By Jeffrey Bridgman
Get the freewarez lolz! (Did I even spell that right?!) For practically any type of software it is possible to find some sort of free alternative, usually called freeware (or open-source software). In fact, if you think you can’t afford a computer, visit a used computer store and ask for their bargain basement box with a decent hard drive and Wi-Fi and wave off the expensive software. Load up Linux from a CD (see below) and then head to the closest free Wi-Fi spot and start equipping your machine. Not all are equal in quality and you may end up wanting to opt for fancier programs that have a more polished look and extended functionality; but for most tasks you can deal with the free stuff – where there’s a will, there’s a way.
There are so many options for good freeware any sort of exhaustive list isn’t really possible in this space, but here are a few of my favorites.
Linux is a type of operating system (based on Unix, the same thing that’s running beneath Mac OS X, actually) which is free. It comes in countless distributions (or distros) tailored to whatever purposes (data recovery, gaming, multimedia, education, server and even science). For a beginner I’d recommend Ubuntu, one of the more popular distros. You can download it and run it from a CD first to give it a try if you’d like.
OpenOffice: Free office suite. Not as attractive of an interface as Office 2007/2010, but hey, it’s free.
PrimoPDF: Make anything a .pdf file with the print to pdf feature. Also handy for when you don’t have a printer and need to print a copy of a online purchase confirmation, etc.
GraphCalc: Don’t have one of those expensive graphic calculators? This program can do 2D and 3D graphing.
Google Earth: See satellite images of the earth overlayed with various information layers. It fits the images to the terrain so you can do a 3D fly-through as well. You can check out Mars, the moon and the stars too!
E-Sword: free Bible study software.
Video and Audio
Audacity: Audio editing software. Not exactly super handy for actually making music, but you can use it to filter and splice tracks together or convert from one format to another. Great for prepping music for use with video.
Realplayer: Ever wanted to save a video from YouTube? You can with the video downloader included in Realplayer.
VLC – The “play anything” player: Not it’s actual name (VLC media player), but this program is generally held in well-regard to be able to play almost any type of video, no matter the codec.
Mediamonkey: If you’ve tried iTunes but don’t care for it, and don’t like Windows Media Player either, give this media player a try.
imTOO Movie Maker Got raw video footage you want to jazz up? This freebie allows you to create movies from multiple videos with professional-looking transitions and music.
Skype: Video-chat, calling program. Use your computer as a phone, basically… not very useful without internet, obviously 😉
Filezilla: For any older-school technology people out there, this is a good FTP client for uploading/downloading files. This is not a P2P (peer-to-peer) client.
Try PortableApps.com to find versions of free and popular software that can be installed to a flash drive that can port executable files so you can take it with you wherever you go. I used to have my favorite browser installed onto one so that where ever I went, I always had my favorite bookmarks, saved passwords, and browsing history with me for convenient browsing.
Photo and Graphics
GIMP: Think Adobe Photoshop alternative. You can use it for anything from editing photos to painting something from scratch or doing some graphics design.
Inkscape: This one is similar to Adobe Illustrator. Useful for vector-based graphics design.
Blender: I haven’t played with this one too much, but you can do some amazing stuff with this like 3D model design and even animation.
Photoscape: If GIMP is a little much for the simple editing you want to do, give Photoscape a try. It has a bunch of easy to use, handy and fun tools to make the most of your photos.
Picasa: A very well-designed easy to use photo editing and organization application. Includes handy things like face recognition and the ability to tie into your Google account online to share photos.
BZFlag: 3D online multiplayer tank game with free-for-all, capture-the-flag, etc. Has an older look, but is fun nonetheless.
Battle for Wesnoth: Fantasy turn-based strategy game.
Recuva: Ever deleted a file and then realized you still needed it? … and you just emptied the trash can? Well, the truth of the fact is, your 0’s and 1’s on the hard drive for your file are probably still there. This little utility can help you get those files back.
7Zip: Can handle almost any file compression format. We typically just think of .zip files, but his can also handle .tar, .tzip, .gzip., .7z., .rar, .lzh…. the list goes on.
CCleaner: Tool to help clean up various files that exist on your system.
Launchy: In Windows 7, the start menu now has a place you type to launch any program, or access any of your files, but that doesn’t exist back in XP. With this program, finding things in various places like my documents, bookmarks or that start menu is just a few keystrokes away. It’ll take what you type and make suggestions for what you might be looking for.
All the “A” Anti-virus Apps… there’s a bunch: AVG, Avast, Avira, Adaware.
WinDirStat: Running out of space on your hard drive? This program graphically shows you what files/folders are using the most space.
WinMerge: This one takes a bit more time to figure out, but the basic concept is you have two almost identical folders, but they aren’t exactly the same. This program allows you to compare the differences between to folders and chose which files from each you’d like to use where there are differences.
For even more free software try sites like SourceForge.net or CNET Download.com (fair warning, not all software on these sites are free to try, i.e., demo).