Regular PCWorld.com visitors know that for just about every pricey software application or operating system, a freeware or open-source alternative can be found. For example, OpenOffice can easily take the place of Microsoft Office. GIMP and Paint.NET can fill in for Photoshop. And Linux handily gives Windows the boot.
But here are some lesser-known stars of the free-software universe. In some cases they can even take the place of expensive hardware.
Burn CDs and DVDs: If all you want to do is whip together a mix CD or archive some video files onto a DVD, pricey disc-authoring programs like Nero and Easy Media Creator are probably overkill. Instead, try InfraRecorder, which uses a simple Explorer-style interface to help you burn, baby, burn.
Like its commercial counterparts, InfraRecorder can author all kinds of discs, from data to audio to video. It can also make copies of unprotected discs and burn ISO image files to create bootable CDs and DVDs. Because it's open-source, InfraRecorder does all that without burning any of your cash. Estimated savings: $100.
Manage your money without spending any: The irony of using Quicken or Microsoft Money to manage your finances is that they both put a dent in your savings. Fortunately, there's an open-source alternative: Gnucash. It manages personal and small-business accounts, creates detailed report graphs, categorizes your cash flow, and pulls stock quotes from the Web.
Gnucash can import QIF files from Quicken, and it even has online-banking features so you can reconcile your credit-card and bank statements without entering the data manually. Best of all, Gnucash doesn't "sunset" after two or three years like Quicken and Money. In other words, you won't suddenly find yourself forced to upgrade if you want continued online services and support.
Speaking of online services, if you're comfortable going with a Web-based approach instead of a desktop app, be sure to check out the latest crop of Web-based personal finance apps. Services such as Mint.com, Rudder, Thrive, and even Intuit's formerly fee-based Quicken Online are free--and do a great job of helping you track your various online banking, credit-card, loan, and investment accounts. Estimated savings: $20 to $70 per year if you routinely buy the newest version of Quicken or Money.
Read e-books without a Kindle: Much as I love e-books, I'm not a fan of Amazon's Kindle. Why shell out $359 on a bulky, ungainly piece of single-purpose hardware when I can use the hardware I'm already carrying? I'm talking PDAs and smart phones, which I can pack with mainstream fiction and nonfiction titles from services like Fictionwise, eReader (which is powered by Fictionwise) and Mobipocket. Sure, the screens on phones are small, but they're also backlit--great for reading in bed. iPhone users can even download new books on the fly, no PC required, using the free eReader and Stanza apps. Estimated savings: $359.
Create diagrams online: Need diagrams? You could shell out $559 for Microsoft Visio 2007 Professional, $259 for Visio 2007 Standard, or zero for Gliffy. This impressive Web-based diagramming tool lets you build flow charts, floor plans, and just about any other kind of drawing you want. You can add colors, drop shadows, and even gradient fills to your shapes, and collaborate on drawings with other users. All this without a single thing to install or a single dollar spent. Of course, you may want to consider an ad-free Premium account ($5/month), which adds e-mail support and security features, but even in its free form, Gliffy is spiffy. Estimated savings: $259-559.