Best Free Project Manager

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Introduction

The term "Project Management software" is muddy if not ambiguous. For example, users have different views of delineates “project management” from task or time management.

While Microsoft lead the way in desktop project management tools with MS Project. I used it and liked it. But not everyone wanted the complexity that came with all of its capabilities. That includes me now that my life is simpler.

Which brings us to this Best Free Product Manager category: It features programs that offer most or all of these functions: project planning, task and sub-task tracking, scheduling and resource tracking, and progress charting and review.

Users with smaller projects or simpler needs should consider less feature-rich project managers such as GanttProject or ToDoList (included in this article) or products in the Best Free Reminder and To-Do Program category.

In a Hurry?

Go to details...  Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide

 
Discussion

Open WorkbenchOpen Workbench: Topping our list is the Open Source project management tool Open Workbench, which is a free tool so feature-rich and powerful that it should at least be considered before any decision is made to purchase a commercial project management package.

Open Workbench notes

  1. Requires Java Runtime. Note: A persistent stream of new vulnerabilities is being discovered in Java Runtime. It seems Oracle (who owns Java) has lost interest in maintaining Java and Java Runtime as well. You may want to reconsider using Open Workbency.
  2. No longer supported or updated. Not a problem per se, but I suggest that you archive a copy or three of the installation file if you are going to be committed to using Open Workbench.

Like the commercial products of the same class, it takes time to get your head around and if you have been using Microsoft Project or another task-based manager you'll have to re-orient your thinking because Open Workbench is resource-driven not task-driven.

According to the developers, "an Open Workbench plan is built up from estimates for the tasks of work. Estimates are tied to the resource assigned to the tasks. Duration is then driven by the number of hours each resource will work per week to cover the total number of hours required for the tasks. Open Workbench is best suited to groups that estimate total work effort based on the estimates for all the tasks associated with a project and then create a staffing plan and schedule for those estimates."

The key features of the application include project planning, scheduling, resource management, project review and more.

The program can also read Microsoft project files and this possibly makes Open Workbench the most appealing. Many products–even commercial offerings–are great project management tools but sooner or later someone is going to want to view or edit your plan with the ubiquitous MS Project, and without compatibility the best you are going to be able to offer is an exported spreadsheet or graphical equivalent.

Open Workbench is the real thing, not some amateurish, half baked effort. Like Microsoft Project, it is best suited to large scale projects that can justify the considerable time it takes to learn the product.

GanttPVGanttProject offers a surprising depth of features and accessories for a free product. It is distributed under a GNU General Public License. As its name suggests, GanttProject is excellent for making Gantt charts, which are great  for making logical and easy to understand development plans.

GanttProject is written in Java and requires Java Runtime. Note: A persistent stream of new vulnerabilities is being discovered in Java Runtime. It seems Oracle (who owns Java) has lost interest in maintaining Java and Java Runtime as well. This product is not recommended if online security is a concern for you.

On feature I particularly liked was the ability to put in a percentage complete bar inside the timeline of that particular stage. This makes it easy to see how far along everything is without a lot of hassle. The program, if you use the downloadable version is very simple and easy to use. You can add as many tasks as you need, as well as then being able to assign personnel and resources to each task.  In particular the features for the personnel section are very good.

You can add team members for a project and assign them to tasks when you set them up, you can also input e-mail addresses as well as phone numbers for each person and assign them a role in the group. GanttProject also includes a Milestone feature which is very useful, giving an end goal to aim for with a fixed time. Many other project management tools do not support these.

On the technical side, GanttProject can save files as .xml files, which means that they are viewable over the internet as well as transferable to other programs, such as Microsoft Project. The installation is very quick and the program is actually very small, being under 10mb. There are very few problems with this tool, my only criticism is that you can't associate files with particular tasks, allowing other team members to get the files they need.

dotProject is a robust Web-based project management framework written in PHP that allows users to schedule, plan, and staff projects. It's not a perfect application, but its extensive functionality and ease of use make its shortcomings easy to overlook.

Update: The latest release of dotProject was 2013-07-27 (no change log entry for version 2.1.8). On 2012-11-15: "We have just released dotProject 2.1.7 which is primarily a security and bug fix release.  A number of XSS and SQL injection vulnerabilities have been reported to us and we have pulled out all stops to ensure they are now fixed." Conclusion: there likely are several new vulnerabilities by not.

