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10 Things People STILL Pay For (That They Can Get for Free) [2009-2014]

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.

This was published in 2009, and I thought it would be cool to go back and check out how free each of these items is now.

#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 you’re 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 freer, 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.

Update: Since 2009 Wi-Fi access has exploded. it can be found in Tim Hortons, Burger King, McDonald’s, and even when you wait in an auto shop. In 2014, free Wi-Fi is an expectation, not an unknown idea (as it was in 2009).

#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 and 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 this application for free (on Windows): AVG Free, Panda Cloud Anti-Virus.

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

Update: Free AV software has taken a beating. Many of the packages are too bloated and/or limited, and Microsoft has backed off substantially from supporting older operating systems (Windows XP), and making claims that it should not be the main AV on a system. Free anti-virus applications are still out there, but the options are limited.

#3 – Mail/Web Hosting – If you run a business or have a domain, something like – 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 (no longer free) was a 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. Google offers free web/mail hosting for up to 50 users. You can current get free mail hosting from Zoho only.

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 thousands of dollars.

Update: This is no longer free. Google Apps dropped the free hosting, Microsoft Live Domains offered it and then dropped it. You might even find the last-resort GoDaddy services that used to be free are also gone. There are smaller component services you can get for free (DNS, cloud computing) if you look for them.

#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 the 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.

Update: The landscape for productivity applications has changed quite a bit. Google’s apps are still free from within Gmail, but outside of that not. The same goes for Microsoft’s OneDrive service. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are still the best tools to use if you need a free office package.

#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 – which 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.

Update: Shadow Copy is still part of Windows, though its name has changed to File History. Hobocopy is also still free. Look for other options such as the open-source Syncthing.

#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 to 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 number of long-distance calls to a single location, consider using a call-back service that can save you airtime and long-distance charges.

Update: GOOGE411 is no longer. But in its place, a slew of replacements have popped up to offer free long-distance calling. Now, since data is generally your carrier’s cash cow, long-distance in-country is usually included in packages. You don’t mind using VOIP, calls can be made inside of Google’s Hangouts app, or from one of the many chat tools point to point (as long as the destination runs the same free tool). If you’re paying for an in-country long-distance call in 2014, you’re one of the few.

#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 applications 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 Alfresco 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.

Update: Alfresco continues to be a free tool. Along with that, there are many other tools that exist that might fit the bill (but are not traditional document management tools) like Github and free Wiki tools.

#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 (Note: Logmein is no longer free). 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.
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.

Update: As you saw in the small note above, Logmein is no longer free. Once free tools like Teamviewer are also getting more aggressive about allowing free use. Today, the only real freely available remote access tool is VNC-based. You might consider Windows Remote Desktop a free product, but I wouldn’t include it.

#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 an 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 affected by the problem. Today you can get this for free from Sun using their very powerful VirtualBox application.

Free-ness Quotient: Very mature today, Virtualization is set to become more pervasive
Techie Money Saving Tip: If 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 servers for no cost on this platform.

Update: The wonderful and useful Virtual Box is still free. Today ESXi is also still free (though it uses the vSphere naming).

#10 – ScreenCasting – Have you ever wanted to share what was on your screen with other people or your IT administrator? Doing this today may require jumping through 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 extremely easy to use
Techie Money Saving Tip:  Screenshots and Screen Casts are incredibly powerful ways to provide you IT support person with the information they need to solve your issue. Giving them access to see what your problems are can save you hours of labour time.

2014 Update: ScreenToaster is gone. The developer closed up the shop, and the free tool is no longer. There are still a number of free tools in this space with Screenr the first that comes to mind. Many of the tools in this space are freemium.

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? VeraCrypt does that and it’s free.

2014 Update: StartSLL still seems to offer free certificates, but with companies like Namecheap offering them for $9 a year, it won’t be hard for you to find an SSL certificate low cost. TrueCrypt abruptly died, but many alternatives popped up in its wake. It’s even still available for download. Online video streaming is much more than Rogers now, with every major TV company providing free online streaming to their customers.

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