5 Tools For The Thrifty IT Manager

These free and low-cost tools help IT keep users productive without breaking the bank.

Bill Silvey, Contributor

July 30, 2009

6 Min Read

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hand with change -- Photo by Jupiterimages As the recession drags on and IT budgets stagnate or shrink, we thought we'd share five applications that can help thrifty IT managers keep end users productive without breaking the bank. They include document storage and sharing, PDF readers and creators, and information organizers. Four of the applications are free, and one provides some great features at a reasonable price.

>> Backpack
Backpack is an idea and document management tool. While not entirely free, it offers many features for the budget-minded IT manager whose users need to access and share files and documents via the Web when outside the office.

The core of Backpack's document sharing is through a system the company refers to as "pages." A page is a sort of hyperdocument that allows users to share notes and files instantly. While the documents themselves are essentially large whiteboard-style pages onto which notes, images, and hyperlinks are pasted, links to other documents (including Office or Open Office documents or PDFs, for example) can be embedded on pages.

Backpack has several pricing tiers. The least expensive is $24 per month for up to six users and 4 GB of storage. The "plus" tier, for $49 per month, supports as many as 15 users, allows 10 GB of storage, and adds a 128-bit SSL connection to the databases. Pricing goes up to $149 per month for 500 users. The company also offers a free account for two users and five pages.

>> Foxit Reader
Foxit Reader is a lightweight and fully capable PDF management tool. Like Acrobat, it plugs directly in to most browsers; we tested it with Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.x, and it works just fine. We found it to be somewhat more responsive than Acrobat Reader when opening PDFs.

However, we encountered some issues with interactive PDFs. Sometimes Foxit would request an update to read form-entry PDFs and sometimes it wouldn't; but in either case, the forms themselves didn't work.

>> Microsoft Office Workspace

Quick Look

Free & Low-Cost Apps For The Office


Pros Secure, flexible plans, remote file storage up to 50 GB

Cons Max 500 users, enhanced security not available with lowest cost plan, free plan is two users only
Foxit Reader Pros Free download, works with IE8 and Firefox 3, lightweight system requirements Cons May lack compatibility with Acrobat PDFs, full suite requires license fee
Microsoft Office Workspace Pros Free, online, accessible with Microsoft Live account Cons Beta site still buggy
PDF Creator Pros Free, outputs all PDF formats, feature-rich Cons In development, may be subject to stability issues, monitoring for updates a must
TreePad Pros Lightweight, portable install Cons Niche product with features available in database programs and Outlook

Bill Gates didn't become the world's richest person by giving away software, but competition from Google, Zoho, and other providers of Web-based document and spreadsheet applications have compelled Microsoft to get into the online apps game.

Thus the creation of Microsoft Office Workspace, a Web-centric set of document creation and sharing tools. The application requires creating a Microsoft Live account (or a pre-existing Hotmail account). Once you've signed in, you have access to a suite of tools to create a Web site through Office Live, manage and share Word and Excel files, manage e-mail and Web domains, and handle all Microsoft Office-generated forms and data.

Sounds great, in theory. In practice is another matter. We found that the Web site flatly refused to work with Firefox 3.x, and only worked somewhat with Internet Explorer 8. The service is currently in beta, and we can definitely see why. Microsoft has a long way to go to make this usable.

>> PDF Creator
If you're dead set against spending any money, but your employees absolutely have to create PDF files, then this is exactly the tool you need. Though still in development, PDF Creator lets end users generate PDFs, create encrypted PDFs with a choice of weak or strong encryption, make interactive forms, and more.

For a free suite, it has a rich feature set. We did run into occasional lockups using the product, but usually an update was available for download, and this overcame the difficulty.

>> TreePad
TreePad is an interesting piece of software. It collates notes, documents, files, links, and just about any other files into a cohesive database of searchable information. TreePad uses a structured directory tree to link related files and folders (think Windows Explorer) to help organize data by category.

Say an employee want to create a database that links to all his PDF files (or Photoshop images, or PowerPoint presentations). Using the step-by-step database creation process, regardless of where these files are actually stored on the hard drive, TreePad will create a directory into which he can place links to all relevant documents. Then, instead of searching through a bunch of folders on his hard drive, the user can consult TreePad to track down a particular file.

The entire application can be installed onto a thumb drive--along with the organized files, depending on their size--and moved from workstation to notebook to netbook and so on.

Photo by Jupiterimages

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