Thursday, August 30, 2012

What is DNS?


Did you know you could be connected to – and see in your web browser’s address bar – while not actually being connected to Facebook’s real website? To understand why, you’ll need to know a bit about DNS.
DNS underpins the world wide web we use every day. It works transparently in the background, converting human-readable website names into computer-readable numerical IP addresses.
Image Credit: Jemimus on Flickr

Domain Names and IP Addresses

DNS stands for “domain name system.” Domain names are the human-readable website addresses we use every day. For example, Google’s domain name is If you want to visit Google, you just need to enter into your web browser’s address bar.
However, your computer doesn’t understand where “” is. Behind the scenes, the Internet and other networks use numerical IP addresses (“Internet protocol” addresses). is located at the IP address on the Internet. If you typed this number into your web browser’s address bar, you’d also end up at Google’s website.
We use instead of because addresses like are more meaningful and easier for us to remember. DNS is often explained as being like a phone book – like a phone book, DNS matches human-readable names to numbers that machines can more easily understand.

DNS Servers

Domain name system servers match domain names like to their associated IP addresses — in the case of When you type into your web browser’s address bar, your computer contacts your current DNS server and asks what IP address is associated with Your computer then connects to the IP address and displays “” in your web browser – the connection to happens behind the scenes.
The DNS servers you use are likely provided by your Internet service provider (“ISP”). If you’re behind a router, your computer is likely using your router as your DNS server, but the router is likely forwarding requests to your Internet service provider’s DNS servers.
Computers cache DNS responses, so the DNS request doesn’t happen each time you connect to Once your computer has determined the IP address associated with a domain name, it will remember that for a period of time – this improves connection speed by skipping the DNS request phase. Your computer just needs to connect to Google, not its DNS server and then Google.

Security Concerns

Some viruses and other malware programs change your default DNS server to a DNS server run by a malicious organization or scammer. This malicious DNS server can point popular websites to different IP addresses, which could be run by scammers.
For example, when you connect to while using your Internet service provider’s legitimate DNS server, the DNS server will respond with the actual IP address of Facebook’s servers.
However, if your computer or network is pointed at a malicious DNS server set up by a scammer, the malicious DNS server could respond with a different IP address entirely. In this way, it’s possible that you could see “” in your web browser’s address bar, but you may not actually be at the real – behind the scenes, the malicious DNS server has pointed you to a different IP address.
To avoid this problem, ensure you’re running antivirus software. You should also watch for certificate error messages on encrypted (HTTPS) websites. For example, if you try to connect to your bank’s website and see an “invalid certificate” message, this could be a sign that you’re using a malicious DNS server that’s pointing you to a fake website, which is only pretending to be your bank.
Malware can also use your computer’s hosts file to override your DNS server and point certain domain names (websites) at other IP addresses. For this reason, Windows 8 prevents users from pointing and other popular domain names to different IP addresses by default.

Why You Might Want To Use Third-Party DNS Servers

As we’ve established above, you’re probably using your Internet service provider’s default DNS servers. However, you don’t have to – you can use DNS servers run by a third party instead of your default DNS servers. Two of the most popular third-party DNS servers areOpenDNS and Google Public DNS.
In some cases, these DNS servers may provide you with faster DNS resolves, speeding up your connection the first time you connect to a domain name. However, the actual speed differences you see will vary depending on how far you are from the third-party DNS servers and how fast your ISP’s DNS servers are. If your ISP’s DNS servers are fast and you’re located a long way from OpenDNS or Google DNS’s servers, you may see slower DNS resolves with a third-party DNS server.
OpenDNS also provides optional website filtering. For example, if you enable the filtering, accessing a pornographic website from your network could result in a “Blocked” page appearing instead of the pornographic website. Behind the scenes, OpenDNS has returned the IP address of a website with a “Blocked” messsage instead of the IP address of the pornographic website – this takes advantage of the way DNS works to block websites.
For information on using Google Public DNS or OpenDNS, check out the following articles:

How To Prevent Your Computer From Waking Up Accidentally

If you find your Windows computer waking from sleep for no apparent reason, your computer is either being woken up by a hardware device – such as your mouse — or scheduled task set to wake your computer.
In some cases, the cause may not be obvious. For example, if your laptop occasionally wakes up for no apparent reason, it’s possible that the floor is shaking a bit, causing the mouse to vibrate slightly and wake the computer.

Determining Why Your Computer Last Woke Up

If you’re not sure why your computer just woke up, you can run a command which will tell you. To run this command, you’ll need to use the Command Prompt application, which you can find in your Start menu – press the Windows key, type Command, and press Enter to launch it.
Type the following command into the Command Prompt window and press Enter:
powercfg -lastwake
The output below tells us that a USB device woke the computer. I know my mouse is plugged into a USB port, so it’s clear that my mouse recently woke the computer. To prevent your mouse from waking the computer, consult this article or see below.

