There’s a wealth of free software and apps available to help you get the most out of your computer or smartphone (or both) — so much, in fact, that it’s hard to get around to trying most of them. That’s where this list comes in. It’s freshly curated to highlight the top tools and applications you’re (probably) not already using.
We’re going to focus on uncovering the hidden gems with this particular list, apps and programs that you’re less likely to have heard of already. So you won’t find the likes of Gmail or iMovie included. However you use your phone and laptop, the list below should throw up at least some apps that can be helpful to you.
(As the development of every app needs to be monetised somehow, we’ve included apps with in-app purchases—but in apps where this is the case, we’ve made sure you can still access a lot of functionality for free.)
Minimise the time you spend searching for something to watch on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Stan, YouTube and so on, with JustWatch: As well as telling you where movies and shows are streaming, it can alert you to price drops on digital rentals and purchases, and keep you informed about new titles hitting the major platforms too.
Did you know you can access thousands of ebooks and audiobooks from your local library, free of charge? Well, you can, and Libby makes it possible: The app guides you towards librarian picks and what’s popular with other readers, or lets you just have a browse around yourself. Books can be sampled and borrowed in a tap and read right inside the app too.
Google Arts & Culture is one of Google’s lesser-known apps, but a fine app nonetheless—it lets you take in some of the best art and museum exhibits in the world, without leaving your chair, as well as find culture events near you and identify any artworks or exhibits you might be physically standing in front of. This app can be a serious time sink, but in a good way.
Even Apple and Google themselves are getting into the digital wellness game and encouraging us to take a break from our phones, but we prefer Forest to anything that comes built into Android or iOS. What we like most is its simplicity: You get to grow digital trees and then a digital forest as you learn to wean yourself off your smartphone addiction.
There are plenty of finance and budgeting apps available for phones now, but few get as much right as Spendee does: From the simple, intuitive, clean layout, to the way in which it helps you dig into your spending patterns and budget goals, it’s a quality all-around package for staying on top of what you spend and managing your money better.
There’s some serious magic going on under the hood of Otter Voice Notes, an app which can listen in on your conversations and then transcribe them in real time — perfect if you spend a lot of time in meetings or doing interviews where records need to be kept. It’s uncannily accurate and you get 600 minutes of recording time free each month.
Turn your phone into a lean, mean, document scanning machine with CamScanner — by no means the only page scanner in the app stores, but definitely one of the best in terms of features and quality. Automatic cropping and optimisation, easy sharing into other apps, the ability to export to PDF, passcode protection, annotation support... there’s a lot here.
Hour Blocks (iOS)
If you find yourself struggling to get your schedule under control, give Hour Blocks a try. The idea is simple but brilliant: You split your day up into hour blocks (hence the name), which should simplify both your calendar and your to do list, and help you to get more done in the time you have. It can sync events across from your iOS calendar as well.
Snapseed is one you’re more likely to have heard of, but we reckon there are still large chunks of the Android and iOS userbase who are unaware of such a competent, feature-rich photo editing app for phones. You can use the app to fix blemishes, rotate and crop pictures, add text and filter effects, and much more besides.
Unsplash continues to impress as a resource for free images (do whatever you want with the photos). A lot of them are perfect backdrops for your phone or laptop — from sweeping mountain ranges to intimate library corners to cute-looking animals, there’s so much to explore here. Unsplash hasn’t released an Android app, but you can also get at it online.
Need to make a GIF? GIPHY Capture can help. In fact, it makes the process ridiculously easy, and anything that’s running on your macOS desktop can be captured and converted. The web tool is less advanced, but you can still turn any local video file or online video clip into a classic GIF animation, with plenty of customisation control included along the way.
Canva is available in mobile app form but it’s on the web where it really shines. It essentially lets you design anything — a logo, a flyer, a poster — in a way that needs no technical know-how or expertise and yet which also avoids a dumb template-driven approach. You can produce beautiful designs in minutes, and really feel like you’re the creator.
Krita is one of those powerful open source programs, backed by a passionate team of developers and users, that you wish there were more of in the world. It’s a digital painting program for creating all types of graphical artwork on your computer, and if you’ve got no idea where to start, you can find plenty of tutorials and help on the official Krita website.
Pixlr X (web)
When it comes to photo editing, the online Pixlr X puts many a desktop program to shame, and is completely free to use too. Resize, crop, and straighten images, change brightness, colour, and contrast settings, apply instant filters, clone parts of an image, touch up blemishes, add text, shapes, and borders, and more — it’s a really comprehensive editor.
The Unarchiver (macOS)
Having a file on your system that you can’t open is a particular frustrating experience, but you can minimise the chances of it happening by installing The Unarchiver on your Mac—it can deal with just about any archive format you want to throw at it, from ZIP file to ISO, and it does it all without breaking a sweat. Never get locked out of a bunch of files again.
Speaking of free archive managers for desktop OSes (see above), 7-Zip is a very competent one for Windows. The list of archive formats it can deal with is a long and comprehensive one, and you can use it to pack up files in formats like ZIP and TAR as well as extract the files again at the other end. It can integrate tightly with File Explorer too, if you’d like.
Since the demise of Windows Movie Maker, Windows users have lacked a simple, free, user-friendly video editing program for home projects, but the open source Shotcut answers the call with a variety of useful features and a traditional timeline view. A host of video formats are supported, and there’s a macOS version of the application too.
Some of the best utilities are those that patch gaps left by Microsoft or Apple, and that’s the case with Amphetamine. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly useful tool that keeps your MacBook alive when the lid is shut, as long as it’s still connected to the mains power—something you might need if you’re outputting video to an external monitor.
If any email client has a chance of getting you to inbox zero, it’s Spark: It comes packed with features designed to make email less of a chore, to surface the messages that are most important to you, and to reduce the time you spend gazing forlornly at your inbox. Auto-sorting, email scheduling, and a simple calendar are some of the features on offer.
One of the shining lights in the open source world, HandBrake is a versatile, reliable video transcoder that can get video files from almost any format (like DVD rips) into almost any other format (like Apple-friendly MP4 that’ll work on your iPhone). It’s not the simplest tool you’ll ever load up, but it’s likely to be one of the best and one of the most useful.