Chances are, you know that alongside Windows and Office, Microsoft makes a number of apps that are free for all. But the actual number might just surprise you.
When we started counting up all the best free Microsoft apps, we thought we'd find 20 or 30. In the end, we found a lot more. And because this is Microsoft, these apps aren't just OK, they're good. Great, even.
There's a free program or service for just about every aspect of PC use, from headline-grabbers such as Windows Live Essentials and Microsoft Office Web Apps to smaller but no less useful tools such as Microsoft Autoruns, Security Essentials and Desktops.
It's not just about work, either; Microsoft is responsible for lots of apps that are enjoyable and fun to use. See through the eyes of the world's telescopes, play a game or two or – better still – create your own with Kodu Game Lab. The list just keeps on growing.
Some of the programs here are unfinished, and clearly marked as such. That means there's a chance you may run into problems using them – nothing major, but take a System Restore point before you proceed, just in case.
We also recommend you don't attempt to install every program in this list in one go; you'll quickly bring your computer to its knees. Instead, pick out tools that excite you and give them a go.
With the Windows Live apps, you can choose the ones you want when you download the Windows Live Installer program. So, what are you waiting for? You're about to make your PC more efficient, secure and fun without spending a thing.
1. Microsoft Office Web Apps
This must be one of the company's biggest giveaways; you can now have access to the core features of Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for free through your web browser.
Just log on with your Windows Live ID to create new documents or upload existing ones from your computer to your Windows Live SkyDrive account, then edit them in your browser window. Even if you already own a copy of Microsoft Office, this useful freebie enables you to access your documents from any webconnected computer.
2. Windows Live Mail
It's simply the best free email tool there is – essential for Windows 7 users, and a step up from both Microsoft Outlook Express and Windows Mail, too. Reasons to upgrade? It works brilliantly with multiple email accounts, gives you offline access to web-based providers such as Hotmail and Gmail and organises your mail intelligently into conversations.
It also integrates cleverly with a built-in calendar, enabling you to organise your life, too. Windows 7 and Windows Vista users can also enjoy the new photo email option, which enables you to share dozens of pictures without clogging up other people's inboxes.
3. Microsoft Device Center Beta
Windows 8 is just around the corner, and while its touch interface is being heralded from the rooftops, many of us will have to make do with using the traditional keyboard and mouse to find our way around. If your keyboard or mouse is a Microsoft model, you'll want this free download, which combines the functionality of Intellipoint and Intellimouse into a single app, letting you customise how your mouse and keyboard will behave in Windows 8.
4. Outlook Connector Pack
If you want to get access to Hotmail in Microsoft Outlook 2003 or later, install this add-on, which comes with Windows Live Essentials 2011. Once it's set up, just create a new account in Outlook, choosing the option to manually configure when prompted to access the Microsoft Outlook Hotmail Connector option.
5. Free Microsoft Office Templates
Need some inspiration for, or a helping hand with, your next Office document? Just visit the Templates section of the Office website (see the link above), where you'll find a mind-boggling number of useful options.
They're divided up into dozens of categories, which cover all of the major Office applications, and can be accessed through each of the individual Office programs when you create a new document.
6. Microsoft Producer For PowerPoint
This free-to-use add-on for PowerPoint makes it incredibly simple to create web-based presentations from existing PowerPoint slides. You can also use it in association with other media sources, such as video, audio and images.
You'll need to use the Microsoft Office Animation Runtime plug-in unless you're running Office 2007 – a handy download link is provided on the Microsoft Producer download page.
pptPlex enables you to zoom into and out of your PowerPoint slides, as well as jump between non-sequential ones. Once it's installed, launch PowerPoint and view the video tutorial to find out how to use it.
8. Free images and clip-art
Need to jazz up an Office document with some relevant imagery? Thousands upon thousands of free photos, clip art and other illustrations are available at the Office website – download individual pictures through the site or use the Microsoft Clip Organizer tool (part of Office).
9. Noreplyall Outlook Add-in
This tiny extension adds two buttons to the Ribbon in Outlook 2007 and 2010, enabling you to prevent people in the same organisation from forwarding or clicking Reply to all when they get the email you're about to send out.
10. Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack
This tool enables users of Office 2000, XP and 2003 to open, edit and save documents in the new 2007 formats in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Install the Compatibility Pack and the functionality is immediately available in Office's File Open and Save As dialogue boxes.
11. Ribbon Hero 2
The Ribbon interface was a great step forward for Office 2007 and 2010, but if you want to get the most of it, install Ribbon Hero 2.
It monitors what you do in Office and makes suggestions as to which features you should learn about that could help you do your work more efficiently. It also helps you learn about the Ribbon interface using games and tasks that can be played with your friends and colleagues.
12. Microsoft Office Viewers
Don't have access to a copy of Office on another computer? You can now install special viewers for Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, Visio or PowerPoint documents, enabling you to open, look at and print your work without having to download Office.
13. Docs for Facebook
Docs for Facebook is free web service basically lets you create Word, Excel and PowerPoint presentations from within your web browser, then share those documents with your Facebook contacts. Log in with your Facebook account, create your document using the basic controls provided, and then you can let others view or even edit it, plus post it to your wall. It uses the basic Office Web apps, and allows you to download or upload documents from your hard drive to use too.
14. Microsoft WebMatrix
This developer-friendly tool may have uses for less experienced web coders too, seeing as it's designed to simplify the process of building, testing and deploying websites. WebMatrix integrates server, database and programming frameworks – all Microsoft technologies of course – into a single tool, but goes one step further in making it possible to build sites based on open-source tools like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla! and many more with just a few clicks, making it a great tool for trying these services out without having to sign up for a hosting package first.
15. Microsoft OffVis
This tool allows you to examine legacy Office formats (doc, xls, and ppt) at the binary level. In most cases it's primarily a tool for technical users, but there are some real-life applications that might make it useful for the rest of us too: open the file, select the appropriate parser (Word, Excel or PowerPoint) from the Parser list and choose Parse. OffVis will then alert you if it finds malicious code, and can – with care – even rescue some corrupt files via the Tools > Repair and Defragment menu. Make sure you save a copy of the file though, in case its repairs actually make things worse.