November 7, 2006

Best Free Stuff On the Web

Think all the goodies are gone? Our seventh annual roundup uncovers surprising treasures--from must-have tools to unique new services.

Okay, admit it: You took one look at our cover this month and thought, "There can't possibly be any new free stuff on the Web--at least not anything worth the effort of opening a browser for." But if you think the only thing free on the Net these days is the free fall of all those dot-com companies, we've got news. You can still get something for nothing online--sites, services, and downloads that are great for work or play. And we've found the best of the bunch: an array of winners you haven't read about a million times before, plus our picks for the free stuff Hall of Fame.

Some of the best free stuff available on the Web today is potent software that's yours for the downloading: office suites, utilities, and even operating systems. In Fee vs. Free, we offer our take on how four free applications compare to their for-pay counterparts.

Got a favorite freebie we didn't cover? Drop us a line at .
Tools & Services
A Search-Engine Sleeper

Yahoo, Google, AltaVista--there are lots of great search engines already. So why check out an obscure new contender like ILor? For starters, it's built on top of Google, so you get the same excellent search results that you'd get at Google's site. But ILor gives you four new options for viewing the results. Place your cursor over a link on the results page, and you can add the link to a custom list. Later, you can view the list, which is great if you're searching several topics and want to track all relevant results. Or you can e-mail it to a friend. You can also open the link in a new window (and avoid having to hit the Back button to return to your results); open the link in a minimized window that's out of the way until you need it; or anchor your results page (this puts a link to the page in a small window so you can dig deeply into a site and then return to your results with a single click). The tools are so useful you'll wonder why Google doesn't offer them.
News You Can Use

If you need a cure for the information-overload blues, try Infogate, a terrific utility that cuts through the mass of news on the Net to zero in on the stories you want to read. The 790KB Infogate download produces a toolbar with a live feed of headlines (which are updated as long as you're connected to the Internet) categorized by topics you choose. Click the Personalization button and type keywords to get breaking news from sources like CNN and Reuters. You can set the toolbar to alert you when, for instance, the latest NCAA tournament scores come in. To read full stories, click on a headline while you're online, and a window will open with links to the stories. The program's "follow me" feature sends information to your cell phone or pager.
Collective Memory

Long before the dawn of the Web, Usenet connected people of like minds and interests in its electronic version of a 19th-century salon. Now Google Groups gives you search engine-style access to over 700 million messages posted to Usenet groups during the past 20 years. It's a fascinating compendium of information on everything from the Challenger explosion to Microsoft's legal woes. Google has even culled historical gems from the archive with special links; an example is Tim Berners-Lee's announcement of what later became the World Wide Web. And this isn't just the cyber equivalent of a time capsule. You'll find up-to-the-minute chatter and advice on every topic under the sun--and you can post your own messages.
Calculate This

Tired of having your system bog down for half an hour while you download a file that was supposed to take only minutes? Before you hit the Download Now button, stop by the Calculators On-Line Center's File Download Time Calculator and enter the size of the file you want to snag. The calculator will quickly estimate the amount of time the download should actually take, based on its size and the speed of your Net connection (56-kbps modem, DSL, or whatever). While you're at it, check out some of the more than 14,000 other specialized calculators listed here, such as one for measuring focal depth and exposure times for different photography conditions. Another intriguing offering is a Java applet that calculates how far from a traffic light you need to hit your brakes to stop on time. (The calculation is based on car speed and brake-delay time--no mention of cell phones in the equation.)
Window Cleaning

Looking simultaneously at several sites--say, at the home pages of four online newspapers--usually means having to toggle back and forth between multiple windows. But Quickbrowse cleans up window clutter by pasting up to six pages that you specify into one, long window for easy scrolling (for $13 every three months, you can obtain additional pages and receive a daily e-mail of your sites). You can specify a list that contains the URLs you want, or simply choose from ready-made lists for themes such as tech news or comic strips. The Quickbrowse site also offers QbSearch, a metasearch engine that employs the same clever principle: Enter search terms, and you can get results from up to 17 different engines and directories, stitched into a single page. (It's a handy way to search multiple sites with one click, even though Google is conspicuously absent from the source list.) Use the Quickbrowse This button to choose links from the search results and have all the pages open in a single window.
Squelch Those Ads

Take Madison Avenue to the cleaners with WebWasher, a utility for eliminating bandwidth-hogging online ads. This 1.2MB program also blocks cookies and Web bugs that let companies monitor your online wanderings. (You can specify which cookies you want to block, allowing only those that ease your Web movements.) Most important, without all those annoying pop-up and jumbo-size ads, your surfing will go smoother and faster. (Note: uses pop-up ads.)
To Catch a Spy