The dotProject application is an open source GNU GPL-licensed project management application that was started in December 2000 and is actively developed and maintained. By way of an intuitive browser-based interface, dotProject offers project task management (task description, duration, scheduling, and assignment), multi-user support, granular user permissions, Gantt charts, discussion forums, file checkout, contact list, trouble tickets, reporting, calendar, and user-based to-do capabilities. If that's not enough built-in functionality, you can extend dotProject from a well-trafficked SourceForge project full of additional add-on modules.

A simple tabbed user menu drives the application. The fundamental units of the dotProject system are companies, projects, tasks, and users. The first step in using dotProject is to create companies for which projects are to be completed. Users, projects, and tasks are all related to a company. The next step should be to add users to both your client company listings and to your own resource allocation. You need users so that you have someone to assign tasks to; otherwise the administrator gets to do all the work! You can assign users varying degrees of permissions that can be matched to specific companies and/or projects.

After you've set up your company and initial users it's time to create project details that need to be managed and input tasks. Tasks can be linked and labeled as predecessor tasks and/or milestones and assigned to user resources. Users are notified of their task assignments by email, which is a neat feature. Users can also simply log in to the system and examine their own task lists.

Task management is the critical component of any project management application, and it's something that dotProject does reasonably well. Users can log time against a task directly in the system, giving a project manager a good synopsis of progress to date. From a scheduling point of view, dotProject helps users to calculate when tasks should start and when they should be completed based on time duration allocated and start task dependencies.

DotProject also allows users to create something called dynamic tasks, which takes their start, completion, and duration from the child tasks that are related to them. The newly updated and thorough dotProject documentation has some excellent explanation of how dotProject handles tasks, dynamic tasks, and dependencies.

Love them or hate them, Gantt charts are a mainstay of many project management packages. DotProject, rather than making the Gantt chart the focus of project management as they are in GanttProject, simply includes the chart as one of its tabs. DotProject offers no default export or print functionality for Gantt charts.

Project managers tend to love their reports. DotProject can generate a number of project reports, including task log, user performance, allocated user hours, tasks sorted by user, tasks overdue, completed, upcoming, overall report, and project statistics.

Overall, dotProject offers a staggering amount of useful functionality. By virtue of it being a Web-based multi-user application, you can quickly put it to work for either individual or distributed team project development. Its online documentation and support forums help when you need to figure something out or have hit a snag. Certainly dotProject is not without issues; the developers maintain a list of documented bugs that need to be dealt with in upcoming releases. Items like the Gantt project bug are annoying but are easily fixed with a small code tweak.

On the whole, dotProject is a solid multi-user project management tool that stands on its own merits.

 

web2projectTo run web2project you need "self host" running on your own web server (Apache or Microsoft IIS, with PHP and MySQL) or use a web hosting provider. If you're unsure about doing it yourself then reading the installation instructions will give you a clear idea whether you can do it. For this reason, web2project ismore likely to appeal to IT professionals.

web2project split from dotProject in 2007 when dotProject started its own redevelopment process. As its name suggests, web2 project had clear aims and they've certainly improved the visual appearance over dotProject. Unfortunately web2project is still working on becoming the complete project manager. But you have the option to start in dotProject and then migrate your project to Web2project although the reverse is not possible.

The application is well documented in a user guide and has video tutorials. There is also a Microsoft Project import tool.

Overall, it takes more time to setup the projects than the other options. However its strength is in collaborative projects with shared calendars. It will push events to Google Calendar and iCalendar. It has the ability ability to work with as many companies, departments, and users as you want. You can produce Gantt charts for individual projects or overall groups. It also has a Risk Management module to for monitoring the specific risks associated with individual tasks or entire projects.

 

ToDoListToDoList is not a traditional project manager. It is really a task list with some project management features. It does not have the mandatory Gantt charting and emphasis on critical paths, nor does it schedule using the usual task duration or effort. That means it is quite awkward for a team to use for collaborative tasks because you'll have to schedule tasks manually. It would work better for a team leader who hands out tasks to each team member. It is probably best for an individual who simply wants to track what has to be done, how long it will take, and who is doing things for us that we depend on. Tasks can have many sub-tasks some of which are dependencies that must be completed for the parent task to be completed.

It is relatively simple to use but if you get stuck some of the documentation is overly complicated for the type of users that it will appeal to. How effective it is for you will depend upon how elegantly you structure your tasks. It makes it easier by being able to attach notes, set due dates, get alarms/reminders, and have simple links to Microsoft Outlook.

Colour coding of tasks is also useful but what I really liked is the ability to link symbols to tasks to make them stand out.

