Essential free software for travellers

Corn sky field These days, a laptop is almost as essential a piece of travelling gear as a backpack or passport. The thing is, after you’ve bought the hardware, you then find yourself having to pay more for all the software you want to load up on it.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of essential, high quality software, which has the huge advantage of being free. Because more money saved is more money for, well, travelling!

One quick note – these programs are all for Windows based PC’s. There may well be Mac equivalents, but I’ve not got a Mac, so I have no idea. Mac fans, let me know in the comments what your favourite free tools to travel with are!

Photo editing / management

Photo management tool: Picasa
Picasa from Google is a great bit of software for both photo editing and photo management. Its excellent photography editing tools lets you do all the basic stuff you are likely to want to do, from contrast adjustment through to red eye removal, plus it even supports RAW files.

On top of this, it integrates excellently with Google’s web albums for online backup, and you can even get a Facebook application that allows you to post directly from Picasa to your Facebook profile, with comments.

Power photo editing tool: The GIMP
Weird name aside, the GIMP is a seriously powerful free Photoshop alternative. Like its paid for rival, it is not an easy piece of software to get to grips with, and probably won’t be necessary for most users, given what you can already achieve in Picasa.

However, if detailed photo manipulation, with layers, masks and all that jargon are what you want, then it’s hard to do better than this at this price point.

Email and RSS

Free desktop email tool: Thunderbird
There are plenty of free desktop email clients out there, but my favourite is Thunderbird, from the same people who brought you Firefox.

The advantage of a desktop email client over a web based version is that you can download your mails and read them at your leisure. You can also compose mail offline, and send when you are connected.

Thunderbird plays nicely with all the major email providers and types of mail server and is easy to setup and use.

Free RSS reader: FeedDemon
FeedDemon actually comes in two versions – a “lite” ad supported free version, and the full, paid for version. I’ve found the free version to be more than adequate for my needs, and the ads are barely noticeable.

An RSS reader like this is brilliant for travelling with – it downloads all your feeds to your desktop and then you can read them at your leisure, even without an internet connection. RSS feeds are available for pretty much every website out there, including this one, and are a superb way to stay up to date with your interests whilst on the move.

Productivity

Office application: LibreOffice (formerly known as Openoffice.org)
The main player in the Office productivity suite space is Microsoft, with their Office application, but not everyone can afford the money they want for their product.

Enter LibreOffice, a full suite of applications for document management and creation, from spreadsheets to documents. This is an incredibly powerful set of tools that will let you do everything you need to do, including exporting your files to PDF. It also has support for all the major office file formats, so you’ll still be able to edit and create files that are cross compatible with Office.

Blog writing tool: Windows Live Writer
Microsoft actually have a pretty awesome suite of free products under the WIndows Live brand, including an instant messaging tool, a photo editing tool and an e-mail program. My favourite of the lot though is Windows Live Writer, which integrates with the major blog platforms to allow you to compose posts offline in a template that looks the same as it will online.

As well as the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor, you can also directly edit the HTML of your blog posts, plus there is support for ping servers and all sorts of other things. A brilliant tool.

Media playback and management

Movie watching: VLC Media Player
There was a time, back in the days of yore, where watching movies on your computer involved a lot of messing around with devilish things called “codecs”. This was because different movies were encoded using different technologies, and your computer needed an appropriate codec to decode them.

Luckily, these are issues of the past thanks to the excellent VLC media player, which brings with it all the codecs you will ever need for every movie file you are ever likely to want to watch. And as travelling can have it’s fair amount of downtime, having a few films or TV shows ready to fill in those rainy days is no bad thing.

Music playback and management: Winamp
Winamp is the original MP3 playing software for Windows. It plays back most popular music file formats, and also lets you manage your music collection on your portable music players, including, crucially, your iPod.

This means that you don’t have to use the horrific piece of software that is iTunes for Windows, except for purchasing music, and even then, there are alternative, DRM free options out there too.

Backup

I went into far more detail on backup solutions for your travels in a recent article, all about Keeping your data safe on the road. Two great pieces of software I mention in that article follow, both of which are of course, free.

Cloud backup tool: Dropbox
Dropbox is a really great install and forget it’s there backup solution. It creates a folder on your computer, into which anything you add is automatically backed up into the cloud.

Files are versioned, and the basic version comes with 2 gigabytes of storage, which can be expanded. This is a great tool for backing up important documents or your absolute favourite photos. Certainly better than e-mailing them to yourself at least!

Offline backup tool: Syncback
If you’re anything like me, having a photo library that measures into the hundreds of gigabytes is the norm, and then when you add the music, documents.. well, it adds up.

Relying on one hard drive for all that critical data isn’t the best idea, which is where the excellent Syncback comes in. This allows you to backup your files from one location to another, and I use it to transfer files to my two external hard drives on a regular basis.

Security and Maintenance

Anti-virus: Microsoft Security Essentials
There was a time when the thought of Microsoft providing a security solution was, well, laughable, but times have changed, and their Security Essentials program is one of the best free anti-virus solutions out there. Fast, lightweight and easy to use, it regularly bests it’s competitors – even the ones you have to pay for.

General tune up: CCleaner
Computers, over time, tend to accrue unwanted bits of data. These could be left over files from botched software installations, temporary files from your internet browsing, or unwanted system restore points.

This data can usually be safely removed, and your PC will often run better as a result. The best tool for this job that I have found is the excellent CCleaner from Piriform, which offers a number of handy easy to use maintenance tools.

Those are my favourite free applications that I can’t live without when travelling. Do you have any favourite programs that you can’t travel without? Let me know in the comments below.




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