It may come as a surprise if you’ve never explored, but there are all kinds of free software programs that will do exactly what commercial programs do, though granted, with a little less polish in some cases. So how do you know which ones work?
Easy. Here you go. These are programs we’ve used to install a perfectly functional machine with free software, and the good part is that most of it is open source and well-supported, so it will continue being free even as it upgrades.
OpenOffice.org – This was Sun’s answer to the Microsoft Office Suite, with which it is fully compatible (within reason). It’s free, and runs on Java, so there are versions for PC, Mac and Linux, as long as the computer has the latest version of Java installed. Open Source purists–who were uncomfortable with the ties when Oracle, a major corporation, acquired Sun–took the open-source code for Open Office and forked it into LibreOffice. So far they are pretty close together, but forks always diverge. LibreOffice is now the default in Ubuntu Linux.
VirtualBox – Also an open-source legacy from Sun–also now owned by Oracle, but still free and as mind-boggling cool as ever–VirtualBox is a platform for virtual machines. With it, you can create a virtual machine, say a Windows XP machine, that runs in a window on your Linux (or Mac, or Windows 7) machine, and in fact, if you have VirtualBox on all of them, the same Windows XP virtual machine will run in a window on any of these operating systems. Again: You can run a virtual WinXP machine, loaded with your complete complement of software, in a window on your Linux box. Ours all have Windows partitions, which we open once in a blue moon to download all the new security patches. The virtual XP desktop restores into its window in about 10 seconds.
Irfanview – A free image viewer, organizer, editor with years of support behind it. It has expanded into a photo/audio/video viewer with an assortment of plugins. Perfect to use as the viewer when you double-click an image file, and as an image editor to rotate a photo, adjust the color, rescale to create a smaller file for email. In spite of its editing capabilities, it’s mainly a viewer, organizer and slideshow creator. For Photoshop-level image editing, use:
GIMP: the GNU Image Manipulation Program - This application continues to grow with every upgrade, and it’s long been a viable Photoshop replacement for Linux, where it was developed. It’s free, open-source and cross-platform, with various *nix versions as well as Mac and Windows. It’s not as polished as Photoshop (though that grows as well), but it is constantly having new functionality built-in without a $600 upgrade, and once you’ve learned the differences in the menus and the tools, you can download GIMP onto a new computer, whatever the platform, and be working in minutes, with barely a thought of Photoshop.
VLC – Video LAN Client - It’s not only a media player, it can play and record video streams and also stream your own media out of your computer to any other machine on your network. Professional grade software, used in media studios to shunt media streams around the network. For best results, also get the:
K-Lite Codec Pack – This is a free, open-source package with virtually every Windows codec for either audio or video that you are likely to need. It’s constantly updated with new codecs. It also includes the Media Player Classic, which froze time with Windows Media Player 6.5, before it decided to be an iTunes clone, but including the new codecs.
Audacity – This software combines so many of our favorite words: excellent, small, free, cross-platform; it’s a multi-track audio editing program, with complete plugin extensibility, including VST plugins, and is available in versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. This can be used (and is in small radio stations all over the world) for professional-grade audio editing and filtering, mixes and voice-overs with a small learning curve and big functionality.
mp3directcut – A very small mp3 player/editor, with a really good hook: it edits and normalizes MP3s without decoding. Since MP3 is a lossy format (how much you compress the music in the MP3 is determined by how much audio detail you’re OK with losing) you want to avoid extra decode/re-encode steps, which are like photocopies of a photocopy. This editor edits MP3s without decoding, thus leaving the original quality of the MP3 intact.
1by1 – A tiny directory player that lets you go through a folder of MP3s and either play the folder, quickly audition the tracks or stack and play a playlist.
audiograbber – This is a free ripper to rip CDs into MP3s at whatever level of quality you choose. It can read the CDDB database to enter MP3 tag information and name the tracks automatically if it recognizes the CD.
DVD Shrink - DVDShrink is software to back up DVD discs. It will also shrink a Dual-Layer DVD (8.8GB) down to a single layer (4.4GB). To do this it includes decryption algorithms to remove the copy protection so you can make another copy of your DVD for backup. It includes no burning function unless you have Nero–with which it interfaces–but you can write the backup to an ISO image on your hard disk and burn it with:
ImgBurn - a lightweight CD / DVD / HD DVD / Blu-ray burning application. It can both read discs into image files (e.g. ISO, but a variety of formats) and extract disk images onto other media, like a hard disk or flash drive or burn them to CD/DVD etc.
7-zip – Everyone on virtually every computer platform knows what ZIP files are: compressed archives. This is a small, free archive manager, which will read and write not only ZIP files, but it will also unpack ARJ, CAB, CHM, CPIO, CramFS, DEB, DMG, FAT, HFS, ISO, LZH, LZMA, MBR, MSI, NSIS, NTFS, RAR, RPM, SquashFS, UDF, VHD, WIM, XAR and Z files.
