One of the key missions for this Tip of the Week series is to provide information about free or low-cost software that can help your small business improve productivity. Unlike hot-shot “industry insiders” I don’t have special sources that leak information about “exciting” new releases. And, I would never cover a product that I hadn’t personally checked out and found would likely be useful to small business owners. (That means you can rest assured that no one is getting paid or otherwise compensated for including a product or service in Tip of the Week.)
I search for software to include in Tips using resources anyone can access, if they want to take the time to do it. Hopefully, you have been able to use some of my finds to make your own life easier. However, I know that everyone has individual needs, and the search for useful, time-saving, productivity-boosting software can be never ending. So, this week I’m going to let you in on some of my go-to sources for software reviews and free downloads.
Of course, I’ll continue to routinely post tips about new, innovative, and interesting, desktop applications, mobile Apps, and Cloud-based software. But, if you have a specific need at a specific time, then try one (or more) of the sources below for some great suggestions, some of which are available for free.
Reviews, Comparisons & Downloads
When you know the software application you want, but you can’t afford it (or don’t want to pay for it), use AlternativeTo to find free or lower cost alternatives. Simply enter the proprietary software program name in the search box—such as Photoshop, Microsoft Office, or Visio— and you’ll see a large list of alternatives with similar functionality, along with a list of the Operating Systems they support, pricing, a short description (and details/reviews where available) and links to the publisher’s website where you can purchase or download the program. To see only free options, select “free” in the filter-by-license drop-down.
The site is community driven, so you’ll see comments from other users, and if you create an account, you’ll be able to join the conversation and recommend your own free finds to others. If your search comes up empty, you can even add the application to the “OMG Fail*” list to ask the community for suggestions.
If you’re a frequent Tip of the Week reader, you’ll know that I frequently direct you to CNet for free software downloads. That’s because they do their best to test that all the downloads they host are virus and malware free. They also have a massive database of free and demo software at their download.com site, most of which includes User reviews and many of which includes reviews by CNet editors.
In fact, the database is so large that it can be cumbersome to navigate. Some good tips are to use the left column to narrow your search by Platform (OS) and Category, and then to sort the list (using the selection drop-down box at the very top of the left column) based on your interest—Editor’s Rating, Most Popular, Most Downloads, User Rating, Date Added, or Date reviewed. Select the “Free Only” box in the “Price” section of the left column to view only free software. For example, this search will show you freeware in the small business category for Windows that is rated at least 4 stars by CNet editors.
For in depth software reviews (that largely cover paid products), as well as resource guides on a variety of software and OS-related topics, see the Software topic on the CNet main website. Along with a large number of application reviews (which you can also filter by platform, category, manufacturer, and price), CNet also provides Software Resource covering a variety of topics including Best iOS Apps, a Windows 10 forum, and Software and app videos that enable you to see an App or program in action before you buy.
While not as large as some of the mega software databases like CNet, the PCMag Business Software Index provides detailed reviews in 30 key business software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) categories, that are geared towards small business technology buyers. (i.e. Accounting, E-commerce, VOIP, CRM, Sales, Website Management, and more.) While not every offering is reviewed by the editors, those that are include results based on actual field tests of the software by experts.
At the top of each product screen, you’ll see a short high-level description, the editor rating if available, and links to the manufacturer/service provider website and a download link (if available). If an in-depth editor’s review is available you’ll see a link to that at the top as well. In all cases, even if the offering is not reviewed, you’ll get a very detailed overview of the product/service.
All listings in the guide attempt to address significant issues of concern to small businesses, including key features and capabilities; key small business benefits, and how implementing the service/software will impact the bottom line. Another big plus is that this review site is free of deceptive advertising and confusing download buttons. Everything is clearly marked, and is exactly what it appears to be. And, the content is all written by PC Magazine editors, which cuts down on the garbage that you sometimes find in sites where anyone can contribute.
This website does exactly what its name suggests; it provides reviews and comparisons of what it deems to be the top-ten offerings in any of a large number of technology-related categories. The software section covers applications installed on computers and devices as well as cloud-based services. High-level categories include Business Software, Multimedia, Security, Ecommerce, and Finance. Most reviews are for paid products, but there are free products included.
A typical comparison review, like this one for Online Project Management applications, will run the 1-10 picks across the top of the screen, providing links to view an in-depth review and to visit the product website. Comparison charts for features and functions follow that allow you to make high-level comparisons between all the choices in categories such as key distinctions, price and pricing model, ease of use, security, integrations and other parameters based on the software’s purpose. For example, in the Online Project Management category, you can compare project initiation features, project planning features, and project monitoring features.
Bonus: If you’re looking for reviews of more than software, check out the Small Business section that covers everything from HR Outsourcing to Business Card printing.
This site is provided by Gartner, the well-known technology research and advisory company, and is designed to help businesses make software buying decisions. Along with high-level overviews, pricing, detailed expert product reviews, user product reviews, and product comparisons, the site also offers free consultations with software experts who can help a business create a short-list of providers.
It is important to understand that the software providers included in the site have largely paid to be there, and that the “free” consultation will result in your contact information being sold to the vendors the expert helps you select. However, nothing forces you to purchase from these vendors. And, the expert advice you can get from this site will often be worth enduring a sales call or two.
