Free and Low Cost Software to Make Computing Easier - Tech Learning

Free and Low Cost Software to Make Computing Easier

You may ask what software is available for free. Over the last few weeks, these 25 software programs have jumped out at me. They may not be necessarily the newest or the best, but they are usually free or under $50. As a matter of fact, depending on your operating system, you could buy all the software in this
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You may ask what software is available for free. Over the last few weeks, these 25 software programs have jumped out at me. They may not be necessarily the newest or the best, but they are usually free or under $50. As a matter of fact, depending on your operating system, you could buy all the software in this article for between $45 (Windows) to $50 (Macintosh OS X).

If you don't mind, come along with me and we'll take a quick look at some of the free software out on the Internet. Many are freeware programs — fully functional programs that the author or company allows anyone to use without asking for ANY payment for it. Others are "try before you buy" shareware.

Software Tools to Make Computing Easier

Often, I have had to seek out free tools to use in workshops because the teachers, administrators, and/or parents may not have the funds to purchase the commercial software. As an educator, I can appreciate the meaning of "free" or "low-cost" alternatives to expensive products. For example, the academic version of MS Office costs $150. For most educators, their students, and parents, $150 translates into another cost. "We bought the computer," they say, "and now I have to buy that program for how much?" But you can get StarOffice at no cost if your District signs an agreement to not use the software inappropriately and pays $25.

Why Write About Free Tools?

Recently I was invited to present at a conference with more than 1600 participants. It was a marathon conference and I was asked to prepare 5 different presentations. Of all the presentations, the most popular — that is, the topic that packed the room and resulted in standing room only — was entitled, "Freeware Internet Survival Tools." I was shocked. Over the years, I had started to think that this type of article and/or presentation was a waste of time. But it became clear to me that the words "free" or "almost free" attract educators and students in a powerful way.

Questions Educators Ask

Since I wrote the first version of this article in 1999, I have heard new questions that reflect the power of the Internet and increasing user familiarity with tools. The following is a short list of some of the questions I have heard or asked myself:

  1. How do I compress multiple files for transfer as an Email attachment?
  2. How can I set up my own Web server?
  3. How do I set up an FTP server?
  4. How do I set up an Email (SMTP) server and why would I want to?
  5. How do I protect myself from spyware or adware?
  6. How can I protect my computer from viruses?
  7. I've heard that Internet Explorer has problems. What browser might I use instead?
  8. How can I ensure that my Email is private, not public?
  9. Where can I find all these free programs?

If these are questions you are facing, then by the end of this article, you'll have all the answers you need to deal with Internet-related tasks. And, the best part about the answers is that the programs listed are, for the most part, FREE!

1-How do I compress multiple files for transfer as an Email attachment?

Sending Email attachments is easy, but can cause a lot of trouble for the recipient of your Email message. Before you send an Email message, contact the recipient and agree on a compression format that you can use. Compression programs work like electronic suitcases that allow you to carry your clothes on long trips. You put your clothes in a suitcase for easy carrying. This is the same reason that compression programs are used. There are several formats; some of the most common ones you can find on the Internet can be handled with one program — Aladdin Expander (note that you can click on the filenames to download these on the Web).

The most popular compression format is ZIP. This is an established compression format that is available on Linux, Windows, and Macs. The programs that you use to decompress files include but aren't limited to the following:

First of all, those using Windows XP can create, as well as decompress, zip files using built-in ZIP compression. Simply right click on the file or folder of files you want

Aladdin's Stuffit Expander. This cross-platform decompression program is FREE. Aladdin Expander uncompresses all popular compressed and encoded formats including ZIP (.zip), MIME Base64 (.mim, .mime, .b64), RAR, UUENCODE (.uu, .uue), GZIP (.gz .z), ARJ (.arj .pak), ARC (.arc), BINHEX (.hqx) and STUFFIT (.sit .sea). This program's ease of use and ability to handle many file-types make it a must-have. For example, double-clicking on a zip file can create a directory and extract all files into it. The program only decompresses files and cannot handle multi-part or encrypted files.

