Essential back-to-school software

Get a jump on the upcoming school year with a collection of downloadable software for communicating with classmates, managing your homework, learning new study skills, or harnessing the reference power of the Internet.

You might be enjoying the dog days of summer now, but look out! The school year is just around the corner, and teachers, books, classes, and winter will be here before you know it. Get a jump on the upcoming school year with a collection of downloadable software for communicating with classmates, managing your homework, learning new study skills, or harnessing the reference power of the Internet. You can even find software to let you call your parents free from college. (Seriously, your mom wants a call.)

Digsby

Digsby (Credit: CNET Networks)

Facebook profiles, instant-messaging networks, various Web mail accounts...who can track them all? With Digsby, all you need is one, simple application that lets you update your social-networking statuses, manage and send e-mail, and chat with your buddies from a single interface. The powerful package uses a lot of system memory, but Digbsy's approach may be the future of socializing online.

StudyMinder Homework System

StudyMinder (Credit: CNET Networks)

It's always fun to head back to school to reunite with all the classmates you missed over the summer. And then comes the homework...and the research papers...and art projects...and the science fair. Academic commitments only get more complicated as you advance through your school years, and it's best to master your schedule as soon as you can. The publisher of this feature-packed organizer also offers a Lite version for free as well as a portable version that can be run off a U3 drive.

Typing Master Pro Typing Tutor

Typing Master Pro Typing Tutor (Credit: CNET Networks)

What was once a simple but valuable skill has become an utter necessity. The keyboard might not be around forever in its current incarnation, but the rise of technology has made it imperative for all students to master the standard QWERTY setup. Regardless of whether you're writing assignments by hand, the sooner you learn to type the better. This top-rated app includes well-designed lessons, games, and personalized exercises to teach or improve skills.

Graph

Graph (Credit: CNET Networks)

Ah, math class. What better place for a nice, quiet nap...what's that? You like math?! Then this free software for drawing graphs of mathematical functions might be right up your alley. The program includes a vast number of predefined functions, and it's easy to add your own. It also calculates length and area of functions, as well as first and second derivatives.

WordWeb

WordWeb (Credit: CNET Networks)

You might think that the Web has rendered offline dictionaries moot, but that might be a fallacious supposition, at least according to the publishers of the top-rated dictionary software WordWeb. The software can use an Internet connection for expanded functionality, but most of its power is built right in. With a intuitive, integrated interface and database of more than 150,000 root words and 120,000 synonyms, WordWeb is one freeware app that every aspiring writer should check out.

Google Earth

Google Earth (Credit: CNET Networks)

Ever since Google bought Keyhole's satellite software and merged it with its own mapping software to create Google Earth, citizens of the planet have been provided with amazing photos and valuable geographic information. Start with a view of the entire planet, then manually zoom into any country or city you like, or just type in a name of a location. Version 4 added 3D models of real buildings and structures to the program, and users can even create and submit their own using Google Sketchup.

WorldWide Telescope

WorldWide Telescope (Credit: CNET Networks)

While Google has the Earth's most excellent reference, Microsoft takes the prize for information and imagery from across the universe. The recently released and fabulous freeware WorldWide Telescope is the most ambitious attempt to bring the power of massive space- and ground-based telescopes onto your PC. Along with the incredible pictures of black holes, nebulae, and radiation clouds, you can take guided tours of celestial objects led by eminent astronomers and educators.

WikidPad

WikiPad (Credit: CNET Networks)

For users accustomed to onlike wikis like the Web service Wikipedia, this freeware app is a great find. Whether you're into comparative literature or computer programming, you're going to need to take and organize notes. The big bonus with WikidPid is that, like Wikipedia, you can link notes from one to another in various paths. If you find it works well for academic classes, it's easy to use the software to track information, schedules, and news for athletic teams, community projects, and other personal pursuits. Wikid cool!

Zotero

Zotero Firefox extension (Credit: CNET Networks)

Research in the 21st century doesn't involve as many card catalogs, microfiche machines, reference books, or 3x5 index cards as it once did. Today, online research is the name of the game, but recording and citing sources is still as important as ever. This free add-on for Mozilla Firefox puts that source information directly into your browser, while letting you add and manage related notes. The open-source app also lets you save search queries and store full Web pages or PDF files.

Skype

Skype (Credit: CNET Networks)

If you're far away from home at college on a budget, an Internet connection and a PC are all you need to talk to friends and family around the world for free. This revolutionary VoIP software lets users talk between computers for free and charges a reasonable fee to call landlines. You'll need to find a serviceable microphone and get used to occasionally spotty call quality, but the long-distance savings will add up quickly.

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