Software comparison: The best free apps vs top paid-for apps

It's a fact: The best software out there is powerful... and expensive. There's a reason Adobe can charge £560 for a year’s access to its Creative Cloud suite – because it's what the pros use, and it's what the pros' boss can and should pay for to get the best work done. Same goes for everything from productivity apps to video editing to simple computer security. If you pay, you're better off. Right?

Well, not exactly. These days, there are a lot of free products out there which offer very impressive levels of functionality and quality. In many cases, these choices are absolutely free. So, with that in mind, here's a rundown of some of our favourite paid-for software and how it stacks up against the no-cost competition – fee versus free, if you will…

Image editors

FEE: The field of image editing is loaded with free tools that take on the big guys. Those big guys include not just Adobe’s Photoshop CC, but products like Lightroom (which is available bundled with the former at an offer price of £9 per month as this is being written), Corel PaintShop Photo Pro X6 (£55), and Apple Aperture (also £55). At the bottom of that list is Photoshop Elements (£82), Adobe's low-end picture editor and organiser.

FREE: How does Elements, in particular, measure up to free software? Gimp is an excellent free alternative that is incredibly powerful considering its price – remember that Elements is the best part of a hundred quid. Be warned, though, that Gimp can be a bit of a learning curve for the less-savvy image wizard.

You should also look at Paint.NET which might not have the feature set of Gimp, but it’s very solid on all the basics. There’s no reason you should have to spend any money on an image editor, really, unless you need the specific pro-type features found in the above heavyweight suites. In which case, prepare your wallet for something of a battering…

Office suites

FEE: Microsoft Office remains our favourite office suite software and for good reasons. The new Office 365 Home Premium (£80 per year) looks terrific, and many of its improvements are so subtly and unobtrusively slotted in that you may not notice they're there, until you realise that many things that once annoyed you – like that text cursor which flashed on and off as you typed – have quietly disappeared.

The £80 subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium lets you install a full copy of Office 2013 on up to five devices, and also lets any Windows 7 or 8 machine download Word, Excel, or the other Office apps for temporary usage. Office 2013 not only looks better than Office 2010, it includes new features which boost the package nicely in the convenience stakes, and the whole experience all stays familiar enough to ensure a minimal learning curve for existing users.

FREE: Perhaps the strongest Microsoft competitor is Google Drive with its suite of online office products. However, it has to be said that it’s not up to the standards of Microsoft Office – but then, it is free. Google Drive also offers some extremely impressive collaborative features, such as being able to edit documents or spreadsheets in real-time with many other users. In short, it makes up for its shortcomings with simplicity, global access, and a price you can't beat.

If you’d rather not head cloud-wards, and prefer your software installed, you need to check out LibreOffice. It has all the features that anyone is likely to need in the real world, although it falls short of Microsoft Office in terms of advanced features that only specialist users are likely to need, such as split-screen editing and the kinds of massive worksheets that Excel can handle.

Microsoft Office is clearly the best choice here, there’s no doubting that for a second, but LibreOffice is definitely a sound option. The price – free – is certainly right, and its annoyances are mostly the kind that you can work around.

Email

FEE: Many people live their lives within Outlook, Microsoft's combination email, calendar, and task application which does all this and more. That's all well and good at the office, if the boss provides Outlook so you can access the Exchange server, for example. If you want the same access at home and you don't have Microsoft Office, you can buy Outlook 2013 separately for a ridiculous £110. As our reviewer, Michael Muchmore, noted: “Outlook 2013 gets a clean new look, and operates more smoothly,” but he added that “the standalone price of £110 is simply too high.”

FREE: If you want a free email client, then look to Thunderbird, Mozilla's amazingly easy-to-use piece of software. Throw in the calendar add-on called Lightning, and Thunderbird competes even better with Outlook. It might lack many of Outlook’s wealth of tools and social connectors, but it has one big advantage – you won’t pay a penny for it, let alone north of £100.

Of course, you could equally look to webmail, and many, many people do these days. Google and Microsoft all offer compelling choices, as does Yahoo, but we’d probably go with one of the former two. Google's Gmail continues to be the most innovative and ties itself directly to other Google services, such as Google Calendar and Google Talk, giving Outlook a real run for its money. Outlook.com (which used to be Hotmail) has come on leaps and bounds recently as well, and Microsoft has been trying to tempt Gmail users to switch over lately.

Presentations

FEE: PowerPoint is synonymous with presentations. And again, if you don't have PowerPoint because you own Microsoft Office, you can buy it separately for £110. Like the rest of Office 2013, PowerPoint reaches a level of power and ease that was unimaginable only a few years ago, and when all things are considered, it’s the best app of its kind.

FREE: You're doing yourself a disservice carting around big PPT files for playback with your speech, however. As long as you've got Internet access at the location, you should consider any of these three free alternatives.

The Presentation module of Google Drive is a pretty straightforward presentation creator, and if you've embraced other Google tools, it keeps it all in the family. You should also consider a couple of the more interesting alternatives. The first is Prezi.com, and it’s worth checking out for the demo – how it transitions from data-point to data-point is slick – but free only gets you so far on Prezi, where you only get 100MB of space and everything you create is publicly accessible. You'll want to upgrade to create more presentations or to make your presentations private.

The other of our favourites is SlideRocket – but sadly at the moment this is closed to new users as the developer tries to integrate it more closely with the company’s sales tool ClearSlide. SlideRocket is elegant and feature-rich, and an excellent piece of cloud-based presentation software. Although Google Drive’s Presentation is very easy to use, it lacks the punch that the graphic-intensive SlideRocket delivers. You got 250MB of storage for free with the service before it was put on hold – so it’s one to keep an eye on for the future, when it comes back online.

Antivirus software

FEE: You might think Norton Antivirus is the only product that fights viruses (that's the power of marketing), but of course, there are a huge number of products that combat malware, and our in-house security expert Simon Williams regularly reviews them all. In actual fact, Norton is a solid enough package these days, but not one of the best. Our top picks are Kaspersky (£40), Bitdefender (£50) and BullGuard (also £50).

FREE: That said, much of the antivirus software out there is absolutely free and very capable. Avast is a great free solution, as is AVG, and you should also take a look at the free version of Bitdefender. All these products give you great levels of malware protection, even if they might lack some of the extras that the paid-for security suites heap on top of the basics.

eBooks

FEE: Okay, this is a weird one, but consider: You can buy an Amazon Kindle (starting from £59) which means you get the hardware and the software inside it to read eBooks. They're light, convenient, hold a lot of books, they’re easy to read, and so forth…

FREE: Or, you could just download the Kindle software for free for just about any device you can think of. Kindle books can now be read on Windows, Macs, in your browser, or, perhaps the best option, on your tablet, or your smartphone, whatever the platform. You don't get E-ink, which is easy on the eyes, but you'll get just about every other eBook option the Kindle has to offer.

Video editing

FEE: There have always been free video editors, some of which have been included with Windows. However, most have been sub-par compared to big names like Adobe Premiere Elements (£82) or our current favourite, CyberLink PowerDirector (£76), which might be the fastest consumer level video editor ever.

FREE: But if you don't need the power or extras, like green-screen backgrounds and fancy transitions, you should consider Windows Movie Maker 2012. This excellent free offering eschews the extras and goes for simplicity – it’s extremely easy to use and offers direct uploads to YouTube, Facebook and all the usual social suspects.