Time is of the essence, especially in business, but also increasingly across the blended work-personal life that many people lead. There’s no shortage of quality software on the market today that aims to make our work easier, and to increase our levels of productivity. If there’s a task to be done, there’s an app that will help you do it faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.
From browser plugins to services that help you maintain important relationships, productivity apps aim to do it all – or at least, aim to help you do it all.
I review a lot of productivity software, and there are days when I’m not even sure what that classification means anymore. It used to refer primarily to office suites, apps like PowerPoint and Outlook, but now the term can mean anything from a contact management app to a social networking service. If you can find answers to hard questions quickly from the people who know, then that counts as having increased your productivity.
At the heart of all great productivity tools is a solution to a specific problem. Some look towards efficiency, aiming to take an existing product, such as email, and make it easier to use so we waste less time messing around with it. Others seek to silence the noise of the net, bolster collaboration, or unite disparate data.
So what follows is a collection of top programs, mobile apps, plugins, and services which are among my favourites for helping anyone be more productive. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope it lets you explore your options among the truly necessary productivity tools, as well as introduce you to some hidden gems that you might have missed while you were busy getting things done.
If you know of some great productivity app we missed here, tell us about it in the comments section below. But for now, without further ado, here come the apps…
Office suites (desktop and collaborative)
The free and very accessible Google Drive (formerly called Google Docs) is the obvious choice among collaborative tools in the cloud. You can create and edit documents, solo or with others, in real time online. Google Drive is accessible wherever you have Internet access and a web browser, and the service is the oldest of the online application suites. Other online-only suites, notably Zoho, have a bigger feature set, but Google Drive comes close to the ideal balance of features, speed, and convenience. If you require maximum compatibility with advanced Office features, then Microsoft Office Web Apps might be a better choice, but for certain projects, Google Docs is the simplest and most effective solution.
Microsoft’s cloud service, SkyDrive, combines online storage with document creation, editing, and syncing, much like Google Drive does. SkyDrive is now also built right into Microsoft’s new OS, Windows 8. The Web Apps for creating files mimic Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and all the core features and functionality are there (although more advanced tools, like Track Changes, for example, are stripped out in these free versions). For businesspeople who care about productivity, the ability to log into a Windows account from any computer and quickly get your hands on a free web version of, say, PowerPoint to edit a presentation, then save it, log out, and be on your way without having to think about where you saved the file, is priceless.
HyperOffice is a slick online collaboration service that lets you store and access files, tasks, contacts, links, and documents – almost any digital file – on a HyperOffice-hosted website. A fully hosted alternative to building your own Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint servers, HyperOffice is feature-rich, but it has a few minor interface glitches that need to be worked out. For £4.30 per month for each user, HyperOffice is easy to set up as both an intranet and an extranet that lets co-workers, customers, and clients see specific data. If your company is thinking about cloud-based collaboration, you’ll be impressed with this inexpensive product.
IBM Lotus Symphony is the best free productivity suite you’ve probably never heard of. Designed by IBM for smooth, reliable use in office environments, this office application suite was created by putting a tried-and-tested open source engine into a shiny chassis created by IBM. Under the hood, Lotus Symphony is based on OpenOffice.org 3.0. What you see on screen, however, is an interface that’s been tweaked by IBM to make it by far the most user-friendly no-cost productivity suite. Expert users who need to open files in a wide range of formats, including Microsoft Works, Corel WordPerfect, or Lotus WordPro, will prefer LibreOffice, because Lotus Symphony only imports Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org documents – but that’s all that almost every office environment ever needs.
iWork ’09 offers a terrific set of programs for light word processing and medium-to-heavy spreadsheet use. And the stellar Keynote presentation app leaves the competition in the dust. Apple’s productivity suite isn’t yet a replacement for Microsoft Office for the Mac, but it’s a cheaper alternative if you don’t really need the full power of Office.
Microsoft Office is by far the biggest name in office suites. The 2010 version is the most recent incarnation for Windows, and the suite’s component parts – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, and a few other, lesser-used, programs – are industry standards. However, Office 2013 will be out early next year, so this version will soon be pushed aside. Also, for those who don’t need the full Microsoft experience, free alternative suites generally let you open and access Microsoft file types (or convert them into a compatible file format).
With Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, Microsoft has finally got it right. After a string of disappointing releases, the 2011 Mac version of the world’s most widely-used office suite is a spectacular success, and an unexpected triumph for Microsoft’s Macintosh group. Office 2011 is innovative, better designed, startlingly faster, vastly more powerful, and far more compatible with Office for Windows than any previous version. Office 2011 even includes a few features that outclass anything in its Windows-based counterpart. If you’re a casual, light-duty office suite user or a student, iWork ’09 (two entries above) is still a great option, but if you’ve got heavy-duty work to perform on the Mac, you’ll want Office for Mac 2011.
