Review: 5 free apps that make project management easier

Got a big project with a tiny budget? One of these free packages could help you keep track.

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OpenProj

Like GanttProject, OpenProj is an open-source project, and has the potential to be the most popular among the project management software on this list, mainly because of its compatibility with Microsoft Office Project files. (According to the Web site, OpenProj has been downloaded over 1,250,000 times.) It comes as a desktop program in versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

OpenProj works well on its own for building project plans. Serena Software can offer this application free of charge because makes its money by selling back-end, server-side features to go with OpenProj for business clientele needing multi-projecting, reporting, time sheets, notifications and other enterprise-level apps.

Free project management

OpenProj

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The first thing you'll notice is its extensive charting features. OpenProj features Gantt and PERT charts, and also incorporates WBS, RBS, Earned Value costing, and a few other charting methods. Like GanttProject's PERT charting interface, the tasks and resources in the PERT, Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) or Risk Breakdown Structure (RBS) charts of OpenProj are manipulated by simply dragging and dropping boxes; the pathways among them then reroute automatically.

The way which OpenProj shows you Gantt charts falls somewhere between Gantter.com's clean, simple look and jxProject's layered, visual complexity. OpenProj aims for a visual balance between these two. In its default settings, it labels its task bars with the name of the corresponding resource, and does so with an overall look that isn't as busy or overwhelming as jxProject's. You can also click on a bar and drag it side-to-side along the time line to place it earlier or later in the schedule, as well as adjust the sides of the bar to shrink or stretch the time duration of the task.

Like jxProject, OpenProj lets you assign tasks with work times that run for less than one hour -- down to one minute.

But OpenProj is missing the one user interface feature that I really like in GanttProject, in which clicking a task bar highlights the corresponding name in the task list. (jxProject lacks this feature as well.) I hadn't realized how truly helpful this was until I went over the details of my project as rendered in OpenProj to mentally check off and review the task steps in my project, from start to finish.

A last big plus for OpenProj is that it successfully opened every plan file saved in the Microsoft Office Project format that I used in these tests. The other project management applications on this list usually had problems importing Office Project files, if they had the ability to do so directly at all (without the need to first export the file to XML).

Open Workbench

As its name implies, Open Workbench is yet another open-source project management program. It runs only on a Windows computer with the Java Virtual Machine Runtime installed. The company backing Open Workbench sells online training for $150 to get you up and running. Otherwise, this application is free to use, although you have to go through the minor hassle of registering for a user account at the Open Workbench Web site.

Free project management

Open Workbench

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Open Workbench cannot open files saved in any of the Microsoft Office Project file formats. It accepts only XML files and its own proprietary file format. Fortunately, Open Workbench managed to import all of the XML files created by Office Project that I threw at it.

In its default settings, Open Workbench renders your project plan as a basic Gantt chart, with no labels on the task bars. Like OpenProj, you can adjust the duration or position on the schedule of a bar by simply clicking and dragging it. But also like OpenProj, clicking a bar in the Gantt chart doesn't highlight the corresponding task or resource name in the task or resource list. (I don't think I'm the only one who finds this type of feature awfully useful when reviewing your plan.)

Its main display (under the Gantt chart screen) is split into six sections, which show the chart, task list, duration of tasks, calendar, resources, and the scheduled availability of your resources. All of these sections will resize respective to one another when you click and drag their borders. This is one of the stronger aspects of Open Workbench compared with the other project managers covered here, mainly because you can see most of the data tied to your plan without needing to click away from the main Gantt chart. This helps to give you the "whole picture" of your plan while you're either building or reviewing it, and I found this all-in-one visual display helpful in teaching myself how to use Open Workbench.

Open Workbench also generates a Critical Path Method (CPM} network flowchart from your plan, although, unlike with the other project management applications listed in this roundup, you cannot manipulate it by dragging and dropping the task chart boxes. You can only alter the pathway links among each task.

Initially, Open Workbench's split-screen display helps to make it a good choice, and it matches up with jxProject and OpenProj in terms of basic features. But, overall, OpenProj is more appealing due to the greater number of charts it can churn out for you, and jxProject for its obsessive visual details in presenting your plan.

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