Controlling Hardware Devices That Can Wake Your Computer

To view a list of the hardware devices that can wake your computer, run the following command:
powercfg -devicequery wake_armed
You can stop these devices from waking your computer in the Device Manager. Open it by pressing the Windows key, typing Device Manager, and pressing Enter.
In the Device Manager, locate the device you want to prevent from waking your computer (it will have the same name as it does in the output of the command above). Right-click the device and select Properties.
On the Power Management tab, uncheck the Allow this device to wake the computer check box and click OK.

Wake Timers & Scheduled Tasks

Programs – scheduled tasks, for example – can ask Windows to automatically wake the computer at a specific time. If a scheduled task sets a “wake timer” for a specific time, your computer will automatically wake up at that time to run the task. This can be useful – for example, you could have your computer automatically wake up in the middle of the night to perform system maintenance tasks.
To see a list of wake timers set on your computer, you can run the following command. Note that this command must be run as Administrator. You’ll have to right-click the Command Prompt shortcut in your Start menu and select Run as Administrator before running this command.
powercfg -waketimers
If a specific program is causing your computer to wake, you can uninstall it or adjust the scheduled task’s settings in the Windows task scheduler.
However, if you don’t want any programs waking your computer up automatically, you can disable wake timers entirely. To do so, use the Power Options control panel – open it by pressing the Windows key, typing Power Options, and pressing Enter.
Click the Change plan settings link in the Power Options window.
In the next window, click Change advanced power settings.
Expand the Sleep section, expand the Allow wake timers section, and ensure that wake timers are set to Disabled.

These are the two ways your computer can automatically wake from sleep – after adjusting these settings, your computer should stay asleep when it’s told to do so.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How To Change Your DNS Servers & Improve Internet Security

how to change dnsImagine this – you wake up one beautiful morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and then sit down at your computer to get started with your work for the day. Before you actually get stuff done, you go over to your favorite browser and type in Within seconds, you’re looking at our website and all of our latest posts.
But hold on, how the heck did your computer even know where to find MakeUseOf? How does it even know what even means? It finds out by using a core technology which exists throughout the Internet called DNS, or Domain Name System.

Tell Me More About DNS!

DNS is a backbone component of the Internet which helps in name resolution. In layman’s terms, DNS helps turn a web address, also known as a URL, like into an actual location, called an IP address. IP addresses are in the form, where all the x’s are a bunch of different numbers. Your computer knows how to reach those IP addresses, but it doesn’t directly know what to make out of URLs, which were created to make it easier to remember websites. DNS servers are there to help with this so that we can browse without having to think about what’s actually happening.
The thing is, there isn’t a single, central DNS server which everyone has to access in order to resolve a URL. There are many, many different DNS servers in the world, which can be found at places such as your ISP or third-party services such as OpenDNS. In fact, you’re most likely using your ISP’s DNS servers right now if you haven’t changed any of your computer’s or router’s settings. Although you’d like to trust your ISP, their servers are most likely simple. Simple in that they literally only resolve URLs, and nothing more. They usually don’t focus on increasing security, because these servers can be at risk of cyber attacks as well.

Possible Results Of An Attack

how to change dns
When a DNS server is attacked, there’s a few different things that could happen. First, the server could just simply crash or otherwise go offline, so you won’t be able to browse around as you would normally do until your ISP fixes the issue. Second, the attacker could change DNS records on the server, and point certain URLs to false lookalike pages. This is an especially dangerous attack because phishing attacks are usually recognizable by a weird URL, but with a tainted DNS server, the URL will appear exactly what it should be, but you’d still be on the false page.

What Can I Do?

Therefore, the best safety practice is to switch to a more secure DNS server which is better supported. There’s a good number of DNS services you can choose from, but there are two I highly recommend. If you want a no-gimmick DNS experience that you can trust, you should try Google’s Public DNS servers. These are run by the search giant itself and are highly maintained, so you won’t have to worry about any issues or attacks. For a more feature-rich DNS experience, I’d recommend OpenDNS, which has special options to prevent certain types of attacks and even includes a customizable web filter.

