The Web's best free stuff

There's a wealth of downloadable software and online services, but free doesn't necessarily mean good. Here's some of the best of the bunch

Free. It's the magic word for an ever-expanding wealth of downloadable software and online services. Free doesn't necessarily mean good, however, and hunting for freebies can mean sifting through a lot of junk.

That's where we come in. We surfed, clicked, and installed to find sparkling free gems capable of planning your time, keeping you in touch, and tuning and securing your PC, not to mention glitzing up your desktop, helping you stay productive, and entertaining you with music, videos, photos, and games. We paid special attention to programs and services you may not have heard of before.

Productivity

AbiWord

Tired of expensive, slow, bloated word processors? Download this surprisingly powerful freebie, which includes sophisticated features such as mail merge and advanced layouts. The program handles a wide variety of document formats, including those of Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, OpenOffice.org, and other programs.

TrackMyShipments

If you place orders often via the Web or phone, here's a site for you. When you get a shipping notification, forward the e-mail to track@trackmyshipments.com. The service reads through your message for the tracking information and keeps it in one place for all of your orders. Log in to the site to see the progress of your shipments, including a map showing their progress.

Buzzword.com

You have plenty of free Web-based word processors to choose from, but most aren't as slick as this one. The design is tasteful and elegant, menu items slide in and out of place, and it's incredibly simple to use. But don't let the pretty face fool you, because Buzzword is feature-packed as well. Inserting tables and graphics is a breeze, you can easily select background colors, and the document manager is a standout too.

ThinkFree Online

Don't want to fork over several hundred dollars for Microsoft Office? Try this Web-based productivity suite, which covers word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The service can create files compatible with Microsoft Office, so you can download files to your own PC where you can work on them offline using Office applications, if you wish. You can also edit your Office-created documents in ThinkFree, though you have to be connected to the Internet to do that. But if you're always connected, you can't beat free.

StarOffice

If you prefer offline apps that reside on your PC, download the free StarOffice suite, which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet app, and a presentation program, among other goodies. It's part of the free Google Pack, which also contains a bunch of other programs you might not want. During the Google Pack download, simply check the box next to StarOffice and uncheck all the others.

Foxit Reader for Windows

High on our list of the most annoying applications of all time is Adobe Acrobat Reader. It's slow, bloated, and buggy, and it often crashes some systems--all of which can drive you insane. Foxit lets you read and even fill out PDF files, without touching Reader. This small and compact tool loads fast, won't hog RAM or system resources, and won't crash your PC.

Microsoft Office Live Small Business

With this service, you can share documents and collaborate with coworkers and customers, build a Web site, and manage your contacts. A variety of for-pay options are available as well, but you don't have to pay for the basics.

Blist

If you own a small business, you need a database to create and track customer records, among other details. At home, you may want to organize information related to hobbies, such as your fantasy football stats. With Blist, you can do all of that online for free. You just drag and drop column types, such as numbers, dates, names, and money amounts, onto a grid. Then type in your data, and voila--instant database.

Moffsoft FreeCalc

For simple, basic operations, the calculator that ships with Windows is fine. But if you need more, get this great free download. It has a variety of new keys, such as memory subtract, and its nifty "tap" feature keeps a running history of all your calculations.

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