Essential Software for Students

School is hard. Between papers to write, tests to study for, projects to finish, and trying to actually have a social life, there’s a lot for students to do. There’s also a lot of software out there that promises to make things easier – unfortunately, a lot of it can break a student budget. Fear not, though, there is help!

Students have a lot of needs when it comes to technology, and thankfully, there are free solutions to most of them. From security to socializing, I’m going to walk you through the essential software for students to keep their schoolwork and schedules on track.

    Security

AVG by Grisoft makes an excellent suite of anti-malware software. There are three programs in the suite: AVG Anti-Virus Free, AVG Anti-Spyware Free, and AVG Anti-Rootkit Free. They work well, update automatically, and you don’t have to worry about your subscription – and your protection – running out.

As for a firewall, ZoneAlarm is a great choice, free for personal and charitable use. When a program tries to access the internet, ZoneAlarm pops up a message requesting access – if you don’t know whether to allow it or not, ZoneAlarm will offer advice about what to do.

    Web Browsing and Email

For web browsing, you should get Mozilla Firefox. It’s free, it has thousands of extensions to do anything you could possibly want to do with a web browser, and it has security features built in. If you don’t do anything else, get rid of Internet Explorer. It’s a magnet for viruses, spyware, and just about every other kind of security problem that exists.

While you’re switching to Firefox, check out Mozilla Thunderbird for email. It does everything Outlook does, and like Firefox, has great extensions and built-in security.

    Office Applications

Eventually, you’re going to need to write something, or create a spreadsheet. Instead of paying $300 for Microsoft Office, get OpenOffice. It does everything that Microsoft Office does, and it’s completely free.

Likewise, why settle for the restricted features of Adobe’s Acrobat Reader? Get Foxit Reader instead – it’s faster, it lets you do things Acrobat doesn’t, and it’s free.

At some point, you’re probably going to want to do some image editing. You can shell out hundreds for Adobe Photoshop, or you can get The GIMP, a free, open-source alternative. GIMP can be a bit less intuitive, but once you learn to master it, there’s not much you can’t do with it.

    Calendar

If you’re going to keep your schedule together, you’ll need a calendar. Paper calendars are great, and it’s a good idea to have one for those times when you can’t get to your online one. However, there are a lot of positives to online calendars: email and text-message reminders, guest invitations and RSVPs, group sharing, and of course, being able to access it anywhere in the world. When it comes to online calendars, Google Calendar is my favorite.

If you like having a desktop calendar program, I recommend getting a Google Calendar account and downloading Mozilla Sunbird, a full-featured calendar program that integrates well with GCal. If you’re using Thunderbird for email, you can get Lightning, a great calendar extension for Thunderbird.

    Chatting

There are a lot of great services out there for chatting. MSN, AOL, Yahoo, and Google all have their own services. If you’re using them all, you should consider a multi-service client like Pidgin.

You can log into all your IM accounts through Pidgin and save the system resources used by running several different clients.If you want the ultimate in chatting, though, you should go for Skype. Not only does Skype provide user-to-user and group chats like the other programs, but it offers free user-to-user VOIP phone calls. You can even have large conference calls with groups of Skype users, anywhere in the world. Skype also offers plans that allow you to call landline phones, and to receive calls from landlines; in some cases, you can have your whole year’s phone service for less than you’d spend for two months with regular phone service.

    Online Applications

There are some great online applications out there for students as well. Google offers a whole library of services, including Google Scholar, Google Book Search, Google Earth, Google Translate, and the previously mentioned Google Calendar.

For note-taking, NoteSake is an excellent online application. NoteSake lets you take your notes online, share them with others, collaborate with groups, organize them, and even provide copies to others who weren’t in class.

If you’re learning a foreign language, Mango provides free online language courses. You can choose from eleven different languages, with more to come. Mango is a beta release, however, so don’t be surprised if you find the occasional cucaracha.

Justin Ryan is a freelance writer and technology consultant. He is the News Editor for LinuxJournal.com and a regular blogger for Wisebread.com, where he writes on technology, personal finance, and savvy living.