How Do I Switch?

how to change dns
Once you’ve settled on the DNS server you’d like to switch to, you’ll need to change your system’s settings in order to use them. The methods of changing these settings vary greatly depending on the operating system.
  • Windows users will need to go into their network device’s properties, then go into the IPv4 properties, and then change the DNS servers in the bottom section of the window.
  • Mac OS X users will need to go into their System Preferences, click on “Network“, choose their network device, click on “Advanced”, and then enter DNS servers after clicking on the DNS tab.
  • Linux users will need to click on their network applet, choose Edit Connections, click on “Edit” for your network device, and under the “IPv4 Settings” tab, choose the “Automatic (DHCP) addresses only” profile, and then add the DNS servers into the DNS servers textbox, with each server address separated by a comma.
  • Even Android users can change their DNS server, but it only goes into effect while you’re using WiFi. Therefore, you can find the appropriate settings when you hit the Menu button and choose “Advanced” while you’re in the WiFi setup screen. For quick reference, Google’s DNS servers are at the addresses and, while OpenDNS’s servers are at and


Issues that can exist with DNS servers are a bigger issue than a lot of people think, because rarely anyone ever talks about them and mentions switching to different ones. Plus it’s a “confusing” backbone component of the Internet, which makes people even more reluctant to talk about it. Consider switching as a precaution so you know you’ll be safe.
Which DNS server(s) are you using? What made you choose it over other options? Let us know in the comments!

Automatically Clean Out and Remove Empty Files and Folders


After cleaning out files on your hard drive, you may be left with a bunch of empty folders you want to delete. Rather than finding them manually, wouldn’t it be easier to use a tool that can find them for you and delete them?
We found a free tool, called Delete Empty, that searches a specified path for empty folders and empty files (files of size zero) and deletes them, deepest paths first. For example, in the following structure, Folder2 is currently not empty, but will become so once EmptyFolder1 and EmptyFolder2 are deleted. Delete Empty will delete EmptyFolder1 and EmptyFolder2 and then discover that Folder 2 is now empty and delete it.
Delete Empty (DelEmpty.exe) is a command line tool, but it’s very quick and easy to use. To use it, open a command line window. The easiest way to do this is to shift-right-click on the folder containing the DelEmpty.exe file and select Open command window here from the popup menu.
A command line window opens directly to the folder containing the Delete Empty executable.
The format for the Delete Empty command is as follows:
DelEmpty.exe OPTIONS [PATH]
The following OPTIONS are available for use in the command:
-fdelete files of size zero
-ddelete empty directories
-vverbose mode
-cconfirm mode (Shows what was deleted)
-sinclude sub-directories
-llist what would be deleted (lowercase L – does not actually delete the empty folders or empty files)
-ydelete without (y/n) prompt
For example, to delete empty directories and empty sub-directories in the mydata directory on C:, type the following command on the command line and press Enter.
DelEmpty.exe -d -s c:\mydata
If you want Delete Empty to prompt you before deleting each empty directory and empty sub-directory, add the -y option to the command, as follows.
DelEmpty.exe -d -s -y c:\mydata
To delete all the empty files, in addition to the empty directories and empty sub-directories, add the -f option to the command.
DelEmpty.exe -d -s -f c:\mydata
If you want to check what directories and files would be deleted before actually deleting them, use the -l (lowercase L) option. For example, the following command will show you what directories, sub-directories and files will be deleted in the mydata directory.
DelEmpty.exe -d -s -f -l c:\mydata
You can also choose to have Delete Empty show you what has been deleted. To do this, add the -c option to the command.
DelEmpty.exe -d -s -f -c -y c:\mydata
To close the command window, type “exit” (without the quotes) on the command line and press Enter.
Download Delete Empty from The program is available in the Free Utilities section.
This handy free tool should help you keep your hard drive free of extraneous directories and files. However, be careful when using the Delete Empty tool. Some programs may need empty folders to run correctly, so be sure not to delete anything you are not sure of.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How to Secure SSH with Google Authenticator’s Two-Factor Authentication


Want to secure your SSH server with easy-to-use two-factor authentication? Google provides the necessary software to integrate Google Authenticator’s time-based one-time password (TOTP) system with your SSH server. You’ll have to enter the code from your phone when you connect.
Google Authenticator doesn’t “phone home” to Google — all the work happens on your SSH server and your phone. In fact, Google Authenticator is completely open-source, so you can even examine its source code yourself.

Install Google Authenticator

To implement multifactor authentication with Google Authenticator, we’ll need the open-source Google Authenticator PAM module. PAM stands for “pluggable authentication module” – it’s a way to easily plug different forms of authentication into a Linux system.
Ubuntu’s software repositories contain an easy-to-install package for the Google Authenticator PAM module. If your Linux distribution doesn’t contain a package for this, you’ll have to download it from the Google Authenticator downloads page on Google Code and compile it yourself.
To install the package on Ubuntu, run the following command:
sudo apt-get install libpam-google-authenticator
(This will only install the PAM module on our system – we’ll have to activate it for SSH logins manually.)

