10 free and fantastic downloads that replace or enhance Microsoft products

When it’s time to get work done, you need productivity tools – office suites, text editors, e-mail software, personal information managers, and other programs.

Productivity applications can cost a pretty penny, even hundreds of dollars, but we’ve rounded up 10 pieces of productivity software that don’t cost anything. Check them out, and save a bundle.

Office Suites

Among the many kinds of productivity software, office suites–notably Microsoft Office–typically command the biggest bucks. No need to open your wallet now, though, since we have three free office suites for you.

IBM Lotus Symphony

IBM Lotus Symphony is the descendant of the original Lotus software created many years ago when Lotus was an independent company, battling Microsoft for office-suite supremacy. (We all know how that fight turned out.)

Still, just because Lotus lost the war and was eventually bought by IBM doesn’t mean IBM Lotus Symphony isn’t good software.

In fact, it’s surprisingly slick-looking, with pretty much all of the features you could want in office software. It has a word processor, presentation software, and a spreadsheet, and all three support Microsoft Office file formats as well as many others.

In addition, quite a few plug-ins are available to provide extra features such as the ability to export charts from the spreadsheet as graphics files.

Download IBM Lotus Symphony | Price: Free

OpenOffice.org

Here’s probably the best way to save on productivity software: Use the free OpenOffice.org instead of paying $300 or more for Microsoft Office. In OpenOffice you get a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program, a database, a drawing application, and math software, all full-featured.

Think free means underpowered? Think again. This is a surprisingly powerful package that does just about everything that Microsoft Office does. You can even open and create files in various Office file formats–and, of course, you can work with other file formats as well. Not only that, but this suite even works with Office’s markup mode, so you can use it when collaborating with people who use Office.

The interface is functional, but that’s the best you can say about it. Though it’s somewhat crude-looking, it still gets the job done. It isn’t nearly as polished as Microsoft Office is–but do you really want to spend all that money for polish?

It also doesn’t have a ribbon like that of the latest version of Office. Depending on what you think about the ribbon, that’s either very bad or very good.

Download OpenOffice.org | Price: Free

OpenOffice.org Portable

At 150MB, the regular OpenOffice is a hefty download; it consumes even more space on your hard disk when installed. What if you’re looking for something lighter–say, something to run on a netbook? Or how about taking the whole OpenOffice suite with you on a USB flash drive that you can use on any computer?

If that sounds more like your style, you’ll want OpenOffice Portable, a considerably slimmed-down version of OpenOffice. It’s an 87MB download, but it looks and feels much like the full-blown OpenOffice suite.

Note that you may run into some problems. When I installed the software, it didn’t install a desktop icon or show up on the Start menu, so I had to manually navigate to the program’s folder to run it. The default folder it installed to didn’t work either, and I could find no uninstall routine for it.

Opening the application or creating files in it is significantly slower than performing the same action in OpenOffice, too. Still, if you’re willing to put up with all that for the sake of saving some disk space, it’s worth a try.

Download OpenOffice.org Portable | Price: Free

E-Mail, Word Processing, and Information Software

Maybe you don’t need a full-blown office suite, but your work does require a component, such as a word processor, an e-mail program, or a personal information manager. Here are five productivity specialists.

AbiWord

AbiWord, a dedicated, easy-to-use word processor, can handle any basic word-wrangling task you throw at it.

The interface is straightforward, so you won’t need to waste time getting lost in ribbons or multilevel menus. Simple icons and menus across the top of the page give you access to all of the program’s features, and there are many of them. The application performs mail merges; inserts page numbers, the date and time, and other auto text; and provides some very nice table tools. On top of all that, it can insert and handle images.

Be aware that the program has some drawbacks; for one thing, it won’t support the newest .docx Office file format. Still, if you don’t need to work with .docx files, give this freebie a try.

Download AbiWord | Price: Free

EssentialPIM Free

A personal information manager (PIM) can help you maintain your schedule and to-do list, keep track of your contacts, and create outlines as you brainstorm.

EssentialPIM Free is an excellent PIM choice for anyone who doesn’t want to spend any money. Exceptionally simple to use, it offers just about everything you could want. Scheduling recurring events is a breeze, and prioritizing your to-do lists is easy. The note taker is nifty, too, and the app even has a surprisingly good built-in e-mail client.

