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In the realm of robust, full-featured products, OpenOffice (and derivatives, such as LibreOffice and IBM Lotus Symphony) certainly belong on this list just because of its depth of functionality. These products may interest IT pros in situations where older versions of Office are still in use and money doesn't exist to upgrade them, or justifying the spending is difficult because the software is minimally used. Also, for organizations that need to add a suite of office tools but want to evaluate the level of usage before investing in more traditional—and expensive—options, a free suite such as OpenOffice, LibreOffice or Symphony can provide the insight needed.

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This is one of the most-talked-about applications in the past year. Its power comes from the ability to capture anything from anywhere, and have it stored in one place. Imagine having an epiphany about a project that's sitting on your desktop at work while sitting at home watching an episode of CSI. Pop out the smartphone, add your note and be back before the end of the commercial break. When you return to work in the morning, you can access that note directly in your project file.

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Say what you will about how Microsoft is handling the Windows Live Messenger (WLM)-Skype-Lync migrations, but Skype has been the premier text/voice/video tool of choice for some time. This month, Microsoft is merging Windows Live messaging functionality into Skype, which already is integrated with Facebook and later this year will be integrated with Lync. This means not having to install Lync clients on remote systems, because Skype users will be able to talk directly to Lync users with the correct Lync authentication credentials.

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With Microsoft's abandonment of Virtual PC and VMware's abandonment of Workstation—and the only recent availability of Hyper-V on Windows 8—VirtualBox brings a platform-independent virtualization tool to the desktop environment. VMware Workstation and Virtual PC enabled IT pros to explore new technologies by firing up a VM on their personal machine and doing an install without having to cajole a scrapped server from the corporate junkyard. Now VirtualBox is the product that is providing that experience.

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This tool is great for mixing a user's own music tracks, editing podcasts for their personal use (cut out the junk; keep the important stuff) and maybe even venturing into audio snippet recording. How many times does a help desk technician read, from rote, over the telephone the same steps for fixing an issue on an end-user's computer? Now technicians can just email a WAV file to the end-user with the steps they need to take. The end-user can pause and replay the audio ad nauseam, and technicians can spend their time helping somebody who needs more personalized assistance.

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Any IT pro having to troubleshoot a network-based service or application will find it very helpful to be able to see what's actually flowing across that network connection with WireShark.

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SolarWinds Alert Central

For most IT teams, alert management is a manual and tedious process involving spreadsheets, shared calendars, pagers and phones to manage alerts. Such methods rely on individuals to escalate issues in a timely fashion, which is prone to human error and takes up unnecessary time. With SolarWinds Alert Central, IT pros can centralize multi-system IT alerts in a single, consolidated view, provide team members with access to a scheduling calendar, escalate alerts automatically, and enable IT personnel to respond from their computers or mobile devices with or without VPN access—all for free.

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Password management is a challenge for even light Web usage, but IT pros typically have access to innumerable resources, and quite often at an administrative level that requires better protection. Maintaining dozens of complex passwords can strain the brain, and sometimes evolve into a predictable pattern that makes every password easily cracked after the first one is discovered. LastPass is the premier password generation and storage tool that should be in every IT pro's arsenal.

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VLC Media Player

Media comes in all shapes, sizes and formats, which can cause issues when a video or audio track is recorded with a non-standard codec that your built-in media player doesn't recognize. VLC helps rectify this. It also has the ability to play back DVD videos (something being removed from OS-based media players because of licensing costs). And for users who are lucky enough to have a Blu-ray player on their notebooks, the newest version has experimental code for playing back Blu-ray disks.

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Microsoft Security Essentials

Many users have been running this on all of their personal desktop environments since its original release. While it's not available to organizations with more than 10 desktops, every home user, small business and IT pro should have this, as should family members who will inevitably call you with a malware problem this fall because they forgot to renew their antivirus/anti-malware subscription while at the beach over the summer. Microsoft Security Essentials is free and automatically updated through the same Automatic Updates capabilities that consumers use to get other Microsoft security patches.

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