The buzzword surrounding the Internet these days is "free." Free software. Free Internet. Free everything.
But for the recreational user, getting to free stuff on the Web might pose one of the biggest challenges. Hundreds of sites offer free downloads and free software, but, of course, the best sites offer the best stuff.
Here are a few.
www.buzme.com: With most standard Internet services like America Online, MSN, or even the smaller local companies, being online means tying up the phone. In a couple hours that can mean missing an important call.
BuzMe has come up with a pretty ingenious solution to the problem. With the free software available at its Web site, you can be notified of incoming calls while online and even respond.
When the call comes in, BuzMe uses a caller identification feature that alerts the computer user. The call is answered by the automated BuzMe system.
The computer user is met with a menu of options to use in response to the call. By clicking on "Call me back in..." and entering a time, BuzMe will send the response to the caller in a computerized voice. The caller will know to expect your call.
Any message can be sent to the caller who is waiting on the other end. Or they can even leave a voice mail message.
Also, like voice mail, people can leave messages on BuzMe, even when the user is not online. Messages can be checked via the Internet (anywhere in the world).
A Macintosh beta version is also available.
www.paltalk.com: Faster, better software and higher capacity Internet connections mean greater user-to-user communication via the Internet.
Paltalk is one of many software bundles available for free that allows users to chat with friends over the Internet, no matter where they are in the world. Imagine the savings on a call to a place like Japan or Chile.
A free 300-kilobyte download (usually under a minute) puts this software on the user's computer. All the user has to supply is a microphone and a friend on the other end with the same setup.
Setting up the software, as well as using it, is fairly simple. Just follow the directions on the Web site, adding names for people with whom you plan to talk. Once it is running, all the user has to do is double click on a user to connect. Conference call features are in the works, the company promises.
Though I have never used Paltalk, I have heard that this type of software can be difficult. Delays between speaking and hearing are significantly reduced by faster computers and better Internet connections. On the average, it might be a challenge to get used to waiting for a response.
www.freesite.com: There are several sites on the Web that have extensive catalogs of free software. This is one of the best.
Virtually any software without copyright protection is a click away from the user's hard drive. Choose from titles like "Austin Powers Browser," which adds characters and colors from the movie Austin Powers to the otherwise boring browser that you use now. "Bar Eyes" is a program that simple turns your cursor into a pair of eyes. The eyes even wink and sleep.
Find everything from practical to useless software on The Free Site.
www.adobe.com: If you do not have Adobe Acrobat on your computer, chances are you have a lot of problems accessing files, certain Web pages and e-mail attachments. Acrobat is the industry standard for making virtually every mainstream program available to every user.
Luckily Adobe gives the computing world Reader, a simplified version of Acrobat. Go to Adobe's Web site, get it in a few minutes, and then test it by going to the Internet and downloading pictures or jokes or anything else.
www.tucows.com: This is a great site made better with easily navigated windows and menus and fast downloads.
Start at the Tucows home page and choose the type of operating system for which you are choosing software. Once you get beyond that point, simple lists of what is available are a click away. Software is downloaded using a mirror site at Great Basin in Reno. Because it is so close geographically, time online is greatly reduced.