“Too good to be true” and “you get what you pay for” are the first things that spring to mind when you see ads on the Internet for free stuff; I won’t even start on what I get in my e-mail inbox. There are a lot of items out there that aren’t junk, and I don't mean the offers with strings attached like completing surveys or purchasing items from sponsors after you’ve given them your contact information but before you qualify for a free Xbox 360.
There are offers that are less sinister, spelling out upfront that they offer a free something with a purchase or provide your first free whatever if you “Join Now!” But while these are great incentives, they’re not really free.
While searching I have found sites providing information or software for free that is the same or nearly the same as what is being sold elsewhere. These providers sometimes do not advertise as well and can be harder to find, but they are worth the effort
Of course, the most common freebie is text: stories, opinions, articles, news, gossip and more, all out there. Finding a reliable source can sometimes be a little more difficult, but if you want to save a couple of bucks at the newsstand you can skim through articles of interest over at FindArticles.com, where you can get many full-text articles of popular magazines. These are not necessarily the most current issues, but they are still relevant. And if you are a frequent magazine reader, many magazines have some or all of their paper content on their website. Newspapers and news organizations also provide lots of free content on their sites. Hometownnews.com will put you in touch with many local city and county newspapers from across the country.
When I was growing up, we had a full set of encyclopedias in the house – big, heavy books that were fun to read and lifesavers for school reports. Now, Wikipedia.org has become my source for the interesting and obscure, while that stack of encyclopedias is now a convenient method of collecting dust. Other reference “books” are available online, including Ask.com’s reference suite, which offers an online thesaurus and dictionary (although I still sometimes use Google to check my spelling).
Many thousands of books are available for free on the Web. Most are older titles, printed before 1923, whose copyrights have expired. Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) and Bartleby.com contain thousands of titles in many different languages as well as providing other content such as famous speeches, audio books and sheet music.
Pictures and graphics can easily be searched using the image search features on Google, Yahoo and other search engines, but this should not be your source of materials for anything you wish to publish yourself due to copyright restrictions. Instead, head on over to Everystockphoto.com or the Stock XCHNG (www.sxc.hu) for royalty-free images.
If you are interested in the aesthetics Web imagery you might be interested to know that museum web sites correspond with their physical exhibitions, and sometimes offer online-only content.
Freeware (as in free software) comes in all different categories. If you need a piece of software to do a simple task without a load of features you are never going to use, then you should start with Freeware directories like Shareware.com or Cnet.net. Before the days that Windows showed thumbnail images of your pictures in the file browser, I downloaded a great little picture-viewer. It was a handy little tool that I used all the time. Now I might not download a free virus-scanner or firewall program because I feel a lot more confident in protection software I pay for. But if I want to use a program to search for duplicate files on my computer or a monitor for the amount of disk space my folders use or create a ringtone for my cell phone, I would rather give a free program a try before breaking out the credit card at my neighborhood Best Buy.
There are entire sites devoted to free software, but here are a couple of diamonds in the rough.
- One of my favorite free discoveries is File Hamster (www.mogware.com/FileHamster/). It is a Version Tracking Application that will make real-time backups and archive your files while you are working on them. You can also store notes about the changes.
- Have you ever seen a great YouTube video and wanted to try to show it to a friend, only to completely forget how you found it in the first place? Well, if the video is good enough to spare a little hard drive space for then Ares Tube (benjaminstrahs.com) will download the video right to your computer.
- Then there are other programs, like Easy GPS (easygps.com) that will give you additional tools that work with every popular handheld GPS receiver. One of the better password managers is also free at Roboform.com.
If you want to enter the fun and exciting world of blogging, Wordpress.org should be your first stop. They certainly don’t beat around the bush, letting you know right upfront that “WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time.”
One pitfall of free software that can be cured by a small purchase is spyware. This will cover the too-good-to-be-true portion of some of the free products out there, but so far I've been pleased with what I’ve found. Many of these freebies just ask for a small donation if you’ve found it useful. A small price to pay for those items you grow to depend on.
For a list of more freebies, visit www.msba.org/?techtalkfreebies.