOS, Android.
When it comes to weather forecasting, YR seems to have it pretty much on the money. Not only is it accurate, it breaks forecasts down into hourly predictions. It also has handy things such as precipitation map, or a graph of the weather, if your interest extends that deeply.
Available for: iOS, Android, web