My Top of the Pops for freely available software – updated

[First published 22nd October 2020; edited in April 2023; republished September 2023]

I’ve written before about how it might be wise to look at subscription services rather than rely on free services and back in October 2020 I wrote a piece about the distinctions between Open Source and “free” software in general. Now it’s time to pick (and update) my winners in a number of categories. They will have to work on multiple platforms as well – PC (Windows), Mac (MacOS and Linux, and hopefully on smartphones and tablets as well. I will stake my reputation on the fact that if you download any of these pieces from the links I provide that it will be safe, and reliable.

Office software – word processing, spreadsheets and slide presentation. Here there are two close contenders but I’ll tip towards the true Open Source offering which is LibreOffice. At one time I used to recommend OpenOffice as an alternative to Microsoft Office, but the better file formats supported in LibreOffice tips the balance in their direction. Here’s a review of LibreOffice – a brilliant piece of Donationware. The runner-up would be the Google suite of applications (Docs, Sheets and Slides), but they’re not truly free … are they? Alternatively, recognising the competition of Google, Microsoft has made Office 365 Online freely available to be used with OneDrive.

Desktop publishing – you might like to look at Scribus; I have no experience of using it but here’s a review.

Media Player – there’s really only one player in this category. It’s VLC Media Player. It runs on really old hardware too, and supports almost every media format – here’s a review.

Photo editor – if you don’t want to shell out on Adobe software (Photoshop and Lightroom) or Paintshop Pro, or others, then again there’s only really one leader in this class. It’s Gimp. Here’s a review. There’s plentiful documentation and videos on using Gimp available on YouTube too. If it looks too complicated for you then if you’re a Windows user, or the new Google Photos (yes I know I said it wasn’t truly free) on Mac or Windows would be worth looking at.

Video editor – one that I’ve begun to “get into” recently has been Shotcut. I can truly say that once you’ve got over the shock of so many panels and options, and have spent a little while reading the good documentation and watching a few YouTube tutorials, that this is a little gem. Here’s a review. If you want to change video formats, then take a look at Handbrake – it’s saved my life a few times; a brilliant piece of software that changes one format of video to another, and also allows you to copy non-copyright protected DVDs to MP4 (for instance).

Audio editor – this is one that a friend has recently been using and one that I’ve relied on a few times too. It’s Audacity. A clean multi-panelled window that’s reasonably intuitive I felt. If you want to edit audio tracks, change their format, or create a playlist, give it a try. Here’s a review.

Password Manager – I’ve gone on about the importance to consider using a password manager as a way of allowing you to “remember” different passwords without resorting to yellow stickers, or notebooks. In a crowded field of freeware contenders I go with the one I used to use – LastPass – here’s a review, but you you might easily choose an alternative, eg the freemium 1Password or the open source  KeePass. [NB I’m now using Apple’s Keychain as I only have Apple kit. I still have a LastPass as a legacy repository for quick checks, and you can migrate out of LastPass to Keychain, or any other password manager.]

Anti-virus – no real recommendation but the freemium possibility is Avast. If I was a Windows user, I’d rely on Windows Defender. As I’m a Mac user I’ve installed Malwarebytes – supplied by my bank – but it’s never recorded a virus, or any malware. [Fingers crossed.]

Email client – if you’ve got Outlook, use the Microsoft client (or app); if you’ve got a Mac, use the Mail app; if you solely use Gmail, use a Google client (or app); BUT if you want to try something different and Open Source why not look at Thunderbird. It’s from the Mozilla Foundation (where the Firefox browser comes from) and it’s multi-platform and multi-email system supporting. Here’s a review of it. [Health warning: I have used it in the past, but not using it now as I am so immersed in the Apple ecosystem, but if I wasn’t, I’d be seriously looking at using it.]

Group Messaging – it used to be WhatsApp, but now it’s Signal which is Open Source, and Donationware. I give a small monthly donation to support.

Web browsers – both a difficult and easy one. It has to be either Firefox, or Brave in my book. I can’t differentiate between them. I like them both, but I suppose I still just tip towards Brave because it’s more like Chrome (unsurprisingly). 

Search engines – again, for me, a relatively easy one to pick; it’s DuckDuckGo. Don’t just Google It – DuckDuckGo It. It should be available as a choice on “all good browsers”. If it’s not – change your browser, or add it to the list offered by your browser. An alternative would be Ecosia which has ecological credentials and which I use on my iPhone with Safari.

Web-design, blogging and the rest – for me, no competition – it’s WordPress. You’ll need to shell-out to buy a domain (eg this one –, but after that you can use to commit your thoughts to the internet. WordPress will offer to host your website for an annual fee, but the use of the software is free. If you want to take it further you can find a hosting company, move your domain there (or purchase it there) and install and have access to the vast number of plugins that are available to tailor your website to just the way you want it. Many of these plugins are free, or are made available as freemium software.


  • an AdBlocker – go for the freemium AdBlock Plus (look out for similar sounding ones, and avoid them).
  • Note-taking – it used to be EverNote for me, but now I’m recommending either Microsoft’s OneNote coupled with OneDrive (if you’re a Windows user) and the greatly improved Apple Notes (if you’re a Mac/iOS user). 
  • RSS Reader to scrape and archive content from websites I follow – it’s Feedly. I subscribe to their premium service.
  • Bookmarking – I used to use diigo, but now find that with the improved functionality in browsers and the integration with the cloud that it’s best to use your browser capability.
  • For offline reading I find Pocket a wonderful resource which I subscribe to as a premium service as I do Flipboard, from which I curate magazines which you can share – and I do!.
  • Mapping – OpenStreetMap is a great piece of software that I haven’t used in an active sense, but I must investigate! [As an aside, take a look at Open Canal Map, not software but a community initiative that uses other publicly available maps to build upon.]
  • Google Earth Pro – the often forgotten global visualisation software, available from your browser, or in an app.
  • Video-conferencing – it used to be Skype, now it’s the freemium Zoom.
  • Online communities – a replacement for the sadly “sunsetted” Google+ could be Discord. This has achieved some notoriety in recent weeks, but it is also used for more than gaming and sharing secrets.
  • Media-server – you don’t need to rely on Apple TV, Netflix, Britbox or whatever. You can setup your own media-server with the freemium Plex server, and add your videos, music and images to your own server which you can access anywhere in the world, or just use their Plex player to view their streaming service.

