Forget shelling out in order to get your PC up to scratch. It needn't cost you a penny!
Millions of PC users across the globe are rushing to upgrade their computers to run the new Windows 7 software suite - and the latest version of Microsoft's operating system is expected to smash sales records following its launch last Friday (October 23).
The new version of Windows is Amazon's biggest-selling pre-order product of all time and follows widespread disappointment with its unwieldy and temperamental predecessor Windows Vista.
Yet loading your PC with the latest software doesn't come cheap - the home edition of Windows 7 currently has a retail price of £79.99, until January 1. After that it will cost £99.99. The 'Ultimate' edition for business users, meanwhile, comes in at an eye-watering £199.99.
Throw in the cost of security and standard office software and you can spend several hundred pounds merely equipping your computer with the basics - yet simple, reliable and safe software is available online and for free.
Why can I get free software? And, is it safe?
Microsoft packages still power 90% of the world's computers but you can find programs just as powerful and reliable for nothing, thanks to the rise in free and open-source software, pioneered by developers anxious not to be tied to big software houses.
Free software can be used, modified, copied and redistributed without restriction.
Open-source software is available for free under licence agreements that allow other developers to improve, modify or alter the software package. This licence system offers a guarantee of safety and reliability is further backed up by the thousands of independent programmers testing and fixing bugs of the software.
What's more, Google and other software giants are getting in on the act, and even Microsoft is offering its Security Essentials anti-virus software for free. So, credibility and safety shouldn't be an issue.
Free office software
We'll come to Operating Systems later on, but if your computer (like most from the high street) already has a basic Windows or Linux system pre-installed, you don't have to splash out a further £119.99 for the basic Microsoft Office 2007 Home and Student edition - or even £449.99 for the professional edition. Indeed, many computer specialists claim the free OpenOffice software suite is far superior.
OpenOffice is a free office application suite available for a number of different computer operating systems.
The package is designed as a single piece of software comprising five powerful applications: Writer, its word processing software: Calc, its spreadsheet creator: Impress for creating multi-media presentations: Draw for creating simple graphics: and Base which allows you to create and maintain databases.
The best download for most users will be the OpenOffice.org 3.1.1 suite, which is compatible with all versions of Windows up to and including Vista, as well as most Apple Mac operating systems, including the new Snow Leopard v 10.6.
Better still, it's also compatible with previous versions of Microsoft Office, including version 7 - so you can amend and open your existing files.
If all that seems daunting, there are solid alternatives available online which you don't have to install but are only operable when you're logged on to the internet.
Google Docs is a free online-only software package comprising word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and form applications. It accepts most popular file formats - meaning you can open and amend existing files - and also allows multiple users to collaborate online on the same document, which means no more sending and resending email attachments.
An alternative online office suite worth considering is ThinkFree Office. This is a web-based word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package that boasts 100% compatibility with all versions of Microsoft Office and is very easy to use. It's also intuitive, allowing users to use existing Office keyboard shortcuts.
Free security software
Regularly updating your PC with the latest anti-virus software and Firewall packages isn't just time-consuming - buying annual versions of the leading internet security suites can also set you back at least £40 every year.
Yet there are solid, reliable alternatives available online to download for free.
And if you're worried about credibility, you'll be reassured to know that even Microsoft offers protection for free. Its Security Essentials suite promises "high-quality, hassle-free antivirus protection for your home PC" and boasts automatic updates, full compatibility with all versions of Windows and malware detection and removal.
The only requirement is that you own a legitimate copy of Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7.
Another powerful free alternative is the Avast anti-virus package - unlike with the Microsoft package, anti-spyware software to help detect dormant malicious code is built-in and it too offers automatic regular updates. The software boasts more than 80 million users worldwide, which suggests it's safe.
Finally, it's worth supplementing security software with additional malware protection to monitor the safety of websites you visit - Ad Aware is a free program that that detects and removes malware, spyware and adware on your computer.
Free operating systems and browsers
You don't even have to pay for Windows - although you'll have to be very technically competent if you want to do away with the industry standard.
Fast, reliable operating systems are available to power your computer for free, thanks to open-source developers.
These are typically Linux-based and the most popular is provided by Ubuntu. It contains all the applications that come with Windows and is free to install - so if you really hate Windows Vista, you may not need to upgrade after all.
One distinct advantage offered by Linux operating systems is better internet surfing. The Mozilla Firefox web browser is a faster, more reliable alternative than the temperamental Windows Explorer.
And the free stuff doesn't end there...
It's worth closing by pointing out that, whatever your computing need, there's a reliable free package that will satisfy it.
Open-source video player Videolan offers a superior experience to the clunky Windows Media Player 11, while if you want to chop, stretch and edit your photos Irfranview will allow you to do most things Photoshop does for free.
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