Create an Authentication Key

Log in as the user you’ll be logging in with remotely and run the google-authenticatorcommand to create a secret key for that user.
Allow the command to update your Google Authenticator file by typing y. You’ll then be prompted with several questions that will allow you to restrict uses of the same temporary security token, increase the time window that tokens can be used for, and limit allowed acces attempts to hinder brute-force cracking attempts. These choices all trade some security for some ease-of-use.
Google Authenticator will present you with a secret key and several “emergency scratch codes.” Write down the emergency scratch codes somewhere safe – they can only be used one time each, and they’re intended for use if you lose your phone.
Enter the secret key in the Google Authenticator app on your phone (official apps are available for Android, iOS, and Blackberry). You can also use the scan barcode feature – go to the URL located near the top of the command’s output and you can scan a QR code with your phone’s camera.
You’ll now have a constantly changing verification code on your phone.
If you want to log in remotely as multiple users, run this command for each user. Each user will have their own secret key and their own codes.

Activate Google Authenticator

Next you’ll have to require Google Authenticator for SSH logins. To do so, open the/etc/pam.d/sshd file on your system (for example, with the sudo nano /etc/pam.d/sshd command) and add the following line to the file:
auth required
Next, open the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file, locate theChallengeResponseAuthentication line, and change it to read as follows:
ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes
(If the ChallengeResponseAuthentication line doesn’t already exist, add the above line to the file.)
Finally, restart the SSH server so your changes will take effect:
sudo service ssh restart
You’ll be prompted for both your password and Google Authenticator code whenever you attempt to log in via SSH.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Windows Command Prompt: Simpler And More Useful Than You Think

command promptWhen most people think of the old DOS command prompt window – that archaic, lingering vestige of computer days gone by – they think of those simple commands that nearly everyone learned if they had to use a computer during those early days.
Folks learned how to see a directory content with DIR or how to navigate from one directory to the next with CD. Not all commands were very intuitive, and of course before long we had that wonderful graphical user interface of Windows 3.1 (still my all-time favorite) and beyond.
One would thing that with the advent of the graphical user interface, there would be no need for using any sort of command-line activities – yet the CMD tool lingers on from one generation of Windows to the next.
The commands haven’t always stayed the same, in fact some have been trashed while other newer commands came along, even with Windows 7 in fact. So, why would anyone want to bother clicking the start button and typing “CMD” into the Run field? Let me show you why.

The Magic of the Windows Command Prompt

Windows is without a doubt filled with lots of features and tools for you to do all sorts of things like run disk drive diagnostics, search through thousands of files across multiple directories, and copy/paste everything from pictures and documents to files and directories.
Yes, the interaction of Window and Mouse have come a long way, but do you always remember where to find what you need to do? Do you always recall, quickly, where you need to click?
Let’s take a look at several very simple but extremely useful CMD commands that you can use in Windows 7. The following are 13 commands that will save you the time and headache of having to click, click and click. Instead, click Run, “CMD” and then type your command. Done.
Before we get started, find cmd.exe in C:/windows/system32/, create a shortcut and place it on your desktop. Then right click it and select properties.
command prompt
Click on the shortcut tab, click on the “Advanced” button, and select “Run as administrator”. For the commands I’m going to share, double click this shortcut to enter the command prompt, so that you can be sure you have admin rights.

1. ASSOC – Associate File Types

So, you went to open up a text document and Windows kindly asked you what program you want to use. Just this once, you’re testing a new text editor, so you click on that selection and forget to uncheck the box that makes this your default selection.
Now, every time you go to open a text file, it uses that new text editor instead of notepad. Do you remember how to set it back?  Not many people do. Instead, open up a command prompt and type the “ASSOC” command.
command prompt commands
This will show you all file associations related to all of the registered file extensions on your system. This is a pretty extensive list, but it gives you everything in a single shot, which is really convenient.
To see the same thing in the Windows GUI, you have to go to Control Panel, click on “Default Program” and the link to associate file types.
You can use the ASSOC command to associate any file extension with whatever registered file types you have on your system. However, I don’t commonly use it for this – my thing is to quickly free up a file extension that I accidentally associated with some other program. To do this you just type in the file association assignment and leave the right side of the command blank.
command prompt commands
“ASSOC .txt=” tells Windows that the next time I double click on any .txt file, to ask me what program I want to use to open the file. This gives me the opportunity to reassign the file association if I like.

