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Surprisingly few people know that Google is not just a search engine. It is actually one of the most powerful collections of software tools on the planet – and they're totally free.

Formally incorporated in 1998, Google was established to provide a simple yet comprehensive way to search the rapidly expanding web and display the results that were likely to be most relevant to users.

Google has loads of useful features you probably don't know about.

While search remains at the core of Google's operations, a series of offshoots has made Google even more useful to consumers by providing everything from a satellite view of most of the Earth's surface (Google Earth) and a set of online office productivity apps (Drive) to the world's most popular smartphone operating system (Android) and video sharing network YouTube.

Yet within the basic Google search engine itself, there are a few obscure features that can actually prove quite useful – if you know about them.

Flight status – type in a flight number to Google's search box and the top result will display that flight's information. For example SA 334 shows up as the 13h15 departure from Cape Town to OR Tambo as well as arrival time, terminal and gate number. The result shows how much time is left before the flight departs and, once it has, displays its progress graphically between airports;

Weather updates – Type in a city followed by the word "forecast" – Johannesburg, for example – and up comes the temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind and a graphic showing a weekly forecast;

Word definitions – if you type in the term define, followed by a colon and the word you want a definition for – define: search, for example – the phonetic spelling, an audio pronunciation clip as well as verb and noun forms and a list of synonyms are displayed;

Number cruncher – Google's calculator can perform logarithmic calculations in addition to basic maths permutations – not surprising really, since Google's name comes from the word googolplex which refers to large numbers;

Translator – If you're travelling and you're lost for words in a foreign language, try Google's quick translation facility. For example, type in "translate homme to English" and it will return the word "man" and that it comes from French.

Converter – Currency and unit conversions are possible using the simple syntax: amount of unit one in unit two. For example, "1ZAR in USD" gives you the correct amount at the prevailing exchange rate. It works for units of distance, volume and so on.

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