Of course, there are a wealth of compression programs. For $29, you can get WinAce a versatile, easy to use compression program. It is compatible with all the popular formats—except stuffit (SIT) — including ZIP files. In addition to an easy to use Windows Explorer interface, WinAce allows standard operations such as adding, viewing, deleting, and renaming files in compressed archives. You can also use WinAce to install programs from the downloaded archive (a time-saver!), to check archives for viruses, and for multi-disk spanning of files. Should you like WinAce as much as I, you can download a Mac OS X "un-ace" utility to decompress files.

You can also create self-extracting, or executable, archives that don't require a decompression program to expand. This is useful if you want to give a file to a neophyte who may not yet know how to handle compressed programs. On the Macintosh OS X Panther side, simply right mouse-click and ARCHIVE files to ZIP them.

2-How can I setup my own Web server?
One classroom teacher at the TCEA State Conference said, "I want to set up my own Web server in my classroom because I can't get space on the District server. Am I able to do that?" The answer is, "Of course!" Then, I reminded the person that they should check into their district's acceptable use policy. At this point, the person just smiled and we moved on to the details.

If you enjoy sharing student work or publishing your own work, but lack funding to buy your own server (approximately $10,000 for a Windows model) to place in the District's server farm, or lack support, then you are probably considering setting up your own Web server using a desktop machine. You wouldn't believe how many other educators are doing the same thing. In a few hours, you can probably find a wealth of free Web server software to use. Most of it is difficult to set up and get going but after hours of looking, you may run across Xerver.

Xerver is surprisingly easy, safe to use (translated, that means that it does not have any security holes), and more importantly, easy to set up Web server software. It features a setup wizard that guides you through setup of the server, allowing you to specify which folder has your Web pages, whether you want to password protect directories (a nice feature but difficult to achieve with some server software), and much more. It also has Web-based administration; that means you can administer or change the setup of your Web server via the Web. Of course, this feature can be disabled once you are done with setup. It also comes with built-in File Transfer Protocol (FTP) features. FTP is essential to a Web server since FTP software is what you use to transfer Web pages you’ve created on your computer to the Web server, from which they are shared on the Web.

While Mac OS X has built-in capabilities, you may want more control. In that case, you should investigate Web Crossing Express, the free version of a Web/FTP/Email server. It is similar to Xerver in its capabilities and features, except that Web Crossing comes in Windows, Mac and Linux versions! This is definitely a program to check out!

3-How do I set up an FTP Server?
Setting up a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server has become a simple process. As a matter of fact, just like Web servers, you can take any computer and make it into a file sharing station using FTP Server software. The concept of FTP is quite simple. Files are shared via an FTP server — which can be any computer — and then accessed using an FTP client that allows one to get or put files depending on levels of access. There are many uses for this, from allowing students to put and get, or upload and download respectively, files from a central location. You can restrict their access to one folder, but then later get all the folders for viewing purposes. I imagine its usefulness in Web design classes and other places where a network drive has not been set up for you or your students.

The Windows side offers a variety of programs. While my preference — and I use it extensively — for FTP Server software has included a program from Texas Imperial Software known as WFTPD ($30), free programs exist. One such is FileZilla Server. To access information shared with FileZilla Server, you will need an FTP client. While many still use WS-FTP LE (the free, academic version of the popular program), others may want to take advantage of the more powerful, yet easy to use — and also free — FileZilla FTP Client. While you don't have to use FileZilla FTP client to interact with FileZilla Server, the client is so easy to use you would do well to consider it. Another popular FTP client is SmartFTP, also free for academic use.

On the Macintosh side, you can use Fetch as an FTP client. For educational, non-profit use, Fetch is available at no charge provided you register it. Transmit, a shareware alternative, has the more traditional split screen window, but as shareware, it is not free. Unfortunately, as far as I know, for the Mac platform, no free FTP Server software exists — with the exception of the built-in FTP features of Mac OS X. Still, you might consider 3 FTP servers. I'll start with the most expensive:

a)Rumpus FTP Server for the Macintosh is a quality program but is expensive at $249 (it may be less with academic discount). It is definitely industrial strength for education settings.

b) By contrast, CrushFTP Server ($25 for 10 concurrent users, which works well for certain settings) is amazingly inexpensive, but has many features that may be confusing to the novice user (unlike Rumpus). However, CrushFTP server is initially easier to set up, handling command line edits in Terminal mode quickly, and more importantly, for you.

c) Another shareware option is to get FTP-Config ($20 for unlimited users). It is a program that installs a free FTP program on your MacOS X — Pure-FTPd — and provides a graphical user interface with "many of Pure-FTPd's features." Setup is simple and online help is detailed but not too detailed — a relief when you want to get things working quickly.