2. CIPHER – Encryption Command

Yes, you have the ability to encrypt and decrypt files and entire directories from the command prompt, but keep in mind that Cipher (EFS) is not supported (fully) on Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic or Home Premium.
If you have any other version, you can run the CIPHER command to enable a directory as an encrypted directory. Any new files you add to that directory will also be encrypted.
command prompt commands
As you can see, my system doesn’t support encryption, but if it did you would see the result at the bottom stating that the 1 directory was encrypted.
If you’d like to play around with this command on your machine, make sure to check out Microsoft’s explanation of how EFS works.

3 & 4. MORE and CLIP – Making Command Output Useful

The next few commands are very simple, but I feel compelled to review them because they come in handy so often, and not everyone knows about them. While you’re going through your various commands and you get huge lists of output – such as a directory listing – it can be really nice to record that output.
You can record the results of a command right to the clipboard using the CLIP command. Just type “| clip” after the command.
windows 7 command prompt
Now, in the example above, I can go into any other application like Excel, Word or Notepad, and just paste that output.
It is one of the fastest and easiest ways to obtain the complete listing of files in a directory, driver or hardware details about your computer, or any other information that you can pull from your system using any Windows command.
If you instead follow a command by “| MORE”, it will just keep the output on the screen, but instead of scrolling like mad up the screen faster than you can read it, it’ll stop when the screen is full and wait for you to press a keyboard key before scrolling again.

5. COLOR – Have Some Fun

Okay, so we’re not all work and no play here. If you want to stand out, play around with the color scheme of your Windows 7 command window by typing in the color command followed by a two digit number. The first hex digit is the background, and the second is the foreground.
windows 7 command prompt
Just type “color /?” if you can’t remember the codes. Just black and white can get boring, so mix it up a little! If your friends ask you how you did that, just tell them that you’re a world class hacker.

6. DRIVERQUERY – Get Your Driver Information

Working in IT, there is nothing more frustrating than working on communicating with a device, only to learn that the device driver is wrong, or the version is out of date. That headache can be avoided by running the DRIVEQUERY command to get a full list of installed drivers on your system.
Just output it to the clipboard with the CLIP command, or output it to a file with something like, “DRIVERQUERY >> mydrivers.txt”
windows 7 command prompt
The “>>” operator is actually an “append to file” command and it will create the text file and add the details. If the file exists, it’ll append the info at the end. Use “>” if you want it to wipe any old data and create a new file.

7. FC – File Compare

Another really useful command – especially if you’re a writer or a programmer and often find yourself trying to find out what changes took place to a file – is the FC command.
In my example below, I had two self-written biographies and wasn’t sure which was the most recent, so I type “FC /L ryanbio.txt ryanbio2.txt”.
This does an ASCII comparison and actually outputs the sections of text in each file that are different.
This isn’t the sort of useful feature many people associate with Windows command prompt command – but there it is. I’m not saying it’s a very new or exciting command, but it is a command that can make using the Windows command prompt a much faster and more effective way to get a job done than trying to figure out how to do it in some application.

8 & 9. DEFRAG and CHKDSK – Useful Maintenance Tools

Some people swear that a regular defrag of your hard drive will keep it healthy and will make everything run more smoothly. Other people say the efficiency difference is negligible.
I say, if it’s important to you, then run the command. In fact, just set up a weekly or monthly scheduled taskto get the job done and you’ll never even have to think about it again.
As you can see from the example below, I use “DEFRAG C: /U /V”.
The /U switch prints the progress of the defrag to the screen, and /V makes that output verbose. Obviously if you’re running a scheduled task in the background, you wouldn’t bother with that.
Another important maintenance command I run regularly is CHKDSK to monitor the health of my hard disk. I run “CHKDSK c: /F /R”, which will check the C: drive for any problems. If if finds errors it will fix them thanks to /F, and it’ll try to recover readable information from bad sectors thanks to /R.

10 & 11. HOSTNAME and IPCONFIG – Network Troubleshooting Tools

So you’re on the phone with IT and they need the hostname of your computer, what do you do? Yes, you could open up File Explorer, right click on the My Computer and check the Properties, or you can visit “System” in the Control Panel.  If you want to be super-fast though, just open up your command prompt and type in one word – “HOSTNAME”.
I’m sure lots of IT folks are rolling their eyes out there with the mention of IPCONFIG. Why? Well, because it’s one of the first commands that IT techs cut their teeth on. It’s the fastest way to check the IP address and MAC address of a machine, as well as the current state of the network adapter.
It is also a real life-saver in some situations. I can’t count how many times I’ve had friends struggling with Internet connection issues, and doing a quick “IPCONFIG /RELEASE” followed by “IPCONFIG /RENEW” wipes the slate clean (obtains a new IP and therefore a “fresh” Internet connection from the ISP) and solves all their problems.