Notepad++ - this is an excellent source-code editor, in fact, an excellent little text editor to replace Windows’ Notepad with something less lame. Syntax-highlighting, macros, regular expression search-and-replace and plugins so you can add new functionality… this replaced about a dozen other text editors we’ve tried.
Angelwriter - In case you need more than a text editor (like fonts, text colors and other word-processing functions) but don’t need a full-bore system like OpenOffice, this is a small, fast, free Rich Text editor similar enough to MS Word that the learning curve is almost non-existent.
Winamp – What started as a small but very capable MP3 player has over the years morphed into a somewhat bloated iTunes wannabe, but for a free replacement for iTunes it’s not bad, and is unencumbered by iTunes proprietary madness. If you want iTunes-style music library management without iTunes, Winamp can handle it for you. Another (better) alternative is:
MediaMonkey – Blows Winamp and iTunes both away. Even if you don’t know Winamp, you know iTunes unless you missed the 21st Century. This does everything iTunes does, and does it better and faster. It will manage an iPod out of the box… and run circles around iTunes doing it. MediaMonkey calls itself “the music organizer for the serious collector.” That’s an accurate description. Want a cute MediaMonkey trick? Try this with iTunes (as an example): You ripped a CD a year ago but got lazy and didn’t name the tracks. Now you have a folder called Unknown Artist full of files named Track 1, Track 2 etc. Point MediaMonkey at it, and it will compare track numbers and lengths online, go find the album that matches, and fill them in for you.
Floola – There is probably no iTunes formatted media player that does not deserve to have all of the cross-platform versions of this program in its root directory. As long as the iPod has been set up to manage the music library manually, rather than with automatic syncs, and told not to open iTunes automatically when you insert the player, you can place the Windows, Mac and Linux versions of the executable–which is self-contained and needs no installation–on the iPod. When you plug it in and it mounts as a hard drive, you can open it and run whichever version matches the OS you’re using at the moment. For less than 80MB of your iPod’s space (the equivalent of 10-20 songs), you can plug it into virtually any computer you sit down at and play your music and add to or reorganize your iPod.
Chrome – Google’s browser. You can find the others online (Firefox, Opera, Safari), but if you only have one, this would be our current choice. The Browser Wars are always a back and forth battle, but currently Chrome holds speed, sandbox isolation, and multimedia reliability crowns. The Linux version was the last to be developed, and as such is the sketchiest, and it’s still our Linux browser of choice.
ZoneAlarm - ZoneAlarm makes a variety of retail packages to offer various levels of security, but for a free, mostly-intuitive firewall that works with minimal (and self-explanatory) intrusion into your work, you can’t really beat the free version of ZoneAlarm. W7 finally gave Windows a decent firewall, but if you’ve ever tried to configure its intricacies, you know what a non-intuitive firewall looks like. If you know a bit about firewalls and ports and want more control of the basic firewall functions, another good, free firewall is:
Sygate – This is such a straightforward yet competent firewall that Symantec bought the company, but with the proviso that they would still keep the free firewall available. Small, simple but complete. This is our choice to use in virtual machines because of its size and system usage.
Avira – There are several good, free antivirus programs out there. This is one we’re using now because its intrusiveness and upsell pitches are less, well, intrusive. Our other current fave, especially for virtual machines is Panda Cloud AV, which is on the Cloud Computing page.
Malwarebytes – If (when) your computer catches something, this is a go-to app. Have it on your machine, even if uninstalled, so if you lose connectivity from a virus, you can still scan your machine. Pro-level stuff here.
PortableApps.com – If you run Windows and you move from machine to machine, this can be an indispensable site. PortableApps puts together a suite of open source apps (many of the ones above included) which you can load onto a USB drive and plug into any PC, and not only are all of your apps there, but so is all of your data, bookmarks and settings. Now, consider the possibilities with your digitally-enabled phone.
uTorrent - A tiny, free BitTorrent client. BitTorrent is a distributed sharing protocol. It should perhaps go in the cloud computing area, but it’s different in that it makes your computer part of the cloud, along with all others uploading/downloading/sharing a file. It works like this: Someone creates a torrent file, which is just a small pointer to the file on the uploader’s server. Someone decides to download it and they are redirected by the torrent pointer to the IP of the sharer where it starts downloading packets of the file. Once the downloader has any packets, they become available, so you now have two choices of where to download that packet. So the more people who are sharing and downloading, the faster the download is done, and the more servers it is taken from in the process. As a fast and reliable file-sharing protocol, it has earned the ire of the RIAA and the MPAA, but its legitimate uses make it indispensable. For instance, when you download Ubuntu Linux using BitTorrent, there may be 14,000 machines to choose from for each packet, some much closer hop-wise on the net than others, so the speed of your download becomes limited only by the speed of your internet connection and router.
Which brings us to:
Ubuntu Linux – A free, robust, user-friendly distribution of Linux, complete with a useful set of software and repositories for tens of thousands of other free, open-source programs. But we have a whole section for Linux.