Subscriber OnlyTechnology

The best free software for staying safe online, being productive and getting creative

Free and open-source safety tools, office software and image editing software don’t have to cost the Earth. In fact, they don’t have to cost anything

Always read the fine print, to see what data the programs share about you and your work. Sometimes free comes at a price. Photograph: iStock

Very little in life comes for free.

But when it comes to software, there are exceptions. Open-source software, for example, is usually available free of charge, offering users an option that is developed and maintained through collaboration. That means those with the skills to tinker about can adapt and customise the software to their needs.

Not all free software is open source, though. Some versions of paid-for software, minus a few more advanced features, also come free. Either way, there are plenty of options open to you if you are on a budget, or are just looking to pare down the costs of your computing.

A few caveats before you start downloading. If you are looking for software for your desktop or laptop, make sure you download from a reputable source. That means going straight to the company who developed it or published it rather than a third party, who might add a few unwanted extras into the package. Ditto for Android software, especially any sourced from outside the official Play Store.


And always read the fine print, to see what data the programs share about you and your work. Sometimes free comes at a price – it is better if that isn’t your private data.


Keeping our devices secure is vital, given the amount of data that we store on them. But does that mean it will land us with a hefty bill? Not necessarily.


Do you need to pay for antivirus protection? It depends on what you are looking for. Photograph: iStock

It has been years since I paid for antivirus software. And there is a good reason for that: there are plenty of basic, free options out there that will keep you safe from viruses and malware.

That wasn’t always the case though. Companies such as McAfee and Norton were the go-to for antivirus protection for Windows devices. As mobile platforms developed, the companies extended their reach, offering coverage to keep mobile devices safe.

But do you still need to pay for the protection? It depends on what you are looking for. If you just want basic antivirus and malware protection, you don’t need to shell out the yearly or monthly fee. There are plenty of options out there that will shield you from the worst of the internet without making a dent in your pocket. Windows Defender is a good first line of protection against viruses and other unwanted malware, and it is built into the Windows operating system.

Other free options include Avast and AVG, which will both perform scans of your system using a frequently updated database.

If you want the additional features such as identity protection, virtual private network or dark web monitoring, then the subscription fee may be worth your while.

Password managers

Speaking of protecting your identity, making sure all your online services are as secure as possible is important. But with so many services looking for unique passwords, it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

Enter the humble password manager, a piece of software that not only can keep your passwords safe but also help you create unique log-ins for each service. It may seem counterintuitive to store all your passwords in one place, but it means only coming up with a single strong password and the password manager will look after all the rest.

There are some good password managers out there, such as 1Password, Dashlane and NordPass, but they are either subscription only, available only on one device at a time, or have a free version that is limited to a set number of passwords.

A good free password manager is available, though. Bitwarden isn’t the slickest of interfaces but it is easy to create and save passwords, it works across all platforms and it will save an unlimited amount of passwords.

Say goodbye to your passwords and start using passkeysOpens in new window ]


VPNs can help keep your internet activity safe from prying eyes. Photograph: iStock

Why use a virtual private network? Plenty of reasons, They can get around geoblocks for certain content, making you appear as if you are in one country when you are in another. They can also help keep your internet activity safe from prying eyes, stopping advertisers building a profile of you, targeting advertising and generally gathering your data whether you like it or not.

All that usually comes with a fee attached, though. Proton VPN offers both: those who can afford the subscription and want extras such as the ability use the VPN on more than one device can pay monthly; those who can’t can access the free plan. Proton doesn’t serve you ads to fund it, or other privacy-infringing actions, and it is available for Android, iOS and Windows.

Worried about your online privacy? A good VPN is your best betOpens in new window ]


The days of buying software packages that were installed on a single computer are largely gone. These days, if you choose to pay for productivity software, it’s a subscription-based model that lives in the cloud, such as Microsoft 365. It means you can use it online, or access it from different computers.

But it isn’t the only show in town. Google’s productivity software – Docs, Sheets and Slides – is available free of charge, and although it is cloud based, you can get create documents and spreadsheets offline when you don’t have, or want, internet access.

if you want something a little more open source, take a look at LibreOffice. The software suite is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and both iOS and Android. The successor to the OpenOffice software suite, LibreOffice will cover all the basic productivity tasks, including databases and word processing.

For Apple users, Pages, Numbers and Keynote are available to download free of charge when you buy a Mac, iPhone or iPad. That wasn’t always the case; until the end of 2013, Apple charged a fee to download the productivity suite.


Adobe may have raised a few eyebrows with its new terms and conditions that had creators – rightly or wrongly – scrambling for the door, but there are other programs out there that will help you create your images, edit videos or create graphics from scratch. And all for the princely sum of €0.

If you are after an image editor with Photoshop-like features, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is available on Windows, Linux and Mac. You can carry out tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. There is a bit of a learning curve, but persevere – it will be worth it in the end.

If you are more into graphic design and creating vector graphics, look at Inkscape (Windows, Mac and Linux). Again, it is a program with a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, you can create as many graphics as you like – no watermarks, no complicated log-ins and no onerous terms and conditions to agree to.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here