When you buy yourself a Windows or macOS machine, you’re not just buying the operating system on top of your hardware, you’re buying a suite of free apps as well. These pre-installed, built-in tools can often get overlooked or forgotten about, so we’re here to remind you how useful some of them really are.
It’s only in the last few years that Window’s software suite has caught up to macOS in terms of attractiveness, but the company has been bundling software nearly from the beginning. Beyond Minesweeper and Microsoft’s homegrown browsers there are a few free pre-installed Microsoft apps that are worth a look.
It’s fair to say that not all of the native Windows apps have been a success since the tablet-friendly revamp of the OS, but we think Mail is an exception: It covers just about everything you’re going to need from a desktop email client, so you don’t have to fork out for the full-fat Outlook option unless you really need advanced mail management tools.
It starts off by working with the free Outlook.com address you get with your Microsoft account, but adding extra accounts (like Gmail or iCloud) is a breeze, and it’ll identify the most important emails in your inbox for you. It comes with plenty of customisation options too, and a dark mode, as well as standard email features like auto-respond and signatures.
OneNote is free for everyone these days and comes as part of Windows 10, so it’s the perfect way to keep a record of... well, just about anything. Like similar apps such as Notes on macOS or Evernote, OneNote defies easy description, but you can think of it as a digital note pad where you can store everything from shopping lists to ideas for your thesis.
Like much of Windows 10 now, OneNote can sync information between devices using your Microsoft account (there are accompanying apps for Android and iOS), so you’ve always got your notes and your photos and your scribblings at your fingertips. It’s especially useful if you use a stylus with your Windows 10 device, as it works well with digital ink.
“Oh no,” you might think, “not another app to help me use my phone and my laptop together more effectively.” But hold on weary traveller, because we have used the Your Phone app, and can confirm that it is indeed good. It’s really only for Android users though, as Android gives third-party apps the necessary hooks into messages and photos that are needed to make Your Phone work well.
And it’s really those two components—photos and SMS messages—that make Your Phone worth your while. You can create and respond to texts right from the Windows 10 desktop without picking up your phone, and effortlessly sync pictures and videos between your devices, without a USB cable in sight. You will, however, need the Android companion app too.
After a few false starts, Microsoft has now managed to sneak a very decent photo management and editing app into Windows 10. It’ll even pull together automatic video montages from some of the photos it thinks are your best ones, if you want it to.
There’s also automatic facial recognition here—if you give permission—and editing tools that cover the gamut from colour adjustments to 3D, animated text effects to give your photos some pop. We also like the way Photos can pull together images and videos from all across your hard drive and make them easily accessible through a single interface.
Microsoft Solitaire Collection
Those of you of a certain age will know exactly what we’re talking about, but if you’re never given it a try, fire up the Solitaire app that comes with Windows and prepare for your productivity to potentially take a serious nosedive.
Having been ditched in Windows 8, Solitaire was brought back by popular demand in Windows 10, and it’s easy to see why: It’s the perfect, low effort, chilled out way of wasting 30 seconds or five minutes or however long you’ve got to spare. The Collection includes five different modes of Solitaire, and the app will track your progress across them all.
Apple has made a significant investment into its free suite of software over the years. Instead of spending money on costly software to write big documents, manage videos and images, or create your own music, you can just buy a Mac and have the tools you need for free. These apps aren’t, for the most part, substitutions for professionals, but for the rest of us they’re more than enough.
Pages, Numbers, and Keynote don’t get much of a mention at Apple events these days, but if you’re not going to splash out on Office, and Google’s free online tools don’t really fit you for whatever reason, then Apple’s free productivity apps can do a job for you. They’re not packed with advanced features, but for the majority of macOS users, that’s just fine.
The word processor, spreadsheet tool, and presentation package need to be downloaded from the Mac Store if you need them. Free versions are also available on iOS and iPadOS, with basic equivalents on the web as well, which makes the iWork suite even more useful. Thanks to iCloud online you can even get at your files through Windows, if you need to.
Now that iTunes is officially no longer iTunes, is it time to give the newly relabeled Music app another try? If you’re an Apple Music subscriber you might already be using the macOS Music app on a regular basis, but otherwise, it might be gathering dust in the corner of your Dock—and we’d recommend reminding yourself of everything it’s able to do.
Now that some of the clutter has been stripped away, you can see where Music really shines, and that’s in managing a local library of tracks, right down to the comments and the star ratings and the reams of metadata, as well as playlists that you call the shots on rather than accepting the whims of algorithms.
Automator has long been serving the needs of pro users as a free add-on for the Mac platform, and it shows no signs of disappearing yet: It essentially lets you repeat and automate tasks on macOS, giving you coding-level hooks into the operating system without you actually having to do any coding (though the learning curve is a little steep).
For the completely uninitiated, perhaps the best way of explaining Automator is to give you some examples of what it can do—rename files in batches, stitch multiple PDFs together, back up a particular group of files, get reminders about your friends’ birthdays, regularly clear out a certain folder, open up a predefined list of websites, and much more.
Windows users might have lost their free, covers-the-basics video editor when Windows Movie Maker was retired, but the macOS crowd still has iMovie—perfect for when you want to give your recorded clips a little bit of polish, but you don’t want to part with any money for a full video editing package (and wouldn’t make use of most of its features anyway).
Once you’ve loaded it up, iMovie presents you with the familiar video timeline view, plus a bunch of filters and effects you can apply: Slow motion, fast forward, picture-in-picture, and even green screen manipulations are supported. Serious video editing users are going to want more manual controls, but iMovie can produce some great-looking results.
One of the most comprehensive apps you get for free with macOS, GarageBand is suitable for anyone making audio for any purpose, from beginners to advanced users. If you’ve got a demo to record, or a podcast to launch, then GarageBand can help—anything that can be recorded with a microphone can be captured, processed and shared with the wider world.
If you don’t have a real instrument to plug into your Mac, then you can use one of the many virtual ones that come with GarageBand—and even pick a specific virtual drummer to provide backing tracks. Letting you mix, remix, layer, learn, and more, across a maximum of 255 audio tracks, it’s hard to believe GarageBand is completely free.