12. Function Keys Are Your Friend

Another well protected secret about your command prompt is that Function Keys also have a purpose in Windows 7. While you’re typing one command after another, you can quickly navigate through commands with the following function keys:
F3 – Shows you the last executed command
F4 – Deletes any text you’ve just entered
F7 – Displays the entire list of recent commands you’ve used
F9 – Lets you select one of the commands from the F7 list to paste to the command line
It would have been really nice to have those function key features in the earliest days of DOS, when we had to type and retype commands if there were typos or mistakes. These days, you can whip out commands much faster than you could ever hope to navigate through various windows with point-and-click.

13. TREE – The Powerful Directory Visualizer

I think the coolest command that I stumbled upon is the “TREE” command. This simple and fast command will output an entire visual map of the directory structure, starting at the path location you define.  This is definitely one that you want to output to a text file.
In the example below, I used the command “TREE /a >> treeresults.txt”.
Since I was already sitting in “C:/Owner/” when I typed the command, it started drilling down through all of the directories in the “Owner” folder, and output the entire structure in an ASCII graphic (thanks the the /a switch).
command prompt
So, there you have it – 13 simple yet powerful commands that can make your computing experience a lot more efficient. And if you want to get a little creative, you could try your hand at writing batch files that incorporate several of them together!
Did I convince you to try out the Windows command prompt for the first time? Were there any commands listed here that were new to you? Share your thoughts and your own CMD tips 


Microsoft Office has dominated the market of text documents, spreadsheets and slide shows for years, and for good reason – it’s one of the very best. However, there’s one drawback and that is the price. Sure, it’s a relatively good investment, but for one reason or another you choose to not pay for it. What do you do?
Thankfully, there are other options – and good ones. These range from web-based apps and local software to free and paid. Although some do cost, all have free options and the price you pay for the paid software is a fraction of what you would pay for Microsoft Office. Through this article I will touch upon any unique features such as mobile capability, cost, user interface and compatibility with Microsoft Office files.

Google Docs (AKA Google Drive)

Google Docs has practically become my unconsciously chosen alternative to Microsoft Office. Although I actually own Microsoft Office, I use Google Docs heavily primarily because of convenience. First off, I’m already logged into my Google account either to check my email, watch a video on YouTube, add an event to my Google Calendar and so on. I plain just use Google for everything.
Besides that, I have found the interface to be very nice, although I still think the interface of Microsoft Office 2010 wins hands down – it’s just beautiful.


Probably my favorite feature in Google Docs is the ability to easily collaborate. Collaboration on most sites can be difficult. So often if you want to share a document with someone, they too must have an account. Google is similar to Facebook in this aspect in that (almost) everyone has a Google account. This makes collaboration very nice. But even if the user doesn’t have a Google account, you can still share the document with them.
But sharing a file is only one aspect of collaborating. Editing a document and seeing the changes live is a tremendous benefit to Google Docs – non-Google users can do this too. Now with Google Drive you can also access all your files right on your desktop.
Other unique features are the research and dictionary tools to enable you to search certain topics or words right next to your paper. Since Google Docs is a web app, it’s also mobile and can be accessed from your tablet or smartphone.


Google Docs is completely free – plain and simple. There are options to upgrade space, but it’s hardly needed – I wouldn’t recommend doing it.

User Interface

Google Docs has seen some pretty major improvements in this area from the past interface. The interface is now even cleaner and simpler, without lacking essential features.


Google Docs’ compatibility with Microsoft Office is surprisingly good! When a Microsoft Office file is uploaded, it labels it differently than it’s own native files, but the editing process is all the same.
What about synchronization and sharing files? Well we already covered collaborating with others while using Google Docs in the cloud, but what about collaborating with others who are using Microsoft Office? Google offers a solution with a plugin for Microsoft Office called Google Cloud Connectwhich has been covered thoroughly here on MakeUseOf.

Microsoft Web Apps

Some may argue that Microsoft Web Apps is Microsoft Office. However, that is completely irrelevant. Unlike some articles, the purpose of this article is not to avoid Microsoft products, but to find cheaper alternatives. Microsoft Web Apps is free – you can’t get cheaper than that. The only thing that can make it better is if it’s a solid online office suite, which it is.
Not only is it available for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but it also offers OneNote online, which was news to me. If you don’t know what OneNote is, it’s a note taking application similar to Evernote.


