In his new book Free, the Future of a Radical Price, author Chris Anderson shows how “bandwidth, storage and processing” are becoming so cheap that as “more and more products become downloads [or online], the inevitable destination is Free.”
Facebook, Google and many other websites provide free services that you probably couldn’t live without, and without any hidden fees. Here are some of the best free online services and downloads that could benefit any student’s daily life.
I’m going to start with Mint.com not only because it is my favorite at the moment but because I am convinced that it can change your life.
Mint is not a download but a free online service for financial planning. It isn’t the first of its kind, nor is it without competition, but for the average student’s needs, Mint can do wonders.
The online financial service exploded in popularity with over a million users within its first year of operation and the people who make Quicken promptly acquired it. In the company’s words, Mint allows you to “see where you’re spending, lower your interest rates, decide where to cut back and reduce debt.”
Not all of this applies to everyone, but the important thing is that you can view all of your transactions, arrange and categorize them, plan budgets and track all of your spending.
You provide Mint with read-only access to your bank information (which it establishes through secure connections to the banks themselves). It will automatically log all of your transactions with the date, amount and category. The site then allows you to see your spending in living color with customizable graphs and ledgers.
Doing all of this in Excel would be nearly impossible, but Mint does all the accounting for you, giving you a full balance sheet so that you can manage your finances and/or impress your parents. As an added bonus, Mint also will recommend savings accounts and credit cards that best match your spending habits. Mint manages to make personal finance fun and addictive, and most importantly, can help you to save money in the long run at no cost.
All the techies reading already know this one. VLC media player has been hailed as one of the greatest free downloads ever. It is a no frills, simple to use media player for music and movies.
Aside from being infinitely cleaner and quicker to use than most pre-packaged media players on Mac or PC, it has one key advantage–VLC plays everything. No need to download codec packs or plugins, VLC already does it. Anything from a DVD to a downloaded movie to a cell phone video will run easily, allowing you to breathe easily about sharing files with friends and pull things from the web.
This may sound lame, but take the two minutes to download this one and let the program do the rest. Mac or PC welcome.
Computers these days have an unprecedented potential for shortcuts. From the added interface features of Windows 7 to the multi-touch functionality of Macbooks, there are many ways to do your part to make computing quicker and more efficient if you’re willing to take the time to learn the shortcuts.
One of the easiest ways to do this (and with the smallest learning curve) is to install Quicksilver (Mac only) or its similar Windows counterpart, Colibri. Quicksilver is simply a launcher, much like Apple’s Spotlight. However, Quicksilver takes quick-searching one step further by keeping a close watch on your most-trafficked programs and files. It learns what you do.
Let’s say I wanted to open up Firefox. I would hit Apple+Space with my thumbs, begin typing f-i-r, and hit enter all in the space of half a second. This chain of action becomes an intuitive process before long. The same would work for any file on the computer.
Additionally, Quicksilver has plugins for programs like iTunes that allow you to hit a different shortcut and begin typing while the computer searches through your music library and then launches the file in iTunes. Again, this one is customizable and very much shaped by user experience.
Log Me In is best suited to the technically-inclined, but can come in handy for anyone who still uses their computer back home. Log Me In is remote desktop software –i t allows you to access another computer over the Web from anywhere in the world.
If you install it on a desktop at home and then on your laptop, for example, you could fully control the desktop from your laptop. If you really need a file that you forgot to put on your laptop, you can email it over to yourself remotely. If you have a program at home that you can’t use on your laptop, you can run it through remote desktop. Last year, I used this program extensively.
Finally, if you need to do anything that won’t fly with the Northwestern servers, you can do it remotely — you’ll be using your home web connection. If you find you have the need for remote access, this is the program to turn to.
Now for the sleeper hit of the day — Google Docs.
The entire Google suite deserves to be on this list. From Gmail (imagine life without it) to Reader to Voice to Calender, everything Google provides is free.
Docs may seem too obvious to mention, but most people know Docs as a way to collaborate and share work online. What I’d like to highlight is Google Docs as a free word processor. Everyone takes for granted that new computers require 100-200 dollar word processors such as Word or Pages. Google Docs accomplishes most of the same things but for zero dollars.
Plus, you can take all of your class notes on Google Docs. They will be accessible from anywhere in the world and take up no hard drive space.
Once Google takes on some of the more advanced features that Word offers, we may begin to rethink our most common computing task — word processing.
John Meguerian contributed reporting to this piece.