You downloaded a fantastic free utility, and now your screen is rife with pop-up ads. Could the program be spyware? Spychecker will help you find out. Spyware is ad-supported software that deposits a tracking tool on your hard drive to send data about you and your surfing habits to advertisers. Not all ad-supported software is spyware, and most ad companies say the data they collect isn't matched to your identity. But Spychecker lets you decide what to tolerate. At Spychecker's site, type in the name of the freeware app you're considering, and Spychecker will tell you whether that program is a known spy. The site also supplies the name of the advertiser behind the spyware, as well as a link to the company's privacy policy. To see whether your PC is already infected with spyware, use Ad-Aware, a free 833KB utility that detects and eliminates the most commonly used spyware.
Information & Advice
Manual Labor

Lost the manual to your Kenwood stereo or Sony cell phone? LiveManuals has manufacturer product guides with diagrams for a bevy of goods--from coffeemakers to videoconferencing equipment--as well as warranty and support information. You'll need to download the LivePlayer plug-in to view the manuals. You view the manuals in your browser, and can print out the pages you need. If you can't figure out how to operate the product after reading the manual, you can view a tutorial with audio. You won't find PCs here, but there are manuals for digital cameras, printers, and fax machines. And you can also open a product portfolio that lets you store a list of products you own to help you track when your warranties are due to expire. (You have to supply your address, too, so let's hope that the database is well-protected against hackers.)
Picture This

You love to take photos, but all of your pictures come out under- or overexposed. The Web is full of tips that can help with this and other photographic quandaries. is a good site for beginning shooters, with lots of information on composing a picture and working with light, as well as helpful analyses of pictures that went wrong--useful for both film and digital photographers. Another worthy site,, caters to both hobbyists and pros, with message forums, pithy product and book reviews, and gorgeous photographic travelogues. And for digital camera enthusiasts,, a Canadian site, is one of the finest resources around, with tons of tips and techniques, amazing images, helpful camera reviews, and excellent photo submissions from readers.
News TV

When you can't get to a television for your news fix, jump over to FeedRoom. This video streaming portal, partnered with NBC and other news organizations, provides live and prerecorded video stories of local, national, and international news. The video appears in a small TV-screen graphic, which you can expand to full screen. The full-screen version, though, is less crisp. A free feature called VideoAlert lets you receive a daily e-mail containing a link to video clips of the day's headline stories. You can also e-mail clips to your friends. Though the site looks and sounds best if you have a broadband connection, you can adjust the stream for dial-up use.
Domain Man

There are dozens of accredited domain name registrars through whom you can set up a new domain for your business or personal site, but prices among them vary from under $10 to over $100. RegSelect tracks data on more than 50 domain registrars. The site includes information about prices, special features such as forwarding address services, as well as notes giving the bottom line on each company. Its "bargain bundles" collection lists inexpensive options and package deals. To find out whether a registrar you're dealing with is accredited by
The Uncle of Search Engines

If a butler named Jeeves can have his own search site, then why not Uncle Sam? Billed as a "one-stop shop" for government info, FirstGov can link visitors to any of more than 47 million pages across all three branches of the federal government. You can track your Social Security earnings, apply for a student loan, download needed government forms, look up consumer product recalls, or find out what the FDA has to say about herbal health remedies. A tutorial for new users helps you navigate the site. Warning: Government sites are prime targets for hackers--so be careful about supplying sensitive data online, such as your Social Security number.
The Doctor Is Online

The print edition of the Merck Manual has been a bible of health care for over 100 years. This Web-based edition comes in two versions: text only, and an interactive version with photos, video, and animation. (It's a good thing, too, because the site's design is pretty dull.) Take a quiz to see if you have a fungal infection, or click the Pronunciation tab and highlight a word to hear a voice pronounce it. You also get links to associations and institutions that specialize in particular areas of medicine.
Click on Click 'n' Clack

So you've wasted another hour of your life listening to Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers) on National Public Radio. Now you can kill even more time with their irreverent Car Talk Web site. By turns informative and hilarious, the site offers advice about buying, selling, repairing, and caring for your car, plus driving tips for road and weather conditions, poetry, and listener love/hate mail. You can search the Mechan-X-Files to find a "great, honest, hard-working" mechanic in your area, or just settle for one who hasn't been sued. You can also get a free report with links to information on recalls, crash tests, owner complaints, and theft statistics. And of course there are audio clips of the brothers' antics on their radio show.
Leisure Time
Digital Made the Radio Star

Got a longing for that cheesy, all-80's radio station you used to listen to back home or the Moscow rock station you discovered on your last vacation? RadioTower links you to over 1300 online radio stations from 80 countries, including news, sports, and financial/business stations. Simply download the free RealPlayer or Windows Media Player and browse by station name, country, or music category. With free radio like this, it's no wonder that fee-based Net music hasn't caught on yet.
Change of Face

If you're tired of a world dominated by Times New Roman and Courier, FontFace, Larabie Fonts, and Pizzadude will brighten your days with hundreds of inventive Windows-compatible typefaces for any mood. Most are free, and many that do charge a small fee have freeware versions available. FontFace features such typefaces as Takeout (Chinese restaurant lettering), Blood of Dracula (with dripping letters), and Star Jedi (inspired by Star Wars).
Culture Club

