Load Up on Free Software

Here are some of the most reliable free software packages and services currently available.

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Once upon a time you had to pay hundreds of dollars for software. Now, a lot of it is free—and pretty darn good—thanks in large measure to a business strategy called "freemium."

The idea is to offer people a free version, with the enticement of added features if you're willing to pay for the premium version. But most of the free versions are perfectly serviceable, ranging from anti-virus software to protect your computer and your phone to music and messaging services. Here are some of the most reliable free software packages and services currently available:

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Complete office suite. OpenOffice, a free (no ads, no strings attached) full-fledged office package, includes not only a full-blown word processor, but also a slide presentation package similar to PowerPoint, a spreadsheet program similar to Excel, and graphics software that's compatible with all popular file formats. OpenOffice is comparable to Microsoft Office, minus the $150 price tag. Another suite worth trying: LibreOffice.

Remote access. When you're away from your computer and realize you don't have that contact or file that you suddenly need, LogMeIn can be a lifesaver. The free version is available for Macs and PCs. It enables you to remotely control your home or office computer from anywhere there's an Internet connection.

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Navigation. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T charge for navigation service, but there's no need for you to pay. Google Maps is as good as many others and works on a variety of smartphones, turning your mobile handset into a portable navigation device. One caveat: If you lose your cellular connection, you'll lose your directions as well.

Safe storage. Online or so-called cloud computing is all the rage. One of the most popular cloud services is online storage, where you can remotely file important financial information, photos, or other personal data and protect it should your home computer crash or be stolen. There are half a dozen different remote storage services, but one of the most popular and flexible is DropBox. Users get 2GB of storage free, as well as the option of sharing files with friends and family.

Free books. E-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, are wonderful tools for voracious readers, but the e-books can still be costly. Fortunately, you can pack those electronic shelves with a library of gratis classics by visiting Project Gutenberg, one of the oldest and most revered repositories of free, public domain books. Most titles, from Beowulf to Ulysses, are available in multiple formats so that they can be read on any e-reader, smartphone, or computer.

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International calls. Skype is still the king of free computer-to-computer phone calls and video conferencing. It is compatible with just about any webcam and now works on smartphones and popular devices like the Apple iPad. Travelers will find it's the best way to keep in touch with those at home without incurring long-distance charges. The only times you have to pay: calling a landline phone or orchestrating a video call with multiple participants.

Follow-me phone. A little-known gem of communications technology, Google Voice allows you to choose a single number that you can then use to forward calls to multiple phone numbers, such as your weekend cottage or cellphone.

Google Voice will also screen callers, record messages, block calls, and send email notifications. It's ideal for road warriors or those worried about switching phone providers or cellphones. The Google Voice number stays with you forever. You can even use it to send free text messages.

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