Web Apps is combined with Skydrive, which gives you access to 25 free gigabytes of cloud storage. That is the best deal anywhere right now! Remember when I said I wouldn’t recommending paying for more storage on Google Docs? I’d be hard pressed to find one logical reason to pay for additional Google Docs storage when you have 25 free gigabytes at your disposal. If you have Skydrive installed on your computer, these files are synced there as well (similar to how Google Drive works, except you get 20 more gigabytes with Skydrive).
As far as other features compared to the official Microsoft Office software, Web Apps can’t really compete, but it’s not too shabby. It’s ideal that they’re used together – that’s how they were made. Can Web Apps be used by itself? Yes it can, but just like Google Docs, don’t expect it to be a full feature office suite. As far as mobile access, to my knowledge you cannot edit documents on your phone, but you can view them – which is still very nice.


Just like Google Docs, Microsoft Web Apps is entirely free of charge.

User Interface

Remember when I told you how beautiful I thought the interface was in Microsoft Office 2010? Well seeing that Web Apps is practically identical, I just want to reiterate that. Sure Google Docs is clean and simple and even what I use primarily, but Microsoft knows what they’re doing when it comes to creating an office suite user interface.


This is almost obvious, so I’ll keep it short – if there is going to be any “winner” in compatibility with Microsoft Office, I really hope it would be Microsoft Web Apps.


LibreOffice is a full featured, open source office suite that “broke off” from OpenOffice. LibreOffice lives up to its name, as “Libre” stands for “free.” As you can see in the image above, LibreOffice has Text Document (Word alternative), Spreadsheet (Excel alternative), Presentation (Powerpoint alternative), Drawing (Publisher alternative), Database (Access alternative) and Formula, a math and equation program.


Like I previously mentioned, LibreOffice is a full featured office suite meaning it has all the same functions and maybe even more than the competing office suites (free or not). Other software typically has alternatives for the “popular trio” as I call it – Word, Excel, PowerPoint. LibreOffice goes beyond that adding software for publishing and databases, as well as it’s own addition – a math-focused software.
One great feature about LibreOffice is that it’s portable. You can install it on your flash drive or portable hard drive, or even an SD card and take it with you wherever you go.


LibreOffice, like OpenOffice, is completely free. Although, donations are accepted.

User Interface

For a free, full featured software suite, LibreOffice looks surprisingly good. It doesn’t have Microsoft’s fancy ribbon-style menu, but it is still modern and easy to use.


When I opened my resume, a heavily formatted document originally created in Word, in LibreOffice, everything was in place. There were no lines pushed over, or any fonts, styles or settings changed. The only thing that was a little different was the spacing – somehow the last couple lines didn’t make it onto the second page and got pushed onto a third. I’m sure that this could be fixed with spacing settings within LibreOffice. I use LibreOffice as my primary portable office suite on my portable hard drive so that I can open up my files where ever I may be without worrying about having software that is incompatible with my Microsoft Office documents.

SoftMaker Office

SoftMaker is a company that creates a very good alternative to Microsoft Office. They offer two different paid versions of their software, as well as a free version. Another thing they do, which is unique, is they allow free downloads of their previous versions of software. Their free office suite is named no other than FreeOffice.
The benefit to downloading this as opposed to other office suites they’ve created and sold, but are not free, is that FreeOffice is in and will continue to be in constant development, whereas older suites are, in their words, “frozen.”
The screenshot above displays the SoftMaker Office Professional 2012 version of TextMaker.
Below is FreeOffice TextMaker:


I found while using SoftMaker, that it is very similar in features to Microsoft Office and other office suites. There wasn’t anything feature-wise that necessarily made it stand out apart from other suites. That said, it has a lot of features and options within each program. There are two versions, other than FreeOffice, of SoftMaker Office Suites. The professional version includes TextMaker, PlanMaker, SoftMaker Presentations, BasicMaker, SoftMaker eM Client Professional and 4 Berlitz Basic Dictionaries. The standard version only excludes eM Client Professional and the 4 Berlitz Basic Dictionaries.
TextMaker, as it implies is a Microsoft Word alternative. PlanMaker is the spreadsheet software. SoftMaker Presentations is the PowerPoint alternative. BasicMaker is the macro language that lets you automate TextMaker and PlanMaker. The SoftMaker eM Client Professional is actually an all-in-one email, task, calendar and contact client. This would be similar to Outlook.


It is obvious that FreeOffice is free, so I’ll jump right into the prices of the Standard and Professional versions. Office Standard 2012 is € 69.95 and $ 79.95. Office Professional 2012 is € 89.95 and $ 99.95. If you’re looking for an all-in-one email client alternative to Outlook included with your office suite, this is a pretty affordable option. Of course, there is Thunderbird however. Another thing to consider with SoftMaker is that if you want to upgrade, you don’t have to rebuy everything again, but instead just pay a fraction of the cost.
I feel the true value of SoftMaker Office resides in FreeOffice, and not just because it’s free, but for what you get in comparison to what you pay for in their other suites. It truly is a bargain and is a great new rival to LibreOffice. Yes, FreeOffice is new. SoftMaker hasn’t officially announced it’s arrival, but we have been given permission to introduce it to you.