You'll feel smarter just adding this erudite site to your Favorites list. A brilliant collection of ideas on subjects from Laurel and Hardy to Freud and Jung, Arts & Letters Daily mimics a 19th-century broadsheet, and is jam-packed with fascinating articles culled daily from publications around the world. Witty teasers like this one pull you into the stories: a wood without pigs is like a ballroom without women (for an article on animal husbandry). There are also links to 19 newspapers from around the globe, 74 journals and magazines, radio stations, and columnists--from the prickly Molly Ivins to the patrician George Will. Make it your home page and you'll never lack for interesting party talk.
Fenced In

Hell hath no fury like a British cyclist scorned. It all began when the stuffy owners of an iron fence in London posted a sign warning commuters not to lock their bikes to the fence. So the outraged author of What Should I Put on the Fence? has been locking everything but his bike to the fence ever since: a tricycle (not technically a bicycle), an ironing board, even a pot of tea (for the haggard handyman who has to trim away the items daily with a hacksaw). This kind of quirky, personality-driven site is what helped make the Web popular in the first place. See the photos and read the author's engaging narrative ("Wife worries about fence obsession") documenting the Keystone KopsA-like shenanigans; then nominate your own offering to the fence gods.
Gittin' Jiggy Wit It

You love jigsaw puzzles but hate doing the same ones over and over. JigZone has over 800 photos and 32 puzzle shapes to choose from. Pick from categories like art & architecture and travel & culture, then choose the number of pieces and their shape, such as 91 pieces shaped like lizards or 247 triangular-shaped pieces. A timer tracks how long it takes you to solve the puzzle. If you get frustrated, click the "solve" button to see the pieces fall into place. Think it's child's play? Try the blue shark puzzle (in murky water of varying shades of aquamarine) with 247 triangle-shaped pieces, and you'll be hitting that Solve button pretty quickly. If crossword puzzles are more to your taste, pay a visit to Puzzle Choice, which has printable puzzles for solving offline, plus interactive versions.
By the Book

Many free e-book sites promise a lot of titles but then deliver only obscure material you'd never want to read. But MemoWare has over 10,000 PDA documents for reading on Palm, Pocket PC, and other handheld computers. And the quality is as impressive as the quantity. Among the wealth of offerings are literature (classic and contemporary novels, children's stories, and mysteries), business, philosophy, and religious titles. In addition, you'll find files that are useful for everyday tasks, such as ones containing worldwide airport codes and airline 800 numbers, medical information from the National Institutes of Health, dictionaries in various languages, sporting event schedules, area codes for the United States, and the IRS's list of per diem rates allowable for business travelers in various cities and countries. The offerings go on and on. There's even a file containing an episode guide to three seasons of The Sopranos. Now that's useful.
Hall of Fame: Still Free--and Fantastic--After All These Years

These days, it seems that just when you get attached to a free offering on the Web, its proprietor either takes it away or starts charging for it. But some top-notch, long-running freebies are here to stay--at least we hope they are. Here's our free stuff hall of fame.

Adobe Acrobat Reader: Must-have utility for reading PDF documents.

AOL Instant Messenger : Our favorite instant-messaging program on the Web. (Note: PC World provides computer content to AOL.)

Citysearch : A directory of what's happening in your city; great if you've got a life or are looking for one.

DSL Reports : All broadband news and information, all the time.

Efax: Lets you get faxes via e-mail, no fax machine or phone line required.

Encarta: An encyclopedic world at your fingertips.

Evite : Automates invitations; if only it could clean up after the party.

Google : The best big-name search engine for taming the chaotic Web.

MapQuest : Maps and driving directions when you feel a little lost. : Lots of helpful free articles from this publisher of legal reference books to get you ready for your day in court.

PC Pitstop : A personal pit crew (and PC World partner) dedicated to helping you optimize your PC's performance.

Pretty Good Privacy Freeware : Personal encryption for times when it's no one's business but your own.

Winamp : Unobtrusive MP3 player free of ads or proddings to upgrade.

Yahoo Mail: Still the most reliable and hassle-free no-cost e-mail service.
Online Giving: Free Stuff Gets Charitable

It's better to give than to receive, of course. And dozens of sites let you support charitable and nonprofit programs without digging into your wallet. Click on a button, and the site's advertisers will donate a predetermined amount to the charity. The amount per click is tiny (and you're generally limited to a click a day), but it adds up when thousands of surfers join in.

Why do site sponsors make donations based on your clicks? Simple: They get to promote their products through ads you view, and they gain positive PR through their association with the site. But before helping any charity collect funds--online or offline--make sure you know the facts on such important matters as the percentage of donated funds the charity actually puts toward its cause.

The Rainforest Site, The Hunger Site, and The Breast Cancer Site are sister for-profit sites that invite you to help save rain forest land, feed the hungry, and provide mammograms for women who can't afford them. Each clearly explains how it works and what it has accomplished: The Rainforest Site, for instance, says that its visitors' clicks helped to preserve 4700 acres of land in 2000. For links to other click-for-charity sites, check out, a directory of more than 50 such destinations.