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Posted: August 23, 2012

Back-to-school software: The five best freebies



Aug. 23, 2012 —

Last week I told you about five awesome back-to-school apps and gadgets. Today let's go old-school on back-to-school and talk about software.

Chances are good you've already spent at least a few hundred dollars on a laptop for your high school- or college-bound students. Do you really need to spend hundreds more on an office suite, anti-virus software, and backup utilities?

No, no, and no. Let's take a look at the best free software for laptop-toting students.

Avast Free Antivirus

Effective security software doesn't have to mean expensive security software. Avast Free Antivirus is among a handful of products offering comprehensive protection from both viruses and spyware. It even supports remote control, meaning a more tech-savvy friend or relative can connect to the PC to help troubleshoot problems.  There are also coupon codes available for Avast if you have a need to upgrade to their paid versions. 

Again, there are other security freebies worth considering, most notably AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, but Avast routinely scores top marks from both CNET editors and everyday users. It's the single most popular download on CNET's


How much paper-writing time do you really have left before your laptop's battery runs dry? Windows historically does a poor job reporting a system's charge status, meaning you might suddenly find yourself staring at a blank screen even though Windows said you had 20 minutes left.

Enter BatteryBar, a free, easy, and so-smart-it-should-be-built-in power gauge that's compatible with XP, Vista and Windows 7.

The program adds a full-time, at-a-glance gauge to the right side of the taskbar, which by itself is handy. Mouse over the gauge, however, and you get a wealth of additional information, including total battery capacity, charge/discharge rate, AC status, and even a lifetime estimate based on historical charge/discharge data. 


Whether it's tweaking a photo to use in a school presentation, building a Web page, or creating graphics from scratch, perennial favorite GIMP rivals Adobe's budget-busting Photoshop in offering diverse, sophisticated image-editing tools.

Seriously, this is one of those programs that's so feature-rich, you can't believe it's free. But it is--and it's fabulous.

Kingsoft Office Suite Free 2012

When it comes to productivity software, every student needs a word processor, and many need a spreadsheet manager and presentation builder as well.

Google Docs 

Google Docs covers the basics pretty nicely, and it can even work offline (i.e. without an Internet connection) when enabled within Google's new Drive service. But for those schools that require a more traditional office suite, many parents feel obligated to pay a small fortune for Microsoft Office. Instead, check out Kingsoft's Office Suite Free 2012, which offers file compatibility with Microsoft documents and an interface that's cool, colorful, and familiar. 


A good cloud-storage service is essential for students--not just for sharing files, but also for making instant and effective backups of hard-fought school papers and presentations. 

Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive are among the many available options, all of them offering at least some free storage, but I give the nod to SugarSync for one important reason: It allows any files/folders to be tagged for syncing, not just those placed in an umbrella folder. That's a big convenience.

Plus, SugarSync offers 5GB of no-cost space, while the more well-known Dropbox offers just 2GB.

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