Free software – why and how

Computers today are so cheap, it’s easy to spend more on the software you use than the hardware that runs it.

That galls many people who buy inexpensive computers. Yet too few of these people know about the alternatives: software that’s both free to install and, in many cases,will meet your needs.

Please bear a few things in mind before you read this:

  • Free software abounds, for a variety of reasons. Those reasons, and the sheer range of choices, are well outside the scope of this blog post (but still interesting to learn).
  • Software choices listed vary in complexity. I chose them because they are rarely more difficult than commercially available software to install and use, and they are all free.
  • Compatibility with business-standard software, like Microsoft Office, is rarely an issue with free packages.

How you can use this tip

If you want to keep your computing expenditures down, consider some of the following offerings.

Office productivity

OpenOffice.org and Lotus Symphony both feature word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software and other tools that compare well to Microsoft Office. They even let you save and work with documents in Office formats (like .doc, .xls and .ppt).

If you don’t mind working out of a web browser, try Google Docs. And while you’re there, check out the plethora of other stuff Google makes available. Read more about Google’s software offerings in the list halfway down this article.

Photo editing

GIMP and Picasa let you perform the most common changes to photos that Photoshop users do.

Video conferencing

Some computers ship with their own software (like Apple’s iChat), but freely available systems like Skype, Windows Messenger and Yahoo Messenger boast much larger networks that probably count as members the people you want to speak with. Download and install the free software for the networks your interlocutors belong to, get your accounts set up, and you can call them wherever they are, often bypassing long-distance tolls.

Operating system

Sometimes all a computer needs to regain its mojo is a fresh install of the operating system. Unfortunately, not all computer owners have (or keep) operating system install discs. Fortunately, there’s a free operating system called Linux which runs on Intel-based computers. You can download one of many flavours of Linux. I used ubuntu to breathe new life into the aging computers of two neighbours, neither of whom is the most technologically savvy computer user you’ll ever meet. So far, so good. I also hear good things about SUSE Linux.

Note: if you use a Mac, don’t overlook the iLife suite, with its capable photo management, website creation, sound and video editing and other tools

Know of other categories or tools people might care to know about? Please mention them in the comments below.

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