10 things people STILL pay for (that they can get for free)

It can be quite discouraging. You go buy something only to find out later that you could have gotten that for free. When looking at technology, there are a number of truly inventive and clever ways you can get things without having to pay for them. This article has a Canadian slant, but most of these 10 things are universal.

#1 - Wireless Internet Access - The promise of ubiquitous, free, wireless Internet access is not quite here. I'm not sure it will ever be a reality. It doesn't mean that you can't get this basic level of Internet access for free if your looking for ways to cut costs. First, Starbucks offers up to two hours daily of free Internet access at most stores. You just have to get a free Starbucks card, register it and keep it charged with $5. As a bonus, you can register more than one Starbucks card for even more time - just log in again with your next registered card to get two more hours. Some Second Cup and Denney's locations are also offering free Internet access.

Free-ness Quotient:  Available everywhere, becoming more free, Starbucks can be a welcome break from office/home
Techie Money Saving Tip: For those that have Blackberry phones with data packages, look into tethering to get on the Internet. In a pinch, you'll have Internet access anywhere you need it - and it won't cost you any more money because most people generally don't use all of their data allotment. Don't waste money on an Internet Stick.

#2 - Virus Scanning Software - Viruses are a serious threat. Having an application on your computer that can monitor and detect possible threats is part of a good protection strategy. Many don't know, however, that most virus scanning applications do a similar, if mediocre job. Some will come with extra bells an whistles, but monitoring and scanning for viruses is generally something everyone needs and the applications that provide this are robust, secure and free. When looking for a virus scanner, look only to pay for the management components, not the scanner. Right now, you can get these application for free (on Windows): AVG Free, Panda Cloud Anti-Virus, Microsoft Security Essentials.

Free-ness Quotient: Very mature, lots to choose from, more free options will arrive in future
Techie Money Saving Tip: Make common-sense and healthy dose of paranoia a you're main source of anti-virus protection. Applications that scan for unwanted programs are nowhere near as effective at protecting your computer than you are.

#3 - Mail/Web Hosting - If you run a business or have a domain, something like www.yourdomain.com - you are using some sort of hosting company to handle email and your website(s). The hosting industry has undergone a major shift over the last year or two; and you can take advantage of that. Yes, there are still a number of old-style free web hosting companies that use advertising frames to allow you a hosting space, but a new player has emerged. Google's Apps Standard is a free set of tools that will host your email and web services (among other things) and handle all of this on top of your custom domain. You will still have to pay for DNS and registrar services, but the Google services are a solid and reliable free alternative to what some ISPs are charging close to $100.00 a month for. Google offers free web/mail hosting for up to 50 users.

Free-ness Quotient: Free, Reliable and already re-defining the hosting landscape
Techie Money Saving Tip: Google also owns one of the most powerful spam filtering services, when paired with Google Apps Standard - you have a free solution that can effectively cost companies in the thousands of dollars.

#4 - Office Package - This is probably one of the most insane categories of free applications that I see people pay way too much for! I have seen people actually running illegitimate copies of an Office package over a more useful free alternative. If you are paying for Microsoft Office, STOP, and take a serious look at these alternatives. Google's Apps Standard comes with an online version of a very powerful word processor and storage space for your files - I highly recommend it. Other free alternatives are the powerful OpenOffice package from sun, the lightweight AbiWord, the online package from Zoho. Worried about Microsoft office support? All of these applications include support for Microsoft Office documents.

Free-ness Quotient: Great, really no need to continue using Microsoft's Office unless you have very specific requirements.

Techie Money Saving Tip: All of the above Microsoft alternatives are MUCH faster to load and use on your computer than the very bloated Microsoft Office applications. Not only are they free, but you'll likely save time using them. Also, look to some powerful collaboration tools from Google's constantly improving apps suite.

#5 - Open File Backups - What used to be the bastion of very expensive backup applications is now something within reach of almost every Windows user. Most people are unaware of the fact that they have the built-in ability to not only backup files, but backup files that are actually open (if they wanted to). This is possible due to the service in Windows called Shadow Copy - that makes copies of files on your drive, allowing you to restore if required. Using this powerful service in conjunction with a free utility called Hobocopy, you can backup and copy files including any that are OPEN to a location you decide.