OpenOffice is a free, open source replacement for Microsoft Office – and it can be seriously considered as a substitute for the massive power and flexibility of Microsoft’s suite. Back in the day, OpenOffice used to look clunky and work slowly, but that certainly isn’t the case now. The free suite doesn’t include all of Office’s features, but it covers most bases. The latest version 3.4 enhanced the graphics side of the suite, and tweaked performance and stability.
LibreOffice is a fork from OpenOffice, and as such is pretty similar by its very nature. However, there are certainly differences, and LibreOffice is pushing forward on the features front. Indeed, version 4 of the suite is due out in February 2013, and promises to deliver a host of performance and interface tweaks. Others argue OpenOffice is more compatible with Microsoft documents – but the truth is, both are great products in their own right. And both are free, so you can try them and see which one suits you best.
The mobile app Abukai Expenses is a wonderful reminder of the usefulness of business solutions on the go. Available for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry, as well as a web portal, Abukai suits anyone who has to perform the mundane task of filing expense reports because it lets you take pictures of receipts, submit them, and receive a finished report. Customisation capabilities and integration with back-end financial systems makes this one of the neatest mobile apps and cloud service solutions for businesses. It’s not a cheap service, at £60 per year for an individual user, or £60 per user for businesses (with a setup fee of £30 for the latter), but if you have a lot of expenses to track, it’s a great buy. You can also get a free personal account, but that can only be used to produce 12 expense reports per year.
Freelancers, contractors, and others in the self-employed ranks grapple with the administration and paperwork that comes with running a small business. OfficeTime (priced at £31 for both Windows and Mac versions) is a small business owner’s best friend. This highly practical yet relatively simple program helps SMBs keep track of their billable hours and other expenses, and it generates invoices for their work. OfficeTime tracks how much time you spend on various projects and tasks while you’re working, and it shows the minute-by-minute costs as they accumulate, or with numbers rounded however you choose. And whenever you can decrease the time spent managing yourself, you’re likely to be far more productive. The product is available as a three week free trial, too.
Nuance PaperPort has long been the program that others are measured against in terms of personal and professional document management. In its latest version, PaperPort Professional 14, it retains all the features that have helped make it the top pick for document management, plus it’s added just enough extra – primarily extending its reach into the cloud – to make it potentially worth an upgrade (which costs £80). The program was already the best in its category, and the new features help polish it up a bit more. The most notable new features are the connections to cloud apps, including the new PaperPort Anywhere.
SohoOS has set out with an understated undertaking: To create an online operating system for the small office/home office (SOHO) market. In addition to bundling all the tools you need to manage your small business – project management, inventory management, invoicing, payments processing, CRM, reporting, and more – SohoOS boasts a seductive price point: It’s free. If you accept that SohoOS isn’t a premium service, and that its aim is to bundle previously pricey features into a cohesive whole, it not only makes sense, it’s impressive stuff indeed.
Zoho Invoice is an invoicing solution, and one of the myriad web-based business and productivity solutions published by Zoho Corp. Depending on the level of service you want from Zoho, you can have a free account, stump up £9 per month for the standard level plan, or £18 per month for a professional account. Zoho Invoice definitely appeals to small businesses that don’t need the power or complexity of an accounting all-star like QuickBooks. Zoho Invoice comes as close to FreshBooks – the reigning SMB invoicing champ – as anything I’ve seen, surpassing it in some ways.
Prezi.com is one of a new generation of cloud-based presentation apps. It uses Adobe’s Flash technology to create animated presentations with a few clicks and drags. Instead of creating a series of separate slides, you put all your content – text, graphics, captions – on a single canvas, and then you trace a path from one item to another. There’s a limited free version of the service available.
SlideRocket is the most elegant and feature-rich cloud-based presentation software we’ve seen yet. If you’re convinced that presentation software belongs only on a desktop or laptop, SlideRocket may very well change your mind. It can’t match the advanced graphics tricks that PowerPoint and Keynote manage with ease, but if you want vivid slides, based on striking themes, and fast performing web-based presentations, SlideRocket will probably be your first choice.
If you’re looking for feature-packed remote control, desktop sharing, and presentation software, TeamViewer is both the simplest and most powerful option. Businesses will have to shell out a bunch up front (a lifetime license is £439), but individuals can use it for free. Either way, it’s a very good deal.
A good looking slide deck, filled with images that pop or make you giggle, can help capture your audience’s attention and keep them tuned into your ideas. VisualBee Premium (from £31 per year; there’s also a free basic version available) can be a saviour for the design-impaired. The small downloadable product is a plugin for Microsoft PowerPoint that handily adds design (template styles), effects (slide transitions), and pictures to your files. It has a cache of images that it matches to keywords in your text, and you always have the option to override or tweak the suggestions VisualBee offers.
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