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5 free project management applications you must try

Putting together a project plan can sometimes seem more daunting than completing the project itself. When you need to track each step of a project, along with your costs, staff, and other factors, you probably need a project management application.

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.

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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