Open source software: An all-star lineup
Sep 25, 2009, 12:48 GMT
Washington - Want a PC full of free software? To get it, you don't need to adopt Ubuntu or any of the other Unix-based operating systems. Nor do you have to rely on the sometimes risky freeware you find scattered around the Internet. Instead, you can look to the open source movement, where free software is not synonymous with underpowered and unsupported. In fact, many of the best open source applications are not only updated as often as commercial packages. In some cases, they're simply superior. Here's a rundown of open source applications that are widely considered best-of-breed.
--- Office Suite
No surprise here: OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org) is the undisputed king of open source office software. Boasting most of what you get with the big commercial packages - a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation application - the individual applications in OpenOffice are even compatible with the file formats used by MS Office and other leading fee-based software.
Beyond compatibility, though, there's plenty to like. Each new version of OpenOffice focuses as much on ease of use as it does on tacking on features. You're likely, in fact, to experience more of a learning curve when switching from Microsoft's Office 2003 to 2007 than you are from Office 2003 to OpenOffice. Complex graphics, tables, presentation effects, and interoperability are all de rigueur with OpenOffice. It's worth trying even if you're not focused on adopting open source software completely.
If you're still getting your e-mail the old fashioned way - through a standalone e-mail program rather than through your Web browser - then you're probably using a commercial package such as Outlook to organize it.
If you move to OpenOffice, however, you'll find e-mail sorely lacking. But don't fret. The same people that delighted millions with the popular Firefox Web browser also concocted the e-mail client Thunderbird (http://www.mozillamessaging.com).
With advanced search and filtering options, an easy account setup wizard, tabbed interface, Gmail integration, RSS reading, and message archiving, Thunderbird not only competes feature-to-feature with Outlook but even surpasses it in some respects. Even if you don't plan on abandoning your current e-mail program, Thunderbird is worth a look.
--- Audio recording
There's good reason that the open source Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) is the podcasting tool of choice today. Not only is it easy to use - with controls that resemble the standard record, play, pause, rewind, and fast forward of a standard CD or DVD player - but it's also powerful, offering multitrack recording that a decade ago would have been available only in high- priced commercial systems.
You don't need to be a podcaster to get a lot out of Audacity, however. The application is well suited to recording from microphone, line input, or other sources - including from your old tape deck or record player, if you have the right cables to connect to your PC. Export formats include all of the major file types - from MP3 to WAV.
--- CD burning
You can spend a lot of money on CD burning software, and what you'll end up with is usually a bloated package that gives you much more than you wanted - and may even hamper the performance of your PC in the meantime.
Or you can opt for simple, effective, and free with CD Burner XP. While not strictly an open source application, CD Burner XP has risen to the top of many people's list of no-nonsense applications that do one job and do it well: burn disks, both CDs and DVDs. Compatible with every version of Windows, including the forthcoming Windows 7, CD Burner XP even handles the burning of Blu-Ray and HD-DVDs.
--- Photo management and editing
When you get into digital photography, you're also getting yourself into a category defined by very expensive image editing packages, such as PhotoShop.
Luckily, you can take a detour around the high-priced image organizer and editors and still reach your destination in fine shape. That's thanks in great part to the image editor Gimp (http://www.gimp.org) and, for Mac, GimpShop (http://plasticbugs.com), which is based on Gimp. Offering most of the advanced photo editing tools and features of PhotoShop and other heavy-duty image editors, Gimp has an interface that some consider easier to master than PhotoShop, and thanks to extensive customizability, if there's something you don't like in Gimp, chances are good that you can change it.
--- File compression
These days, you can't go very far without an application that can both compress and uncompress a bunch of files. The file compression format that virtually everyone relies upon is ZIP, and WinZip is the commercial package most often relied upon to handle compression chores.
But file compression is such a mundane task that it's a shame to waste good money on it. The good news is that 7Zip (http://www.7-zip.org) does virtually everything that WinZip can do - and it works without weighing your system down or lightening your wallet. Like WinZip, 7Zip can integrate into your Windows Explorer so that a simple right-click on a file or group of files will give you several zipping options.
--- Disk imaging
Need to upgrade your hard drive but don't want to lose everything on the old one? If so, you probably just want to clone the contents of the old hard drive onto the new one, resulting in a complete replication of the data.
There are companies that would be glad to take your money to sell you disk clone or imaging programs that will perform the task. But the open source Clonezilla (http://clonezilla.org) will do it for free - and do it effectively.
Just use an open source application such as DoISO (http://opensource.ebswift.com/DoISO) to create a bootable CD for Clonezilla, hook up the old and the new hard drive to a PC, and let Clonezilla do its magic. In an hour or so, you can quickly migrate all data on your old hard drive to a newer, larger one.
--- File transfers
Sometimes on the Internet you need to transfer lots of files the old fashioned way: with a file transfer protocol (FTP) program. There's scarcely a better FTP program around - free or commercial - than the open source Filezilla (http://filezilla-project.org). Filezilla even offers a free Filezilla FTP server for those who want to venture into hosting their own FTP site.
The applications discussed here can do more than save you money. They can also save you disk space, thanks to their generally light footprint and resistance to adding features that you probably neither need nor want. In the end, with the right mix of open source and commercial software, you might just end up with a PC that feels more like your own - with just the software you want - and nothing more.