Running a PC on free software (mostly)

It’s getting to that time of year again when people are starting to prepare to get back to school and college. This makes it a good and popular time to buy new desktops, laptops and netbooks. There will be lots of special offers out there trying to sway you towards different retailers and each of them may also offer additional software bundles for “new, low prices!” And while this might seem great I always think that there is a good or even excellent free alternative available. So a while ago I decided to see if I could use my computers with free or open source software. Considering the financial woes of the planet this was a good idea at the time, and is even more of a good idea today. I thought I’d share some of my suggestions with you. These suggestions will be good for everyone, and will allow you to have a nice general purpose machine at low cost.

Obviously the best way to start would be to build your own machine and to use a Linux distro, I recommend Ubuntu by the way, but the every day user will more than likely be buying a machine with Windows installed. I’m writing this with them in mind. This list is alphabetical, and of course will be incomplete for every single person. The name of each suggestion below links to the home page of that item. If you have any other suggestions please put them into the comments.

  • 7-Zip: Archiving software. Compress and extract files with ease. I find this very powerful and while it may not be as easy to use as WinRAR it’s just as good. 7-Zip also comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions so that’s one up on WinRAR. Compression can be invaluable especially when dealing with large files and pretty much everyone will need some archiving software at some stage.
  • Ashampoo Burning Studio 6: Burning software. This is a great option for burning CD’s. As music is moved and shared in the digital format far more often this option becomes somewhat obsolete. But I like driving while listening to mixes and there’s nothing better for a bit of a road trip. It’s incredibly easy to use and there are a whole rake of other options to play with in the free version.
  • CCleaner: Optimization and cleaning tool. Well that’s how they describe it on the web page.  This is great for clearing out junk files on your system. It’s pretty mush idiot proof if you just use the default options for cleaning, but there are more powerful and in depth options that will do far more for you. Also includes a registry cleaner and uninstaller.
  • DVD Flick: DVD Authoring software. This is just fantastic. It can take a variety of video formats, prepare them for burning to DVD and then burn the DVD. It’s extremely easy to use and is great for taking camcorder files etc. off your machine and onto disc for sharing around.
  • Dropbox: Cloud file storage. Does everyone in the universe not have this yet? There are paid accounts available but the free account is perfect for me, and will probably serve perfectly well for most people just using it for text documents, spreadsheets etc. There are a good few alternatives out there, Sugar Sync in particular has a nice folder monitoring and sync option, but I prefer Dropbox. It takes an extra minute to save your stuff to a Dropbox folder and if you’ve ever experienced the terror of a lost report or assignment then you know the need for saving multiple versions in different places.
  • Foxit Reader: PDF Reader. I hate Adobe Reader. I can’t stand it. I find it slow, bulky and annoying. Foxit Reader is none of these things. PDF’s are common place and we all need a reader. This is my choice. It might not be as light as Sumatra PDF but I find it’s similar enough to Adobe Reader to make a transition very easy for anyone.
  • GIMP: Photo editing (Photoshop) software. This may be choice of contention as there is another alternative bit of software which is also excellent called Paint.NET. But GIMP is what I currently have installed. With the insane popularity of digital cameras and phone cameras it’s useful to have some nice editing software to play with. There is great community support for GIMP and a huge amount of plug-ins available. If you’re really into your photography though, and can afford it, I’d go with Photoshop. If however you’re just looking for the odd bit of small editing then I recommend Picasa (further down the list).
  • ImgBurn: Powerful burning tool. I use this rarely but it can burn just about anything, and the little text messages are fun to read. Again like Ashampoo I think this is approaching obsolete with all the other options for moving music and video around, but it’s still very useful when needed.
  • LibreOffice: Productivity suite. This is probably the most important one on the list. Everyone will need or want a word processing or spreadsheet package at some point and the truth is that Microsoft Office is a fantastic suite of software. Their applications are generally very easy to use and very easy on the eye. Added to that Microsoft Office is in pretty much every business and school I’ve visited. OpenOffice would’ve been the choice here last year but I believe that consistent support no longer exists for OO and that future developments will be directed through LibreOffice. It’s a nice and easy to use package, it does exactly what you need it to do and it’s a great free alternative to Microsoft Office.
  • Microsoft Security Essentials: Security software. In my life with computers I’ve used McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, Avira,  AVG and Comodo (and this is just off the top of my head). Of all the paid and free security software I’ve used I find MSE to be the least intrusive and most effective. Some of the paid packages are fantastic but a lot of internet security is about common sense and awareness. Don’t download that dodgy file, don’t be a pirate, make sure you trust the sites you visit, if you don’t know the sender then delete the email!
  • Picasa: Photo management. This is great for organising all the photos in your library. It can be set to monitor various files and has an excellent (if somewhat creepy) facial recognition feature. Picasa is also very easy to use as a tool for uploading photos to the web via Picasa web albums. If you use Google+ then this becomes a very powerful sharing option. I mentioned Picasa when talking about GIMP earlier, and that was because of photo editing. If you want to do a bit of light editing and adjustment then this is a great option.
  • VLC: Multimedia player. Windows Media Player is actually a nice little piece of software, the only issue being that you need to go looking for codec packs in order to watch and listen to a lot of different video files. VLC however can play anything. I’m pretty sure it could process and play a ham sandwich it’s that good. But seriously, it’s light, it’s fast, and it’s played everything I’ve ever thrown at it. As easy to use as any other player I’ve ever used and skinnable to your personal preference. I don’t think anyone would really pay for a media player these days but I wanted to recommend this as I think everyone should have it.
and the same goes for:
  • Winamp: Media player. I use it for music. Very powerful, nice play list creation, adjustable interface and most importantly it’s not iTunes. Admittedly iTunes just isn’t for me, but Winamp is actually a great piece of software. Again I think no one in their right mind would pay for a media/music player. But if you’re having difficulty in picking one then this is a great option.

So that’s my list. It’s short, but with all (or most) of the recommendations installed the general user should get exactly what they need from their computer without having to sink an extra penny into it. I have other, more purpose specific software installed, but that would make for a much longer and more confusing selection.

On a side note I would recommend visiting Lifehacker once or twice a week. They are a great resource for recommending new and useful bits of software and their reviews are in general excellent and well researched.

I hope you find at least one thing here that helps. And as I said please feel free to offer suggestions in the comments.

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