4-How do I set up an Email server and why would I want to?
Mass Emailing your colleagues for unsolicited, commercial use is considered SPAM. However, knowing how to send mass Emails is also a part of knowing how to use Email effectively. As such, an Email server can be a critical part of sending out Email using what are known as bulk Emailers. Some educational applications include the following:

  • Sending HTML/Web Page newsletters to subscribers.
  • Sending Email to your students.
  • Send Emails to organization members (e.g. TCEA).
  • Facilitate graduate research, Email surveys.
  • And, my personal favorite, send Email to thousands of workshop participants who have registered and attended—or failed to attend — professional development sessions within your District.

To send Email out in this way, you generally follow a process such as:

  1. Export only the data relevant from a series of relational databases to comma-delimited format or tab-delimited format. This exported data would include first name, last name, Email address, workshop #, workshop title, workshop date, and registration/attendance status (depending on whether the notice was going out prior to the workshop, or after they had attended the workshop);
  2. Import the data into a mass, or bulk, Emailer and customize the outgoing message using “mail merge†features that allows participants to receive a message that tailor-made just for them;
  3. Set up your computer as a Email (SMTP) Server; and finally,
  4. Send out several hundred Emails. This is all a lot easier than it reads.

Some free, Windows Email servers include the following:

  1. Free SMTP Server
  2. PostCast Server
  3. ArgoSoft Freeware Email Server and for the Mac, Mac OS X PostFix Mail Server which comes built-in to the operating system but has to be activated.

Some free or inexpensive bulk Emailers include FairLogic's WorldCast for Windows — free for non-profit use — and MacBulk Mailer for Macintosh ($49). Please note that a more detailed article on this topic is available online at Staying in Touch: “How To†with Bulk Emailers

5-How do I protect my computer from spyware or adware software?
"What are all these windows opening on my screen?' a campus administrator asked me recently. Unfortunately, windows were appearing on her personal laptop's screen at an alarming rate. Adware causes advertising banners to appear on your screen in multiple, cascading windows; they can appear so quickly that you are unable to use your computer for anything else. Furthermore, when doing a search, advertisements could appear everywhere on your computer. They are pernicious and invasive. Spybots are no fun either. They can be used to collect keystrokes you make — consider how dangerous this is when typing in sensitive information such as social security numbers or critical passwords — and send them on to others.

Although we came to the brink of reformatting — wiping the hard drive of data and starting over — we were finally able to install the right combination of software to prevent spyware/adware software from taking over her computer. The software programs are all free for individual use and are listed below. I encourage you to take these steps to immediately protect your computer. If you are undergoing a spybot attack, start with Step 2; this will prevent pop-ups from overwhelming you as you try to take care of the problem. They include the following:

  1. Update your Windows Operating System. You can do this by pointing your Internet Explorer browser to Protecting Your PC This Web site will allow you to download the latest updates for your particular operating system.
  2. Install a Firewall program such as Zone Lab's ZoneAlarm. A firewall program essentially monitors and restricts incoming and outgoing Internet use. It allows you to see how the Internet is being accessed on your computer. After a few alerts, you are able to identify which program is trying to access the Internet and deduce why. The program can be taught to remember which programs to allow, and which not to allow. ZoneAlarm is a free download and includes a short tutorial/wizard to help you configure it. First few uses of the Internet will require your permission, but you will actually be able to prevent your computer from sending out unauthorized spyware connections. This is important since an unauthorized spyware could further install other software on your computer.
  3. Install several anti-spyware programs including LavaSoft's Ad-Aware, Spybot, and SpyCleaner. Between the three programs, you have a greater chance of cleaning out existing spyware and ensuring that no new spyware will find its way into your computer. Of course, there are others you can use. Just for fun, why don't you use the free SpyAudit to scan your Windows computer for spyware? You will download the SpyAudit program to your computer, then run it. This will scan your computer for spyware at no charge and provide you with a quick check of what shape your computer is in.
  4. Finally, fix your Windows Registry. If you've had to battle spyware or adware on your computer, then you may have other, long-lasting problems. After cleaning out toxic programs, the Registry on your computer has been corrupted. The Registry is a place where the Windows operating system, as well as other programs you install on your computer, save information about themselves. A corrupt registry means that your machine will start up slowly and/or crash frequently. While there are many "registry cleaners" out on the Web, I would recommend Macecraft's Registry Supreme. Not only is it easy to use, but when I used it on 3 different systems within it's 30 day evaluation period, it worked flawlessly. And, while not a free program, it only costs $12.95! And, cleaning your Registry periodically can speed up your system significantly!

Unfortunately, installing these programs on work computers is not permitted. Educational and government entities have to purchase them — like Lavasoft's Ad-Aware, for example. However, it's cheaper if your district purchases them rather than each campus purchasing them individually. And, finally, you need to consider a good antivirus program.

6-How can I protect my computer from viruses?
"I keep hearing that antivirus software is a necessity, but I can't find one that's low cost or free. And, don't they all need to be updated?" My first experience with a virus was one that made black boxes appear on my screen while slowly destroying my executable program files. Now, with a few precautions, you can download software off the Web without worrying about being infected with viruses. Now, I'm confident that my antivirus software will catch viruses and trojan horses. Combined with the anti-spyware/adware software above, I now use Grisoft's AVG Antivirus for Windows computers. Free for personal use, this antivirus program — in my experience — has caught viruses that seem to slip by other antivirus programs such as Norton and McAfee. AVG Antivirus can be set to check incoming and outgoing Email, used to scan specific files, and its updates can be set to download and install automatically so that you need not worry about it. Fortunately, AVG Antivirus has a wonderful product available at no cost for personal use — AVG Free Edition. You might also consider AntiVir.

With the free software tools outlined in responses 5 and 6, you can now be fearless, albeit prudent, in your Web downloads. However, one more, slightly radical change (at least for some folks) is necessary.

7-I've heard Internet Explorer has problems. What browser might I use instead?
"There are a number of significant vulnerabilities in technologies relating to the Internet Explorer domain/zone security model. It is possible to reduce exposure to these vulnerabilities by using a different Web browser, especially when browsing untrusted sites," shared the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, a part of Homeland Security, on June 29, 2004 in its Vulnerability Note.

So, have you switched browsers yet? I made the switch a few months ago after spyware invaded my Windows computer, taking advantage of Internet Explorer browser. I spent hours trying to close the gate as window after window opened up on my screen. Having seen Internet Explorer so easily subverted, I switched browsers. Instead of Internet Explorer, I tried:

I finally settled on the free, Macintosh and Windows friendly Mozilla Firefox due to its flexibility and compatibility with all the systems which I use at home and work. Mozilla, a more full-featured and free browser, already seems to have gained wide-spread compatibility. While Firefox is the more streamlined browser, Mozilla may be the one most users turn to in the face of Internet Explorer failures.

If you must use Internet Explorer, then you might consider installing Bartdat Scrub XP. It "removes IE history, temporary files, cookies, and your documents list from your Start Menu. It also empties your Recycle Bin and clears Auto Complete Entries." You can download the .Zip file.

Not surprisingly, I have not used Internet Explorer — on either a Windows or Macintosh computer — once in the last 8 months. Good riddance? Only time will tell.

8-How can I ensure my Email is really private while on the Internet?
Until a short time ago, I did not care whether my Email was read by anyone other than its intended audience or not. After all, everything I committed to writing was something I was willing to stand behind. Or, so I thought until I realized the power of Email as a district administrator. How could I ensure security of communications with my staff on a public system or when I was away from the district Email system?

Furthermore, how could I secure electronic employee documents (e.g. appraisals, etc) that contained social security numbers? If I backed these up to a CD-ROM, then physical access was still not prevented unless I locked it up. Yet, a stack of CDs — like the ubiquituous 3.5" floppy disks — would start to accumulate. Backing up to a network drive does provide an alternative provided that one can ensure that the files are encrypted, or cannot be read. But, how can one be really sure? The following also forced me to consider secure Email communications. Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted the following on their Web site:

The First Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a grave blow to the privacy of Internet communications with its decision today in the case of U.S. v. Councilman The court held that it was not a violation of criminal wiretap laws for the provider of an Email service to monitor the content of users' incoming messages without their consent.

