Langa Letter: 10 Great, Free Tools - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: 10 Great, Free Tools

Fred Langa evaluates 10 valuable, commercial-quality software tools that are available just for the asking. It's not the same old freeware.

I was recently performing an annual spring cleaning ritual on my PC, archiving useful but infrequently accessed data and software, and wiping out some of the stuff that I once thought was useful or important, but that proved otherwise.

As I stepped through my list of programs, I'd ask "Stay, or go?" and decide whether that particular tool or application was worth keeping. Many didn't make the cut, but I was surprised at how many of the "keepers" were freeware offerings.

Some people hear "freeware" and think of half-baked hobbyist software; quirky at its best, and dangerous at its worst. That's not--emphatically not--what I'm referring to here. Rather, the freeware tools I'll discuss here are all commercial-quality software. None is time-limited (where you must upgrade after several weeks, or lose use of the product). And all are good enough to have found a permanent home on my hard drive.

Although I'm presenting 10 items here, I don't mean this to be a "top 10" or "10 best" or any such thing. Rather, this list reflects my own particular needs and interests, and may or may not mesh with yours.

But that's where you come in. After reading my list, please join the discussion associated with this column (the link will appear at the end of this text) and tell us what your favorite free tools are. With our pooled knowledge, we should soon have an awesome list of great, proven, known-good freeware tools--and we'll all probably learn of great new software we otherwise wouldn't have known about.

I'll go first. Here's my list of 10 great freeware tools:

ReadPlease calls itself, "The world's most popular text-to-speech software" and I can see why: It's wonderfully simple to use, and produces excellent results.

I use it as a proofreading tool, having it read back the final drafts of items I've written--important E-mails, columns (including this one!), newsletter articles, and so on. Hearing the text spoken aloud lets me find some subtle errors that I might otherwise overlook, especially after having read through the same text so many times that my eyes begin to glaze over. ReadPlease never tires, and always reads exactly what's in the text, no more, no less. Missing words, bad phrasing, poor punctuation, doubled words, etc., all can stand out when you hear your text spoken.

ReadPlease is also useful, of course, for people with vision or reading problems: For them, the clarity and infinite patience of text-to-speech software is a godsend.

Recent advances in voice synthesis (including the Windows text-to-speech synthesizer that's at the core of ReadPlease) let the software generate reasonably realistic-sounding voices that provide good diction and clarity, and that operate with some sensitivity to grammar and syntax. For example, consider the two pronunciations of the word "read" in the following:

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