50 Essential Free Apps
Maximum PC|November 2019
Whatever you want to do, do it, and pay absolutely nothing in the process.
Alex Cox

Free: that’s the magic number. At least, it is when it comes to PC software. Why break the bank populating your PC with applications when enterprising individuals and organizations have created a raft of software that does the job adequately for not a single dollar down?

Now, we’re well aware that there are several different categories of free software. There’s the stuff that comes from the open-source community, which is usually a little rough around the edges, owing to its many-cooks approach. But open-source software has its own advantages: Sometimes it’s home to experimental features that those in the commercial market might hold back on; sometimes it’s designed for a niche that commercial developers can’t profit from. There’s also that slight guarantee that your software is going to stay free—while it might take an age to update and basically come with no warranty, open-source software suddenly attempting to dig around in your wallet is a rare occurrence.

The other side of the coin is “free” software, in quotation marks. There’s a swathe of it in this list, but we’ve done our best to dodge anything too feature-light. Essentially, as has been the case for decades, software publishers often offer a taste of the goods in an effort to get you hooked enough to buy the real thing. Often, that taste is adequate on its own. Sometimes, it’s not really a taste for you as much as it is for the business market, where expensive per-seat licenses can be a real moneyspinner. You can have the software, but these guys need to pay.

Whatever the reason for a package being free (or “free”), we’ve tried to avoid picking out any time-limited trials or painfully poor options in this collection. There are 50 options for 50 distinct jobs— and 50 alternate suggestions, if our top pick doesn’t give you exactly what you need. It is entirely possible to populate a PC with completely free apps—and a great many of these are cross-platform, so if you’re really on the free side of the fence, you can run them on a Linux machine, too.

CREATIVITY

1 PHOTO EDITING

Polarr http://polarr.co

Polarr has crept up on us over the past few years, but since it made the jump from mobile to PC app, it’s proved to be one of the coolest and most capable photo-tweaking tools available, paid or not. Alternately: Adobe Photoshop Express

2 IMAGE EDITING

GimP http://gimp.org

Stupid name aside, we’ve known for about a decade that gimp’s Photoshop-esque toolset and laundry list of filters make it an essential desktop tool. Save often, because it can decide to be flaky at a moment’s notice. Alternately: Pixlr

3 DIGITAL PAINTING

Krita http://krita.org

Best enjoyed with a pressure-sensitive tablet, but viable for anyone who wants to create art with a mouse, Krita is a surprisingly accomplished paintbox as perfectly suited to illustrators as it is to any budding Bob Ross. Alternately: MyPaint

4 VECTOR ART

INKSCAPE http://inkscape.org

Pixels be damned: With Inkscape, you can create entirely scalable graphics and tweak text to your heart’s content, making it perfect for generating logos and such. Inkscape is analogous to Adobe Illustrator (although it’s a whole lot more free), and it’s also fully SVg compliant. Alternately: Gravit Designer

5 MUSIC MAKING

CAKEWALK http://bandlab.com

Back from the dead somewhat, Cakewalk recently came under new ownership—and those owners decided that the app was best given to the world for free. Prolevel recording, all the tools you need to mix and master tracks, not to mention a host of software instruments and effects. Alternately: Ardour

6 WRITING

Focuswriter http://gottcode.org/ focuswriter

A beautiful, serene background image. The clickety-clack of a typewriter accompanying your keystrokes. You, your words, and no ugly distractions. If there’s something you need to get written, you should forget big clumsy office apps: Keep it simple. Alternately: Typora

7 GAME CREATION

Godot http://godotengine.org

While there are plenty of game engine options out there, they’re often pretty demanding when it comes to eventual royalties; godot is completely free and rapidly maturing, with Vulkan support on the way, and a huge swathe of documentation to get you started. Alternately: Amazon Lumberyard

8 3D MODELING

Blender http://blender.org

Blender recently ditched its game engine portion in order to focus on the features it really excels at: every step of the 3d pipeline. So, whether you’re creating, sculpting, rendering, or animating, there’s a tool here to help—and 17 years of maturity to back them up. Alternately: 3D Crafter