The program also imports data from Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, allows you to configure its look and feel, and provides printing options. The creators offer a for-pay version, which has additional features such as synchronization with mobile devices, Outlook, and Google Calendar; but if you don’t need advanced features, the free version is a great bet.

Download EssentialPIM Free | Price: Free

Simple Sticky Notes

The name of this program says it all: It lets you create sticky notes on your PC similar to the paper Post-It notes that litter people’s offices. Just double-click the program’s icon in your system tray, and it makes a note for you. Type in whatever you want to remember, and you’re done. You can drag the note to any location on your desktop.

Want to change the font or the text color? You can do that, and make the text bold or italic. How about changing the note’s color? Yes, you can do that, too, and you can change its opacity. You can also hide notes, print them, and even automatically send their text via e-mail.

Overall, Simple Sticky Notes is straightforward and a snap to use, and it won’t waste your time.

Download Simple Sticky Notes | Price: Free

Thunderbird

Chances are, you spend a big chunk of your workday going through your e-mail. Free office suites such as OpenOffice.org don’t have an e-mail client, while Microsoft Office does, in Outlook. Does that mean you have to pay big bucks for Microsoft Office just to get a good piece of e-mail software?

Not at all. Thunderbird, a product of Mozilla, the same group that develops Firefox, offers a slew of high-end e-mail features yet is extremely simple to use. In addition to all the standard e-mail features, it can encrypt messages, digitally sign messages, and create filters for handling mail automatically when it arrives.

It even supports RSS feeds and newsgroups, so you can keep up on the latest blogs, news, and discussions. If you already have an e-mail client, Thunderbird will import your existing settings, so switching over is effortless.

Unlike Outlook, Thunderbird has no calendar, to-do list, or other PIM features. If you need those, check out EssentialPIM Free, described above.

Download Thunderbird | Price: Free

Xobni

If you already use Outlook but you want to improve your productivity and reduce e-mail overload, here’s the best way to do it. Xobni cuts through e-mail clutter, makes keeping in touch easier, and streamlines searching for messages and contacts.

The program works as an Outlook add-on. When you need to use Xobni, it slides out from the right side of Outlook; when you’re done with it, the app hides away.

The program indexes all of your e-mail, and its search is faster than the one built into Outlook. For each of your e-mail messages, it gives information about the person with whom you’re conversing, including a threaded list of every e-mail between the two of you.

It also provides a list of every file you’ve exchanged, as well as the person’s phone number and “social network,” which is a list of people with whom the person has exchanged e-mail. Xobni integrates with the social networking sites Facebook and LinkedIn, and it grabs information about your contacts from those sites, too.

You’ll find a lot more in this program, including analytics tools that report personal statistics such as the average amount of time you take to respond to people by day, month, and week.

Download Xobni | Price: Free

Other Productivity Tools

Finally, here’s a pair of productivity enhancers that improve on the Windows Clipboard and Notepad.

ClipX

What’s the most useful productivity tool built into Windows? The Clipboard seems like a good candidate at first, since it lets you copy and paste between documents and applications. But that’s it. The Clipboard is as puny a productivity tool as there is.

The free ClipX powers up the Clipboard and turns it into a productivity powerhouse. It keeps your last 25 clips, so if you clipped something a while back and want to reuse it, no problem: Press Ctrl-Shift-V, select your clip from the list, and pop it in. ClipX keeps graphics, as well, and since the program uses only a tiny amount of RAM, it won’t slow down your system.

Also useful are the many free plug-ins that you can download from the ClipX Web site. My favorite by far is ClipX Stickies Plugin, which lets you keep permanent clips, such as e-mail signatures or corporate logos, so they’re available whenever you want them.

Download ClipX | Price: Free

NoteTab Light

On plenty of occasions, you’ll want a text editor rather than a full-blown word processor like Microsoft Word or the OpenOffice.org word processor. You might need to create a plain document with no coding, for example, or you may want to set up a very basic HTML document.

Notepad, the text editor built into Windows, is close to worthless, and won’t give you much help. For starters, it can open only one document at a time. It doesn’t include any tools for coding HTML, either, and it has other limitations, as well.

NoteTab Light gives you an array of text-editing features. You can open multiple documents, use simple tools to code HTML, save boilerplate text and place it in any document, perform search-and-replace operations across multiple files…the list goes on.

If you need a text editor, get NoteTab Light–you won’t find a better free editor. But if by chance you need even more functionality, its creators also offer for-pay versions.

Download NoteTab Light | Price: Free

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