User Interface

SoftMaker Office 2012 isn’t bad, but it isn’t superb either. I definitely think that LibreOffice has it beat in this area. I will give it credit though in that it allows you to add and remove icons from the toolbars so that you can customize it to your liking – that’s nice and often a forgotten feature with many office suites.


When opening up different Microsoft Office files with SoftMaker Office, I didn’t notice any changes in them. In fact, the problem I mentioned about an additional page being added in LibreOffice, did not occur in this case. I was quite happy with the overall performance of the program. Again, the only drawback is that the interface seems a little backdated and could be overwhelming to someone who isn’t very tech savvy.

Kingsoft Office

Kingsoft is a software company based out of Hong Kong that should worry Microsoft. They have a pretty good product here. However, the product only includes the “popular trio” as I’ve previously called it: Word alternative, Excel alternative and PowerPoint alternative. If that is all you need then this will suit you just fine. If you need a software for publishing or databases or note taking, you will need to look elsewhere or get “supplemental software” along with Kingsoft Office.
Although Kingsoft hasn’t been covered on MakeUseOf (to my knowledge), it has been mentioned by a reader in response to a question on MakeUseOf Answers. To read his opinion about it, scroll all the way to the end of the page.


Aside from only having three programs, Kingsoft Office still excels (no pun intended). One feature that I really liked was the mobile app for Android, which is full functioning – you can view and edit your files, right from your phone or tablet. Not too many office suites offer that. Unfortunately my lack of owning an android device inhibited me from testing this personally, but I would be happy to hear any reviews in the comments below.


Like SoftMaker Office, Kingsoft Office has three versions as well: FreeStandard and Professional. The standard version costs € 46 or around $55. The professional version costs € 64 or around $77. In my opinion, this is a great deal. Also note that you don’t have to have the entire suite if you don’t want everything. Each piece of software (free and paid) is available individually too.

User Interface

As I was writing this review, I had to continue to hold back my praises on the interface until this section – believe me, it was hard to do. My first impression of Kingsoft Office happened like this, “Wow! That is nice!”
Of course that faded a little once I realized that the ribbon style was only for the professional office suite and not the free one, but that said, the free version looks pretty nice too. With the ribbon style and full featured software combined with an affordable price, I would say that Kingsoft Office is probably the biggest contender to Microsoft Office. Sure, LibreOffice is free, and it does offer more programs – which in no doubt is a plus, but Kingsoft Office comes in at a super close second place.


Compatibility with Microsoft Office for Kingsoft Office isn’t even an issue. When I opened the files they all looked uniform and I noticed that the program’s own interface actually plays a roll in the look and “feel” of the file you’re viewing. Even in the free version, Kingsoft Office worked awesome.

Honorable Mention


ThinkFree has web based and mobile apps as well as one for download. Don’t get the online and local versions confused. Contrary to what the name may imply, and although it’s a reputable company, the version for download is not as free as you may think.

Zoho Office

Zoho has been around quite a while and has long been Google’s contender for the calendar and office web apps. If you prefer to not use Microsoft Web Apps or Google Docs, Zoho is the next best choice. They do have a free plan as well as two monthly paid plans.


KOffice is a free office suite with Word, Excel and PowerPoint alternatives, as well as diagram and flowchart, and vector graphics software. If you are looking for something that is free and diversified, you may want to check out KOffice to see what it has to offer. The interface isn’t bad and the updates are current as well.
Note: KOffice is the older version of Calligra Suite, which was covered on MakeUseOf for popular Linux office suites. Both are fantastic and Calligra Suite does have some differences. If you are interested in one of these two, I recommend you try them both out to see which one you like better.

IBM Lotus Symphony

Lotus Symphony is another one of the “popular trio” desktop applications. It has been around for a while and seemed to be popular among Linux users for a while until OpenOffice came about. It still is a decent alternative if you enjoy trying out different software, but it isn’t my favorite by any means.


I hope that these recommendations have been helpful in deciding what you should use as your primary office suite. Some are much better than others. To sum up my thoughts, I feel the best to consider would be Kingsoft Office and LibreOffice for desktop apps and either Google Docs or Microsoft Web Apps for online files. To me, these have the best user interfaces, the most affordable prices (or are just plain free) and are the most full featured. If you have already tried some of these, I would like to hear your feedback. Which one do you prefer? I’m curious if there are others out there that may not be as popular, but are just as good or better. Let me know!
Also, if you use Microsoft Office, be sure to check out the guide on the best tips and tricks in Office 2010!