9 DTP

SCRIBUS http://scribus.net

There is no sense in trying to layout complex documents in microsoft Word, given its propensity to tear a hole in space-time whenever you slightly resize a text box. Scribus is a much more sensible option for desktop publishing, with a powerful text engine and strong image options. Alternately: Lucidpress

10 ANIMATION

SYNFIG http://synfig.org

Whether your 2d animation needs consist of tweening vectors or skeletally animating a collection of bitmaps, Synfig gives you the necessary tools. It’s adept enough to produce some professional results—although the quality of your work is down to you…. Alternately: OpenToonz

MEDIA

11 MOVIES

VLC http://videolan.org

Other apps periodically vie for the crown, but we’ve never found another free player compatible with so many codecs and ready to cope with so many potential rendering glitches. dig under the surface, and VLC can do a whole lot more—it’s great for latching on to streaming services, too. Alternately: MPC-HC

12 AUDIO

MUSICBEE http://getmusic bee.com

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

RELATED STORIES

Evolution of the App

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007—or, more specifically, Apple opening its App Store to third-party developers in 2008—turned out to be one of the most consequential developments ever to hit the home automation market.

4 mins read
Sound & Vision
April - May 2021

THE NEW APPLE TV 4K: CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE WITH A12 BIONIC CHIP & NEW SIRI REMOTE

Whilst it was the overhauls to the iMac and iPad that got people talking at this year’s Spring Loaded event held in Cupertino, California, Apple also used the virtual keynote to announce a refresh to its popular Apple TV set-top box. The latest iteration drives huge leaps forward in graphics performance, introduces the A12 Bionic chip to Apple TV, as well as an all-new Siri Remote, designed to take Apple’s cinema-athome experience to even greater heights.

7 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #498

The Fortnite Fallout

Apple and Epic meet in court, making the collapse of a once-close relationship complete

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 10, 2021

APPLE SIGNALS RETURN OF RIGHT-WING ‘FREE SPEECH' APP PARLER

Apple said it has reached an agreement with the right-wing social app Parler that could lead to its reinstatement in the company’s app store. Apple kicked out Parler in January over ties to the deadly Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #495 *Special Edition

EPIC GAMES COMPLAINS ABOUT APPLE TO UK COMPETITION WATCHDOG

Epic Games submitted a complaint this week about Apple’s alleged “monopolistic practices” to the U.K. competition watchdog, which is investigating the iPhone maker over concerns it has a dominant position in app distribution.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #492

Break Away From Android and iOS: 7 Free Open-Source Mobile OSes

Silicon Valley has long preached that technology, not truth, will set you free. The jury is still out on that. For instance, although smartphones have dramatically changed our world, they come with some serious drawbacks. Centralized app stores mean that useful apps can vanish in a heartbeat, while apps themselves use the sensors on these devices to monitor much of our lives. Perhaps worst of all, most of these devices cost plenty, yet they aren’t expected to function for more than a few years.

10+ mins read
PC Magazine
April 2021

EPIC GAMES FILES EU ANTITRUST COMPLAINT AGAINST APPLE

Epic Games said it filed an antitrust complaint against Apple with European Union regulators, opening a new front in its war with the tech giant over app store payments.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #486

APPLE MAPS: A NEW DIRECTION WITH CROWD COLLABORATION

Apple is taking a leaf out of Waze’s book with its iOS 14.5 update, bringing a plethora of new features to its Maps software including accident reporting, speed checks, and hazards.

6 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #486

NEW USES FOR YOUR APPLE GEAR

Got some old Apple devices lying around gathering dust? Don’t just throw them away! These creative ideas will breathe new life into them

10+ mins read
Mac Life
March 2021

TALK SAFER: APPS TAKE PRIVACY FIGHT TO FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE

As messaging giant WhatsApp prepares to hand over more data to Facebook, users are flocking to rival services in protest, with Signal jumping from 250,000 downloads on the App Store a week to almost 10 million.

6 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #482