As the saying goes, the best things in life are free: love, friends, and great software that works almost as well as a paid product. If you’re like me, you have probably shopped around for certain apps or programs, and then you balked at the price tag. “Is this really worth $200?” you ask yourself.
Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet. But other times, there’s a free option that will get the same results. Most people know that there are very capable free alternatives to Microsoft Office. If not, you definitely need to tap into these free alternatives to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other programs everyone seems to use.
Free software isn’t advertised as widely as paid software, so you may never have heard of the brand that could radically improve your digital life. Still, they’re out there, waiting to be discovered. From cybersecurity to photography to screen-sharing, the perks of t hese programs can’t be overstated.
Here are five helpful options, available for download whenever you like.
1. Free tool stops creepy online tracking
When I say “creepy ads,” you almost certainly know what I mean: those ads that follow you from one website to the next, echoing the searches you recently ran on Amazon or Google. All you did was look up “canvas bags” once, and now little pictures of canvas bags are popping up in the margins of your browser.
This kind of targeted advertising is based on “cookies,” tiny files that your computer downloads without your knowledge. You can disable cookies, but an enormous number of popular websites use them to function. You can’t even log onto Facebook without accepting the burden of cookies.
A free extension called Privacy Badger is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, and it’s designed to spot third-party scripts. Basically, it will automatically stop your computer from downloading a cookie or tracker. This will prevent unwelcome software on your computer, plus it’ll kill the targeted advertising that seems to read your mind.
2. Turn your tablet into a second monitor
Many office workers are accustomed to working on a dual-screen setup, and they know how helpful this is for multitasking. You can move entire windows from one screen to the next, juggling several programs at the same time.
But what if you could do this at home? Duet gives you this ability, connecting a PC or Mac to an iPad or iPhone. The touch-screen will continue to work, or you can use your mouse or trackpad in both screens.
Meanwhile, the connection between the two devices is your tablet or phone’s regular charging cable. When these cords and connectors are in good condition, they two machines communicate effortlessly – unlike similar setups that use WiFi.
3. Tinker with Windows 10 security settings
For the record, I don’t think “O&O ShutUp10” is the best name in the history of branding, but let me tell you: This is some useful software for Windows users. The program is designed to help you organize the security settings on Windows 10.
Like all technology, using Windows is a delicate balance between efficiency and security. Windows 10 can easily access your email, your calendar, and your location, among countless other points. Gathering this information can help you in different ways, but it also makes you vulnerable to data collection.
O&O ShutUp10 lets you manually tinker with your security settings, so you can decide what your computer accesses and how it uses the information it gathers. The tool also rates whether certain security settings are recommended, guiding you through the process. This is handy because most of us have no idea what settings strike a perfect balance between privacy and convenience.
4. Free alternative to Photoshop
Photoshop has become the industry standard for image manipulation, and most serious photographers use Adobe products to perfect their landscapes and portraits. But Photoshop is also complicated to use, and the creative cloud requires a subscription service that gets expensive over time.
One of the best alternatives is GIMP. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill free photo editor: GIMP can add many of the textures, layers, and special animations that Photoshop can. Its arsenal of painting and drawing options can help you illustrate as well.
GIMP has a very different interface from Photoshop, and some people scratch their heads over its workflow. But generally speaking, GIMP is a lot simpler to use. It’s also free to download, and the software is regularly updated. GIMP has come along way since its clunky inception, and more and more Photoshop users are making the switch, or even cutting their teeth with this zero-cost alternative.
5. Know if someone is watching you through your webcam
A hacked webcam is the stuff of horror movies: Most desktops sit in bedrooms or living rooms, and there are lots of intimate moments that a stranger could see. Laptops move around, and a stranger can watch your entire day transpire, anywhere the device is opened up. Worse, you may not have any idea that your computer’s camera is being used as an invasive periscope. Hacked webcams are notoriously hard to diagnose.
Spying is bad enough, but when those images (and audio) are captured, they can be duplicated, manipulated, and spread around the Internet faster than you can say “Photoshop.” Once your images are out there, they are almost impossible to delete.
This is why developers created Who Stalks My Cam, a program that not only determines whether your webcam has been hijacked; it does so in real time. The program runs continuously, so the moment your camera is compromised, you’ll be alerted. Who Stalks My Cam then works to defend your camera from intruders.
Note: Who Stalks My Cam only works for Windows. The Mac equivalent is Oversight, which works very similarly. Oversight monitors your webcam use, and it also keeps track of which apps have permission to access your camera. Click here to learn more about Oversight.
As an alternative, you could cover your webcam with a piece of black tape. Band-Aids and Post It notes are also popular. But what about your device’s microphone?
For this, you need to bring out your inner McGyver to a set of cheap earbuds. Click here to learn the steps to secure your microphone from snoops.
What other tech tips will improve your daily life? Call my national radio show and click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.
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Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.