A lady who used to work for Proctor & Gamble as an IT person told me the other day that companies don't want free software. That nothing that was free was worth getting. I couldn't believe her. Perhaps this is the attitude of large companies like P&G and the corporate types she is used to, but the small business and self-employed person really need free solutions. Anything that is free but delivers a service is worth it.
On the other hand, with hardware you get what you pay for. You don't need the bleeding edge, but you really need to have a computer that is less than 5 years old. I have known too many business owners who stubbornly hold onto dinosaur computers, and hamper their employees' efficiency by half. What is more expensive, a slightly used computer for maybe $400-500, or half a $12/hr employee's salary for a year? That's $12,480. Hmm. I mean, reports taking half a day to print when they could take 5 minutes. Nor being able to be online because Windows 98 will get a virus in a New York minute. That kind of thing. Have mercy on your business and get the upgrade. You'll be glad you did.
That being said, I'm still using XP, but next time I upgrade I'm skipping Vista and going straight to 7, unless I convert to Linux. I do have one Linux machine already, I run Slax on an old Thinkpad that used to run Windows ME. It was an experiment to see if I could install Slax on a hard drive, and to learn about Linux, and it was an adventure all of its own. It's still pretty limited, the RAM isn't enough to stream video. Like I said it was an experiment.
BTW, if you run your desktop computer all the time, stop doing that and shut it completely off when you're not using it. You will save $25 a month in electricity and that can pay for your next upgrade.
Here are some free programs that I have tried that are worth getting:
Audacity (multitracking for musicians, also you can rip records by just playing them while recording with it and then select the tracks after and save them as MP3's or WAV's – much easier than hitting start and stop on the record for each song. You will probably want a USB turntable for that.)
OpenOffice (use in place of MS Office, and they are now owned by Oracle but are still free. Also the new version reads .docx files. I really don't like their database module, but I probably don't know enough about databases to be a good judge. What I don't like is it won't save as an Access database the way the document editor will save as a MS Word document. If you have an Access database you want to convert, you have to re-design the forms to use in OpenOffice's version.)
Xtuple (ERP software, free for one user. ERP is like a contact manager (now this is called CRM) and bookkeeping all in one. Xtuple does commissions, job costing, assemblies, distinguishes between a prospect and a customer, it does everything a manufacturing company would need, basically. I forgot to notice if it does payroll though, but I suspect it can. If not, a payroll company is sometimes a good idea, especially in the Midwest where the number of tax jurisdictions is quite high. It can keep you out of trouble for missing something – also doing payroll is very time consuming)
CutePDF (creates PDF files)
FileZilla (FTP software)
KompoZer (WYSIWYG HTML editor, also does CSS)
Joomla! (Make webpages that use SQL and PHP – this is dynamic webpages based on a database)
Wamp (windows based web server, MySQL and PHP all in one package, and then you install Joomla into its www directory to make your own sandbox for testing Joomla pages)
IrfanView (image editor. You can change the size and resolution of images, crop them, and do a number of different effects to them with this)
FreeKapture (Twain scanner software. If you have a scanner but don't have the disk for it, this might work with it)
Ccleaner (cleans out your caches, browser history, leftover registry entries after uninstalling software, and even can wipe free space on your hard drive)
Cypherix (encrypt some small files, like maybe your list of passwords would be good to encrypt, or if you keep a journal on your computer, or spreadsheets about your finances, or your plans for world domination... but if you want to encrypt your porn so your kids won't see it, you might have to get the paid version)
Firefox (browser, has a lot of good plug-ins like Download Helper. Crashes less often than Explorer in my experience)
NCH Tone Generator – This software comes with a lot of other audio software in a bundle, like burning, ripping, multitracking, a streaming audio server, etc. I've only tried the tone generator. If you don't have a tuning fork or a tuner, you can use this software to generate whatever tone (A=440 is what it comes with as a default). There are people who think if you listen to various audible frequencies for a period of a couple minutes these tones can help cure various ailments, so if you're into that you can generate these frequencies easily with this software. To me, I find listening to a standing wave kind of annoying. I think Led Zeppelin, Fats Waller, or Ozric Tentacles are much more therapeutic. (OK, I'm eclectic. Get over it.)
HSH financial calculators – Their most popular one I think is the mortgage calculator, but they have a lot of calculators. What you need is a mortgage one, an investment one, and a retirement one. I really ought to do an article about just using these calculators to figure out what to save each month.
Malware Bytes – if you ever get a file that just won't delete, you can use Malware Bytes to remove it. Some media files I download and convert won't delete afterward, but this gets them. Also it's good at finding spyware, which is its main purpose.
RealPlayer Converter 1.1.1 – The more recent versions of RealPlayer won't convert MP4's to MP3's unless you pay them for the paid version. If you can still find the Converter in Verson 1.1.1, it will do it free. I suggest you get this version and then program it to NOT accept updates automatically.
Well, that oughta get you started!