I could go on and on, but that’s enough for the moment. Have fun!

Open Source and “free” software

I was quite surprised to see when I reviewed the articles I’d posted over the years that I’d never written one specifically about Open Source software, and “free” software. Of course the topic has cropped-up quite a bit at Cardiff U3A Computer Group meetings, and I have referred to pieces of Open Source and “free” software on “Just thoughts …”, but I’d never put my ideas down about the reliability, philosophy, use and accessibility of Open Source and “free” software in general. Just as I write this – guess what popped-up on my screen …

Java – an example of a programming language that has morphed into a software development environment whose component parts are all, or can be replaced by, open source modules. Java is an accepted piece of the architecture of a huge number of the systems we use everyday, as is Apache – the web-platform that powers most of the Internet’s servers. I mention these two as examples because it demonstrates how deeply elements of Open Source thinking is embedded into so many of the systems we use every day. Other ones would be Linux,  and WordPress – a multi-platform  operating system, and web-publishing software which the Cardiff U3A Group has looked at before. So, in a nutshell – open source is respectable!

What makes software open source then? Technopedia defines open source thus …

“Open source is a philosophy that promotes the free access and distribution of an end product, usually software or a program, although it may extend to the implementation and design of other objects. The term open source gained traction with the growth of the Internet because of the need to rework massive amounts of program source code. When source code is opened to the public it allows for the creation of different communication paths and interactive technical communities; it also leads to a diverse array of new models.”

… thus the code is generally very safe, because it can be inspected by anyone, and any changes in the code can be easily traced. The definition goes on to explain the following …

“Open source revolves around the concept of freely sharing technological information so that it may be improved through multiple insights and viewpoints. Since the technology is open source, the amount of work that needs to be done is reduced because multiple contributions are added by many individuals. This concept existed way before the age of computers and even before the industrial age when people shared and improved recipes for food and medicine, for example.

In terms of open source software, the code is often freely downloadable and changeable as long as the user sticks to what is agreed upon in the software license agreement. Open-source software is usually under the General Public License (GNU), but there are other free licenses like the Intel Open Source License, FreeBSD License and the Mozilla Public License.”

That doesn’t make it necessarily FREE, because developers can charge for the software they develop on the base of open source, however generally if it’s made available under one of the above licences it’s often the Support and Implementation that’s chargeable, not the software itself. Look for the licences (as above) to determine whether the software is genuinely Open Source and thus you should expect it to be “respectable” and “safe”.

So any open source software must adhere to the following criteria:

  • Free redistribution of the software.
  • The source code should be publicly available.
  • The software can be modified and distributed in a different format from the original software.
  • The software should not discriminate against persons or groups.
  • The software should not restrict the usage of other software.

Then there’s Free Software. As I’ve explained most Open Source is distributed free of charge, and the intention behind it was freedom of code, and freedom from intellectual property rights. The subtle difference with Free Software is that in the latter the emphasis is on freedom for the user to do whatsoever they want to do with the code. It is truly FREE! As a term and as expressed by the Free Software Foundation it predates the Open Source initiative and was the driving force behind the licences mentioned above. Thus free software must adhere to the following four pillars of freedom (which are rights and not obligations):

  • The freedom to deploy the software for any use case without any restrictions. For example, saying that the license of a program expires after 30 days makes it non-free.
  • The freedom to study how the software works and modify it according to your needs and preferences.
  • The freedom to freely re-distribute the software to assist someone in need. The redistribution can be done at a cost or at no cost.
  • The freedom to enhance the performance of the software and release your enhancements for the community to benefit—both programmers and non-programmers. You can do this at a cost or at no cost.

Now it starts to get a little bit more cloudy. There’s freeware which might also be described as freememium, or shareware. I quote

“Typically, freeware refers to a software that you can use without incurring any costs. Unlike open source software and free software, freeware offers minimal freedom to the end user.

Whereas it can be used free of charge, often modification, redistribution, or other improvements cannot be done without getting permission from the author.

As such, freeware is often shared without including its source code, which is atypical to open source software or free software.

Two of the most common types of freeware are Skype and Adobe Acrobat Reader. While both programs are free to use, their source codes are unavailable to the public.

Most developers usually market freeware as freemium or shareware with the intention of encouraging users to buy a more capable version.

Freemium refers to a program that is offered at no cost, but money (premium) is paid for extra, more capable features.

Shareware refers to a program that is initially available without any costs attached, and users are encouraged to distribute copies. However, that cost-free period usually lasts for a certain period; thereafter, a user is required to pay for continued use.”

Finally, you may come across the term “donationware”. This is software that is distributed for free, but the author invites the user to make a contribution to the ongoing development costs (or the programmers coffee). It might also be described as “conscienceware”, or even “thankyouware”!!!

So armed with that information, it’s time for me to provide a list of the free software that I treasure the most.

Further reading

What is Open Source software, and why does it matter?

Free Software vs Open Source vs Freeware: What’s the Difference?