This ruling means that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can monitor the content of your incoming Email without your permission. What about outgoing Email? As online privacy suffers, it's important that we all do our part to protect our communications. While it may seem an inconvenience, ensuring Email privacy has quickly become one of the critical 21st Century skills. The situation is reminiscent of the shift in our approach to locking our front doors. In the past, people in small towns left their doors unlocked. Now, we train our children to always lock the doors behind them. Protecting your privacy — like locking the door to your house — has to be a skill we teach in school and to each other.

Of course, this cloak-n-dagger stuff could just be the sign of a paranoid mind, I told myself. So, I asked the question of the Campus Instructional Technologist: Special Interest Group list. I only had one response, perhaps confirming my poor assessment of myself. In her Email, Anne suggested I try DigiSecret for $129 for Email security and/or Primedius to ensure anonymous Web surfing. Sad to say, I couldn't justify the cost of either product. So, persisting in my paranoia, I started looking for other tools.

Several programs exist to protect the privacy of your Email and files. The premier tool, of course, is the free version of Pretty Good Privacy. It will allow you to safeguard your communications and encrypt files as needed. For $59, you can purchase the more full-featured PGP Personal Desktop version that provides a perpetual license and many more features. This free version of the software has become much easier to use than in past years and I highly recommend it. The $59 version works well with MS Outlook and other Email clients. The free one requires a bit more copy-n-paste.

If you are interested in an alternative to PGP, you can certainly try the GNU Privacy Guard. Unfortunately, it is not as user-friendly. In the future, however, this will certainly be the tool to use. No matter what you use, you can protect your files by "zipping" them into one compressed file and then encrypting them. This allows you to place your files anywhere without fear of their being viewed openly. You can easily use these programs with your favorite Email program (such as the free Windows or Mac Email client Mozilla Thunderbird.

9-Where can I find all the freeware software needed to handle these questions?
A table outlining all the software titles, their cost, operating system, and links to the software is below. You can also find software in a variety of locations. My favorite free software Web sites include SourceForge.Net,, and There are many others, of course, but just searching through these three will consume a significant amount of your time.


"I'm going to call it," shared Carmen, "Download a la Mode." It was a surprising twist to freeware Internet survival tools. But Carmen managed to fill the Download a la Mode workshop with participants every time we offered the class. As we move forward in discussing technology integration at the target level of progress, it is important to remember that it is appropriate to continue making this type of information available to educators. Thank you for allowing me to share this information with you!

About the Author

Miguel Guhlin currently serves as the Director of Instructional Technology Services for a large San Antonio school district. He spends some of his free time looking for free software to share with educators. You can reach him via Email at or peruse his other writings at


Freeware Definitions
Frequently Asked Questions
Shareware Definitions


Software Title





Aladdin Stuffit Expander

Windows & Macintosh


File decompression





File decompression and compression

Web Site:
Download from:





Web/FTP server


Web Crossing Express

Windows & Macintosh


Web/FTP/Email server


FileZilla FTP Server



FTP server


FileZilla FTP Client



FTP Client


Free SMTP Server



Email Server or


PostCast Server



Email Server


ArgoSoft Freeware Email Server



Email Server


Mac OS X Postfix Mail Server



Email Server


FairLogic WorldCast



Bulk Emailer


MacBulk Mailer



Bulk Emailer


Mozilla Thunderbird

Windows and Macintosh


Email Client


Zone Alarm








Adware remover





Spyware remover





Spyware remover





Spyware remover


Registry Supreme



Registry cleaner


AVG Antivirus Free Edition





AntiVir Personal Edition








IE Browser Cleaner and temp file remover. or,fid,23374,00.asp


PGP Free Edition

Windows & Macintosh


Security & encryption


GNU Privacy Guard

Windows & Macintosh


Security & encryption


Mozilla Firefox

Windows and Macintosh


Web browser



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