The best free tools and services for students
Whether or not you return to in-person classes this fall, you’ll likely need a host of services and software to get your classwork done, manage your time, and unwind after a long day of class. However, don’t worry about increasing your ever-growing student debt in the process. There are a growing number of free services and tools with surprisingly robust features, ranging from office suites to professional-grade media editors. You also might not need to pay a penny to listen to a hot new album or indulge in a TV marathon. Our recommendations could help you thrive this school year while leaving money for extracurricular fun.
You’ll probably need a productivity suite at school. Thankfully, the days of having to buy an expensive software bundle are long gone. Google Docs can handle the creation of materials you’ll need for a semester, whether it’s writing term papers, processing data in spreadsheets, or preparing group presentations. Automatic cloud saves can save you the pain of losing your progress.
You might want to subscribe to a Google One plan if the free 15GB of Drive storage proves too limited. And as good as Docs can be, there may be courses where professors insist on paid services like Microsoft 365. If you’re free to choose your work tools, however, Docs is an easy choice, especially if you’re going to already on Calendar, Meet, and other parts of the Google ecosystem.
Student life is defined by time management. You’ll probably have to juggle multiple assignments, study sessions, and a personal life (remember that?) without missing a thing. Todoist is our choice to stay on track. You can not only create the usual to-do lists, but also set up to-do boards, set priorities, and even delegate items to others, which is useful if it’s a roommate’s turn to buy the having dinner.
The free Todoist plan will probably be enough for school with support for five active projects, five collaborators, and 5MB file uploads. You’ll only want to shell out $36 a year for a Pro account if you have a lot of current projects (up to 300), if you need to download large files or if you want to set reminder alerts. Whatever your needs, this could be the key to getting a document on time.
Inmagine Pixlr E
It used to be that free image editors were underpowered or unsightly, and you could usually overlook the web versions. This is not the case with Pixlr E. Inmagine’s more advanced free editor offers many tools that previously required a subscription or heavy offline application, such as image healing, visual effects, and multi-layer compositing. It also works with Photoshop (PSD) files and other common formats. You might not need much more if you want to retouch a presentation image or crop a snapshot for a photography class.
There are limits. Pixlr E is ad-supported, and you’ll miss the $59 Premium tier AI-powered tools, 8K-by-8K resolution support, and templates. You will also want to investigate tools such as Inkscape whether you create vector artwork or need a host of artistic applications. Pixlr is much more affordable than Adobe Creative Suite, and the browser-based technology can be a lifesaver if you need to edit a project on an unfamiliar computer.
Blackmagic DaVinci Resolution
You might not have to pay for an expensive video editing package to go through film school. Blackmagic DaVinci Resolution provides a full set of editing, color correction, audio, and effects tools for free. You can make a short film for the class using the same basic tools used to produce Hollywood blockbusters, with multi-user collaboration.
In fact, you probably won’t need paid publishing products unless your courses have very specific requirements. You’ll only want to think about spending $295 for DaVinci Resolve Studio if you want to edit footage beyond 4K at 60fps, work with more video formats, or rely on advanced 3D, AI, and HDR tools. Unless your teachers tell you to use a competing tool like Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro, this should be enough to learn the basics.
If you’re creating 3D artwork for games or videos at school, you’ll need a solid modeling suite – and one of the best packages is free. Blender provides a wide range of modeling, animation, and sculpting tools for 3D content, while budding film producers can take advantage of built-in compositing, motion tracking, story drawing, and editing plain video. You might have everything you need to create a CG short.
You’ll want to be sure that Blender can meet your classroom requirements, and you may want more targeted software like Natron (an equally free compositing tool) to complete your work. That said, Blender’s open source code and extensible design work in its favor. It’s easy to find a host of free or low-cost add-ons that may suit your needs, and you can even write your own extensions if you’re comfortable with scripting.
Some courses may require an audio editor, whether it’s creating a podcast, tweaking sound effects in a game, or tweaking a song. If you’re in this boat, Audacity can sometimes do the trick. The free and open source editor gives you the essentials for capturing and editing multitrack recordings, including support for effects and plugins.
Audacity will not replace heavy digital audio workstations like Audition, Logic Pro, Pro Tools or Reason. These offer non-destructive editing and often include a host of effects generators and other tools for music and video production. It’s a good place to learn some basics, though, and maybe all you need if a class isn’t particularly demanding.
Paper is still a reality in the classroom, whether it comes in the form of a handout, a sketched diagram, or a friend’s handwritten notes. But you won’t have to worry about how you scan them. There are a number of free document scanner apps available, and Scannable Evernote is one of the best. Simply point your camera at documents to produce easily readable PDFs and JPEGs that you can share with the rest of the class. Although you can sync content to Evernote, you don’t have to.
Scannable is limited to iPads and iPhones as of this writing, so you’ll want to look for alternatives like Microsoft objective if you prefer Android (there is also a iOS version). Microsoft’s app is also a good choice if you want to export scans to Office format or convert handwritten text. Either way, you might not have to worry about lugging a binder around campus.
Let’s be honest: you’re going to need study music, and Spotify always provides the best free soundtrack for those long learning sessions. The free tier will periodically interrupt your listening with ads, but you can create playlists, follow podcasts, and enjoy much of the core Spotify experience. You can also stream songs to mobile and smart speakers, so the music doesn’t stop when you leave your desk.
You may still want to pay for the service. Spotify’s mobile app lets you listen to all but a handful of playlists in shuffle mode, and you’ll have a limited number of skips per hour. The higher maximum audio quality (320 Kbps versus 160 Kbps) is also worth it if your audio system can do it justice. Luckily, you might not have to pay the full $10 monthly fee if you upgrade. Students can get Premium for $5 a month, and you’re eligible for up to four years. The free plan is a good way to test the waters nonetheless, and might just do the trick if you’re looking for some serious bits.
You may come across PDF documents in school, whether it is a research paper or the course syllabus. You won’t have to pay for apps like Adobe Acrobat to edit these files, at least. PDF Candy offers a free web editor. You can edit PDF files, convert to and from common formats (including Word and PowerPoint), extract images, and take control. This might do the trick if you need to flesh out scanned lecture notes or extract a quote from a scientific study.
There are time and size limits for the free version (up to 500MB per task), and you should also consider the $48 or $99 lifetime plans if you want faster web processing or editing. Windows app offline. Alternatives like Acrobat are also better if you need commenting, mobile editing, and other advanced features. Still, the free web tool is hard to beat for basic utilities.
You won’t need to pay for a streaming video service to help you relax after a mind-blowing midterm. by NBCUniversal Peacock is one of the few major streamers to offer completely free viewing. You’ll have to live with ads and won’t get the full breadth of content (more on that in a bit), but this might be what you need if you’d rather watch back-to-back episodes of Office than stalking YouTube videos.
The free version only includes part of what the service has to offer. You might want to spend $5 a month on Peacock Premium to get originals like Bel-Airevery season of Office, next-day access to current NBC shows and live sports. And if you despise ads with bitter passion, your only choice is to pay Premium Plus subscription of $10 per month. However, competing services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix often don’t have any free options. This lets you splurge for a must-see sporting event or show without losing access to the entire video catalog when you stop paying.
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