Related Products

  • Zoho Projects: This is another one of Zoho's superb applications for personal and business users. "Milestones, tasklists and tasks help you break down complex projects into easily manageable units. Get more refined control with subtasks, recurring tasks, and dependencies." Zoho Projects would be the solution for me if I actually had any multiple-contributor projects to run. ;) You can get a good idea about Projects from their  getting started guide and tour of features. Their cloud-driven collaboration tools are first class too.
  • Producteev: "Task Management Software for Teams." This is an attractive online project management system that keeps things simple, and enables team members to participate in creating, assigning and tracking project elements.
  • Asanais a simple, logical, web-based project manager, which is straightforward and easy to understand and work with. It is primarily task oriented, and there is no resource (time) dimension to the tasks, which trades off bottoms-up planning for simplicity. The tops-down planning focus lends itself to more flexibility and quicker response to workload changes than traditional, details-focused project managers. In other words, it would be best for internal projects, like product development, than it would be for managing contracts.
  • Rescoper is an interesting smart web-app that readjusts your plans as the work progresses.
  • ProjectLibre is an open-source replacement for Microsoft Manager. Could be a nice replacement for Open Workbench too. ProjectLibre requires Java Runtime though. Friends don't let friends install Java. Try at your own risk.
Quick Selection Guide

ToDoList

3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Simple tasks without resources and dependencies; Easy to get started managing a simple project; Lots of help for starters including a tutorial project;
Does not come with the mandatory Gantt charting
7.0
2.08 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware

A range of plugins is freely available, including a PocketPC viewer and an MS Project 2002 converter.

Windows XP to 10

dotProject

3
 
Is a web service or web application
Web based tool; long history of succesful use; has a large active user base with effective community support if you have a problem.
Uninspiring website lacks the look and feel of other web based tools; bugs are often slow to be fixed.
2.1.7
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Web based.

web2project

3
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
Web-sync; better for collaborative projects with shared calendars; can migrate projects from dotProject; screenshots and video tutorials
You have to install your own web server or get a hosted account; Some features previously available at dotProject are still being developed
3.3 as of October, 2014
4 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
Most users should read the installation instructions before deciding to use web2project. If you are not comfortable with the instructions then consider another product: http://wiki.web2project.net/index.php?title=Installation Requires MySQL, PHP and a common web hosting platform like Apache or IIS

Open Workbench

3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Feature-rich and powerful effort-based so it best suited to groups that estimate total work effort.
Note: Vulnerabilities in Java Runtime are regularly discovered. It also seems that Sun (owner of Java) is losing interest in maintaining Java and Java Runtime. This product is not recommended if security is a concern. Resource-driven (effort-based) rather than task driven (duration-based) like Microsoft Project.
1.1.6 as of 2015-08-05
11 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Additional software required: Oracle's Java Runtime Engine. The version 1.1.6 user guide is available at: ftp://ftp.psu.ac.th/pub/openworkbench/OpenWorkbench_Guide_ENU.pdf http://www.scribd.com/doc/20820000/Open-Workbench-User-Guide If you are interested in the unsupported version 2 beta then see http://workbenchwarrior.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/installing-open-workbench/. Update: Beta Installed, but would not run on Windows 10 running the latest version of Java. (Did not allow WorkBench to install the ancient/vulnerable version 1.7u17 of Java, which might be why.)
Windows 2000, XP or 2003 Server Edition.

GanttProject

3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
A full featured program. Available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
Note: Vulnerabilities in Java Runtime are regularly discovered. It also seems that Sun (owner of Java) is losing interest in maintaining Java and Java Runtime. This product is not recommended if security is a concern.
2.7.1
13.3 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Requires Java Runtime version 7 or higher.
Windows XP to 10; Mac OSX; Linux
 
 
Editor

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Tags

project manager, gantt chart, work bench, to do list, free software, freeware

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Comments

ReqMan appears no longer to be freeware. It just has a 14-day free trial with pricing thereafter starting at $9/month.

Thank you for letting us know. It is now removed from the review. MC - Site manager.

Does anyone have experience with Asana? ( http://asana.com/ ) I was searching for a web-based app of this type. Asana came up early in Google search results, and it looks interesting, but I see no mention of it here either in the article or in the comments section. Just wondering. Asana says it is free for up to 30 users/project participants.

I don't have any experience, but I did open an account and look around. Here is the decription I added to the Related Products section above:

Asana is a simple, logical, web-based project manager, which is straightforward and easy to understand and work with. It is primarily task oriented, and there is no effort required dimension to the tasks. That trades off bottoms-up planning for simplicity. The tops-down planning focus lends itself to more flexibility and quicker response to workload changes than traditional, details-focused project managers. In other words, it would be best for internal projects, like product development, than it would be for managing contracts.