Free-ness Quotient: Very free, a must-have utility

Techie Money Saving Tip: Using "Scheduled Tasks" and a basic batch file and Hobocopy - it's very easy to automate the process of backing up all of your data files to another computer or an external drive.

#6 - Long Distance Calls - This is a no-brainer. Who doesn't want free long distance calls? The large phone companies charge way too much for long distance, so it about time you found ways to fight back and not pay! Please note, this is from a Canadian perspective, where Google Voice is not yet available. One way to get free long distance is use the relativity new GOOGE411 service. Call the toll free number (1-800-466-4411) and use this service like a 411 call. The best part is that when you have the right number, GOOG411 connects you directly to the number, wherever it is!

Take a look at this video for more details:

Free-ness Quotient: Relatively new, expect more services to follow

Techie Money Saving Tip: Many phone plans today include free incoming calls. If you make a large amount of long distance calls to a single location, consider using a call-back service that can save you airtime and long distance charges.

#7 - Document Management System - This is a more advanced application - you aren't likely to require this unless you need a more powerful ability to manage a large number of documents and search within them. Some of the paid-for application in this market segment include Microsoft's Sharepoint and niche applications like Primafact . What many don't know, however, is that there are open source alternatives that can stack up to these applications quite well. The open source Alfreco Community release is an incredibly robust and powerful document management system that can save companies looking to manage their large number of documents.

Here's a quick video on what Alfresco is about:

Free-ness Quotient: Very mature and likely to stick around for some time

Techie Money Saving Tip: A trip to the Alfresco Forums can provide you with ideas on how you can extend the product. Active Directory integration and file format support are among the more useful extensions to the product.

#8 - Remote Access - If you support a number of computers for your clients or you are a user who needs remote access - this is an important function of what you do. Over the years, this has changed drastically from when paid applications ruled the day. Today, you should take a look at the freely available LogMeIn remote access tool. You'll pay for more advanced tools like file transfer and printing - but the basic core process of remote access with LogMeIn is completely free.

Free-ness Quotient: Very mature and improving. LogMeIn also traverses firewalls, a major improvement to providing remote access. Mac support is in Beta.

Techie Money Saving Tip: If you have servers to support - consider using LogMein in conjunction with Remote Desktop Services (on different ports) for supporting the servers fast and for free.

#9 - Virtual Machine - What's a Virtual machine? This is the wonderful ability to run a computer within your computer (if you will). You may use this for a number of reasons, probably the most powerful reason would be to test and application you don't trust completely. If that application doesn't work or install correctly or contains viruses, just delete the Virtual Machine (or use what's called a snapshot) and your computer is not effected by the problem. Today you can get this for free from Sun using their very powerful VirtualBox application.

Take a look at VirtualBox in action:

Free-ness Quotient: Very mature today, Virtualization is set to become more pervasive
Techie Money Saving Tip: Of you support servers and are looking to consolidate or save companies money - look to the Free Vmware ESXi server offering - you can virtualize a number of server for no cost on this platform.

#10 - ScreenCasting - Have you ever wanted to share what was on your screen with other people or you IT administrator? Doing this today may require jumping trough some hoops and, sadly, paying for file storage or services you don't need. The online application provided by ScreenToaster is a free way to record your local screen and share it with others (just as I have above). I highly recommend this tool.

Free-ness Quotient: Very free, and extrememly easy to use

Techie Money Saving Tip:  Screen Shots and Screen Casts are incredibly powerful ways to provide you IT support person with information they meed to solve your issue. Giving them access to see what your problems are can save you hours of labor time.

Other free stuff worth checking out: It is possible to get free basic SSL certificates using this method. Looking for a method to encrypt data on your disk or USB key? TrueCrypt does that and it's free. If you are a Rogers customer - you can get free movies on demand using Rogers On Demand.

That's my list - do you have any other great free tools that you use? Can you suggest something I might have missed?

First Published: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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