Almost exactly two years ago, we ran an article titled “Making Your Computer Work For You.” It was an old-time Lorian Leven outlining some of the best free programs out there to get the most out of your laptop. As is the case with technology, much has changed in the past two years, prompting a second wind for an informative article. All of the programs here are free at the time of writing. Be careful when downloading things from the internet—these programs are safe to the best of our knowledge, but we take no responsibility for any issues that may arise.
1. Google Chrome – This sleek web browser developed by Google has been on a constant rise to fame since its release in 2008. With its usually fast-loading design and rapidly-expanding market of themes and extensions, Chrome usually fits the bill for the average user. Other popular web browsers include Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari.
2. GIMP / Paint.net – If you’re looking to do some kind of digital imaging without dishing out the money for Photoshop, then these two programs are your new best friends. GIMP can do more if you take the time to learn it, while Paint.net is a simpler piece of software with a user-friendly learning curve. If you’re getting serious about your work, Adobe offers a $10/month subscription for Photoshop and Lightroom.
3. Spotify – It didn’t take long for this music platform from overseas to sink its teeth into American culture. For those unfamiliar, imagine an iTunes library with all the music you could ever want, entirely free. The program has evolved considerably over the past two years, introducing a sleek new design, an expanded catalogue of music, and new discovery features. If you want an ad-free experience with an offline mode, Spotify offers a $5/month premium subscription for students—perfect for bypassing the long loading times on public networks.
4. Dropbox / Google Drive – Your Loras Microsoft account now comes with OneDrive, but your subscription ends once you graduate. Dropbox and Google Drive are both fantastic alternatives that you can use with your own account, and provide a hearty sum of data to use; Drive alone has 15 GB available for free, with a 100 GB option available at only a few dollars per month. Additionally, some download services and apps work directly with Dropbox to store your data in a place you can access.
5. Steam – If you’ve been paying attention to the Lorian lately, you know that I’m a gamer. Steam is the ultimate platform for playing games on your computer. Unfortunately the games themselves aren’t free (usually), but the marketplace tends to do some incredible sales during the holiday seasons (we’re talking up to 95% off games). Otherwise, you can always check out the Humble Bundle (pay what you want for games), which feeds directly into Steam.
6. F.lux – If you’re a college student, you know that there have been and will be late nights spent in front of your laptop. Your screen seems brighter as the room gets darker, and before too long, your eyes are sore and sleep is difficult. Introducing F.lux, your solution for those sore eyes. F.lux uses your computer’s clock to give your screen a tint that’s easier on the eyes, especially when you migrate from your desk to your bed. At first it looks strange, but before too long you forget that it’s there. You can find F.lux at www.justgetflux.com.
7. Skype – By now, most people have heard of and probably used Skype to communicate with friends and family, near and far. If you haven’t joined in the fun, then go ahead and make your free account. Voice and video calls are all free and made possible with the microphone and webcam built into your laptop.
8. Evernote – Similar in nature to Microsoft OneNote, Evernote is constantly praised as one of the best productivity programs out there right now. Store just about any information on Evernote and access it on nearly any platform—PC, Mac, Android, iOS, etc. If you really like it, there’s very affordable subscription features available.
9. Audacity – In an increasingly technological world, you may find yourself needing to edit some recorded audio. Audacity is a great free resource for beginning editors, with basic features to remove background noise, increase the volume, and cut and rearrange clips. For more advanced users, there are plenty of high-powered tools to use as well.
10. Google Talk – Windows 8 has a chat feature built in, but most people don’t realize it exists, and those who do have some difficulty using it. Google has developed a sweet and simple messaging program that makes communication simple. The program runs in the background without taking up any of your precious toolbar space, and uses your Google account to login. If you have a Gmail or Drive account, then you’re already signed up for Google Talk! Plus, you can access Talk through your Gmail and/or Google+ pages.
11. Facebook Messenger – Even if you have friends on Google Talk, sometimes you want all of the social features of Facebook without losing hours to the seemingly endless news feed. The downloadable Facebook Messenger is a desktop application connected to everyone’s favorite Facebook Chat. Simply download and login to connect with your friends without having to read their status about the frustrations of registration.