This software review site touts real, verified, user reviews (this video describes their process.) You’ll need to create an account in order to access full content, but when you do you’ll see reviews as well as a “TR Score” for each product/service. You can sort category lists by most reviews or highest score. The reviews also provide alternatives for the product you are reviewing. The buyer’s guides linked off the homepage are useful too.
When reviewing the reviews, make sure to note whether the review used a paid reviewer (someone TrustRadius paid to demo the product and write the review), and/or whether the product was included organically or assigned for review by TrustRadius. The company makes money by having software vendors pay to be included in the directory. However, it claims that all the reviews (paid or not) are unbiased.
This site is geared toward business applications for mobile devices, and includes software comparisons for a large number of business categories, and covers 3,900+ individual apps. First select a high-level category such as Communications or Business Analytics, then use the left column to filter your results. You can narrow the category, select a pricing model (choose “Free” to see only freeware), platform (iOS, Android, web-based), and user review rating. A nice feature is a filter for Organization Type that enables you to view applications geared towards small businesses or freelancers.
You can select multiple apps in a category for side-by-side feature and function comparisons. Many apps also include video demos, and all include links to the provider website and download links. If you sign-in with your LinkedIn account, you can also access additional content, rate apps you use, and join the conversation.
8-11. Other Mobile App Sites
There seems to be a new App review site popping up every day, and each is not all that different from the next.
AppAppeal focuses on new up-and-coming Apps for both iOS and Android; so if you’re looking to have the latest-and-greatest, check out this directory.
AppAdvice is large, but not very search friendly. It includes Apps for both iOS and Android. The best way to use it is to go directly to the Lists page, and then browse the categories for a topic that interests you.
This site covers only free software, so if it has to be free, this is a good place to look. It is community curated, and is dedicated to providing reviews and advice about available freeware. You can’t download anything from the site itself, but it does provide links to download sites for the software it lists.
Start by selecting your platform (it has sections for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android), then pick a category to browse. Or simply enter the type of software you want in the search box. The results list includes descriptions, links to detailed reviews, and alternatives you might want to try.
This freeware listing and download site is huge and has offerings in every conceivable category from finance to food to fonts. However, it includes only brief descriptions of software (not in-depth reviews) so it can be hard to know exactly what you are getting ahead of time. Additionally, the software providers themselves write the descriptions, so consider that as well. But, if you can’t find the program you need elsewhere, this site may just have it.
This site is a pet project from one guy who has made it his mission to tell people about valuable freeware. Use the categories to select the type of software you want, and then review the descriptions (all written by the site owner) for each offering. The lists are not all-inclusive; they simply list this curator’s top choices, along with the platforms supported by each, and download links. While you really can’t call this compilation unbiased, you can be sure you are getting a third-party opinion and not hype from a developer.
Download Site Cautions
You may wonder how so many websites can exist for the sole purpose of reviewing software and offering free software downloads. You might also wonder how so many people and companies can afford to give away software for free.
In actuality they can’t, and the old adage about nothing being really free is typically true in the case of freeware. So, while all of the above sites are great resources for information, and many freeware programs are truly worth your while to download and use, you do need to be extra vigilant to ensure that you are not tricked into downloading software you don’t want, or into changing your system configuration.
The following are things to watch out for:
- Just about all of the sites mentioned above accept advertising, which helps them to offer their content for free. There is nothing wrong with that. However, the ads often include download buttons that are designed to confuse you and trick you into downloading software that you don’t want or need. Be very careful to only click on (the often small and deemphasized) links that start the actual downloads you want, or that take you to the software download site you want. (As noted above, the PCMag Business Software Index is generously free of this type of deceptive advertising.)
- When searching, be alert for sponsored content. A common money-maker for search/review sites is to display paid listings above, below, and sometimes within the actual search results. Clicking one of these links will often take you to a third-party website where there are no security checks around any program you might download. The content you see at these sites also has no relation at all to the trusted review/download site. So, even if you know it is a paid listing and it interests you anyway, proceed with caution.
- Always use the “Custom” option when installing freeware, never the pre-selected “typical” or “suggested” installation option. Many freeware providers support their development efforts by accepting payment to include other software in their download bundle. In some cases you may want this software, but more often you don’t. And, in some cases this added software is adware or malware. By choosing the “custom” option you can typically see exactly what is being installed, and can de-select everything but the main application you wanted.
- Pay careful attention to each installation screen. DO NOT simply click “Ok” each time you are prompted. Another common way for freeware developers to make money is to get paid to change your system settings (for example by changing your default browser or browser homepage), install plug-ins (like a browser bar) or other browser related programs such as Java, during installation. You will typically see pre-checked boxes on installation screens for these options. Be sure to uncheck them, so that your system is not changed in ways you do not want.
Downloading and using freeware or free trial software from an unknown source is always a risk; and even well-known trusted sources such as Microsoft have been known to use pre-checked boxes during installs to authorize them to change your default browser. However, the advantages of a great free application often out-weigh the risk. If you are very careful during installation, you are likely to avoid the pitfalls.
Don’t want to take the time to search through all these resources yourself? Let us do it for you. Get Small Business Tips like this one, including reviews of useful productivity-boosting freeware, by signing up for our Small Business Smarts newsletter.