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With home schooling a continued reality for children and parents across the UK and with fewer activities available outside, home laptops or desktops have become household essentials.
Whether you’ve received a free laptop for your child via their school, or opted to buy a cheap laptop yourself, we take you through some of the best ways to extend its usefulness beyond basic schoolwork without having to spend any money.
Read on to discover some great free alternatives to the most popular paid-for software for affordable laptops running on Windows and Chrome OS.
Looking for an affordable laptop for a child? Read our latest updates on the cheap laptops available right now.
Free office software for Windows and Chromebooks
If you don’t have access to your school’s office software subscription, fear not. There are plenty of ways to open and edit documents, presentations and spreadsheets without needing to fork out for a full Microsoft Office package or other paid-for software.
Free web-based office software: Google Drive and MS Office Online
Google Drive has Docs, Sheets and Slides tools and all can open standard Microsoft Office files from Word, Excel and PowerPoint. This is the best solution for ChromeOS, since Chromebooks are built around the Google Drive software.
Both Windows and ChromeOS users can also try Microsoft Office Online, which is free to use and entirely based in the web browser.
Free office software to install: LibreOffice and OpenOffice
If you prefer a program installed on your desktop, then both LibreOffice and OpenOffice are excellent alternatives to paid-for software. They are open-source and developed by a large community and can open all the most common files.
Free drawing and painting apps
Whether the kids want add some extra sparkle to a school project or just do something creative in their free time, a drawing and painting app can really help.
Free drawing app for Windows computers: Paint 3D
If you’re using Windows 10, Paint 3D is a brilliant choice for practically anybody looking to while away the hours with creative fun. Paint 3D was originally supposed to completely replace the basic Paint program on Windows 10, but for now it remains an optional download.
Paint 3D includes all the basics you’d want from a drawing app, but the most fun comes when you start to drop 3D objects into your designs. Drop a dragon onto a beach scene? Sure. A knight onto an alien world? Absolutely. Because Paint 3D connects to an online database of free-to-use 3D objects, the possibilities are endless.
How to get Paint 3D: Visit Microsoft’s Paint 3D web page and tap ‘Get’ to open and download the app from the Microsoft Store. You can also go directly the Microsoft Store from the Windows Start menu (click on the Windows icon at the bottom left of your screen) and search for Paint 3D.
Free drawing apps for Chromebooks: PaintZ and Sketchbook
If you’re on a Chromebook and want a simple drawing app, PaintZ is a good option. It recreates the simplicity of the original Microsoft Paint, letting you draw onto a blank canvas, and paste images you’ve found online straight in and start working on them.
How to get PaintZ: PaintZ is available on the Chrome Extensions web store.
If you want something a bit more advanced, SketchBook from AutoDesk is a fully-featured sketching app that should work on the majority of recent Chromebooks.
How to get Sketchbook: Download Sketchbook from the Google Play Store for Android apps.
Free photo and video-editing software
If the kids want to get creative editing photos, or making video slideshows with music and captions, you don’t need to shell out for pricey professional photo and video editing suites. Below we have an example each for Windows 10 and Chrome OS.
Built-in photo and video-editing software on Windows 10
If you’re using Windows 10, you might be surprised to know that the Windows Photos app – the program that opens by default when you click on an image – actually provides some great tools for editing your photos and creating videos.
Crop, resize, draw on and add effects to your photos to give them some extra creative pop, or just touch them up to bring out the best in them.
For videos, the Photos app lets you stitch videos together, trim clips, draw and even add slow-motion effects. You can add captions and music, too.
Free photo and video-editing software for ChromeOS: Pixlr, Google Photos and PowerDirector
On ChromeOS, consider using online photo editor Pixlr, or try the Google Photos computer app to touch-up your pictures.
For videos, the CyberLink PowerDirector app is available via the Google Play Store. It contains everything you’ll need for a funky slideshow or full-length amateur dramatics performance.
- Get CyberLink PowerDirector app
Free games for Windows 10 and ChromeOS
If your child just wants a bit of after-school entertainment but they don’t have a smartphone or games console, there are plenty of great free options for gaming on both Windows 10 and Chromebooks.
- On Windows computers: search in the Start Menu for ‘Microsoft Store’ to find a wide selection of free games. Be aware that while they may be ‘free’, some may contain ads, and others may allow (or even encourage) in-game purchases. Make sure that whoever is playing knows the rules when it comes to paying real money for virtual content.
- On Chromebooks: access the Google Play Store. This contains the same array of apps and games you might be familiar with on Android phones. Keep in mind the advice about paying for in-game items mentioned above, and be aware that if your Chromebook belongs to a school, it may not allow you to access such apps and games.
Thinking about getting a new computer? See our guide to the best laptops under £500.
How to set parental controls
If you’re concerned about your child using a laptop unattended and armed with the knowledge that there’s a world of free apps and games out there, you can set up controls to prevent them from abusing their new-found power.
Microsoft’s ‘Family‘ settings and Google’s ‘Family Link‘ are the best places to start when it comes to restricting what your children are able to do on their computers, including setting limits on how much they can use specific apps, what they can download, and how much time they can spend online.